The Africa Story

How is history taught in Africa? Thirty years after UNESCO published the first volume of the General History of Africa, this question will be debated at a regional UNESCO conference on the utilisation of the General History of Africa in educational institutions (Accra, Ghana, 22 to 24 October).

The eight volumes of the General History of Africa have found their place in the libraries and faculties of African universities where they have become a major reference. According to a UNESCO study, 61% of the continent’s universities use the work in both research (87.5%) and teaching (69%)*.

“This is good but not enough,” says Ali Mousa Iye, head of the Memory and History Section of UNESCO. “Considering that the States of Africa were behind this initiative, the General History of Africa should be taught in all universities.” The gap is partly explained by the high cost of the printed edition, problems with distribution and insufficient facilities in higher education establishments to access the online version of the work. 

Initiated in 1964 at the request of Africa’s newly independent states, the project sought to question the Eurocentric vision of Africa that dominated school manuals at the time and to write an African history free of prejudices inherited from the colonial era. Much ground has been covered since the first volume was published in 1980.


In the 1960s, when the countries on the continent gained independence, there had been little research undertaken  into the history of Africa. As late as 1963, Hugh Trevor-Roper, the Oxford University Professor of modern history, commented students’ wish to study the history of sub-Saharan Africa saying: “Perhaps in the future there will be some African history to teach. But at present there is none, or very little: there is only the history of Europe in Africa. The rest is largely darkness and darkness is not a subject of history.”

The writing of a common history of Africa has been a long and sometimes difficult process. The actual work started in 1970 with the establishment of an international scientific committee of 39 members, two thirds of them African. The first volume of the General History appeared ten years later, creating a sensation in academic and intellectual circles. The African roots of the civilization of ancient Egypt were debated by Egyptologists. The use of oral source material in historic research was also a subject of passionate discussion; as were questions about the significance of the divide between North and sub-Saharan Africa.

Nonetheless, work proceeded and eight volumes were published between 1980 and 1999. The writing of a 9th volume to bring the content of previous tomes up to date and revisit the contribution of the African diaspora around the world will begin in November 2013 in Brazil.

The second phase of the project, concerning teaching the General History of Africa, was launched in 2009. It targets school students thanks, and incorporates material for teachers, including school manuals.

A glossary is also under preparation, to rectify some of the bias transmitted by vocabulary.  

One objective of the glossary, for example, is to gain recognition for the names populations use to identify themselves, instead of terms chosen by others. Thus, “twa” should be preferred to “Pygmy”, which is regarded as insulting by the people it designates. The glossary also questions concepts such as “kingdom” or “empire”, not strictly applicable to Africa.

“In due course, our purpose is to have as many teachers and students as possible take ownership of this history,” says Ali Moussa Iye. “We also want to fight the clichés that reduce Africa to a continent only recognized for its landscapes and wild animals, and considered  prey to war, famine and poverty.”

*In total, close to 150 institutions of higher education in 34 countries took part in this assessment.

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