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Making Africa's history tangible

Philipp Sandner
May 12, 2021

'African Roots' is celebrating 50 portraits of significant figures in African history. Narrated with African voices, they serve as the basis for debates on the web, radio, or historical sites.

African Roots | Sultan Njoya Ibrahim

A reverent mood prevails within the walls of Cape Coast Castle — that fortress on the Ghanaian coast from which European traders and colonial powers once shipped hundreds of thousands of slaves across the Atlantic. Before the eyes of schoolgirl Gloria Ekweagu, the fortress with its dark dungeons conjures up images of torture, of people screaming. "I actually felt the pain they were feeling," Ekweagu says in conversation with three other students, a historian, and DW moderator Isaac Kaledzi. "If we want to teach the history of slavery, we have to take people to historical places," says history professor Kwame Osei Kwarteng. 

Making history tangible for young people: The Cape Coast debate, which aired on May 10 on the finale of the second season of African Roots on the DW Africa Facebook platform, achieved just that. At the heart of the project, a collaboration with the Gerda Henkel Foundation and Nigerian animation powerhouse Comic Republic, is a now-completed 50-part series of portraits of African historical figures that personalize and shed light on the continent's history. Small, carefully researched pieces of the mosaic form a larger picture of the wealth of ancient kingdoms (Kanku Musa), the pursuit of knowledge (Fatima al-Fihri), the struggle for independence (Dedan Kimathi), or the early rebellion of women like Queen Abla Pokou who instigated change in their society.

DW African Roots | Bibi Titi Mohamed
While Tanzania's Julius Nyerere (right) remained in the limelight, Bibi Titi Mohamed faded into oblivion. African Roots tells both stories.

Countering the history of the dominant

"History is often written by men — and by the dominant, the victors," says Cameroonian historian Rose Ndengue in a video debate broadcast April 22 on the French Africa program. For a long time, she says, it was written by the former colonial powers, which also portrayed women as passive, as victims. 

The videos, online articles, and audios produced in six languages aim to counter such a distorted perception by portraying strong but hitherto little-known women such as the Tanzanian politician Bibi Titi Mohamed or the Nigerian writer Flora Nwapa. Freedom fighters and intellectuals who opposed foreign domination in the most diverse ways narrated by African authors and with voices of people who can speak uniquely for the history of their country. For example, musician Yili Nooma from Burkina Faso or the late Princess Rabiatou Njoya, granddaughter of the Cameroonian king and inventor Njoya Ibrahim, who accorded what may have been her last interview to DW.

African voices, African expertise

"This point is quite essential," says Dr. Michael Hanssler, chairman of the Executive Board of the Gerda Henkel Foundation, which makes the project possible. He also points to the critical role of the scientific advisory board. "The technical review of all content has also been carried out by researchers in Africa." The scientific advisory board consists of three renowned history professors: Doulaye Konaté from Mali, Nigeria's Christopher Ogbogbo, and Lily Mafela from Botswana. The project's goal is to "meet the growing need to appreciate African history as an important constituent of the history of humanity," says Mafela, dean of the education faculty at the University of Botswana.

Lagos Social Media Week | Segun Awosanya
History told for young people: African Roots captures audiences across the continentImage: DW/C. Stäcker

"DW cannot undo centuries of colonial interpretation of history in 50 portraits, but it can use its resources and honest cooperation to help ensure that the latest and most authentic scientific knowledge is communicated in a way that is appropriate for young people," says Claus Stäcker, DW's Director of Programs for Africa. "Something like this has been missing in the African media landscape." 

The multimedia portraits are disseminated in DW's programs and social media platforms and via around 300 radio and TV partners in Africa. It will also be made available directly to educational institutions in Africa in the form of USB sticks. Schools, universities, and libraries can share them with young people and learners of all ages to help them understand their history. 

Watch the debates in English and French.

Where it all began: Lots of firsts with Africa's royals

Both oral and written accounts take us way back to the history of ancient kingdoms. Ethiopia's Queen of Sheba is believed to have lived more than three thousand years ago, Sunjata Keita and Kanku Musa are two more-than-epic figures from the West African kingdom of Mali they helped rise to world fame.

Some icons of love and devotion are shrouded in mystery - take Baoule Queen Abla Pokou or Princess Yennenga, who still holds a place in many a Burkinabe's heart. And others yet - Hausa Queen Amina of Zazzau or, far South, Shaka, the founder of the Zulu nation, went down in history as fierce fighters, helped along by oral tradition that needed them as such.

To be concise, exploring the history of the African continent means going back to the beginnings of humankind. In the 1970s, the discovery in Ethiopia of a fossil then known as Lucy was a sensation - later, rebaptizing her Dinknesh brought home the claim of the Africanicity of humanity.

Through centuries of slavery

Not long after first making contact with European travellers, African nations became caught up in a gruesome new business, supplying slaves for plantations across the Americas. As the Atlantic slave trade was picking up speed, it became ever more ruthless, its brutality ever more apparent in Africa. Be it consciously or unknowingly, deliberately or against their will, African rulers like Afonso I of Kongo, Njinga Mbande, or the female strike force of Dahomey (now often referred to as the Amazons) became part of this game. The stories of Sengbe Pieh andWilliam Tubman speak of a time when the tide was finally turning and those returning had to find their place on the continent of their ancestors.

Forward to independence

In the 19th and 20th centuries, Africans all over the continent fought many a struggle to retain or regain their independence. Hendrik Witbooi, Kinjeketile and Rudolf Douala Manga Bell, each in their own way, stood up to German oppression in its colonies in the South-West, the East and the West, respectively. Much like Kinjeketile's, Queen Muhumuza's fight referred to spiritual powers for support. In West Africa, Yaa Asantewaa and Amilcar Cabral were among those who stood out.