I have been following with interest a four-part BBC documentary series Lost Kingdoms of Africa presented by Ghanaian art historian Gus Casely-Hayford living in the UK. It explores the pre-colonial history of some of Africa’s most important kingdoms.
The presenter travels to many historical sites across Africa and reveals the continent’s forgotten civilisations with the help of local guides and historians.
He visits the spectacular monuments of Nubia, traces Ethiopia’s heritage back in time, explores the places that gold and precious goods were traded in the kingdom of Great Zimbabwe, and explores the story of 16th century bronzes from the kingdom of Benin.
There is a widely accepted school of thought in the Western world that has long treated Africa as existing outside of history and progress. I hasten to add that this school of thought has unwittingly influenced many African minds, accepting it as a fait accompli.
This broad strain in western thought is shared by some of their most famous thinkers as well the entertainment that generations of children have grown up with.
For many decades there have been Disney cartoons that depict the stereotype, scantily dressed African cannibals gleefully stewing their human victims in giant pots suspended over pit fires.
Some 46 years ago, Hugh Trevor-Roper, at the time the Regius Professor of History at Oxford University, in a moment of condescension that quickly became notorious, declared to an audience on the BBC: “Perhaps in the future, there will be some African history to teach. But at present there is none; there is only the history of Europeans in Africa. The rest is darkness …”
Trevor-Roper insisted immediately that he was not saying that nothing happened in Africa. His argument was that (to use an anachronism), he was declining to acknowledge African history as disciplina, not the goings on- the res getae of African history.
He went on to say “I do not deny that men existed in dark countries and dark centuries, nor that they had political life and culture, interesting to sociologists and anthropologists. No, the reason the African past had nothing to teach us was that the discipline of history had a purpose. We study it to discover how we have come to be where we are. In a world entirely dominated by European techniques, European examples, European ideas, this high purpose can best be achieved by the study of the European past”. History, he seemed to suggest, is the story of winners; and we have won.
Voltaire said of Africans: “A time will come, without a doubt, when these animals will know how to cultivate the earth well, to embellish it with houses and gardens and to know the routes of the stars. Time is a must for everything”.
Hegel’s views of Africa were even more sweeping: “What we properly understand of Africa is, the unhistorical, undeveloped spirit, still involved in the conditions of mere nature, and which has to be presented here only as on the threshold of the world’s history”.
Unsurprisingly, one can still hear echoes of such self-aggrandising views from western politicians. Donald Trump referred to a number of African nations as “shithole countries” in 2018 while French president Emmanuel Macron said in 2017, “The challenge Africa faces is completely different and much deeper than those faced by Europe. It is civilisational”.
In yet another controversial tweet this week, Trump told a group of American-born Democratic congresswomen of colour to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came”.
To many of us the history of Africa is vague, and our precolonial existence is shrouded in mystery and witchcraft. We may have heard of Egyptian pyramids, legendary queens and warriors. But the truth is that it is one of remarkably diverse, creative and culturally rich civilisations thousands of years old.
In Gus Casely-Hayford’s series, he takes us on a fascinating journey through the history of our remarkable continent in which we encounter archaeological sites of staggering beauty that rival the Great Wall of China, vast and ancient universities that predate Oxford and Cambridge, kingdoms of extraordinary wealth, artistic traditions that still inspire artists today, great religious sites that surpass the Vatican and Nubia, a country with older pyramids than those in Egypt.
It may remain a little-known fact, but Africa has never lacked civilisations, nor has it ever been cut off from world events as has been routinely portrayed.
Remarkable new books present a fresh body of evidence of places which left spectacular archaeological legacies up to about 1500AD after which Africa was deeply scarred by the slave trade and imperialism.
With such a wealth of evidence one would have imagined that we would be out there actively trying to convince the world that the narrative of a “dark continent” is not true. But we seem to be afflicted by a low sense of self-worth, perhaps deliberately, because it allows us to get away with many ills such as corruption and mismanagement of our resources. After all, what will the rest of the world expect from a “dark continent”?
Our own behaviour and attitude only help to reinforce the narrative, much to the pleasure of our detractors.