Rewriting the record: An African History of Africa, reviewed

Broadcaster Zeinab Badawi takes readers on an enthralling tour of Africa’s ancient empires.

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Image : LEA WESTERHOFF /AFP

Broadcaster and journalist Zeinab Badawi’s long-awaited book An African History of Africa sets out to introduce an alternative to a common narrative – what Badawi describes as the “myopia of a post-imperial education” – that holds that Africa’s history begins after Europeans arrived. It focuses on the neglected pre-colonial history of the continent rather than well covered modern events.

Sudanese-born Badawi, who currently serves as president of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), came to the UK as a two-year old infant and grew up in North London.

A stellar career as a broadcast journalist – following studies in philosophy, politics and economics at St Hilda’s College, Oxford – saw her become a familiar face to international audiences.

In recent years she has branched out from broadcast journalism, bringing a nine-part History of Africa to UK TV screens in 2017. This book continues her fascination with the history of the continent’s peoples.

While “Africa is the birthplace of humankind itself,” she laments that so little is known of its ancient and modern history.

“It has an extraordinary past: engrossing narratives of warrior queens, kings, chiefs, priests and priestesses; of mighty civilisations blooming on the banks of rivers or in the shade of sacred mountains; of lavish buildings hewn out of rock, exquisite libraries bursting with discoveries, bustling caravan routes and market squares thick with the voices of traders, travellers, farmers and entertainers.”

Travelling to 30 of the continent’s 54 countries, Badawi brings to the reader a refreshingly vibrant account of Africa’s many and varied faces, places and cultures. She draws on the conversations she had with Africa’s top academics as well as the ordinary people she encountered on her many travels crisscrossing the continent.

Her book, she says, is indebted to the pioneering work carried out by the UN’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) which in the early 1960s coordinated the General History of Africa (GHA), assembling a committee of historians, anthropologists, archaeologists and scientists of other disciplines, some 350 scholars in total, to compile 11 volumes of a tightly researched record of the continent’s past. She describes the project as one of Africa’s “best kept secrets”.

Clearly, Badawi could not replicate the scope of the GHA in just one book, but she takes the reader on a broad sweep of the continent’s civilisations, starting with humanity’s very beginnings when about 7m years ago the evolutionary chain saw bipedalism emerge.

Although she speculates that there might well have been earlier African civilisations, it is the Egyptians who left the greatest imprint, creating a civilization now defined by temples, tombs, monuments and hieroglyphs.

The Greek historian Herodotus, the ancient Romans, European Renaissance artists and even the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte were all deeply impressed by the superb culture and mysteries of ancient Egypt. And Badawi is similarly entranced, as she takes the reader through the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms, from Narmer, the founder of the Old Kingdom about 5,000 years ago, to the Greek-origin Ptolemaic Dynasty which featured Queen Cleopatra.

The kingdom of Kush

It was not just the Egyptian civilisation, however, that took root along the mighty Nile. To the south, Badawi reminds us, the kingdom of Kush was arguably as remarkable.

This has a special resonance with Badawi, who traces her family roots to the region in present day Sudan. She writes that the kings of Kush are some of the most charismatic rulers of ancient Africa. They left behind more than a thousand pyramids, more than are found in Egypt.

Interactions between Kush and its northern neighbour Egypt swung between a cordial trading relationship along the Nile to outright armed warfare. This probably led Kush to move its capital city from Kerma southwards to Napata.

Less scholarly attention has been paid to Kush than to its more famous northern neighbour, but Badawi goes some way to putting the record straight, describing a colourful line of rulers and the conflicts that the Kush kings waged with the Assyrians.

Badawi makes an interesting point: that the Sudanese “have not been as diligent as the Egyptians in promoting their heroic ancient past”. She calls for “more research into and accounts – accessible and easy to understand – of this splendid chapter of Africa’s story”.

Awesome Aksum

The author next takes us to a powerful kingdom in north-east Africa, describing the emergence of Aksum on the Red Sea coast, a kingdom that built strong trading relationships with the Romans and Arabia as well as with India and Asia. Based in what is now northern Ethiopia and Eritrea, and spanning present-day Djibouti and Sudan, it extended at its height into much of South Arabia during the reign of Kaleb of Axum.

Badawi writes that, like Kush, Aksum has undeservedly been sidelined from history. Yet it has many aspects that make it important: it was probably only the second kingdom to adopt Christianity (after Armenia), and the first to adopt coinage in its trading customs, under King Endybis.

Aksum is perhaps most renowned internationally for its huge monolithic pre-Christian stelae (pictured above), erected during the third and fourth centuries AD as funerary markers for the elite. Many of these are still standing.

Due to its ties with the Greco-Roman world, the Kingdom of Aksum later adopted Christianity as the state religion in the mid-4th century, under Ezana of Axum.

Badawi explains the significance of Aksum for the faithful of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Tradition has it that the Ark of the Covenant, containing the ten commandments, was brought to the kingdom by Menelik I, son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon.

But no empire lasts forever, and so it was for Aksum. Perhaps due to environmental degradation, the impact of Islam, or Persian and Jewish pressure, the civilisation began to decline.

After the collapse of Aksum, King Lalibela took power from 1162 to 1221, and established the Zagwe dynasty. He was responsible for the hewing of churches out of solid basalt rock. These extraordinary structures attract many thousands of visitors and rank as some of Africa’s most remarkable ancient monuments.

Not fairy tales but facts

Following Badawi’s profile of north-eastern Africa, she goes on to describe the history of north, west, central and southern Africa. She gives compelling accounts of their past, parts of which have previously been neglected by historians.

In her foreword, Badawi cites her late friend, the Kenyan palaeoanthropologist Richard Leakey, who argued that it was imperative to break down prejudices about Africa.

“It will probably take time to break that down, but break it down we must, and we do so – not with fairy tales but with facts,” he said.

In helping to achieve this goal for a broader, non-academic audience, An African History of Africa is both a timely and a highly readable addition to the bookshelf of the general reader.

An African History of Africa: From the Dawn of Humanity to Independence by Zeinab Badawi, £25, W.H. Allen

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Stephen Williams

Stephen is a freelance journalist based in London who specialises in African affairs.