AFRICA’S GLORIOUS PAST OPENING OF THE FIRST INTERNATIONAL CONGRESS OF AFRICANISTS
December 12, 1962
It is an honour and privilege for me to welcome you to Ghana and to this First Africanist Conference. Your meeting here, within the ramparts of an African University, is a reflection of the African’s recovery and re-awakening. It is also a recognition of the new spirit which now animates the people of this great continent. It is even edifying that this Congress is taking place on African soil. I know that you who have gathered here represent various fields and branches of learning; in fact I see familiar faces of professors of universities and academics. What has impelled you, Distinguished Scholars, to gather here at such a time as this'? You are here and are united by the fact that you want to find out the truth about Africa and, when you have found out, to proclaim it to the world.
Scholarly and academic interest in Africa is not a new venture. The desire to know more about Africa has been expressed from the very earliest times, because Africa has been the question-mark of history. To a Roman pro-consul: Semper aliquid novi ex Africa.
From the imaginings of the ancient geographers, an inaccurate and distorted picture of Africa often emerged. South of the Atlas ranges, a sandy desert was believed to extend indefinitely, with here and there a providential oasis, a rivulet, which nibbling and corroding its way through the sandy waste, dripped into the sea. Even so, the ancients had some genuine knowledge of the African Continent, for they had a scientific curiosity about it. Thus Erastostheses and Aristotle knew that the cranes migrated as far as the lakes where the Nile had its source. And both of them thought that it was there that the pygmies dwelt. Among the travellers of the ancient world who tried to explore Africa, we may recall men like Strabo and Hanno of Carthage.
After these early travels, foreign knowledge of Africa became static until a new impetus was given to it by the Arabs and the Chinese.
The Arabs and the- Chinese discovered and chronicled a succession of powerful African kingdoms. One of these kingdoms was that of Ghana, the pomp of whose court was the admiration of that age — and also of ours. It bred and developed within its borders, the instruments of civilization and art; its palaces were of solid architectural construction, complete with glass windows, murals and sculpture, and thrones within the palaces were bedecked with gold. There were other kingdoms such as those of Shonghay, Sala, Berissa, the renowned empires of Bomu, Wangara, Melli. The historians tell us that these empires and kingdoms were maintained with remarkable efficiency and administrative —competence. Their splendour was proverbial in mediaeval times.
The Chinese, too, during the T’ang dynasty (AD, 618-907), published their earliest major or records of Africa. In the 18th century, scholarship connected Egypt with China, but Chinese acquaintance with Africa was not confined to knowledge of Egypt only. They had detailed knowledge of Somaliland, Madagascar and Zanzibar and made extensive visit to other parts of Africa.
The European exploration of Africa reached its height in the 19th century. What is unfortunate, however, is the fact that much of the discovery was given a subjective instead of an objective interpretation. In the regeneration of learning which is taking place in our universities and in other institutions of higher learning, we are treated as subjects and not objects. They forget that we are a historic people responsible for our unique forms of language, culture and society. It is therefore proper and fitting that a Congress of Africanists should take place in Africa and that the concept of Africanism should devolve from and be animated by that Congress.
Between ancient times and the l6th century, some European scholars forget what their predecessors in African studies had known. This amnesia, this regrettable loss of interest in the power of the African mind, deepened with growth of interest in the economic exploitation of Africa. It is no wonder that the Portuguese were erroneously credited with having erected the stone fortress of Mashonaland which, even when Barbossa, cousin of Magellan, first visited them, were ruins of long standing.
I have said that the pursuit of African Studies is not a new experience. But the motives which have led various scholars to undertake these studies have been diverse
We can distinguish first a true scientific curiosity. Most of the Persian, Greek and Roman travellers exhibited this motive. Even when, as in the case of the Romans, they had a primary military purpose, they still tried and often succeeded in preserving some sense of objectivity.
Arab explorers were also often unbiased in their accounts of Africa, and indeed, we are grateful to them for what they wrote concerning our past.
By the time the European writing on Africa got under way, a new motive had begun to inform African Studies. Those early European works exchanged the scientific motive for one that was purely economic. There was the unbalanced trade in ivory and gold, and there was illegitimate trafficking in men for which these writings needed to find some sort of excuse.
The point l wish to make at this stage is that much of European and American writing on Africa was at that time apologetic. It was devoted to an attempt to justify slavery and the continued exploitation of African labour and resources.
African Studies in Europe and America were thus at their lowest ebb scientifically. With the abolition of the slave trade, African Studies could no longer be inspired by the economic motive. The experts in African Studies therefore changed the content and direction of their writing; they began to give accounts of African society which were used to justify colonialism as a duty of civilization. Even the most flattering of those writings fell short of objectivity and truth. This explains I believe, the popularity and success of anthropology as the main segment of African Studies.
The stage was then set for the economic and political subjugation of Africa. Africa, therefore, was unable to look forward or backward.
The central myth in the mythology surrounding Africa is that of the denial that we are a historical people. It is said that whereas other continents have shaped history and determined its course, Africa has stood still, held down by inertia. Africa, it is said entered history only as a result of European contact. Its history, therefore, is widely felt to be an extension of European history. Hegel’s authority was lent to this historical hypothesis concerning Africa. And apologists of colonialism and imperialism lost little time in seizing upon it and wiring widely about it to their hearts’ content.
To those who say that there is no documentary source for that period of African history which pre-dates the European contact, modern research has a crushing answer. We know that we were not without a tradition of historiography, and this is so, is now the verdict of true Africanists. African historians, by the end of the 15th century, had a tradition of recorded history and certainly by the time when Mohamud al-Kati wrote Ta’rikh al-Fattash. This tradition was incidentally much, much wider than that of the Timbuktu school of historians, and our own Institute of African Studies here at this University, is bringing to light several chronicles relating to the history of Northern Ghana.
Of these chronicles, the most exciting traced down to date, appears to be the Isnad al-Shuyukh Wa il-ulama, written around 1751 by al-Hajj Muhama Ben Mustafa who lived in Western Gonja in Ghana. It gives details of the conversion of the Dynasty in 1585.
A great deal of interesting work has been done and continues to be done in learned centres in Africa. In Nigeria, for example, Dr. Dike has worked on Politics and Trade in the Niger Delta. Here, he reflects, like other Africanist scholars, a new African-centred approach to the study of the relations between the Delta states and Europe in the 19th century. In this connection, the collaboration of archaeologists, historians and anthropologists, studying different aspects of the history, institutions and culture of pre-colonial Africa, has produced beneficial results.
A large collection of manuscripts and other evidence helping this adventure has now been made in many African centres of learning. At the University of Dakar, for example, I understand that a great deal has been collected in the way of documentary, material relating to the history of the Western Sudan. In Mali, also, considerable work is being done on pre-colonial history and the Museum at Bamako has gathered a great deal of material both useful and fascinating.
In Guinea too, the story of the contact between Europe and Africa is being written as an African experience and not as a European adventure. Similar work is being successfully undertaken in the Ivory Coast. In Upper Volta, there is the important work of Professor Kizerbo on the Moshi Kingdom, and has for some months now been working happily and successfully in our Institute of African Studies as an expression of the cultural unity of Africa.
In the East, a great deal of progressive work continues to be done. Documents and inscriptions in Eg’ez and Amharic, in Swahili and Arabic, in Old Nubian and Meroitic, are being collected in order to make possible our authentic reinterpretation of our past.
In Sudan, in Ethiopia, in Tanganyika, in Somalia, Kenya, Uganda, everywhere in Africa, there is purposeful effort to bring to light those means which alone will enable us to present our history as the history of the African people, the history of our actions and of the ideology and principles behind them, the history of our sufferings and our triumphs. This Congress, among other things, is an attempt to share experience in this common endeavour.
Many of these sources are documents, and documents written in African languages are coming to light. Thus, apart from Hausa, there are vast collections written in Fufulde, Kanuri, Nupe, and Dagbani. These are mainly 18th century documents, but they reflect a tradition of learning which goes back to the mediaeval times. But our historical records do not consist alone in the facts which we committed in the Arabic script. Every society has methods of preserving facts about its past. And where a society has no literate traditions, it devises rigorous methods of oral recordings. Scholars who have studied this phenomenon know this well. Historical recording in Africa therefore rightly comprises the documents in Arabic and African languages on the one hand, and, on the other, the well-preserved and authentic records of oral tradition. Our inheritance of oral literature, of epic and lyric poetry of stories and legends, praise songs and the chronicles of state Kings and dynasties preserved by palace officials, is of intrinsic interest and merit, as it is of historical importance,
The history of a nation is, unfortunately, too easily written as the history of its dominant class. If the history of a nation, of a people, cannot be found in the history of a class, how much less can the history of a continent be found in what is not even a part of it — Europe. And yet, this is precisely what many a European historian has done in the past. The history of Africa has with them been European centred. Africa was only the space in which Europe swelled up. The African past was ignored and dismissed in these tendentious works as not contributing to, or affecting the European expansion and presence in Africa.
If Africa’s history is interpreted in terms of the interests of European merchandise and capital, missionaries and administrators, it is no wonder that African nationalism is regarded as a perversion and colonialism as a virtue.
You who are meeting here today in the first Congress of Africanists, are all representatives of various disciplines, and are determined to pool your immense knowledge of Africa for the progress of the African, Your efforts mark a renaissance of scientific curiosity in the study of Africa and should be directed at an objective, impartial scrutiny and assessment of things African. While some of us are engaged with the political unification of Africa, Africanists everywhere must also help in building the spiritual and cultural foundations for the Unity of our Continent.
In East Africa, in the Sudan, in Egypt, in Nigeria, here in Ghana and elsewhere, the earth is being dug up apace —this time, not for gold or diamonds only, or for bauxite and other mineral riches, but also for its rich information about our past, its testimony to our achievements and its reformation of the somber prophets of African History. Valuable pieces have already been unearthed, including evidence of the origin of man in Africa. We have made our contribution to the fund or human knowledge by extending the frontiers of art, culture and spiritual values.
Democracy, for instance, has always been for us not a matter of technique, but more important than technique — a matter of socialist goals and aims. It was however, not only our socialist aims that were democratically inspired, but also, the methods of their pursuit were socialist.
If we have lost touch with what our forefathers discovered and knew, this has been due to the system of education to which we were introduced. This system of education prepared us for a subservient role to Europe and things European.
It was directed at estranging us from our own cultures in order that we, more effectively serve a new and alien interest. In rediscovering and revitalising our cultural and spiritual heritage and values, African Studies must help to redirect this new endeavour. The educational system which we devise today must equip us with the resources of a personality and a force strong enough to meet the intensities of the African presence and situation.
Education must enable us to understand correctly the strains and stresses to which Africa is subjected, to appreciate objectively the changes taking place, and enable us to contribute fully in a truly African spirit for the benefit of all, and for the peace and progress of the world.
African Studies is not a kind of academic hermitage. It has warm connections with similar studies in other countries of the world. It should change its course from anthropology to sociology, for it is the latter which more than any other aspect creates the firmest basis for social policy.
Your meeting here today as Africanists from various countries of the world, is truly historic. It emphasizes the idea that knowledge transcends political and national boundaries. It is incumbent upon all Africanist scholars, all over the world to work for a complete emancipation of the mind from all forms of domination, control and enslavement.
I cannot leave you today without referring to the distinction achieved by a Zulu student — Isaka Seme —when he won the first prize of the Curtis Medal Orations at Columbia University on the 5th of April, 1906. Distinguished Scholars, let me confess, with humility, that it is not my usual practice to quote others. On this occasion, however, I feel that I have a duty to place on record at this first Africanist Congress taking place here in Africa, the orations of Isaka Seme which, although made some fifty years ago, is still relevant to the postulates of our present situation in Africa.
With your indulgence, Distinguished Scholars, please bear with me while I quote his oration in full.
This is what he said:
"I have chosen to speak to you on this occasion upon: ‘The Regeneration of Africa’ I am an African, and I set my pride in my race over against a hostile public opinion. Men have tried to compare races on the basis of some equality. In all the works of nature, equality, if by it we mean identity, is an impossible dream! Search the universe! You will find no two units alike. The scientists tell us there are no two cells, no two atoms, identical. Nature has bestowed upon each a peculiar individuality, and exclusive patent — from the great giants of the forest to the tenderest blade. Catch in your hand, if you please the gentle flakes of snow. Each is perfect gem, a new creation; it shines in its own glory - a work of art different from all of its aerial companions. Man, the crowning achievement of nature, defies analysis. He is a mystery through all ages and for all time. The races of mankind are composed of free and unique individuals. An attempt to compare them on the basis of equality can never be finally satisfactory. Each is self. My thesis stands on this truth; time has proved it. In all races genius is like a spark, which, concealed in the bosom of a flint, bursts forth at the summoning stroke. It may arise anywhere and in any race."
"I would ask you not to compare Africa to Europe or to any other continent. I make this request not from any fear that such comparison might bring humiliation upon Africa. The reason I have stated — a common standard is impossible! Come with me to the ancient capital of Egypt. Thebes, the city of one hundred gates. The grandeur of its venerable ruins and the gigantic proportions of its architecture reduce to insignificance the boasted monuments of other nations. The pyramids of Egypt are structures to which the world presents nothing comparable. The mighty monuments seem to look with disdain on every other work of human art and to vie with nature herself. All the glory of Egypt belongs to Africa and her people. These monuments are the indestructible memorials of their great original genius. It is not through Egypt alone that Africa chains such unrivalled historic achievements. I could have spoken of the pyramids of Ethiopia, which though inferior in size to those of Egypt, far surpass them in architectural beauty; their sepulchres which evince the highest purity taste, and of many prehistoric ruins in other parts of Africa. In such ruins in other parts of Africa, in such ruins Africa is like the golden sun, that, having sunk beneath the western horizon, still plays upon the world which he sustained and enlightened in his career."
"Justly, the world now demand:"
"Whither is fled the visionary gleam, where is it now, the glory and the dream'?
"Oh, for that historian who, with the open pen of truth, will bring to Africa’s claim the strength of written proof? He will tell of a race whose onward tide was often swelled with tears, but in whose heart bondage has not quenched the first of former years. He will write that in these later days when Earth’s noble ones are named, she has a roll of honour too, of whom she is not ashamed. The giant is awakening!"
"From the four comers of the earth, Africa’s sons who have been proved through fire and sword, are marching to the future’s golden door bearing the records of deeds of valour done."
“Mr. Calhoun, l believe, was the most philosophical of all the slave-holders. He said once that if he could find a black man who could understand the Greek syntax, he would then consider their race human, and his attitude toward enslaving them would therefore change. What might have been the sensation kindled by the Greek syntax in the mind of the famous Southerner, I have so far been unable to discover; but oh, I envy the moment that was lost! And woe to the tongues that refused to tell the truth! If any such were among the now living, I could show him among black men of pure African blood those who could repeat the Koran from memory, skilled in Latin, Greek and Hebrew — Arabic and Chaldaic — men great in wisdom and profound knowledge — one professor of philosophy in a celebrated German university; one corresponding member of the French Academy of sciences, who regularly transmitted to that society meteorological observations, and hydrographical journals and papers on botany and geology; another whom many ages call ‘The Wise’, whose authority Mahomet himself frequently appealed to in the Koran in support of his own A opinion - men of wealth and active benevolence, those whose distinguished talents and reputation have made them famous in the cabinet and in the field, F officers of artillery in the great armies of Europe, generals and lieutenant - generals in the armies of Peter, the Great in Russia and Napoleon in France, presidents of free republics, kings of independent nations which have burst their way to liberty by their own vigour. There are many other Africans who have shown marks of genius and high character sufficient to redeem their race from the charges which I am now considering?
"Ladies and Gentlemen, the day of great exploring expeditions in Africa is over! Man knows his home now in a sense never known before. Many great and holy men have evinced a passion for the day you are now witnessing — their prophetic vision short through many unborn centuries to this very hour. Men shall run to and fro’, said Daniel, ‘and knowledge shall increase upon the earth.’ Oh, how true! See the triumph of human genius today! Science has searched out the deep things of nature, surprised the secrets of the most distant stars, disentombed the memorials of everlasting hills, taught the lightning to speak, the vapours to toil and the winds to worship — spanned the sweeping rivers, tunnelled the longest mountain range —-made the world a vast whispering gallery, and has brought foreign nations into one civilized family. This all-powerful contact says even to the most backward race, you cannot remain where you are, you cannot fall back, you must advance! A great century has come upon us. No race possessing the inherent capacity to survive can resist and remain unaffected by this influence of contact and intercourse, the backward with the advanced. This influence constitutes the very essence of efficient progress and of civilization."
"From this height of the twentieth century, I again ask you to cast your eyes” south of the Desert of Sahara. If you could go with me to the oppressed Congo’s and ask. What does it mean, that now, for liberty, they fight like men and die like martyrs; if you would go with me to Bechauanaland, face their council of headmen and ask what motives caused them recently to decree so emphatically that alcoholic drink shall not enter their country — visit their king, Khama, ask for what cause he leaves the gold and ivory palace of his ancestors, its mountain strongholds and all its august ceremony, to wander daily from any village to village through all his kingdom, without a guard or any decoration of his rank — a preacher of industry and education, and an apostle of the new order of things; if you would ask Menelik what means this that Abyssinia is now looking across the ocean — oh, if you could read the letters that come to us from Zululand — you too would be convinced that the elevation of the African race is evidently a part of the new order of things that belong to this new and powerful period."
"The African already recognizes his anomalous position and desires a change. The brighter day is rising upon Africa. Already, I seem to see her chains dissolved her desert plains red with harvest, her Abyssinia and her Zululand the seats of science and religion, reflecting the glory of the rising sun from the spires of their churches and universities. Her Congo and her Gambia whitened with commerce, her crowned cities sending forth the hum of business and all her sons employed in advancing the victories of peace — greater and more abiding than the spoils of war.”
"Yes, the regeneration of Africa belongs to this new and powerful period! By this term regeneration, I wish to be understood to mean the entrance into a new life, embracing the diverse phases of a higher, complex existence. The basic factor which assures their regeneration resides in the awakened race- consciousness. This gives them a clear perception of their elemental needs and of their undeveloped powers. It therefore must lead them to the attainment of that higher and advanced standard of life."
"The African people, although not a strictly homogeneous race, possess a common fundamental sentiment which is everywhere manifest, crystallizing itself into one common controlling idea. Conflicts and strife are rapidly disappearing before the fusing force of this enlightened perception of the true intertribal relation, which relation should subsist among a people with a common destiny. Agencies of a social economic and religious advance tell of a new spirit which, acting as a leavening ferment, shall raise the anxious and aspiring mass to the level of their ancient glory. The ancestral greatness, the unimpaired genius, and the recuperative power of the race, its irrepressibility, which assures its permanence, constitute the African’s greatest source of inspiration. He has refused to camp forever on the borders of the industrial world; having learned that knowledge is power, he is educating his children. You find them in Edinburgh, in Cambridge, and in the great schools of Germany. These return to their country like arrow, to drive darkness from the land. I hold that his industrial and educational initiative, and his untiring devotion to these activities, must be regarded as positive evidences of this process of his regeneration?
"The regeneration of Africa means that a new and unique civilization is soon to be added to the world. The African is not a proletarian in the world of science and art. He has precious creations of his own, of ivory, of copper and of gold, fine, plate willow-ware and weapons of superior workmanship. Civilization resembles an organic being in its development - it is born, it perishes, and it can propagate itself. More particularly, it resembles a plant, it takes root in the teeming earth, and when the seeds fall in other soils, new varieties sprout up. The most essential departure of this new civilization is that it shall be thoroughly spiritual and humanistic — indeed a regeneration moral and eternal!
Like some great century plant that shall bloom
In ages hence, we watch thee, in our dream See in thy swamps the Prospero of our stream;
Thy doors unlocked, where knowledge in her tomb: Hath lain innumerable years in gloom.
Then shalt thou, walking with that morning gleam, Shine as thy sister lands with equal beam."
Distinguished Scholars: on behalf of the Government and people of Ghana, it is my great pleasure to welcome you to Ghana and to this first Africanists Conference to be held in Africa. I wish you every success.