The Origins of Inequality

“Can you speak about the creation of the world?” I asked Asingiya, a Nankani elder from Sirigu, Ghana. I expected a story about spirits, the first people, or how a child emerged from the earth. Yet Asingiya offered a more astute account.

“Aaron, is it true that as the day is breaking here, in America the sun is setting?” 

“Of course,” I replied, “When the sun rises here, people are sleeping in America.”

“Do you know a very tall mountain separates us?”

“A mountain?”

“A mountain separates America on one side and Africa on the other. When the sun reaches one side, the mountain conceals it. When the mountain covers us, on the American side they have day. Then when the sun comes back to the African side, we have day and you have night.”

I see how that makes sense, I thought. “Tell me more.”

“In the old days, God was much closer to man and spent a lot of time on that mountain. Large stones were arranged around the mountain for God to step upon. He would go out on these stones to give things to man. God was always running on those stones and reached all people that way. But the whites, through some crooked way, removed a stone on our side. When they removed the stone, God could not run back to our side of the mountain. That is why we are suffering like this and the whites are always enjoying. That is why we have a long dry season [heat] and you people are always experiencing the rainy season [coolness].”

It’s not a stretch to recognize how Asingiya’s story indexes a legacy of theft, cheating, and so on. Myths condense and transmit a range of manifest and veiled meanings. Such accounts help people make sense of their lot, and they can call out wrongdoers in subtle or obvious ways. I later listened to other creation stories about the first people, but it seems salient that Asingiya first shared this account.

Mamma Laadi offered a version she learned from her grandfather as a child. “Long ago, a white man and a black man went before god,” she said. “God was doing something important and told the men to close their eyes. They were not supposed to see. The black man obeyed and closed his eyes very hard. The white man peeked. He opened one eye and saw god and what he was doing. This is why whitemen know everything. This is why they have everything.”

Several variations of these stories circulate. A common narrative describes how, when confronted with an option of selecting knowledge or riches, African people chose riches over books or other forms of knowing. The reality, however, is the people had no choice. And we cannot forget that it didn’t take long before Africa’s riches—the wealth of people, places, and resources—were stolen. That is how colonialism works. The colonial eye wanders, seeking any opportunity to exploit and dispossess.

The underdevelopment of Africa is not a historical accident. Powerful nations and corporations built their wealth on the backs of former colonies and the Global South. People received little in return. The problem persists. Today, many leaders, policymakers, and corporations continue searching for any opportunity to steal yet another stone.

People say the village of Sirigu is developing. Funding and infrastructure projects are expanding, albeit slowly. A man explained, “In the olden days, whenever we saw the whiteman we ran away. Now even you are coming here. We can sit together and talk. It means we are moving forward.” Some younger people, however, are rightfully cautious, skeptical of such “talk.”

Talk alone is hollow. Most plans go nowhere. Outsiders often take more than they give. As the past reverberates intergenerationally, the wealthy North must work harder to transform disjunctures, entrenched structures of inequality, uneven trading systems, and both lingering and emerging forms of colonialism and exploitation.

It is time we replace the stolen stone.

Want more? Check out my book “Spirit Children” here and other essays here

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