Heart of Arts

The Living Past: History and Us, By Toyin Falola

Toyin Falola


It is a pleasure for me to be here at Basel, on June 4, 2022, after the Centre for African Studies had taken a break of two years from hosting any major public lecture because of the pandemic. And the double joy is that it is the distinguished Carl Schlettwein Lecture in honor of a remarkable man who did so much to promote Africa. Dr. Veit Arlt, whom I have appointed as the unofficial Mayor of Basel, did a wonderful job of organizing the contact and lecture with efficiency and affection that are peerless. The audience was appreciative, respectful and honorable. As someone who has traveled to close to seventy countries, it was not a surprise to see fellow Africans –one who actually headed the company that organized the reception, a poet who did a distinguished introduction, and a yet budding Ph.D. student, Tolulope Fadeyi, with an admirable demeanor.

As Africans, when we take stock of our state of affairs, there is always something to admire and despise. For one, as a people, we are proud of the richness of our culture and how many resources for development lie untapped at our disposal. At the same time, we abhor how, despite this richness in culture and resources, we are still a long way from experiencing real development, let alone being categorized as a developed continent of the 21st century. While all of these spring in us moments of ecstasy and sorrow, one thing that converges both feelings is our history and how much our encounters with foreign powers have influenced the way we row the boat of our development.

Depending on the context, when the history of Africa is being discussed, the relics of the colonial masters often take a chunk of the narration. Among African scholars and historians, the coloniality of African history appears to be most disturbing. It is not new for an average narration of African history to follow a pre-structured pattern; the pattern where everything in Africa begins to take “good shape” from the point of encounter with colonial masters, as a result of which development and civilization were introduced into the black man’s land. Although this position has become highly contentious, the concern today is not about the unsettling nature of where African history begins or is being told from but about retelling and reengineering the history of Africa. Specifically, the concern here is decolonizing what we have all come to know as African history and decolonizing the African epistemology system.

History, to many people, is past and has little or no bearing on what obtains in the world today, especially when one pays attention to how rapid technology and innovation have long projected the world. The truth, however, is that for any reasonable development to occur in a country or continent, reference has to be made to its history and, beyond this, it has to be understood how the history of a continent or a country influences its current level and pace of development. For Africa, seeing how much we have developed over the years and the pace at which we are moving towards genuine development, it becomes necessary to not just refer to our past as a people but also understand how what we might have encountered in the past is influencing the way we conceive our present idea about development.

Riverside of Rhine in Basel dominated by majestic building of Munster church, Switzerland

Understanding this means coming to terms with the fact that though our pasts might seem unappealing, they still live with us today. They are like the corpse we thought we buried but whose ghosts continue to haunt us daily. Hence, to overcome this and move past our level of development, we have to examine the living past and purge it of its effect on our present.

When considering issues such as these, it is important to first foreground the context to which it applies in order to properly comprehend the discussion. In this light, I will engage African history from the point of its encounter with the colonial master through to the point at which each country in Africa gained independence. Africa’s experience under colonialization triggered many changes in our historical lifestyle, paramount of which is the superimposition of western culture, tagged “civilization,” on our people. Beyond this, there was also the systematic colonization of our system of government, structures, institutions, and, most sadly, knowledge acquisition. All these were achieved through deliberate efforts targeted to undermine African culture and practice, create a sense of inferiority in the way we conceive our culture and, of course, elevate western culture with a different lifestyle and impose it on Africans. The truth is that the colonialists succeeded in doing this, and while we may think that the colonial masters have exited, the structural and systemic arrangement they put in place still lives with us. This is what has constituted the living past that has continued to debilitate our progress as a continent.

Basel Old Town

In some quarters, when the discussion of decolonization is brought up, it is quickly waved aside as an attempt to narrowly revisit the colonial invasion and administration in Africa. Many often equate it to an over-flogged struggle to continue to blame foreign powers for the woes we are currently facing as a continent. However, this is far  from the point. The essence of decolonization is to lift the veil of colonial ideologies and Eurocentric perspectives and domination in Africa while at the same time bringing forth the true spirit of Africa and Africanism to reconstruct Africa’s history and present. Hence, engaging the past to evaluate its relics that are still living with us today is to set in motion the purging of our history and the mitigation and eradication of the influence of Eurocentric perspectives on our way of life and development in Africa. The expansion of this European ideology altered the continent’s knowledge system, recreated knowledge acquisition and re-enacted colonial and Eurocentric dominance in research and educational resources.

If we consider it, the rationale for the decolonization of African history lies in the necessity for self-reliance and a deep desire to look within and seek a different approach toward development in the continent. There is no doubt that Africa has solutions to its problems. The difficulty, however, lies in the unwillingness to leverage local approaches and theories in understanding and solving our problems and redefining the distorted image of Africa told over the years from biased Eurocentric perspectives.

Undoubtedly, the past still lives with us as a people, and the first step to purging it is to pinpoint areas in which they exist. How many African agencies, structures, and written accounts might be claimed to be entirely Afrocentric, free of infusions of imperial chauvinism which have suffused the society throughout its historical past? Is it possible for a nation to develop beyond the scope of its knowledge, research and education, knowledge? Undoubtedly, the current degree of advancement in Africa is primarily concerned with the applicability of a given entity’s knowledge system. This implies that somehow the prospects of African development will always be constrained by European conceptions of development, thereby slowing Africa’s growth. However, the liberation of African history empowers the continent to reconstruct its unique knowledge base and system of education, which are peculiar to the continent’s development.

The essential goal of the emancipation of African history has remained constant, and that has been to redeem effective learning and knowledge creation in Africa by looking inward at African knowledge creation processes. The Africanization of history embraces all of Africa’s distinctive characteristics, quirks, and traditional exceptionalism to free the continent from imperial and Euro-American narratives. Academic philosophies must be reconditioned away from excessive dependence on the western perspective and processes of viewpoint that place Africans in the rear and therefore only perceive the continent’s challenges through the prism of western cultural notions. Decolonizing academic and educational structures and institutions would be a key step toward recirculating authentic and Africanized knowledge of African history.

Rhine River, Basel

One point we can make is that the Africanization of African history can be accomplished now or afterward, but for this to be realized, we must recognize that we need to put efforts above words because it is only through conscious efforts that we can leverage strategic approaches towards our decolonization efforts. Only an African civilization that supports and produces institutions that strategize ways to impact the continent’s knowledge cultures can achieve decolonization of these endeavors. Besides, it elucidates African answers and provides access to them to solve African challenges, as well as serves as a knowledge and resource bank for African leaders to use in formulating policies and choices. The actual way to grasp the true essence of African people using African lenses and apply suitable approaches and interactions is to decolonize African history.

If African reality does not evolve, the Africanization of African history will be impossible. Hence, political structures must be free of nonlinearities that draw attention away from pragmatic initiatives, the African economic system must be galvanized towards autonomy and stability, education must be widely disseminated so that more people understand these ideas, and society must be put in a situation to speak with an unbiased perspective for history’s sake. Because history defines people, decolonizing African history will provide for a clear re-emergence of African identity, allowing us to successfully situate ourselves in the world arena.

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