Walk with me in memory to one of the greatest celebrations, the end of the colonial era in Africa. The day: October 1, 1960. The place: British West Africa. The setting: a crowded stadium in the Atlantic coastal town of Sapele. School children are waving green and white flags in honor of the birth of modern Nigeria, no longer part of the British Empire.
I was six years old and was in that stadium. I do not remember what was said because the concept of colonialism was abstract to me. But I vividly remember an incident that made me cry all that day. I was waving my flag in excitement when a faceless bully snatched it away and disappeared into the crowd.
In far-away Lagos, the Union Jack was lowered. Nigeria’s Head of State, the Queen of England, was dethroned and Nnamdi Azikiwe became Nigeria’s first black leader.
Fifty years earlier, the Union Jack had cast its shadow across every global time zone, giving rise to the saying, “The sun never sets on the British Empire.” We had showed our pride in being part of the empire by celebrating Empire Day on May 24th, Queen Victoria’s birthday, with parades and sporting competitions. Later, Empire Day was renamed Commonwealth Day.
As a country, Nigeria has existed for 96 years, but it has only been independent for 50 years, for just over half that time. We must critically examine the 46 years of colonial rule over Nigeria and the scramble for Africa that began with the Berlin Conference of 1884, if we are to get insights into how to chart our nation’s course for the next 50 years.
The Sankofa is a mythical bird of the Akan people of West Africa. It flies forward while looking backward, with an egg in its mouth to symbolize the future. In order to understand its history, to reclaim its past, and to enable its people to move forward into the 21st century, Africa must look back, back to the Berlin Conference of 1884 and back to the Atlantic slave trade that spanned four continents and four centuries. This will allow us to understand how we came to be 54 nations instead of one.
Like the Sankofa bird, Africa must look to its past to predict its future. It must know how it evolved in order to understand how it can be recreated. Its people should know where their journey began in order to understand which direction to take to find their future.
The Berlin Conference is when Africa was divided into roughly 50 colonies, and 1884 was when the modern map of Africa was created. The Berlin Conference was the beginning of modern Africa. In 1884, Africa was the agenda, but no African was at the table.
This year, in 2010, 17 African nations are celebrating their 50th anniversary of sovereignty and post-colonial rule. Nigeria’s journey, like that of the other independent African nations, began at the Berlin Conference 126 years ago with no African in attendance. If colonial Africa could be created in Berlin, then a future Africa could be created in Beijing. Nations creating technological knowledge are reinventing the future and recreating Africa.
I believe that, by the end of this century, one in two Africans will live outside Africa. I was asked: “Why did you live in exile from Africa for 37 years?” Put differently, “Why don’t you deliver Nigeria’s 50th anniversary lecture in Abuja, instead of in Paris?” I have never visited Abuja. But I am not at home in Washington, D.C., either.
I had an asymmetrical relationship with Africa and America, as well as with science and technology. I worked entirely outside the gates of science and as an outcast, with outsider status. I was honored, but will forever remain an outsider in America. I was honored for retelling the 330-year-old story of the Second Law of Motion: from the storyboard, to the blackboard, to the motherboard, by reprogramming 65,000 subcomputers to compute as a supercomputer, and to communicate as an internet. I became my own ancestor in physics, my contemporary in mathematics, and descendant in internet science.
I experienced the usual in an unusual way. I was an ordinary person caught up in extraordinary circumstances. I decided to march forward, to come home to myself, not to someone else’s home. I stayed in exile in America, feeling at home in my alienation from the white community. My 37 years of solitude allowed me to gather myself and to find my power.
View Lecture video at emeagwali.com