Absence of African history in school curricular is very unfortunate

by Frank Eleanya

August 21, 2017 | 10:15 am
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BBC World News Presenter and Sudanese-born Zeinab Badawi recently embarked on a mission to redeem the image of Africa through telling of the history of the different regions in the continent using television. Her new television series ‘The History of Africa with Zeinab Badawi’ just started airing on BBC and will soon be on some local stations in Nigeria. She had a chat with FRANK ELEANYA on her passion to stir up young people’s interest in the history of the continent.  

I saw some of the clips of your new documentary ‘History of Africa’ and wanted to ask how this all started? Why do you want to do this?

History has always been my passion. I did postgraduate study in History. So it has always been a passion of mine. And I was visiting my friend Getachew Engida who is the Deputy Director-General with UNESCO. I saw in his book case some volumes “THE GENERAL HISTORY OF AFRICA”. I asked him “What are those Getachew?” He told me that in the 1960’s the newly independent presidents of Africa decided they wanted to reclaim their history, decolonize their curriculum and have African history told by African scholars. So they went to UNESCO and ask for help. The searched the continent of Africa for the best scholars across the fields of history, anthropology, you name it. They compiled these volumes that I saw in Getachew’s book case. It is African history written by African scholars. They deliberately set out to use different sources from Western historians that have been overlooked like sources in Hindi, Arabic etc because of the trade links between Africa and these regions. They also refused to accept what people said that “African has no history because it did not have written records” in some places and in some time. It does not mean that Africa did not document its history. It was a really different exercise to completely change the perspective on African history.

I told Getachew that this is one of Africa’s best kept secrets. Give me the rights to face these volumes and I will use them as my inspiration and as my basis to derive some of the facts and the fact that it is chronological and regional and a proper linear narrative to make a TV series. I said these volumes they are great works but they are obviously scholastic works, but if you want to make history come alive particularly for younger people you have to see it from their imagination so that it is properly received. So that was the genesis of the history series.

How many countries have you visited so far for this exercise?

For this first series, it finishes in the 13th century roughly; it is only just the beginning. I would say I have visited about 14 countries in Africa. I only film in Africa and I try to ensure that there is a representation of every region; the North, South, East and West. The whole series has to be judged by the second series. I hope that the regions will by the end of the series, will feel they have had a proper way to tell their story. It is important to include them in the telling of the story because it is the story of the African people. Academics will look at historical facts but one thing I did in the series is to identify how people identify themselves, how they relate to their own history. It is an ambitious project.

When history is told from the perspective of Africans in diaspora there is often the tendency to burnish it to appeal to western audiences even though they do not resonate with the reality. Did you encounter such?

Well, I have said that the key audiences targeted in the series are the African people, particularly young people from 21 years of age. So it is not a series targeted at non-Africans; but non-Africans should watch it too because they would enjoy it. I don’t say anything like “look at this monument; it is good as anything that was built in ancient Greece or Rome”. I don’t make any of those relative judgments. It is just Africa’s history, telling it as it is. I am not using 21st century perspective to look at the history of Africa and try to redress a balance or to think about how people in the West might see it or how they will relate to it.

What is the difference between the Africa you saw in the books and the Africa you have encountered on the streets?

I think the volumes deal with experts and they are fine academics which is different from the series. I wanted to make sure that it wasn’t a lecture from series of experts and so I connect with people on the streets to include them in the telling of that story because it is the history of different people. It’s about the people behind the history and so that’s the key difference. Also, academics would only look at historic facts but I focus on how people identify and relate with their history which is not usually reflected in volumes.

In telling African stories we are often perceived differently outside; identity crisis and most times we tend to ask ourselves how else the African story should be told in order to resonate in the global space.

I think in the global space obviously there is such a thing as racism. We have issues with migration. A lot of Africans want to make their way to Europe. We have a very powerful African American Diaspora which has been preoccupied with the Civil rights movement and making sure they get the equality that they need and desire. I think some of the concerns of the African Diaspora are very valid and may be a different from people inside Africa. I think that what we all share as Africans, regardless, of whether we live on the Continent or not is an international order which still evoke dealings in the language of racism, like “Africans are needy outsiders wanting to come to Europe” etc. I think how this series relates to this discuss is to say Africa can reclaim some self-respect and assert themselves and say “we have wonderful history that has existed longer than any other in the world and see and understand.” Our history did not just start with slavery. It is to get people thinking out of the box and for the non-Africans to see the many different ways to understand the history of the continent.

There is this feeling amongst young people that going back to the past doesn’t matter – especially the millennial and there are volumes of African literature that could have taught us about our history and identity. However there are so many young people who do not know. Do you think perhaps there is something wrong with the way we practice telling our history?

I think it has been rather difficult the way we relate with our history. It hasn’t been done in a very systematic and chronological way and that’s why this series focuses on these volumes using television which is a very delicate way to pass information. These volumes are difficult to read as they are not accessible. But you may not very right in thinking young people do not want to know; when I was filming, I went to Lagos University and I spoke to people at random. And I asked “What do you know about your history?” One of them replied “Nigeria was formed in 1914…” So I asked “What about before that?” and they were like “I don’t know.” Then I said would you like to know more about your history? More than 19th century?” and they said “Yes.”

I also think that the movement in South African at the moment to decolonize the curricular which they feel has been very much from a Eurocentric point of view, it proves there is a thirst amongst young people to familiarize themselves with their history; you see it in the university of oxford students who say we want to have African history as part of world history. So actually, education is moving in that direction, they just need the right tools to be able to convey the knowledge.

Does it strike you as odd that most African countries do not have history as part of their curricular?

Yes, they don’t. Professor Anthony Asiwaju, he is a Nigerian professor, one of the original contributors to the general history volumes, and he laments the fact that history is so neglected in the history departments not only in Nigeria but wide across Africa. Yes, everyone thinks it’s got to be science and technology; of course, we need to produce more doctors, engineers to educate others that the colonies need to develop but it doesn’t therefore mean that we need to neglect the teachings of history.

What do you think is the policy force that needs to drive history knowledge in Africa?

I think that if you speak to any of the people (intellectuals) involved in the General History of Africa, they feel that history is relevant now. When you speak to intellectuals then you would realize that what they are doing is important and if I in any way can raise their voice in any way through the medium of television, then that is my intention.  President Olusegun Obasanjo, I was chatting with him about the series, he said “Zeinab I know the names of British Kings but I can’t tell you the names in the same manner of African kings and what is going in Africa.” Do we really want to be in that position where our intellectuals and our audience know more about western history than they do about their own history?

How long is it going to take?

The first series is 9 episodes and 45mins each. There is also an hour version for each program. We are probably going to start the second series something next year. It is a very demanding, exerting, ambitious project. But I will complete it. I can’t leave Africa’s history suspended in the 13th century. I would also like to see if there is more that I can do for the primary school students and the young ones to help them be aware of those who shaped this continent.

Is it showing on BBC?

Yes it is and it can also be assessed on my website but I am making it available to be charged to all African stations knowing that there is a very large African population. We also hope that it would be translated to different African languages like Arabic, French, and Portuguese. It is a Pan African project.

In your journey as you travel round the world, what would you say went wrong with African history?

I think that Africans are being quite complacent and they have allowed Non African history and its scholars to interpret their history which they would do through their own perspectives; even when there are very educated intellectuals in Africa who would interpret it better. I think Africans should reclaim their space through their experts and these experts should be assisted to tell the story. This is a matter of self respect.


by Frank Eleanya

August 21, 2017 | 10:15 am
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