Who Should Tell The Story of Africa?

All people need to learn about their past and need to be able to participate in the creation of their own legacy. In the past, the story of Africa has been told and defined by others and these 'others' have been considered authorities on the subject. The representation of African events and characters by non-Africans has led, in many instances, to the creation of a negative portrayal of Africa.

While Europeans have amassed valuable written information, the down side is that their interpretation of history has brought with it cultural baggage, such as stereotyping.

The history of Africa has tended to rely on written evidence. But Africans had their own particular system of recording past events, situations and traditions, before Europeans started writing about it. This was based on collecting oral testimonies.

Most Western societies regarded this method untrustworthy as a means of gathering and preserving information. As a result, Non-African historians used written documentation to chart the history of the continent. If this was missing, it was assumed that nothing worth recording had happened.

It was not until the 20th century, that there was a major revolution with regard to oral evidence for history. In the 1960's, oral history went through a process of validation and historians began to use it as a source.

History has political uses. It can be employed by citizens and governments to create social cohesion as well as division. This means that in the making of history, there is scope for the distortion and manipulation of historical events. At certain points societies can choose to distort or misrepresent facts.

"Most societies eulogise their heroes, idealise their founding fathers and romanticize their past. It might be incorrect or wrong but it has its political uses…

In the US, the discovery that Thomas Jefferson had a black mistress and had children by her…Although known to some historians, it was a taboo subject…Two hundred years later, the country is ready to discuss the intimate life of one of its founding fathers."
Professor Ali Mazrui, Binghamton University, New York.

The nature of history is such that it provides no absolute truths. Nevertheless, historians are responsible for interpreting facts and should endeavour to evaluate data objectively in order to determine the truth.

Modern African historiography has experienced many turning points. Initially emphasis was placed on the ancient African empires and kingdoms and on the battles for independence. But since then, African historians have become more questioning about events in their continent.

"African leaders failed to produce the social and economic benefits that were expected from independence…

Historians have begun to write a more critical history, that does not only celebrate the achievements of political independence and political power but criticizes what to do with that power."
Professor J.F. Ade Ajayi, University of Ibadan, Nigeria.

Grassroots history is an alternative strategy that examines society as a whole. It concentrates on the ruled, rather than the rulers.

Instead of looking for pyramid builders and sphinx builders, great monarchs and great architects, and those who beat Columbus across the Atlantic they look for the people who did the daily things that defined the culture in a practical way.

You look at the history of the plough in Africa, the history of the blacksmith in African villages, the history of a particular marriage custom in African society and the functions it serves."
Professor Mazrui, Binghamton University, New York.

Today Africana professors are concerned about how to interest students in pursuing a career in the same field. Often students may not be aware of interesting job opportunities for them. This is a matter for concern for historians who do not want to witness a decline in commitment to the study of Africana history.


Where Should Research on Africa Itself Be Done?

Most of the well known historians researching African history live and work in the United States or Europe. However most African specialists emphasize the need for Africa to be the primary source for research.

Although the Internet, universities and libraries in the west provide access to information on the continent, Africa itself contains the archives and the oral informants essential to the reconstruction of history. Therefore, traveling to the continent is an imperative.

"You cannot do African history from outside...Many of us travel there every summer to do our fieldwork. Many of our archives are there. Many of our oral informants cannot move to America. The epicentre of African history remains in the continent."
Professor Atieno Adhiambo, Rice University, Houston, Texas.


The West African Kingdoms

"Listen then sons of Mali, children of the black people, listen to my word, for I am going to tell you of Sundiata, the father of the Bright Country, of the savanna land, the ancestor of those who draw the bow, the master of a hundred vanquished kings."
13th century account handed down orally and delivered in 1960 by Mali griot, Djeli Mamdoudou Kouyate, master in the art of eloquence.

Over three thousand years ago there were two important developments in West Africa: long distance trade, and the ability to manipulate stone, clay and metals to sophisticated degree.

Against this background, there arose a number of kingdoms and empires starting in the 5th century through to the 16th century. Common to each of these great empires was extensive trans-saharan trade with the North, large standing armies and an effective system taxation.

The empire of Ghana (not to be confused with modern Ghana which is some four hundred miles south east of where it was) was first referred to by an Arab scholar in the 8th century. Two centuries later the kingdom of Kanem arose north east of Lake Chad.

In the 13th century Mali rose under the leadership of the Malinke Sundiata to become renowned throughout the Arab world for its wealth and learning. A hundred years later it fell into decline and became the target of Tuareg raids; the Songhay then took over the territory, reduced in size, under the leadership of Askiya Mohammed. Trade was revived as was the position of Timbuktu as a centre of learning. The Songhay remained in control until the Moroccan invasion.

By the 18th century the northern part of West Africa was a patchwork of city states and kingdoms; further South the Asante state (in modern Ghana) rose to preeminence. In the early 19th century Muslim reformers changed the political landscape of large parts of West Africa, most notably in what is now northern Nigeria, under the leadership of Usman dan Fodio.


There was also the city of Jenne-Jeno (ancient Jenne), which archaeologists have now established was first settled in 200 BC, and only began losing its pre-eminence in the 12th century. Between whiles, it was a vital crossroads in the north-south trade. Recent excavations reveal high levels of craftsmanship in pottery, iron-work and jewellery making. This suggests the people of Jenne imported iron ore, stone grinders and beads.




Ancient Mali Mali

"Mali guards its secrets jealously. There are things which the uninitiated will never know, for the griots, their depositories, will never betray them."
Oral history, recited by Malian djeli (or oral historian) Mamadou Kouyate.

Mali emerged against the back-drop of a declining of Ghana under the dynamic leadership of Sundiata of the Keita clan. But the region he took over had a past rich in trade and powerful rulers.



"He was a lad full of strength; his arms had the strength of ten and his biceps inspired fear in his companions. He had already that authoritative way of speaking which belongs to those who are destined to command."

"Since his accession to the throne of Sosso, he had defeated nine kings whose heads served him as objects in his macabre chamber. Their skins served as seats and he cut his footwear from human skin."

Taken from The Epic of Old Mali, recited by the griot (oral historian) Djeli Mamadou Kouyate, edited by D. T. Niane.



Sundiata Keita rose to power by defeating the king of the Sosso - Soumaoro (Sumanguru), known as the Sorcerer King, in 1235. He then brought all the Mandinke clans rulers (or Mansas) under his leadership, declaring himself overall Mansa. He took Timbuktu from the Tuareg, transforming it into a substantial city, a focus for trade and scholarship.

A significant portion of the wealth of the Empire derived from the Bure goldfields. The first capital, Niani, was built close to this mining area.

Mali at its largest was 2,000 kilometres wide. It extended from the coast of West Africa, both above the Senegal River and below the Gambia River, taking in old Ghana, and reaching south east to Gao and north east to Tadmekka.

Gold was not its only mainstay. Mali also acquired control over the salt trade. The capital of Niani was situated on the agriculturally rich floodplain of upper Niger, with good grazing land further north. A class of professional traders emerged in Mali. Some were of Mandinka origin, others were Bambara, Soninke and later Dyula. Gold dust and agricultural produce was exported north. In the 14th century, cowrie shells were established as a form of currency for trading and taxation purposes.

Mali reached its peak in the 14th century. Three rulers stand out in this period. The first one, Abubakar II, goes down in history as the king who wanted to cross the Atlantic Ocean.



"So Abubakar equipped 200 ships filled with men and the same number equipped with gold, water, and provisions, enough to last them for years…they departed and a long time passed before anyone came back. Then one ship returned and we asked the captain what news they brought.

He said, 'Yes, Oh Sultan, we travelled for a long time until there appeared in the open sea a river with a powerful current…the other ships went on ahead, but when they reached that place, they did not return and no more was seen of them…As for me, I went about at once and did not enter the river.'

The Sultan got ready 2,000 ships, 1,000 for himself and the men whom he took with him, and 1,000 for water and provisions. He left me to deputise for him and embarked on the Atlantic Ocean with his men. That was the last we saw of him and all those who were with him.

And so, I became king in my own right."
Mansa Musa, talkingAtlantic Trade Winds and Currents to Syrian scholar Al-Umari.

Abubakar II's successor, Mansa Musa (1312-1337) was immortalised in the descriptions of Arab writers, when he made his magnificent pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324.

"It is said that he brought with him 14,000 slave girls for his personal service. The members of his entourage proceeded to buy Turkish and Ethiopia slave girls, singing girls and garments, so that the rate of the gold dinar fell by six dirhams. Having presented his gift he set off with the caravan."
Cairo born historian al-Maqurizi.

Mansa Musa also spent his wealth to more permanent effect. He commissioned the design and construction of a number of stunning buildings, for example, the building of the mosques at Gao and Jenne. At Niani he was responsible for the construction of a fantastic cupola for holding an audience in. Timbuktu became a place of great learning with young men linked to Fez in the north.

The other famous Malian ruler was Mansa Suleiman. Less is known of him. The historian Ibn Khaldun describes the considerable gifts he assembled for a Sultan in the north. But Ibn Battuta criticises his meanness.


On arriving in Mali, Ibn Battuta does not mince his words.
"He is a miserly king, not much giving is to be expected from him. It happened that I stayed this period and did not seen him because of my sickness…"

Finally Mansa Suleiman sends Ibn Battuta a gift, but it is definitely not up to Ibn Battuta's standards.

"Behold - three circular pieces of bread, a piece of beef fried in gharti, and a calabash of sour milk. When I saw them, I laughed and wondered a lot…"

So he complains.

"I stood before the sultan and said to him, 'I have indeed travelled in the lands of the world. I have met their kings. I have been in your country four months and you have given me no hospitality and not given me anything. What shall I say about you before the Sultans?"

And that does the trick. Mansa Suleiman claims that he had not even realised Ibn Battuta was in town and hastily makes amends for the previous omissions in hospitality.

"Then the Sultan ordered a house for me in which I stayed and he fixed an allowance for me…He was gracious to me at my departure, to the extent of giving me one hundred mitqals of gold."

The court of Mali converted to Islam after Sundiata. As in Ghana, Muslim scribes played an important role in government and administration. But traditional religion persisted. Arab historians make much of the Islamic influence in Mali, whereas oral historians place little emphasis on Islam in their histories.

The relationship between the Mansas of Mali and the people who worked on the gold fields is worth noting. The rulers received taxes from the miners in the form of gold, but they never exercised direct control over the mining process. At one point, the miners stopped working when the Mansas tried to convert them to Islam.


"To some aspect they look the same, the gold, the way they made trade. But to the opposite of Ghana, I think Mali was really able to have more territory beyond some of the area Ghana went to, like Taghaza, the salt gulf, that was all part of the empire of Mali.

So territorial position was one of the greatest differences between Ghana and Mali. And also, the kind of ties Mali was able to make with peoples outside of Africa, is one of the great differences between the two empires…Mali was much much more international than Ghana was."
Tereba Togola, Head of Archaeology at the Institute of Human Sciences, Bamako. He is responsible for all archaeological research in Mali.

A combination of weak and ineffective rulers and increasingly aggressive raids by Mossi neighours and Tuareg Berbers gradually reduced the power of Mali. In the east, Gao began its ascendancy while remaining part of the Mali Empire.

In the early 1400's, Tuareg launched a number of successful raids on Timbuktu. They did not disrupt scholastic life or commercial activity, but fatally undermined the government by appropriating taxes for themselves.

Meanwhile Gao had become the capital of the burgeoning Songhay Empire which, by 1500, had totally eclipsed Mali. But the idea of Mali regaining its former splendour and glory, remained strong in the minds of many Mandinka for generations to come.

West African Kingdoms Timeline

200 BC



City of ancient Jenne thought to have been established.

500 BC



Earliest evidence of Nok culture found in Nigeria.

7th century



Zaghawa people settled next to Lake Chad. Thought to be the early founders of Kanem.

9th century



Fishing community form the nucleus of early Songhay.

10th century


First Hausa state thought to have been formed.

900 AD


Igbo-Ukwo bronze ceremonial objects start being made in Nigeria.

1st millennium AD


A number of clans of the Soninke people come together under Dinga Cisse, a leader with semi-divine status.

Early 11th century


Sefawa dynasty displaces Zaghawa in Kanem. Yoruba kingdoms of Ife and Benin thought to have been founded.



Kanem converts to Islam.



Almoravid campaign against ancient Ghana and enter its capital.

11th-12th century


Gold fields begin to be mined at Bure, out of the commercial reach of Ghana. New trade routes open up further east.



Mai Dunama Dibalami becomes ruler of Kanem, leading it to the height of its power. The centre of government moves to Borno. The state becomes known as Kanem-Borno.



The Ancient Empire of Ghana declines. Empire of Mali comes to prominence under Mansa (king) Sundiata Keita after he defeats Sosso ruler Sumanguru.

14th century


Empire of Mali reaches its peak.
Queen Amina of Zazzau expands the Zaria emirate through a series of wars.



Mansa Abubakar II sets out to cross the Atlantic Ocean and is never seen again. Mansa Musa succeeds him as ruler.



Mansa Musa of Mali makes his magnificent pilgrimage to Mecca.



King Sunni Ali becomes leader of Songhay and defeats Mali.



Mande Muslim general, Askia Muhammad, seizes power and expands Songhay.



Moroccan writer Leo Africanus visits Gao, the capital of Songhay.



Leo Africanus visits Timbuktu.



Moroccan army defeats Songhay.



Osei Tutu defeats Denkyira and establishes Asante empire.

17th century


Ife eclipsed by expanding Oyo kingdom.

18th century


Kanem-Borno goes into decline.



Usman dan Fodio launches Jihad in northern Nigeria.



Sokoto caliphate established.



Asante lose territory to the British under Treaty of Fomana.



Prempeh I becomes Asantehene (King of the Asante).



Prempeh I sent into exile by British.



British soldiers loot city of Benin taking valuable bronzes and other objects.



Yaa Asantewa (Asante Queen Mother) leads a revolt against the British.



Asante annexed by the British.



Prempeh I returns from exile to Kumasi.



The Asante monarchy restored.