“Let’s Question Written History”

By: Edwin Adjei, University of Ghana – Legon

History has a way of speaking the mind of a group of people, especially the mind of the powerful. Like many books that say Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas when there were people already living in the Americas before Columbus arrived. Or books that say David Livingstone discovered the river Niger when there were people living by the river and earning their livelihoods from the river as well as using the water in the river for their domestic activities. This is exactly what Elizabeth Ohene, the keynote speaker at the recently ended African Studies Association of Africa (ASAA) conference reiterated when she noted that, “History belongs to the victors; the winner writes the history books, but the victor- written history needs to be consistently questioned.” Why would the winner’s version of history need to be continually questioned? Because as is often said, “until the lion learns to write, the story of the hunt will always favour the hunter.”

Ms. Ohene observed that “if Africa is unfairly portrayed in the media today, it is mainly because African people do not tell their own stories.” CIHA Blog has also previously highlighted the importance of telling Africans’ stories in earlier posts about Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Adiche. Ms. Ohene went further by cautioning that “the distortion of history occurs when we don’t take enough interest in current affairs. She further added that “when we don’t take adequate interest in what is happening around us now we will be teaching distorted history in the future.” Africans have for years spoken about unfair representation in media and in many books. Based on her assertion, this has been because Africans have failed to tell our own stories, to our detriment. Today, Africans continue to say that the stories that are told of us are not true, but the trend continues. “Authentic” African stories have to be told on BBC, CNN, Aljazeera and other international news media to be believed by Africans and the global community. The ghosts of the past seem to have been reborn. Another generation of Africans will come out to denounce these “authentic” stories. Where and how then do African academics and Africans, broadly speaking, begin to reclaim and tell their stories? The answer to this was suggested by Nana Kobina Nketsia V, the paramount chief of Essikado Traditional area. He proposed that “culture should be the bedrock of history, for it is a protective skin for survival.”  He further encouraged African historians in particular and academics in general to put the experiences of our ancestors at the forefront of our conversations, rather than those of the colonizers.

The writing and sometimes rewriting of African history began many years ago. History continues to be written. Through efforts such as the formation of the African Studies Association of Africa (ASAA), which seeks to give voice to the writing of African history and realities by African scholars, African voices on contemporary and historical issues continue to be raised. As such associations grow and as more African scholars in other organizations and associations join the call to tell African stories, it is hoped that we will present more balanced representations of life on the continent.

Review the full newspaper article here: Amandla November 2017