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'THERE is always something new coming out of Africa', proclaims the narrator of the film, The Ancient Africans, a documentary aired in 1985. This sentence, varied one way or another, and in particular shortened to 'out of Africa', in fact occurs repeatedly in the titles of films, scholarly symposia and books of many sorts; it is often encountered as an epigraph or heading for a unit within a book. When so used, the sentence inevitably stands on its own as a general statement about the continent. It regularly signals a particular uniqueness in Africa -- the capacity for creating novelties -- and conveys some admiration thereof. It also signals the learning of the writer, for the quotation has been variously attributed to Rabelais, Pliny, Aristotle and Herodotus.
The aim of this note is to trace the quotation back through the centuries to its source and reveal what it meant in its original context. It will be seen that its early meaning was very different from the one invariably attributed to it now, and that even those who cite the source correctly are unaware of it. This little tale, with its straight stretches and its crooked jogs, also exemplifies some features of the transmission of ancient learning. But first let us illustrate the breadth and currency of the phrase.
The most popularly recognized use is in the title of the 1985 movie, Out of Africa, starring Robert Redford and Meryl Streep, a movie based on the semi-autobiography by Isak Dinesen. (1) Popular too once upon a time were the many books by John Gunther about various continents and countries: the preface to his Inside Africa includes our quotation. (2) A somewhat earlier travelogue by a certain H. W. entitled ... Something New Out of Africa features it in Greek, Latin and French, linking it with the names of Aristotle, Pliny and Rabelais, respectively. (3)
The phrase comes readily to those addressing a smaller, scholarly audience. In a textbook of African studies, Eileen Julien heads a chapter on literature, 'Always something new from Africa'. (4) Gail Gerhart weaves it into her narrative: 'Although Africa's ultimate cultural contribution was still unknown, hope for the future was summed up in the ancient Latin dictum: Ex Africa semper aliquid novi (there's always something new from Africa)'. (5) Despite using the word 'dictum', the author appears to give the phrase an almost messianic meaning. And yet another scholar, Mary Lefkowitz, entitled her attack on Afrocentrists and their misuse of ancient history Not Out of Africa. (6) Africanists are generally familiar with the full phrase.
Still in the public sphere, we find that an acclaimed documentary film, produced by Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Taylor, appeared in 1993 under the title In and Out of Africa, and that the Louis S. B. Leakey Symposium held on 7 December 1996 at Stanford University was called 'Out of Africa'.
Finally, let us cite a pair of instances originating in South Africa. In an article published in 1945, Anton M. Lembede, a black South African intellectual and nationalist leader who was a lawyer and the first president of the African National Congress Youth League, identified the contributions to world civilization made by various societies, from the Greeks and Romans to the English and the Russians. He concluded the list with another example: 'the Africans "Ex Africa semper …