Now, Hegel — he very famously said that Africa was a place without history, without past, without narrative. Yet, I’d argue that no other continent has nurtured, has fought for, has celebrated its history more concertedly. The struggle to keep African narrative alive has been one of the most consistent and hard-fought endeavors of African peoples, and it continues to be so. The struggles endured and the sacrifices made to hold onto narrative in the face of enslavement, colonialism, racism, wars and so much else has been the underpinning narrative of our history.
And our narrative has not just survived the assaults that history has thrown at it. We’ve left a body of material culture, artistic magistery and intellectual output. We’ve mapped and we’ve charted and we’ve captured our histories in ways that are the measure of anywhere else on earth. Long before the meaningful arrival of Europeans — indeed, whilst Europe was still mired in its Dark Age — Africans were pioneering techniques in recording, in nurturing history, forging revolutionary methods for keeping their story alive. And living history, dynamic heritage — it remains important to us. We see that manifest in so many ways.
I’m reminded of how, just last year — you might remember it — the first members of the al Qaeda-affiliated Ansar Dine were indicted for war crimes and sent to the Hague. And one of the most notorious was Ahmad al-Faqi, who was a young Malian, and he was charged, not with genocide, not with ethnic cleansing, but with being one of the instigators of a campaign to destroy some of Mali’s most important cultural heritage. This wasn’t vandalism; these weren’t thoughtless acts. One of the things that al-Faqi said when he was asked to identify himself in court was that he was a graduate, that he was a teacher. Over the course of 2012, they engaged in a systematic campaign to destroy Mali’s cultural heritage. This was a deeply considered waging of war in the most powerful way that could be envisaged: in destroying narrative, in destroying stories. The attempted destruction of nine shrines, the central mosque and perhaps as many as 4,000 manuscripts was a considered act. They understood the power of narrative to hold communities together, and they conversely understood that in destroying stories, they hoped they would destroy a people.
But just as Ansar Dine and their insurgency were driven by powerful narratives, so was the local population’s defense of Timbuktu and its libraries. These were communities who’ve grown up with stories of the Mali Empire; lived in the shadow of Timbuktu’s great libraries. They’d listened to songs of its origin from their childhood, and they weren’t about to give up on that without a fight. Over difficult months of 2012, during the Ansar Dine invasion, Malians, ordinary people, risked their lives to secrete and smuggle documents to safety, doing what they could to protect historic buildings and defend their ancient libraries. And although they weren’t always successful, many of the most important manuscripts were thankfully saved, and today each one of the shrines that was damaged during that uprising have been rebuilt, including the 14th-century mosque that is the symbolic heart of the city. It’s been fully restored.
But even in the bleakest periods of the occupation, enough of the population of Timbuktu simply would not bow to men like al-Faqi. They wouldn’t allow their history to be wiped away, and anyone who has visited that part of the world, they will understand why, why stories, why narrative, why histories are of such importance. History matters. History really matters. And for peoples of African descent, who have seen their narrative systematically assaulted over centuries, this is critically important. This is part of a recurrent echo across our history of ordinary people making a stand for their story, for their history.
Just as in the 19th century, enslaved peoples of African descent in the Caribbean fought under threat of punishment, fought to practice their religions, to celebrate Carnival, to keep their history alive. Ordinary people were prepared to make great sacrifices, some even the ultimate sacrifice, for their history. And it was through control of narrative that some of the most devastating colonial campaigns were crystallized. It was through the dominance of one narrative over another that the worst manifestations of colonialism became palpable.
When, in 1874, the British attacked the Ashanti, they overran Kumasi and captured the Asantehene. They knew that controlling territory and subjugating the head of state — it wasn’t enough. They recognized that the emotional authority of state lay in its narrative and the symbols that represented it, like the Golden Stool. They understood that control of story was absolutely critical to truly controlling a people. And the Ashanti understood, too, and they never were to relinquish the precious Golden Stool, never to completely capitulate to the British.Narrative matters.
In 1871, Karl Mauch, a German geologist working in Southern Africa, he stumbled across an extraordinary complex, a complex of abandoned stone buildings. And he never quite recovered from what he saw: a granite, drystone city, stranded on an outcrop above an empty savannah: Great Zimbabwe. And Mauch had no idea who was responsible for what was obviously an astonishing feat of architecture, but he felt sure of one single thing: this narrative needed to be claimed.
He later wrote that the wrought architecture of Great Zimbabwe was simply too sophisticated, too special to have been built by Africans. Mauch, like dozens of Europeans that followed in his footsteps, speculated on who might have built the city. And one went as far as to posit, “I do not think that I am far wrong if I suppose that that ruin on the hill is a copy of King Solomon’s Temple.” And as I’m sure you know, Mauch, he hadn’t stumbled upon King Solomon’s Temple, but upon a purely African complex of buildings constructed by a purely African civilization from the 11th century onward.
But like Leo Frobenius, a fellow German anthropologist who speculated some years later, upon seeing the Nigerian Ife Heads for the very first time, that they must have been artifacts from the long-lost kingdom of Atlantis. He felt, just like Hegel, an almost instinctive need to rob Africa of its history. These ideas are so irrational, so deeply held, that even when faced with the physical archaeology, they couldn’t think rationally. They could no longer see. And like so much of Africa’s relationship with Enlightenment Europe, it involved appropriation, denigration and control of the continent. It involved an attempt to bend narrative to Europe’s ends.
And if Mauch had really wanted to find an answer to his question, “Where did Great Zimbabwe or that great stone building come from?” he would have needed to begin his quest a thousand miles away from Great Zimbabwe, at the eastern edge of the continent, where Africa meets the Indian Ocean. He would have needed to trace the gold and the goods from some of the great trading emporia of the Swahili coast to Great Zimbabwe, to gain a sense of the scale and influence of that mysterious culture, to get a picture of Great Zimbabwe as a political, cultural entity through the kingdoms and the civilizations that were drawn under its control. For centuries, traders have been drawn to that bit of the coast from as far away as India and China and the Middle East. And it might be tempting to interpret, because it’s exquisitely beautiful, that building, it might be tempting to interpret it as just an exquisite, symbolic jewel, a vast ceremonial sculpture in stone. But the site must have been a complex at the center of a significant nexus of economies that defined this region for a millennium.
This matters. These narratives matter. Even today, the fight to tell our story is not just against time. It’s not just against organizations like Ansar Dine. It’s also in establishing a truly African voice after centuries of imposed histories. We don’t just have to recolonize our history, but we have to find ways to build back the intellectual underpinning that Hegel denied was there at all.We have to rediscover African philosophy, African perspectives, African history.
The flowering of Great Zimbabwe — it wasn’t a freak moment. It was part of a burgeoning change across the whole of the continent. Perhaps the great exemplification of that was Sundiata Keita, the founder of the Mali Empire, probably the greatest empire that West Africa has ever seen. Sundiata Keita was born about 1235, growing up in a time of profound flux. He was seeing the transition between the Berber dynasties to the north, he may have heard about the rise of the Ife to the south and perhaps even the dominance of the Solomaic Dynasty in Ethiopia to the east. And he must have been aware that he was living through a moment of quickening change, of growing confidence in our continent. He must have been aware of new states that were building their influence from as far afield as Great Zimbabwe and the Swahili sultanates, each engaged directly or indirectly beyond the continent itself, each driven also to invest in securing their intellectual and cultural legacy. He probably would have engaged in trade with these peer nations as part of a massive continental nexus of great medieval African economies.
And like all of those great empires, Sundiata Keita invested in securing his legacy through history by using story — not just formalizing the idea of storytelling, but in building a whole convention of telling and retelling his story as a key to founding a narrative for his empire. And these stories, in musical form, are still sung today.
Now, several decades after the death of Sundiata, a new king ascended the throne, Mansa Musa, its most famous emperor. Now, Mansa Musa is famed for his vast gold reserves and for sending envoys to the courts of Europe and the Middle East. He was every bit as ambitious as his predecessors, but saw a different kind of route of securing his place in history. In 1324, Mansa Musa went on pilgrimage to Mecca, and he traveled with a retinue of thousands. It’s been said that 100 camels each carried 100 pounds of gold. It’s been recorded that he built a fully functioning mosque every Friday of his trip, and performed so many acts of kindness, that the great Berber chronicler, Ibn Battuta, wrote, “He flooded Cairo with kindness, spending so much in the markets of North Africa and the Middle East that it affected the price of gold into the next decade.”
And on his return, Mansa Musa memorialized his journey by building a mosque at the heart of his empire. And the legacy of what he left behind, Timbuktu, it represents one of the great bodies of written historical material produced by African scholars: about 700,000 medieval documents, ranging from scholarly works to letters, which have been preserved often by private households. And at its peak, in the 15th and 16th centuries, the university there was as influential as any educational establishment in Europe, attracting about 25,000 students. This was in a city of around 100,000 people. It cemented Timbuktu as a world center of learning.But this was a very particular kind of learning that was focused and driven by Islam.
And since I first visited Timbuktu, I’ve visited many other libraries across Africa, and despite Hegel’s view that Africa has no history, not only is it a continent with an embarrassment of history, it has developed unrivaled systems for collecting and promoting it. There are thousands of small archives, textile drum stores, that have become more than repositories of manuscripts and material culture. They have become fonts of communal narrative, symbols of continuity,and I’m pretty sure that many of those European philosophers who questioned an African intellectual tradition must have, beneath their prejudices, been aware of the contribution of Africa’s intellectuals to Western learning. They must have known of the great North African medieval philosophers who had driven the Mediterranean. They must have known about and been aware of that tradition that is part of Christianity, of the three wise men. And in the medieval period, Balthazar, that third wise man, was represented as an African king. And he became hugely popular as the third intellectual leg of Old World learning, alongside Europe and Asia, as a peer.
These things were well-known. These communities did not grow up in isolation. Timbuktu’s wealth and power developed because the city became a hub of lucrative intercontinental trade routes. This was one center in a borderless, transcontinental, ambitious, outwardly focused, confident continent. Berber merchants, they carried salt and textiles and new precious goods and learning down into West Africa from across the desert. But as you can see from this map that was produced a little time after the life of Mansa Musa, there was also a nexus of sub-Saharan trade routes, along which African ideas and traditions added to the intellectual worth of Timbuktu and indeed across the desert to Europe. Manuscripts and material culture, they have become fonts of communal narrative, symbols of continuity. And I’m pretty sure that those European intellectuals who cast aspersions on our history, they knew fundamentally about our traditions.
And today, as strident forces like Ansar Dine and Boko Haram grow popular in West Africa, it’s that spirit of truly indigenous, dynamic, intellectual defiance that holds ancient traditions in good stead. When Mansa Musa made Timbuktu his capital, he looked upon the city as a Medici looked upon Florence: as the center of an open, intellectual, entrepreneurial empire that thrived on great ideas wherever they came from. The city, the culture, the very intellectual DNA of this region remains so beautifully complex and diverse, that it will always remain, in part, located in storytelling traditions that derive from indigenous, pre-Islamic traditions. The highly successful form of Islam that developed in Mali became popular because it accepted those freedoms and that inherent cultural diversity. And the celebration of that complexity, that love of rigorously contested discourse, that appreciation of narrative, was and remains, in spite of everything, the very heart of West Africa.
And today, as the shrines and the mosque vandalized by Ansar Dine have been rebuilt, many of the instigators of their destruction have been jailed. And we are left with powerful lessons, reminded once again of how our history and narrative have held communities together for millennia, how they remain vital in making sense of modern Africa. And we’re also reminded of how the roots of this confident, intellectual, entrepreneurial, outward-facing, culturally porous, tariff-free Africa was once the envy of the world.