African History by African scholars, One of the Best-kept Secrets. Why is it being hidden?
Africa has a rich and complex history but there is widespread ignorance of this heritage.
From about 1885 to the end of the Second World War, most of Africa was under the yoke of colonialism; and hence colonial historiography held sway.
According to colonial historiography, Africa had no history and therefore the Africans were a people without history. Western historians had lamented the lack of written records in some African countries and had used this as a reason to legitimize such neglect. They propagated the image of Africa as a 'dark continent'. Any historical process or movement on the continent was explained as the work of outsiders, whether these be the mythical Hamites or the Caucasoids.
But even during the dark days of colonialism, there were other historians,
for example, the traditional historians, African historians educated in the West who challenged the imperial historiographical hegemony, resulting from the 1950s into a New African Historiography which was part of the decolonization process.
Some of the newly independent African leaders decided that a rediscovery of the pre-colonial history of Africa was necessary in order to bring the old civilizations to light, to place new value on African culture and art.
In the early 1970s, Unesco helped African scholars to start the project called General History of Africa, putting together an International Scientific Committee composed of thirty-nine members (two-thirds of whom were African and one-third non-African) that planned and supervised the writing and publication of African history, starting from prehistory and continuing to the modern era.
The General History aimed "at the highest possible scientific level" and sought to be "a work of synthesis avoiding dogmatism" to present "the true history of Africa", long obscured by Eurocentric preconceptions, methods, and referents.
The General History of Africa has corrected two tendencies which were already
widespread: the intellectual balkanization of Africa and the intellectual dependence for the production of social knowledge in Africa.
By Africa, for instance, many of the scholars meant 'sub-Saharan' or 'Black' Africa, definitions that were intended for various ideological and political reasons to divorce North Africa from the rest of the continent.
Since the 19th century, many Western scholars had made strenuous efforts to deny the Africanness of North Africa, especially the Africanness of the great civilization of ancient Egypt.
Even the prefix 'black' as a badge of racial identity is, in effect, a concept of European racism, rooted in religious mythology and the European slave trade which, unfortunately, has been adopted by some African writers.
Unesco's General History of Africa took the scientifically true but controversial step of starting the history volumes with the origins of humankind, setting out the theory of evolution. By doing so, they risked incurring the wrath of Eurocentrist, Christian, and Muslim communities in some African countries where there was, and still is, a widespread belief in creationism.
Kenyan paleontologist Richard Leakey, who contributed to volume one, says he still believes that the fact humans originated in Africa is anathema to some Westerners, who would prefer to deny their African origins.
Why are the African history records like General History of Africa still unknown to many?
This African history is little known, both in Africa and elsewhere, because a lot of academics and teachers in African countries have been a product of colonial education themselves, and so they could not receive a comprehensive and chronological account of their own history. They all look at their own history through the perspective of Western scholars.
It turns out, one of Unesco's and the continent's best-kept secrets is Africa's history written by African scholars.
The fact that very few people know about these volumes compiled under the auspices of Unesco also tells you something. You wonder why African leaders did not want to promote it. This is in part due to continued crises of political instability and economic depressions which, in the main, are the result of military coups, increased tendency towards authoritarianism, bureaucratic centralism, and a rigid reinforcement of the executive and its capacity for repression.
They cannot teach true African history if it does not fit their political agender or the agender of their western sponsors. Neo-colonialism is a reality in most African countries.
The General History of Africa is a start and Unesco plans to incorporate its research into school syllabuses across the continent.
Hopefully, future generations will have a better idea of their history and see there is much for them to be proud of from their past. A past that provides the foundation for an even greater future.