Iron Roads in Africa
In the context of globalization and at a time when humanity is aware of entering a new era, Africa must make its presence felt, rehabilitating itself in the eyes of a world which, in general, has ignored its technological past.
The discussions which took place during the conference held to launch the project (Abuja, February 1995) were centred on three major concepts: tradition, modernity and the development of the continent. The Irons Roads in Africa project is intended to throw light on the technology culture of Africa in order to be able to take up the challenges of development; Africans have to acquire greater knowledge of their past and thus better prepare their future.
The growing interest shown by scientists and industrialists in African iron
For 15 or more, numerous international multidisciplinary research teams have been at work reconstructing the history of iron in Africa and drawing attention to the economic, social and cultural importance of iron in African societies since pre-colonial times up to the present day.The work carried out has already produced interesting publications and led to important international meetings in Europe, the United States and Africa. Carbon dating has been used to show that the origins of metallurgy in Africa date back to the third millennium before our era and, as a result, that the continent did not learn ferrous metallurgy techniques from outside, as had been maintained, but developed endogenous techniques. Laboratory studies show that African blacksmiths successfully developed very elaborate techniques for the creation of weapons and art and religious objects. Lastly, study of the ancient techniques which have continued to survive in present-day societies demonstrates the great capacity of craftspeople to adapt traditional techniques to create modern tools from reprocessed iron.Researchers are also studying the impact of ironworking on the environment, given that metalworkers and blacksmiths use wood to make the charcoal required for the production and transformation of iron in the forge.All these different aspects are of interest to the international community and call for its support.
The exploration of new avenues for development
The years 1988-1997 were proclaimed World Decade for Cultural Development by UNESCO. This was the context in which the international community was invited to adjust its quantitative approach to development and to complement it with systematic acknowledgement of the cultural dimension with a view to more human-centred development. UNESCO therefore invited the Member States to adopt innovatory approaches to development which would integrate traditional know-how with philosophical, metaphysical and religious values. This approach favours a re-acknowledgement of the value of cultural heritage, and of the creative genius of each people which the latter must know how to use in order to construct its future.
In proclaiming the period from 1988 to 1997 as the World Decade for Cultural Development, the United Nations General Assembly invited the international community to adjust its quantitative approach to development and to complement it with systematic acknowledgement of the cultural dimension with a view to more human-centred development.While it is true that no one has a monopoly on iron - a basic element of all life -, every people has developed a special relationship with it in the course of its economic, social, cultural and industrial development. In African thought, iron is imbued with so many virtues, values and mythical meanings that it was raised in many African communities to the rank of divinity.
Iron has played a decisive role in the construction of the founding myths and in the socio-professional structuring of a large number of societies and clans, to such an extent that one can speak of a true "culture of iron" in Africa. Moreover, in the past 20 years reports have appeared in a number of scientific publications of archaeological discoveries revealing the existence of ironworking in Africa at an earlier date than was generally believed to be the case (some three millennia before the Common Era). This calls into question the theories according to which the technology was brought to Africa from the Near East, via the north of the African continent. Thus at a time of increasing conjecture about development, when future-oriented development studies are extending their bases, the revival of this cultural heritage - placing the culture of iron at the service of development - not only casts new light on the knowledge of the societies concerned but also provides a precise and dynamic framework for the implementation of activities aimed at the preservation of the heritage, the promotion of arts and crafts, education, industrial development and even the beginning of a culture of maintenance, which is largely absent today, thus jeopardizing sustainable development in Africa.
It was in that context that the "Iron Roads in Africa" project, submitted by Mozambique, endorsed by the group of African States, with France, Netherlands, Portugal and Venezuela, and promoted by OAU, was launched by UNESCO’s General Conference at its 26th session in 1991, in order to "develop interdisciplinary scientific research and intersectoral activities about ironworking, the results of which could be taken into account in education and communication activities and in industrial development projects and strategies in African Member States, which would encourage interaction between education, communication, cultural work and community development". The project is thus intended to improve people’s knowledge of the past so that they are better prepared for the future. Its purpose is to link culture, science, technology and development.
For more information:
- Exhibition "Les routes du fer en Afrique" (pdf, in French)