An unprecedented adventure

On 7 October 2015, an International Coalition of Artists is launched at UNESCO to support the promotion of a reference work that remains relatively unknown to the general public: the General History of Africa. Why has this network been established and what is its mission? Ray Lema, the Congolese musician and spokesperson of the Coalition of Artists answers these questions in his interview: Passing on the values conveyed by the General History of Africa.

Here is a quick reminder of the context. 

In the 1960s, at the time when most African States gained their independence, UNESCO decided to set off on an unprecedented adventure and entrust African historians with the task of writing the history of their continent which, until then, was transmitted mainly through oral tradition.

The General History of Africa was drafted by a scientific committee comprising two-thirds of Africans including J. F. Ade Ajayi (Nigeria), Amadou Hampaté Bâ (Mali), Cheikh Anta Diop (Senegal), Mohamed El Fasi (Morocco), Josef Ki-Zerbo (Burkina Faso), Gamal Mokhtar (Egypt), Djibril Tamsir Niane (Republic of Guinea), Théophile Obenga (Republic of Congo), Bethwell Allan Ogot (Kenya), and 30 other specialists from Africa, the Caribbean, the Americas and Europe.

As a result of this extensive work, eight volumes of the General History of Africa were drafted by some 350 specialists, totalling nearly 10,000 pages and covering the equivalent of over three million years of civilization. In this respect, the project is innovative on a number of counts. .

For the very first time, the voice was given to Africans who shared a continental vision of history. As the Kenyan historian and President of the Scientific Committee, Bethwell Allan Ogot, stated in the introduction of the first volume, the work therefore represents a key element in recognizing the African cultural heritage and highlights the factors that contribute to the unity of the continent.
African oral traditions finally became credible as a legitimate source of history in the eyes of the international scientific community. The works of African pioneers were fruitful. For example the investigations of Djibril Tamsir Niane on medieval Mali revealed that as early as 1958, griots also played the role of archivists in Western Africa. 
Nevertheless, “to put things into perspective, a historian must compare his sources and cross-reference them”, the Guinean historian later declared in an interview he gave to the UNESCO Courier in 2009.
The same year, UNESCO launched the second phase of the project, namely the pedagogical use of the General History of Africa.

Teaching Africa’s history 

Though the eight volumes are entirely published in English, French and Arabic, and that abridged versions exist in 10 languages, including three African languages (kiswahili, hausa and peul), this “largely inaccessible monument of learning”, according to d'Elikia M’Bokolo, has yet to make a breakthrough and be featured in textbooks in Africa or elsewhere. It is for this reason that the Congolese historian accepted to chair the Scientific Committee in charge of promoting the pedagogical use of the work.

Conférence sur la promotion de l'Histoire générale de l'Afrique, UNESCO, 2010According to the Djiboutian anthropologist and project coordinator at UNESCO, Ali Moussa Iye, there are three major challenges in this second phase. Firstly, there is the education challenge of drawing on the eight volumes of the General History of Africa to identify common educational content for all primary and secondary school children in Africa. There is also the political challenge of integrating the common content to the various educational systems on the continent and finally there is the financial challenge of convincing Members States of the African Union to loosen their purse strings.

“UNESCO is currently working on the ninth volume of the General History of Africa”, he added, “with the view of updating what has already been published and highlighting Africa’s new challenges and diasporas.” 

Making Africa’s history accessible to youth

In parallel to the work being done by institutional channels, UNESCO is currently creating a network of artists from Africa and elsewhere, to raise awareness among young people of the messages that are conveyed by the General History of Africa. With their commitment as opinion leaders and their artistic work, these members of the new Coalition will also strive to convince political leaders that teaching about the shared heritage of African peoples represents a great interest for the whole continent.

Already in 1979, the Burkinian historian Joseph Ki-Zerbo stated in the UNESCO Courier that “All the evils that afflict Africa today, as well as all the possibilities for the future, are the result of countless forces transmitted by history”. The director of the first volume of General History of Africa,  which was published the following year, continued by saying that “unless one chooses to live in a state of unconsciousness and alienation, one cannot live without memory, or with a memory that belongs to someone else.”

Ray Lema, the Congolese musician heard his message loud and clear. “The damages of history are deeply rooted and sap Africa,” he declared in the interview he gave to UNESCO at the launch of the Coalition for which he is the spokesperson. “For us Africans, it is vital to know our past in order to heal the wounds that it has inflicted upon us and to regain faith in ourselves. It is essential to overcome the paradox of the African continent that is so poor yet so full of riches”.

Jasmina Šopova