Destroying the Horrors of 500 Years A Review of 500 Years Later, Reviewed by: Attahiru Kawu-Bala
Until lions tell their tale, the story of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.
– African Proverb
Often represented as sites of poverty, crime, and despair, Africa’s history is also misrepresented and yet here, as mentioned the Media, the western mainstream media does practically nothing to talk about the hurt done to the people of Africa (or, the owners and the influencing actors of the mass media companies perhaps do not think it is important enough to document extensively about).
To understand the impact of 500 Years Later, Owen Alik Shahadah’s film, one has to go back to African Historical Perspective, an insight into the current dynamics of the continent and people derogatory called ‘blacks’. Conceivably the leading feature of world history these past five centuries has been the ‘rise’ to world dominance of the Caucasian peoples of western Europe, North America and Australia. In spite of their current “lofty’ station, today’s undisputed “lords and masters” of the earth are from very humble origins. They first entered the pages of history as barbaric, nomadic tribes whose sole talent was warfare. Their only early accomplishment of note was the destruction of the Dravidian civilization of ancient India. Later their descendants plundered, pillaged and finally sacked the Roman Empire.
Possessed by demonic forces Anglo-Saxons, Gauls and Teutons of England, France and Germany over the past five centuries developed the weaponry and logistics, the justifications and rationales and the strategies and tactics to conquer and colonize the land, knowledge and minds of the indigenous peoples of Africa, Asia, America, Australia and the Pacific. In the 20th century, to decide who would exploit this vast multitude, Europeans fought two devastating world wars – 1914-1918 and 1939-1945 – that squandered millions of their lives nearly destroying their civilization.
When we focus our attention on Africa, historian Chancellor Williams (1974) tells us that the first Aryans to colonize African territory were the Hyksos (Hebrews) who invaded Kemet (Egypt) in 1645 BCE long after the pyramids were built. Over the centuries, other Aryan/European invaders followed. The Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Portuguese, Spanish, British, French, Dutch, Germans and Italians all came to Africa as conquerors and colonizers with only one intent: to plunder African people of their wealth.
The European “scramble” to colonize Africa did not reach its zenith, however, until 1884-85 when German Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck (1815-1898) organized the Berlin Conference. Attended by the French, British, Dutch, Germans and Portuguese, who over the course of several meetings, debated and then formulated the ground rules for conquering and colonizing the whole of Africa. These five, small European states, “planned their work and worked their plan” so effectively that by 1915, all of Africa, save Ethiopia was a European colony.
In addition to colonizing African land, Europeans also colonized African knowledge not just to claim it as their own, but also to disconnect Africans from their heritage and culture. Why? Because people who are cut off from their heritage and culture are more easily manipulated and controlled than people who are not. This led Africa to fall into many traps and schisms with varying dimension under the tutelage of colonialism. Hardly one checks any parts of the society without tracing this phenomenon. Now there is even what is termed as “media imperialism”.
As a consequence of Europe’s successful colonization of African lands and African knowledge, Europeans were able to successfully colonize African minds, and thereby complete the conquest of African people. Africa’s religion, ideas, customs, beliefs, economy, land, etc were interpolated, plundered and destroyed; the impact of this is felt still today. Perhaps the greatest among these evils could be said to be the destruction of the African psyche as the globalization of European consciousness and the planetary-wide imposition of European worldviews and life styles as the human norm have been sent forcefully down the throat of our consciously and subconsciously.
Owen ‘Alik Shahadah’s recreation in the form of a film (not just to say about it but to be about it) on these experiences resulting form slavery: how it all started; what motivated it; effect of it on the people and the continent of Africa; the ways to be followed for a genuine decolonization and re-education of the African mind with practical workable solutions are comprehensively and factually presented to the world as 500 Years Later, which is a subtle, bold testimonial that perhaps deals with the hurts inflicted during the 500 years naked horror, hatred, schisms, manipulations, etc. against people of African decent, which proportionately plunged the continent of Africa, into “Crime, drugs, HIV/AIDS, poor education, inferiority complex, low expectation, poverty, corruption, poor health, and underdevelopment” to use the basic themes used by this young, fearless director, ‘Alik Shahadah, and are as well the “whys” this captivating film sought to address, the tribulation of Africa through Africa’s factual perspective. The film could best be understood following its divided “slices”:
After an introduction to the state of Africa, the first section deals with what we have espoused above: the links between pre-colonial, colonial and contemporary times, and what prompted the scramble for Africa by the Europeans. This historical emphasis is enriched with approaches to the lies said about and on Africa, often referred as the “dark continent” which rightly the film disputes showing the world that Africa has history of its own. Of course, as said in the film by Issac Osei, a Ghanaian High Commissioner “Africa had a history, long before the Europeans came to our shores” and landed in search of materials for their growing industries. As a result slavery dreadfully grew and people were “taken in their prime, harvested from Mother Africa to build empires in foreign lands.”
500 Years Later here depicts that due to the magnitude of slavery historians themselves could not state how many Africans were taken. A viewer is however given vivid pictorial anecdotes, an estimation of the millions in addition to those who died due to famine, diseases, and social dislocation aboard ships that took them to Europe in order to build empires. This journey, the film stated was so horrific that Africans were buried alive, skinned to death, etc. And yet people are taught to forget. Impossible!
It is funny enough therefore if one looks at the propaganda being waged that slavery benefited Africans or that it was designed by Africans were people sold their brethren. This diabolical argument holds no water; though there “were African who collaborated with the Europeans”. Just like historical it was said some Jews too collaborated with the Nazis, which led to Holocaust. History is just repeating itself, as presently there are Iraqis who are collaborating with the Americans. Whatever may be case, the film put forward that slavery only benefited one set of people that is the Europeans.
For, in undistorted historical facts as Esther Stanford declared in the film, “In African language, there is no word that means enslavement…” What Stanford is indeed the truth, as even here in the Hausa society, there exists even today “yaron gida”, a system of servitude, where someone works as domestic servant. However most of those yaran gida could be seen interestingly integrated as, members of the family in which they work to the extent that what you may call the “master” will even give the hands of his own daughter for marriage to the “servant”. It had happened and still happening; so even domestic forms of slavery have rules and regulations. This is corroborated by ‘The Interesting Narrative of Equiano’ (1789) wherein Equiano writes about being born in Benin, Eastern Nigeria and was enslaved along the coastline within Africa by at least two families before taken to the coastline and sold to Europeans. Unlike how he was treated in Africa, he says he saw the most abominable cruelties when he was sold to the Europeans.
It is obvious from this section the film looks at the legacy which slavery left to the people of African decent as colonial domination fashion the cultural life of a conquered people. Little wonder therefore that Africans are put at subservient positions globally. The most shocking dimension taken by the enslavers is the religious teaching being passed on to people that God approved of slavery for black people.
It is not possible, the films shows, for colonialism to co-exist side-by-aside with the indigenous culture. True to type, this is akin to what was said in “Reciprocal Bases of National Culture and the Fight for Freedom” a Speech by Frantz Fanon at the Congress of Black African Writers, 1959: “A national culture under colonial domination is a contested culture whose destruction is sought in systematic fashion. It very quickly becomes a culture condemned to secrecy. This idea of clandestine culture is immediately seen in the reactions of the occupying power, which interprets attachment to traditions as faithfulness to the spirit of the nation and as a refusal to submit”. So, African culture has to give way for the emergence of an alien one.
Under this, the film shows the impact of ideas about race on relationships generally, between Europeans and Africans and particularly segregation. In many places where racism thrives Europeans promoted this racialised divide, and the film argues, led to a still persisting feeling of alienation and apathy among Africans globally.
Behind the policy of racial segregation were European stereotypes of Africans and Asians as ‘inherently unhygienic races’, where even today blacks are not allowed in some countries to go a lace where there is high concentration of white people.
500 Years Later, clearly shows and approaches the question of Black Experience in everyday life through the prism of many people who had commented in the film their very different views on the nature of being African in relation to inter-personal relation and identity. To Asher Hoyles, author and poet, who commented in the film, “The black experience is about what this means to be you in everyday life. In your job interview. At university. On the street. When you’re shopping. Everything! About what this means [indicating the color of her hand]! The world news is almost awash with reports of this kind; yet we are told to embrace globalization and such other concepts like liberal democracy. Why can’t people be treated equally, without recourse to the color of their skins? This might be an illusion to the perception of the “foolish” among us, who think that we are done with slavery.
Apart from paying attention to the myriads of problems highlighted above, the film under this theme presents what is too well known in academic circle in respect of the disastrous effect of what colonial education did to Africa and still is doing in devastating the heritage. In some parts of Africa, slavery and/or colonial administration had almost erased cultures and community with an “education” and “civilizing” program that gave Africans only a minimal skill set that served European colonial interests. Rebuilding from decades and centuries of this has been a tough struggle. As Walter Rodney, also, observes in his book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa that “the educated Africans were the most alienated Africans on the continent. At each further stage of education, they were battered and succumbed to the white capitalist system, and after being given salaries, they could then afford to sustain a style of life imported from outside . . . That further transformed their mentality.”  So the film not only stated “the kind of education that we have is to still enslave our minds, to make us believe we are inferior…” to quote the comments attributed in the film to Junkung Jobarteh, Faculty of Humanities, University of The Gambia. Africans, the film suggested, should and as a matter of priority starts the process of re-education, away from what Professor Ali Mazrui elsewhere termed “cultural dependency”.
Let me conclude by paraphrasing, and passionately (well, it is Africa we’re talking about, after all) which as best surmised in terms of ‘a truth universally acknowledged’ – as further proof that only the Africans can film themselves, tell something on Africa, these centuries of ugly experiences and need to consider issues of history with regard to her future in a more complex world. It is a peculiar fascination that merits attention for the way in which it allows for the ongoing romanticisation of the Europeans presence in Africa, in the Caribbean and elsewhere. Rather than keep on surviving in despair an answer to that question, though, which might elicit unpleasant truths about history should be blown by our mouth, it is the tale of the screw ups that continues to attract the attention of writers, TV documentary and film makers – not in themselves true either, but distorted facts just because of the opportunity they create for those bumbling idiot to make money out of horrors and glorious history of Africa. An inspirational example has been provided even to our local filmmakers and producers who said they are producing films on Africa and about Africa.
Even the most Cynical minds would stand to agree with this fearless director of 500 Years Later that “This film also serves as a reference point for our generation and future generations. The techniques employed did not rely on emotions to build the case from an African standpoint. We dealt with facts over emotion and truth over everything. So the film also re-examines our own failings — I believe this makes it unprecedented”.
Owen ‘Alik Shahadah should and must be commended by all of us for taking the bull by the horn to direct the ‘first’ African film amidst the many fears that have prevented our people to talk even at home here and these fears are still making others to refuse calling a spade by its name. Shahadah, an Aeronautical Engineer born 1973 in Hanover, Germany and educated in both England and the Caribbean, is among the new generation of African Diaspora filmmakers inspired by the likes of Ousmane Sembène and Haile Gerima. And in the tradition of these greats continues to produce work which articulates a multidimensional African world perspective, testimony to this is indisputably this most famous work 500 Years Later. He is most known for authoring works, which tend to deal with social justice, environmental issues, education and world peace.
The film won 4 international awards including; Best Documentary at the Pan African (Los Angeles) and Bridgetown (Barbados) Film Festivals; Best Film at the International Black Cinema (Berlin) Film Festival; and Best International Documentary at the Harlem (New York) International Film Festival. In October of 2005, 500 Years Later was screened at the Millions More Movement. Philadelphia Weekly wrote, “When participants gathered on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., for the Millions More Movement rally last month, they also became one of the largest film audiences in history.”
This film can be a good material for schools devoid of any classification, including mosques and churches. As we await the continued series of this film, may we hope that contemporary conscious challenging Halaqah Media pays attention to see that translated copies of the film into African languages are produced in the not-distant future. This could add another feather to its cap, when the film is made accessible not only ‘just’ to the elites but to the teeming rural population in the continent. Wars without the involvement of the Western nations do not seem newsworthy enough to appear on international TV news agendas, or form part of big Hollywood stuffs and the little coverage given only focuses on the brutality of the conflict and not on possible solutions. May we hope also that subsequent series focus on the unending conflicts in Africa, disillusionment on African leaders and the political systems, corruption and its genesis (and way out), articulation of genuine voices of African women (not errand girls carrying projects meant to achieve foreign objectives), self-reliance, etc.
Film in five different continents, 500 Years Later is really a critically acclaimed multi-award winning timeless compelling journey, infused with spirit and music of liberation that chronicles the struggle of a people who have fought and continue to fight for the most essential human right – Self-Determination!
As such, it provides highly recommended viewing stuff for everyone interested in the historical background of present-day African societies and their match to freedom.