Graduate student Amy Niang meets well known history professor Joseph Ki-Zerbo at his home in Burkina Faso.
There is an incommensurable gap between the old and younger generation of Africans. We - African youth - have grown up, been made to believe that anything ‘traditional’ or ‘old’ is necessarily retrograde, often ‘unreliable.’
Young Africans, especially children of the Diaspora, do not have the advantage of communicating with their past, a handicap that inhibits a corrective study of African history and deepens their incapacity to take their destiny in hand. According to an African proverb, “he who is lost doesn’t know where he comes from.”
I had the immense honor to meet the first African to qualify as professor of history, Joseph Ki-Zerbo, at his house in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso (West Africa). At 84 today, weakened by age and sickness, Ki-Zerbo still draws amazing strength and vitality from his deeply-rooted convictions. He may have been preaching in the desert for decades but men like him live by their principles and his writings find resonance. African and world scholars have understood his message.
Ki-Zerbo deplores the increasing extinction of African identity. According to him, the curse of Africa is not the chronic poverty of its countries but the ignorance of its children of the true history and the true values of the continent. Unless Africans start learning about their own continent, their own thought system and the essence of its traditions, they will remain locked into the stranglehold of cultural identity.
It’s high time Africans liberate themselves from cultural asphyxiation, high time they went in search of what it is to be African, to draw the necessary lessons from their own traditional history in order to apprehend the future with confidence. The approach will consist, for Africa, in re-conquering its confiscated identity for, according to Ki-Zerbo, “without identity, we are just a mere object of history, a prop in the play of globalization, an instrument used by the others. A utensil.”
Ki-Zerbo narrates African past not in the way of a nostalgic chronicler who wallows in past glory or dwells into an imaginary fantasyland of pre-colonial Africa. He uncovers the history he was not taught at La Sorbonne University in France.
According to Ki-Zerbo, throughout history strong beliefs in simple principles such as the importance of family over the individual, the respect of elders, the spirit of sharing and good neighborliness, human communion in joy and sadness, etc, have been the bedrock of existence for Africans. Unfortunately, the degradation of these principles has blighted prospects for Pan-Africanism and development. But Ki-Zerbo warns us that “liberation for Africa will be Pan-African or will not be.”
Today, the debate over Africa is enmeshed in endless and ineffectual squabbling over the legitimacy of pseudo-democracies and misleading conflicts. But Ki-Zerbo argues that “the conception of power as well as its management in today’s Africa has nothing African to it.” In fact, political formations in pre-colonial Africa are rich with institutions based on a division of power with the greater possible number of people.
Africans, he says, “believe that power should be divided among its incumbents. They also believe that stability could be preserved in the multiplication of power.” He debunks misconceptions about African history and dominant theories that deliberately confine the history of the continent to the slave trade and the colonial experience. He adds that historical knowledge is a condition to collective liberation as the linkage between historical knowledge and self-worth is undeniable. In Africa, the lack of this knowledge has greatly contributed to underachievement and ‘mental underdevelopment.’
Ki-Zerbo is a man of vision and a soothsayer but he does not read Africa’s future in the sand of its drying soil; he uses the dialectical process of history as an investigative method to uncover the true past of the continent in order to understand the underpinnings of Africa’s value systems. He then tells us what a de-structured society can expect to see: the import and application of values that do not fit its peoples, which eventually will lead to the destruction of cultural identity.
His unsparing analysis and sharp, perceptive, riveting, pertinent, careful and thorough study of Africa’s history as well as its relations with the West has yielded a great number of articles and monographs, among which have been the comprehensive “History of Black Africa” (1972) that laid the foundation of a lifetime of scholarship and commitment to restoring the history of Africa by Africans. He also supervised the publication of two of the monumental eight-volume “General History of Africa” (Méthodologie et Préhistoire Africaine, 1981) as a member of the Scientific Committee for UNESCO.
He explores Africa’s past, drawing from oral tradition that is, in essence, the source of history and traditions for many African writers such as Mali’s late Amadou Hampaté-Bâ, who once said: “When an old man dies in Africa, it is like a whole library burning down.”
Ki-Zerbo’s life struggle and relentless social and political activism are not just a message of hope for Africa. It is the deep conviction of a man who knows that African development cannot be elusive forever and that it will be ‘African’ in conception and application or will not be. This knowledge is what he wishes young Africans to oppose against heavy odds and unacceptable immobilization, against institutionalized ignorance and empty rhetoric.
* Amy Niang is a Senegalese graduate student at the University of Tsukuba in Japan. E-mail her at [email][email protected]