Rediscovering Africa's ‘Forgotten’ History

[All links lead to pages in French, unless otherwise stated]

The colonial period in Africa has often been singled out, rightly or wrongly, regarding the numerous troubles affecting the continent. The debate on the real impact of colonization on the development of African countries and their intermittent problems is rarely consensual. However, there is one aspect of this period that has caused less controversy: the ignorance of pre-colonial African history.

It is not uncommon to find that a significant number of African students from both the colonial and post-colonial periods have a very rudimentary knowledge of Africa's history. These same students often know the history of the colonizing country better than that of their own country, a phenomenon underlined by the expression “Our ancestors the Gauls” [.pdf] used not so long ago in Côte d'Ivoire and Senegal.

Women doing their hair- Antananarivo, Madagascar. Vintage photographic postcard, c.1907, photograph by Collection M. T., printed by Ateliers de Phototypie Guende, Marseille, France. Shared by postaletrice on Flickr (CC-BY-NC-3.0)

Women doing their hair- Antananarivo, Madagascar. Vintage photographic postcard, c.1907, photograph by Collection M. T., printed by Ateliers de Phototypie Guende, Marseille, France. Shared by postaletrice on Flickr (CC-BY-NC-3.0)

Dangers of neglecting our past

Contrary to what former French President Nicholas Sarkozy said in Dakar, Senegal [en] in 2007, on the place of African men in history [en], the history of the African continent is full of rich civilizations and iconic characters [en]- a story that is too often overlooked or ignored.

It was in response to the famous Dakar speech that Adame Ba Konaré [en], a Malian historian, wrote with the help of fellow historians a collection of essays called ‘Petit précis de remise à niveau sur l'histoire africaine à l'usage du président Sarkozy‘ (A new short synopsis of African history from President Sarkozy's perspective). In the introduction to this collection, the authors explain why it is necessary to better understand the history of Africa and how to do it:

Il faut surtout se préoccuper de disséminer le plus largement possible l’histoire, la vraie histoire de l’Afrique et des peuples africains, en Afrique et hors d’Afrique. La jeunesse africaine est avide de savoir. Elle se pose légitimement des questions qui reviennent presque toujours à celle-ci : comment se fait-il que nous en soyons là où nous sommes aujourd’hui ? Parallèlement à l’écrit, nous disposons désormais de toutes sortes de moyens techniques pour procéder au mieux à cette dissémination.

Above all, the history should be spread as widely as possible; the true history of Africa and African people both in and outside Africa. African youth are eager to learn. They ask legitimate questions which almost always come back to: how did we get to where we are today? Along with writing, we now have all kinds of technical means to best proceed with this dissemination.

YouTube user Dembeto has uploaded a video [fr] of a programme discussing the forgotten history of Africa:

In Guinea, Papa Attigou Bah warns against the consequences of forgetting history, given the periodic political crises experienced by the continent. In an article ‘L'Afrique politique, une histoire oubliee?’ (African politics, a history forgotten?), he asks:

La nouvelle génération africaine, celle née pendant et après les indépendances, pourra-t-elle objectivement bénéficier de l'enseignement de l'histoire des luttes politiques successives engendrées par nos anciens pendant la période postcoloniale intitulée l'époque des indépendances africaines? Aussi, quel bilan l'Afrique tire-t-elle aujourd'hui de ses douloureuses décennies de lutte politique et démocratique gérée cette fois par cette même génération qui a milité pour les indépendances africaine ? [..] L'Afrique peut et doit  être le continent de l'avenir dans ce 3ème millénaire, à condition que la nouvelle génération africaine prenne toutes ses responsabilités devant l'histoire.

Could Africa's new generation, those born during and after independence, objectively benefit from the teaching of the history of successive political struggles generated by our ancestors during the postcolonial period known as the time of African independence? Also, what assessment does Africa take today from its painful decades of political and democratic struggles managed this time by the same generation who fought for African independence? […] Africa can and must be the continent of the future in this third millennium, provided that the new African generation take full responsibility for history.

In Madagascar, books written by Malagasy people on their own history are not plentiful. This can be explained by the fact that French is the dominant language in what is theoretically a bilingual setting. Rakotoarisoa Victor James explains:

Le bilinguisme est effectif, au profit Français. Parmi les huit principales matières officielles en Terminale, seul le Malgache se fait en malgache et deux autres (la Philosophie et l’Histoire-Géographie) pour lesquelles l’enseignant (en dispensant ses cours), et les élèves (quand ils traitent leurs sujets d’examens) ont le choix. Cette interprétation nous montre en effet que, dans le cadre de l’enseignement apprentissage, le Malgache est légèrement moins important que le Français.

Bilingualism works effectively in favour of French. Of the eight main official subjects in the final year of school, only Malagasy and two other subjects (Philosophy and History/Geography) are taught in Malagasy, for which the teacher (when giving the course) and students (when they take their examinations) have a choice. This situation shows that, as part of teaching and learning, Malagasy is slightly less important than French.

Relearning history

Several initiatives promote a reappropriation of African history by its citizens. UNESCO launched a project [en] in 1964 to develop the ‘General History of Africa’ which aims to:

..remédier à l’ignorance généralisée sur le passé de l’Afrique. Pour relever ce défi qui consistait à reconstruire une histoire  de l’Afrique libérée des préjugés raciaux hérités de la traite négrière et de la colonisation et favoriser une perspective africaine,  l’UNESCO a fait appel aux plus grands spécialistes africains et internationaux de l’époque. [..] Supervisée par un Comité scientifique international dont deux tiers étaient africains, l’élaboration des huit volumes de l’Histoire générale de l’Afrique a mobilisé plus de 230 historiens et autres spécialistes pendant plus de 35 années.

…remedy the widespread ignorance about Africa's past. To face up to this challenge of reconstructing the history of an Africa free of racial prejudice inherited from the slave trade and colonization and to promote an African perspective, UNESCO has called upon the greatest African and international scholars of our time. […] The development of eight volumes [en] of the General History of Africa, overseen by an International Scientific Committee of which two thirds were African, has called upon more than 230 historians and other specialists for over 35 years.

The Facebook group Mémoires d'Afrique (Memories of Africa) aims to start:

Un débat autour d’une figure de l’histoire africaine ou des peuples noirs. L’objet est de libérer la parole sur des questions souvent taboues, de dépoussiérer le panthéon noir [..] notre modeste objectif est juste de faire découvrir à nos enfants, à la grande famille panafricaine et ses diasporas, de susciter le débat et peut-être des passions. [..] Vous pouvez vous exprimer sur un sujet qui vous passionne et qui rentre dans le champ qui nous intéresse ici. Sans jamais tomber dans la polémique, l'insulte ou l'intolérance [..] il faut espérer que notre passion pour l'histoire de notre continent continuera de nous unir.

[…] a debate around a figure in the history of Africa or black people. The objective is to allow speech about issues that are often taboo, to dust off the black pantheon […] our modest goal is simply to allow our children, our great Pan-African family and its diaspora, to discover, to stimulate debate, and perhaps passion. […] You can speak on a topic you are passionate about that enters the field of interest here. Without ever falling into controversy, insult or intolerance […] we hope that our passion for the history of our continent will continue to unite us.

A rich history, it is too large to detail representatively so selected pieces are discussed, for example the history of Togbè Agokoli, King of the Ewes, founder of the Kingdom of Notsé [en] in Togo:

In Accra, Ghana, a Black History Month [en] was organised last March to celebrate Pan-African history. Many Internet users appreciate this desire to make African history more widely known.

After viewing the video above, netizen Boris Amouzou said on Facebook:

Moi ce que j'aime dans cette émission, c'est qu'elle nous permet de revivre cette partie de l'histoire du Togo qui nous échappe..

What I like about this programme is that it allows us to relive the part of Togo's history that we missed…

But to relearn the history of the continent is a long process. Jacques Binet reminds us that African leaders also bear some of the blame for this forgotten history:

Il faut rappeler en effet que l’opinion publique et les parlementaires africains voulaient une école et des programmes  exactement conformes à ceux en usage en France.

We should remember that public opinion and African parliamentarians wanted a school and programmes that conformed exactly to those in France.

Malassem, however, thinks that ignorance of African history is no longer a problem of lack of resources but of will:

Afrique mon Afrique. Afrique des fiers guerriers. L'histoire a toujours une trace. Il est juste dommage pour celui qui veut rester à tout jamais dans l'ignorance.

Africa, my Africa. Africa of the proud warriors. History always has a trail. It's just a shame for those who want to stay in the dark forever.



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