Rethinking History, Knowledge Production and Memory in African Societies
An Igbo proverb goes that “a child can be taller than its father, but never older” connoting among other things that knowledge and wisdom come with age and that curiosity unchecked could be a dangerous thing. Another goes that “what a young person sees standing up, and elder sees while seating down” implying that true perspective is the result of age primarily, therefore creating a cultural atmosphere that breeds mistrust for historical inquiry among the young. This historical mistrust spurred on by several pre-colonial, colonial, and postcolonial episodes have led many African States to amalgamate old and new fears into policies that hope to curtail how the past is discussed and learned.
Yet, the past in itself and by its very nature always survives by being encrypted into other facets of life. From the mind of the individual to the cognitive and non-institutional aspects of collective memory, which help us to, among other things, make meaning of the present by providing context. Even the tragic and embarrassing episodes that spur the mistrusts of historians and history in themselves also bring opportunity to those willing to ask questions or are curious. A good example would be the case of Archie P. Williams the Liberian archivist who began collecting historical documents thrown into the streets by armed groups who had raided the homes of their owners during the Liberian civil war. There is also Duku Jallah who is inspiring a generation of young Liberians to ask more historical questions and be proud of what they find out through the Liberia History Project. Now, their efforts and of those like them are some of the more original exertions to bring the discourse of Liberian history out of Academia and to the public.
Without an understanding of history, people in African societies would remain at the mercy of non-critical and simplistic understandings and explanations of the motives behind some of the most important episodes of their past. For instance in Nigeria, not teaching the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970) after five decades since its end could be seen as one of the reasons why old warlords are hero-worshipped and continually rewarded in different parts of that country. Perhaps more importantly, a little to no understanding of history erodes a people's sense of self-worth as they keep comparing themselves with the capitalist historical productions of the West, in films, novels and even cartoons. It is, therefore, my hope that with this article (hopefully the first in a long list of short entries on this website) we would be able to inspire more people with a casual interest in history to ask questions about the past, and hopefully be more proud of who they are, where their people have been, and what the future holds.