Dr. Ali Mazrui: “Summary of The Africans: A Triple Heritage”

Produced in 1986, there are nine, sixty-minute programs in this documentary series. The title, The Africans: A Triple Heritage,refers to the focus of this series. The programs tells the story of Africans as inhabitants of Africa, and of Africans as those whose heritage and culture stem from Africa. The triple heritage refers to the three main cultural influences on Africa: traditional African culture, Islamic culture, and Western culture. Important note: the summaries that follow present facts that were true as of 1986, when this program was released.


Dr. Ali Mazrui explains how African geography has been the mother of its history. The open eastern seabord allowed the entrance of foreign influence from the east. In fact, Islamic culture, which came from the west, made an impact on Africa 1000 years before Western culture could.

After Dr. Ali Mazrui names the three main cultural sources in Africa, traditional Africa, Islam, and the West, he states that Africa is the cradle of mankind, where the earliest human remains can be found. Thus, Africa can be called the birthplace of human culture. However, Africa never advertised itself. Traditionally, Africans tended to stay close to nature, holding dear what was near to them. Though Africans were interested in the oceans for sustenance, they were not interested in what lay beyond the horizons. Interestingly, in Senegal, the African man is the hunter, while the African woman is the mother, cultivator, and market woman, as central to the economy as men.

In the seventh century, there came the new cry of Islam: “God is Great.” The Islamic Arabs first came through North Africa, spreading their Arabic language along with the Islamic religion. The Islamic religion took hold in North Africa because it validated the importance placed on water as heaven became equated with water. The Islamic religion enforced a discipline on the Africans and gave them a new sense of direction, as they faced East to pray.

The Suez Canal determined where Africa ended. The Suez Canal was the manifestation of European power and planning. This European force was also manifested in colonization, as Europeans came to Africa to escape from the ugly face of industrialization. Africans themselves have acquired Western tastes as in the city of Dakar in Senegal, French bread and Western apparel is available.

While the colonial period was rather brief, traditional African beliefs have been disrupted. Traditional Africans believed that animals have souls and that the forces of creation and humans were partners with nature. Christianity and Islam have caused Africans to be separated from the created, and to think of nature as a servant of man. Thus, in the twentieth century, an ecological imbalance exists where the profit margin is more important than a respect for nature.


In this program, Dr. Ali Mazrui explores identity, family ties, tradition, and modernity. In Nigeria, a baby has three badges of identity: scars, circumcision, and a name. The African family does not differentiate between siblings and cousins, nor do it differentiate between children and nieces or nephews. Traditionally there is a strong loyalty to the old, and children spend time with the old. A man can have as many as eight wives and twenty-five children, because to be remembered after death intimates immortality.

Modern life in the cities does not change an African’s loyalty to his village. Even after worldly success, the man makes a pilgrimage back to the village to render advice and give money. In the village, democracy rules. The elders of the village discuss a situation until a consensus is reached. When a man marries a woman, the man needs to get a plot of land for his wife. The woman has dual fertility in that she gives birth to children and causes the land to produce food.

In African history, there have been remarkable women like Hashitsup, who ruled Egypt. There have been women warriors in West Africa called the Amazons. There were African female crusaders as well. In modern times, African are more removed from their role in dual fertility as they take secretarial jobs and become less influential on the world around them.

Modern British law requires precise measurements of land to settle land disputes. Islamic law advocates the division of land among a man’s heirs. These two kinds of law conflict with the old African culture, which treats land as limitless, and values having many children. In Zimbabwe, there was a great city rising out of the prosperity due to fertile land and gold. However, about 500 years ago, because of the over-cultivation and use of land, a great city declined.

For Africans, though civilizations may come and go, families stay. The polygamous African family is a bit different from the Islamic family, for there are only four wives allowed under that religion. The Western ideal of one man and one wife may not be found even among Catholic Africans. A Catholic journalist in Zaire has two wives, and thus two families to spend time with.

Dr. Ali Mazrui ends with the presentation of the problem of infant mortality in Africa. He states the solution to the high birth rate in Africa is to lower infant mortality. It is the fear of infant mortality that causes Africans to have more children. For them, children are important as carriers of the family line and a source of support.


Dr. Ali Mazrui starts this documentary by looking at Ethiopia. In Ethiopia, there is a marketplace of ideas. In the beginning, within traditional African beliefe, there were many gods and deities. While there was one High God, but lesser deities also existed. All elements of nature were expressions of this High God. The pyramids represent the immortality of ancient Egyptian pharoahs. In these pharoahs, the human and divine were one. To ancient Egyptians, death was just a “change of address”. In Nigeria, ancestors are invited back in masked ceremonies. Just as the Virgin Mary intercedes to God for the Roman Catholics, animal offerings intercede to deities for Africans. In Senegal, cow blood is used to ease the suffering of a woman. Dr. Ali Mazrui sees this as analogous to Jesus’ blood of atonement of sin.

Then there came the Christian God. Christianity came to Ethiopia long before British Christians even existed. The first monastery was developed in Africa. Nevertheless, biblical imagery equates white with purity and black with evil. Christianity was based on the written word, for the Bible needed to be read and understood. About 700 years ago, Christian shrines were carved into the mountains, rather than built up from a foundation. In North Africa, a French cathedral has been turned into a library. Here, Christianity has become irrelevant because it did not accommodate to the Africans there. In Catholic Zaire, a Baptist church has become relevant through the martyrdom of its leader. These Baptists re-enact Christ’s suffering. A Christian church in Zimbabwe prays for the liberation of South Africa. Christian churches were once against armed liberation, and now they pray for racial equality.

The single God concept was not new in Africa. Akenhatem, 2000 years before Muhammed, worshiped one God: the Sun. With the Islamic religion, the lunar calendar became important. In traditional Islam, women were segregated and isolated. Liberated Muslim women see themselves as more equal to the status of men. In Senegal, there is another Mecca for the Muslims. African Muslims make pilgrimages there to see Amadu Bamba’s tomb. Amadu Bamba worked to make Islamic boarding schools where there was instruction in the Koran, and an emphasis on agricultural production.

And now, there is the Marxist ideal of revolution without a divine presence. In modernity, there is an emphasis placed on enjoyment and entertainment, rather than the worship of the divine. A threat of violence lurks as modernity can be at odds with Islam. Anwar Sadat is killed as he signs a peace accord with Israel, giving Islam’s third holiest city, Jerusalem, to Israel. Islamic holy wars, called jihads, justify the killing of such a “traitor”. There are different versions of this tension in Nigeria and Sudan. Africa now has competing ideals of traditional Africa, Christianity, Islam, and modernity.


Mazrui presents European technology as arrogant and non compromising. Even if Africa has many resources, Africa also has extremes in poverty. Lord Lugar’s dual mandate in Africa was to develop Africa’s resources for its own benefit and to use the resources to meet Europe’s industrial needs. Thus, Africans need to buy goods from other nations. The West does not share its technological knowledge with Africa to any great extent, leaving Africa with acquired Western tastes, but no skills to fulfill those tastes on their own.

Slavery was a denial of development for Africa. It interrupted any technological development that Africa was undergoing. It also caused a mass emigration of Africans. Mazrui estimates that with every slave that reached the market in the Americas, another slave died in transit. So many Africans were enslaved because they proved more resistant to disease than Indians and poor whites. Mature capitalism made wage labor more efficient that slave labor. As Africa exported men and women to the West, “implements of construction”, Africa imported guns, “implements of destruction”.

Arabs also had an imperial presence in Eastern Africa, and used slavery. A new civilization, partly African and partly Arab, was emerging there. Local technologies had not yet outgrown the institution of slavery. Nevertheless, since the two races were mixed, if a father was free, his children would be free as well. Though Arab slavery was evil, Mazrui posits that Western slavery was worse. Europeans maligned Arabian slavery saying, “Africa had to be saved from the Arab slave trade.”

Europeans used this as a pretext for European colonization. In the Berlin Congress of the late nineteenth century, fourteen European powers partitioned Africa among themselves. Though the African slave trade was condemned by the European community earlier in the nineteenth century, maltreatment of Africans continued. Workers who did not produce enough were sometimes annihilated as an example for others. Mazrui gives the example of Cecil Rhodes, a diamond magnate, who claimed to conquer the land for “queen and country”, when the deepest reason was for “greed and glory”.

Mazrui sees the need for more technological self-reliance in Africa. Missionaries came and taught reading, writing, arithmetic, and religion. Africans learned to speak, dress, and think like Westerners. However, technological backwardness remains a problem. In Mombasa, the West opened an institution to rescue Muslims from technological backwardness. But Mazrui views it as “too little, too late”. Mazrui sees Africa’s need for the practical, technical and managerial skills that will allow it to use its own resources instead of being so open to outside exploitation.


This program deals with the confrontations which exemplified Africa’s mix of indigenous, Arab, and Western forces. In Kenya, white settlers reserved about 30% of Kenya’s most fertile lands. The Mau-Mau’s, also in Kenya, fused religion with patriotism. Jomo Kenyatta, alleged founding father of Mau-Mau was imprisoned, but survived. He led Kenya to liberation while being forgiving to the white settlers.

In Nigeria, the Yoruba, Hausa, and Ibo all share the same nation. Mazrui presents Nigeria as the example of the arbitrary partitioning of Africa by the imperial powers. The Northern Hausa have received traditional Muslim education. The Southern Ibo have received Western education. In Hausaland, the Ibo took the technical jobs and prospered. In 1966, there was an Ibo-led military coup. In revenge, Hausa killed many Ibo. Thus, many Ibo people returned to Igboland. Ibo then seceded from Nigeria, creating their own nation, Biafra. A civil war ensued, called the Biafra war. One reason for the war was the fact that petroleum was in Biafra. The British and the Arabs supported the federal side. Biafra survived longer than expected because the French, Chinese, and Israelis backed Biafra. Nevertheless, Biafran starvation claimed as many lives as the fighting. When Biafra surrendered, the victors did not gloat.

In South Africa, there are 500,000 Muslims. There is also apartheid where a white minority rules a black majority. The power of South Africa lies in its mineral wealth. The South African economy is integrated into the world economy. Mazrui wonders if economic sactions can force the white minority to accept black majority rule without a bloody war. Mazrui sees South Africa as Africa’s last chapter about the end of white rule in Africa.

In Algeria, white settlers saw Algeria as part of France. The Algerian war was France’s “dirtiest war of the twentieth century.” One million Algerians were killed. When it became clear that France was going to lose to Algeria, the white settlers destroyed the infrastructure and departed.


Mazrui looks at the history of governance in Africa. He starts with the failure of British democracy in Nigeria. The House of Parliament is silent. The political system that worked before colonization was based and rules and traditions that promoted social order and a sense of community. The Asante kingdom in Ghana continues a 400 year royal heritage where the Royal Queen Mother chooses the successor, and consensus among members of the kingdom allows the successor to rule. However, the Asante kingdom covers only a part of Ghana, and real power lies in a militant, socialist government which advocates improved efficiency in farming, development, and the civilians’ right to bear arms.

The colonial Europeans established government on an uncertain base. While Europeans had centuries to modify their governments, the Africans have had only 25 years of trial and error. There is always the danger of anarchy, or too little government, and tyranny, or too much government. The standing army of soldiers becomes a powerful and potentially destructive force. Mazrui presents a pictorial representation of 70 coups in 25 years, most happening north of the equator. Millions are destitute as they seek political asylum or economic refuge. The refugee problem is growing.

In Nigeria, a big election occurred in 1983, where for the first time, instead of consensus rule, the Western-style winner-take-all method was used. Within a month, the military overthrew the government. The General who took over created a dictatorship.

In Islamic societies, military coups happen less often because there is greater stability in these societies. There is the uniting factor of religion. However, in Sudan, there was a civil war due to the north/south divide between the Muslims and non-Muslims. The British had separated the Muslims and non-Muslims to curb the influence of Islam, but united it territorially. A 10-year truce started in 1972, but ended in renewed fighting.

In Congo, order and a sense of community is elusive. In contrast, Kenya had Kenyata as President for 15 years. He became a symbol of stability as he headed a one-party state. Though he was assassinated in 1969, the Vice President that succeeded him continued his legacy of self-reliance and private enterprise. In Tanzania, the Swahili language is the official language of government, allowing millions to be eligible for government positions. A sense of community has developed around the use of a common language. In this one-party state, Tanzania has cultural autonomy. In 1985, the President stepped down to allow the Vice President to take over.


This program starts with an erie scene of a modern ghost town in the Ivory Coast with a hospital built for President Houphet Boigny. Mazrui calls it “luxury in the midst of deprivation.” The continent has “mortgaged its soul” as development has taken a distorted path. Mazrui cites three major factors for the technological delay in Africa: climate, foreign invasion, and independent Africa’s poor judgment.

Africa’s climate has given Africans a natural abundance. In equatorial Zaire, with the big range of animals and plants present, there was no need to develop kingdoms or states. The social organization was informed and relaxed. There was no need for long-term planning. However, in the West, because there were winters and short growing seasons, there was a need to plan in order to survive. Because of lack of planning, Kenyans have allowed herds to multiply beyond capacity. These Kenyans had to depend on Western charities to buy their emaciated animals and distribute their meat as food.

In Mozambique, they grow sugar for export even as people in Mozambique grow hungry. In Kenya, coffee and tea are grown so that Europe can consume them. In Ghana, cocoa is grown on land where staple foods may have grown. As these three nations depend on the sale of their cash crops, their nations show signs of decay. In Uganda and Ghana, the roads are bad. The state of communication in Africa is badly in need of repair. In Ghana, the walls of schools are crumbling and there are no papers and pens. Without education, there comes a slow death of civilization. Mazrui keeps referring to the “demon of decay and the devil of dependency”.

In Tanzania, there has arisen a divide. One group of people rely on traditional methods as they herd cattle. Another group has embraced Canadian technology for wheat production. This wheat is then used to make bread, which benefits the urban elites. The urban elite has new food habits which for Mazrui further signify a dependence on the outside world. The Tanzanian national leader encourages self-reliance and the importance of keeping the soil good. With members of the community working together, he hopes to have community schools and clean water. Collective farming did not work. However, as incentives were introduced for individual effort, migration of potential farmers to cities was stemmed.

In Nigeria, farming brings an inadequate living. In other African nations as well, Africans are moving to cities to find better jobs. In cities, Western values are apparent. Africans can dream of becoming like the whites who luxuriate in cars, wine, and music. Nevertheless, in Islamic Sudan, Western values are viewed suspiciously. Beer cans were steam-rollered while beer making factories were destroyed.

When they colonized Mozambique, the Portuguese did not develop a viable economic system. Thus Mozambique has developed a socialist system. In Nigeria, with the oil boon, the government went on a spending spree which the farmers joined. With a weak capitalist economy, moral disease became rampant. When the colonial regime was in place, Nigerians thought that stealing from the government was alright. Even with Nigerians in power, African attitudes towards government property have not changed.

In the Ivory Coast, much of the rain forests are being destroyed so that timber can be exported to Europe. This a prime example of the export of raw materials for the import of finished goods. Mazrui gives two nations that are finally becoming independent of the European nations and providing for their own needs. Algeria was under European colonial rule long enough for the industrial revolution to occur there. Algerians can make steel from iron. Thus with a socialist government, the Algerians have the technology to become equals of Western nations. In Zimbabwe, without industrialization, communal famers have been able to increase their yield ten-fold. They have used more efficent and simpler technologies to become self-sufficient and have even become exporters of grain. Mazrui notes that though few can feed themselves in this “garden of eden in decay”, the “human will has the power of restoration.”


In this program, Mazrui shows the various cultures that are present in Africa. He shows Black Jews worshipping in Ethiopia and Yoruba divination in Nigeria. He mentions the layers of culture in Egypt as a good example of African diversity. While some see Islamic nations are not Westernized, Mazrui shows highly Westernized, highly Islamic nations.

In Kenya, Mazrui sees a triple heritage of law. Kenyan law is a synthesis of Western, Muslim, and African traditions. However, the English system of law has become the most influential.

Ironically, the Organization for African Unity is divided by language. For a common language, they must use a foreign language, such as English or French. Nevertheless, Mazrui asserts that “in any fruitful union of the Triple Heritage, the indigenous culture must be the foundation.”


Dr. Ali Mazrui starts this program with an African saying, “To know who you are is the beginning of wisdom.” He states that the Africans are “a people of the day before yesterday and the day after tomorrow.” He notes that the Africans have been a pawn in other people’s design, and they want to become players. He thinks of African-Americans as Africans as well. He states that these African-Americans have lost consciousness of being African and led to be ashamed of being African. In order for these African-Americans to re-discover who they are, they must voyage back to Africa, namely the slave ports of West Africa. African-Americans talk of the sense of deep sadness they feel as they see how slaves were treated before they left for America. These African-Americans cannot know what village their ancestors came from. Nevertheless, the spirit of Africa is visible in the energetic worship of African-American styles of worship.

In Liberia, Africans worship as if they were Americans. The Republic of Liberia was set up as African-Americans migrated there from 1820 to 1865. They returned to Africa believing they were Africans in the land of Blacks. These African-Americans discriminated against the Native Liberians, just as they had been discriminated against in America. In the capital city of Monrovia, the official currency is the American dollar and being Black remains a limitation. Dr. Ali Mazrui also presents the tensions between France and Algeria, especially after the Algerian War of Independence. Algierians in France are denied real influence. There were lynchings and urders done based on racial hatred. In France, the building Islamic mosques are seen as threats to a Christian France. Mazrui sees these mosques as a sign of the need for co-existence of Islam with Christianity, for a multi-religious society in France.

The United Nations, led by the United States, has become the custodian of world security. In 1960, 15 newly independent African countries signed on as member nations. Mazrui surmises that the mighty powers did not like this revised world order. For some African nations, oil has become a powerful resource. Mazrui presents a kind of law of nature where if there are Muslims and sand, there will probably oil. The majority of the Oil Producing and Exporting Countries (OPEC) are Muslim. Algeria has used their oil for development. In 1969, Gadhafi becomes the leader of Libya, another country where oil is found, after armed resistance against Western imperialism. According to Mazrui, though these Africans and Arabs can become global players, they do not have enough power to stop being pawns.

Mazrui presents another important part of gaining wisdom: knowing what one has, and knowing how to protect it. Africa’s resources are being used by other nations, as these other nations often state the price. It is only through OPEC that some African nations have been able to state their price. Zaire’s minerals are used in airplanes, and its uranium was used in the earliest atomic weapons. Nuclear power is seen as very important. Zaire has a nuclear reactor. South Africa has nuclear technology as well. Though for 300 years, Whites have dominated this nation, Mazrui sees the days of priviledge ending. He sees South Africa being a leader for other African nations because of their technological expertise and their industrialization. He also sees African-Americans as important leaders in the future.

He has the dream that someday, Africans can help the Western world, instead of the other way around. Africans have seen their tribes as their whole world, while Americans have seen their country as their whole world. Mazrui calls for both to change their global expectations and see the world as their tribe, and the world as their country. He wants Americans to say, “What is good for the world is good for my country.” Because Africans have become so scattered around the world, Mazrui states,”The sun never sets on the descendants of Africa.” He hopes that between today and the day after tomorrow, Africans can grow to be more influential members of the world.

September 8, 2008 at 3:47 PM
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