At last Africa has decided to fight back against the host of negative myths that have dogged it since the era of slavery. Baffour Ankomah describes how the book he is currently editing will correct centuries of calumnies about the continent.
Ever since the Europeans landed on our shores in the mid 15th century, they have succeeded in creating many myths about the African, some of them simply hilarious, but others too grave in their impact on African dignity, psychological wellbeing, and our place in the world.
As one anonymous African argued on Whatsapp the other week: “They told us that our ancestors added nothing to civilisation because they weren’t civilised, yet their museums are filled with stolen treasures from all over Africa made in the image and likeness of our ancestors.” Ironic, isn’t it? You have to pity people who say you haven’t contributed anything to world civilisation, where they don’t want to return the treasures they stole from you!
On 14 January 2020, Taylor Dafoe, writing for Artnet News, reported that “the British government is looking for an expert to guide its restitution efforts as global pressure mounts on museums to audit their collections”. The body of the story was as laughable as they come.
“England is looking for someone to write a book about how to return artefacts that were looted during the colonial era. Arts Council England, the UK’s state-funded organisation dedicated to promoting the arts, is offering a contract for someone to develop ‘guidance on restitution and repatriation for UK museums,’” Dafoe reported.
If it were not in the middle of January, I would have said April’s Fool Day had come too early in 2020. But Dafoe was damn serious. “The [UK] move follows similar efforts by other European countries, including France, which commissioned an ambitious report on the permanent repatriation of African heritage in 2018, and Germany, which passed a ‘joint declaration on the handing of colonial collections’ last March.”
No need for experts
Haba! What has come of these Europeans? They need somebody, a so-called expert, to tell them how to return the treasures they stole from our ancestors? They should just load them up in trucks and send them south – that is where Africa is located. Did they need experts to tell them how to loot the artefacts and bring them over? Maybe they did, who knows?
In its advert for the contract, Arts Council England says: “Restitution and repatriation of objects in museum collections is an area of increasing focus and debate across the UK and the international museum sector,” and that there have been “increasing calls for action” across the country to “address the agenda”. Why not? The calls are in fact long overdue, as Africans have been making the same calls for decades now but were turned down.
And don’t rub your eyes: Arts Council England is paying £42,000 for the job. “The chosen contractor will be tasked with analysing previous research on the matter and consulting with museum leaders and cultural experts across the UK.”
Dafoe added that “though similar in intention, there is still a question over whether England’s effort to address ongoing calls for the repatriation of stolen artefacts will meet the bar set by France and Germany, each of which devoted significant government resources and even more time to developing their own guidelines. Yet in those cases too, it remains to be seen how much action really results from such reports.”
The French restitution report, delivered a year ago, has not borne any fruit, bar one 19th-century sabre returned to Senegal last year. Otherwise, it is business as usual – the museums are holding fast to the stolen African treasures as if nothing has happened. It is said that around 90,000 African objects are held by national collections in France alone. The German expert report has equally borne no fruit.
Which brings me back to where I started: the myths about Africa. One of which was uttered by John Fuller, MP for Sussex, during the slavery abolition era. “I have never heard the Africans deny their mental inferiority,” he said to justify the continued enslavement of Africans.
Fuller was only bettered by Pedro Zapata de Mendoza, governor of Cartagena de Indias, in present-day Colombia, who wrote home to Madrid, Spain, in 1648, saying: “A ship full of blacks brings more to the Treasury than galleons and fleets put together.”
Zapata must have inspired General Charles Pinckney, one-time aide to the American President George Washington, telling the folks across the Pond: “This country [USA] is not capable of being cultivated by white men. Negroes are to this country what raw materials are to another country. No planter can cultivate his land without slaves.”
These are some of the myths about Africa and Africans that have given birth to the distorted image of the African on the world stage today. It was, and still is, a deliberate attempt to paint the African in colours that bring him no honour or prestige.
As Dr John Henrik Clarke, the great African-American historian and scholar once said: “When Africa was colonised, the information about the continent was also subject to colonisation. Hence, much of the history of Africa and its people is still hidden, neglected and distorted. Twisting of facts and a confusing terminology still impact on our understanding (or misunderstanding) of African history.”
This is a point which was also beautifully put by Adam Hochschild in his book King Leopold’s Ghost. “One problem of course,” Hochschild wrote about the history of the Congo, “is that nearly all of this vast river of words is by Europeans or Americans … and this inevitably skewed the way that history was recorded … Instead of African voices from this time, there is largely silence.”
Breaking the silence
Well, that silence is soon to be broken. For the first time, Africa is going to respond via a major work being done through a collaboration by the AU and the Harare-based Institute of African Knowledge (INSTAK). In 2016, the two organisations signed an MOU for the production of an Africa Factbook, which will present Africa in its true colours (history and all), and also address the myths that Euro-American historians and writers have crafted about Africa for centuries.
I happen to have had the good fortune to be appointed Editor for this Factbook, so I know what we have done since mid-October 2019 when the work started. The first rough draft presented to the AU in mid-December brought whoops of joy in Addis Ababa. In the words of one AU official, upon reading part of the draft: “With the right promotion, the Factbook should stop the process [of maligning Africa] and turn things upside down in the proportion of Darwin’s theory of evolution.”
This is Africa’s response to six centuries of calumny spewed by European historians and their cousins in the wider Western world. The Factbook is divided into four sections. Section A sets out to burst 12 of the major myths about Africa. Section B deals with country profiles and fast facts about Africa’s 55 nations. Section C is about African inventions, journeys, pioneers, etc. Section D deals with the African Diaspora (otherwise known as Global Africa).
The definition of the ‘African’ we are working with is the one popularised by the Jamaican singer, Peter Tosh: “Don’t care where you come from. As long as you’re a black man, you are an African.”
No cows have been sacred in the preparation of this Factbook, which is due for launch by the AU before June 2020. Tired of being libelled and slandered for the last six centuries, Africa is rousing itself now to do battle with its detractors. They had better stand firm because this is no ordinary Factbook – not even like the CIA Factbook. This Factbook has raised the bar! So keep watching this space.
Update: The first edition of the Africa Factbook was launched on 9 September by President Emmerson Mnangagwa of Zimbabwe at a ceremony in Harare. It will be available free to the public in December 2020, according to the publishers.