Queen Idia’s Africa
What if Africa had never been colonized? A collection of ten short stories.
By Cordelia Salter
Copyright 2016 Cordelia Salter
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Table of Contents
In the 1400s Europe badly wanted to trade with West Africa mostly because of the legends of abundant gold. The main trade routes were across the Sahara – either down from the north coast or across from the Middle East. Islam had spread into West Africa along these routes which, as well as being difficult, were treacherous and jealously guarded. This drove the Europeans to build long distance ships and then first the Portuguese then the Dutch, English and others inched their way round the West African coast hoping for a slice of trade.
The great West African empires were highly developed with histories and royal hierarchies similar to those in Europe. When they came into contact with Europeans for the first time it was a meeting of different but equal cultures and there was mutual respect. The coastal areas were quiet backwaters and the newly arrived Europeans with their interesting trinkets were considered a benign novelty.
As Europeans began to colonize the Americas, they needed skilled labour to grow cotton and sugar – two crops that grow in West Africa. This made Africans with their farming skills into valuable commodities. There was a tradition of slavery in West Africa but it was used as a tool of war and slaves were, for the most part, well treated and could even rise to power. The sheer numbers needed in the Americas destroyed all traditions and desiccated the region. As slave trading was abolished West Africa got caught up in the great European scramble for Africa which leads directly to the situation today.
But what if this terrible chain of events never happened? What if that first contact had turned out differently?
Who was Queen Idia?
Queen Idia was a wife of Oba (King) Ozolua, the prosperous ruler of the Kingdom of Bini (Benin) in southern Nigeria. In 1504 Oba Ozolua died and Queen Idia made sure her son Esigie took the throne and not his half-brother. In recognition Oba Esigie created the official royal position of Iyoba (Queen Mother) and built his mother a dedicated palace. As Iyoba, Queen Idia influenced her son’s rule and was renowned for political astuteness and courage as a warrior. She was also known for her medicinal and magical powers.
Bini continued to prosper under Oba Esigie who ruled until 1550. He could speak Portuguese and was the first person in West Africa to establish diplomatic relations with Europe. The position of Iyoba continued long after the time of Queen Idia giving women power at the top for many generations to come. Queen Idia is one of the most famous women in African history.
Queen Idia is the second most famous face of a royal African woman after Queen Nefertiti
Edo City, Benin & Florida, North America
Oyo popped the last plantain chip piled high with pepper sauce into his mouth and savoured their flavours. Although it wasn’t supposed to be part of his diet, he was having lunch at the FooFoo4U fast food restaurant around the corner from his office the Ministry of Overseas Development. He wiped his fingers on a napkin, sat back and took a sip of hot ginger tea. A large television screen over the counter was showing the weather forecast – the weather for West Africa looked good for the time of year but there was the large swirly graphic on the other side of the African Ocean with arrows pointing towards America. Africa’s charmed thought Oyo as he finished his ginger tea – the hurricanes always go in that direction!
In his car on the way to work the next morning he was listening to the news. The hurricane had hit land just to the north of New Edo in the Florida peninsula. The city had escaped major damage but the hurricane had left a trail of devastation as it moved inland flattening everything in its path. Oyo’s TamTam buzzed – there was a message from the Minister. “We’re leaving for Florida,” it said. “Prepare everything.”
There is an unpleasant stain on West African history that still has repercussions today. About two hundred years ago, instead of punishing people by putting them in prison, undesirable citizens were deported. The powerful African navy negotiated with the North American natives to buy a marshy peninsula of not much value called Florida. For about a hundred years a steady stream of criminals, political rivals, rebels and other inconvenient people were shipped across the ocean and left to their own devices. Conditions were bad and many died but those who survived set about creating their own version of Africa. They called their capital New Edo and styled it after Edo City back home. As they prospered they spread out from Florida to the north and the west building plantations on the vast tracts of fertile land. They built labour camps and enslaved the waves of European immigrants fleeing famine and religious persecution at home forcing them to work long hours for no pay. The sugar, cotton and corn that they grew was shipped to Africa making massive profits for the plantation owners. Known as the American-Africans, they made sure that as they got rich, the Europeans stayed destitute. Eventually sanctions forced them to end their apartheid system but until now most things in Florida are tipped in the American-Africans’ favour.
Oyo and the Minister spent the night at the luxurious Africa View Hotel in New Edo. The next morning the Governor of Florida sent his driver to take them to join a convoy going out to inspect the hurricane damage. It was a beautiful day with puffy white clouds in a clear blue sky. They drove for some time through the grounds of the hotel where the uniformed gardeners were sweeping the paths and cutting down any branches that had been damaged by the hurricane.
At the checkpoint they stopped while their paperwork was checked and then the heavy metal gate was rolled back, the spikes and razor wire running along the top glinting in the morning sunlight. As they passed through the gate the driver pressed a button and there was a loud clunk as the doors were double locked. They joined a line of waiting cars and media vans outside the hotel and set off.
Oyo looked out of the window and was surprised to see that they were driving through a wealthy area not unlike Uptown Edo back home. There were magnificent villas covered with bougainvillea skirted by Royal Palms their fringes rustling in the light breeze. Gardeners were sweeping paths and clearing the road while workmen were mending fences all under the gaze of armed security guards.
The Minister leaned forward to speak to the driver.
“How long before we see hurricane devastation?” she asked.
“We’re going about an hour up the coast, Madam,” he answered. “But as soon as we’re out of New Edo you’ll begin to see some damage.”
The Minister sat back satisfied.
Soon the grand villas gave way to more modest houses, then huts, then shacks and then dwellings built out of of random objects. The roads started to deteriorate and the convoy slowed down as it navigated pot holes and piles of debris. The further they went the more damage there was until they came to a halt in front of what looked like a rubbish dump. Oyo got out and looked around – he could now see that the rubbish dump was in fact a slum that had been completely flattened.
The Minister was swept away by an entourage followed by a crowd of journalists buzzing round her like a swarm of wasps. They filmed her as she picked her way between the rubbish looking grave and concerned. Her eyes teared up while she listened to an interpreter telling the story of a European woman who had lost everything. She held the hand of a grubby yellow haired boy smiling down at him while her photo was taken.
Oyo turned and went in a different direction. As the noise of the crowd faded he heard the silence. But it wasn’t silence – every now and then there was a cry or a scream or a wail. It was so tragic. Everywhere there were planks, doors, bits of roof, windows – all the ingredients for houses but all shaken up and out of place. Trapped in this rubble were fragments of lives that would never be the same again. Europeans were picking through the debris looking for anything of value. Women picked out cooking pots and tucked dry bits of wood under their arms for firewood. Oyo walked on. A photo. A plate. A shoe. A mattress. Each precious possession had been hard won through long hours of work and now it was gone. A woman was sitting in the rubble rocking back and forth crying softly to herself.
Oyo felt his TamTam buzz in his robe pocket. “We’re leaving,” said the message from Minister. Oyo rushed back and arrived just as she was getting into the car.
“‘That went very well,” she beamed as she wiped her hands on a towel and adjusted her head tie. “Do you think it showed my humanitarian side?”
“Definitely Minister,” said Oyo. “There were so many cameras following you I couldn’t get even close.”
She looked even happier.
They travelled in silence for a while and then Oyo decided to start a conversation – something he rarely did with the Ministser.
“I went to have a look at the damage,” he said. “It made me realize that these people will never get out of poverty because every few years a hurricane comes along. They need hurricane proof houses like the American-Africans but they can’t afford them because they’re so poor. It’s a poverty trap.”
The Minister looked round at him.
“So what’s your solution?” she asked with her unpleasant sneer creeping over her face.
“West Africa is Florida’s biggest market. We could put as a condition of trade that the European workers should be paid decent wages so they have enough money to build hurricane proof houses.”
The sneer spread.
“You’re such an idealist Mr Ahenza.” she said. “You always talk as though the only thing we had to worry about was the starving poor and the hurricane hit. You forget we have our own politics too. We rely on cheap imports from Florida to keep our own food prices down so we’re not in a position to put conditions. But that’s why I’m here and why it’s so important that we are seen to give generously when disaster strikes.”
She turned and looked out of the window signalling the end of the conversation.
Oyo looked out of his window as they passed more desperate people picking through the rubble. Oyo had become an aid worker to help people like this but he wondered if he ever really helped anyone but the Minister.
There are 10 short stories in Queen Idia’s Africa published one a month during 2016:
The Migrant Problem (February)
Creating Decent Jobs (March)
Getting Aid Through (April)
The Philanthropist (May)
Post-Apartheid States (June)
In December 2016 all 10 stories will be published in an anthology. Check out the website for more details.
About Cordelia Salter
Cordelia Salter is English and has a long career in development. She worked in Africa for over twenty years and when living in Ghana became interested in the history of the bead trade between Africa and Europe. Beads were one of the most popular trade items but it wasn’t a random process. European bead manufacturers sent agents all over the continent to study local taste and collect samples. Popular African beads – including those worn to show power and influence – were sent to Europe where they were reproduced in huge numbers and then shipped back to Africa. The market was flooded with cheap replicas – a precursor of the fake Rolex phenomenon.
This history shows the initial nature of the trading relationship between Europe and Africa – it was being driven by African taste. Records show the frustration of the European agents who had been sent the wrong colour beads or cloth – Africans knew exactly what they wanted and would accept nothing less. This equality was lost when the Europeans started to use force, not trade, to get the skilled labour they needed for their new colonies in Americas.
Cordelia has put together a collection of antique beads that clearly tell this story. During her research she came across Queen Idia whose bronze bust shows details of beads decorating her hair. Cordelia always wondered what an incredibly strong woman like her would have thought of what has happened in Africa since her reign. She was the inspiration for this collection of stories which have been written to amuse and provoke thought on how things might have been if the shoe had been on the other foot.
Cordelia now works in food security and nutrition governance and is based in Rome, Italy. Please get in touch:
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Queen Idia's Africa is a collection of ten short stories about how things might have been if Africa had never been colonized. They can be read in any order. For several hundred years West Africa deported its criminals and other undesirables to live in Florida. The ones that survived set about creating their own version of Africa growing crops on fertile land and enslaving the European migrants. Sanctions eventually ended the system of apartheid but things are still not equal. After a hurricane has hit, Oyo and the Minister of Overseas Development visit to see what devastation it has caused. But do they really care?