Working towards an African renaissance through Culture and History

How through oral tradition and knowledge of history, African culture is a vector of peace and creativity on the continent and beyond Africa, in the world.
UNESCO Africa
Last update: 7 Junho 2022

In West African folklore, Anansi was a charming trickster who looks like a spider. He saw that humans were sad because they had nothing that could give them hope and make their lives brighter. He remembered that Nyame the Sky God had magical things called stories. These could make the humans happy, Anansi thought. 

He went to see Nyame and asked to buy his stories. But the Sky God told him they were not for sale. ‘They cannot be bought for anything except Onini the killer python, Osebo the stealthy leopard, Mmoatia the mischievous fairy and Mmoboro the deadly hornet swarm,’ said Nyame. These were impossible tasks for anyone, but not for Anansi, who managed to capture all four elusive targets using his ingenious tricks. When he brought them to Nyame, the Sky God was not pleased. Still, he had accepted the bargain with Anansi and had to honour his promise.

‘Take these stories to earth and give them to the humans’, said Nyame. ‘They will be eternally grateful to you. In fact, they will call all great tales “spider stories” because of you.’

And so, Anansi the trickster became the god who knew all the stories. The myth of Anansi is a testimony of every society’s need to craft and share stories. 

Netflix and UNESCO have partnered to launch an innovative short film competition on ‘African Folktales, Reimagined’ across sub-Saharan Africa. Winners of the competition will be trained and mentored by industry professionals and provided with a US$ 75,000 production budget to create short films that will premiere on Netflix in 2022 as an Anthology of African Folktales. One key aim of this competition is to discover new voices and to give emerging filmmakers in sub-Saharan Africa visibility on a global scale.

From spider tales to the history of Africa

UNESCO Africa

Narratives like the ones shared by Anansi have been central to human life for thousands of years, as a form of cognitive play that stimulates the human mind, allowing us to understand natural and social phenomena, and imagine different strategies to live in a complex world. And one could assume that the more we collect and share such stories, the better one can understand oneself, others and the world around us, respective and common values and traditions. UNESCO’s work to document, collect and write these narratives from all over the globe over the last decades is not just a vital effort to protect and preserve a precious heritage – it is also an attempt to increase the world’s knowledge and our collective capacity to understand ourselves.

Spider tales are common across West Africa, but the Anansi tales from Ghana are among the best-known, given that Anansi's name comes from the Akan language word for ‘spider’. 
Today, Anansi has become a symbol of the wisdom, creativity and complexity of the entire African continent. Oral traditions – messages, songs, fables and proverbs – are passed on from one generation to another without writing, helping people make sense of the world around them and teaching key aspects of their culture.

Just like Anansi’s tales have been passed on orally since immemorial times, the history of the African continent has been transmitted throughout generations. And although written historical records have existed in West Africa for many centuries, most people across the continent could not read them. The oral tradition allowed Africans to share a common history whether they came more from the north or the south of the continent, but the Europeans considered that the continent had no history, because they could neither read nor understand it. The history of Africa that was shared with the rest of the world thus began with the history of colonialism and the history of Europeans in Africa.

Decolonizing African history

UNESCO Africa

In the early 1960s, as Africa entered a period of rapid decolonisation, scholars and leaders in the newly independent countries worked to free their history as well as their land. To remedy the general ignorance of African history, UNESCO launched the General History of Africa in 1964: it summoned African scholars to write for the very first time the history of their continent using sources that Western historians had often overlooked – such as folklore, traditions and culture – and to provide an African perspective free of the racial prejudices originated by the slave trade and European intervention.

This ambitious project, which was meant to renew scientific approaches on African history, had incalculable effects on the world’s history, and offered a new global perspective on the history of all continents. It placed Africa at the core of humankind’s history. It was the first serious attempt to go beyond narrow national narratives, and built a true ‘general history’, highlighting what peoples and cultures have in common, revealing trends and exchanges over centuries across national borders, shining a light on identities as never before. 

The African continent has the longest history in the world: it’s where human beings originated. In the 19th century, Charles Darwin was the first to argue that humans’ common ancestor must have been African – an idea that alarmed many at the time. ‘The idea that if we had to have evolved and we did so in Africa was an anathema to many people, who couldn’t believe that the purified pure-white, blue-eyed, flaxen-haired people of the North could have possibly originated from the “Dark Continent”. But all of the major events relating to our story go back to Africa,’ said Kenyan palaeontologist Richard Leakey, one of the original contributors to the General History of Africa project. ‘We are an African animal, an African species that colonized and recolonized the world at different times and in different ways. Today, no human can say they don’t have Africa as their mother country.’ 

The General History of Africa

The General History of Africa (GHA) is a pioneering project, unparalleled in its ambition to cover the history of the entire African continent, from the appearance of human beings to contemporary challenges faced by Africans and their Diasporas in the world. It is a history that no longer leaves the pre-colonial period in the shadows and that deeply integrates the destiny of Africa into that of humanity by highlighting its relations with the other continents and the contribution of African cultures to the general progress of humanity. In recent years, UNESCO has embarked on the preparation and drafting of three new volumes of the GHA (Volumes IX to XI).

Building on Africa’s example, UNESCO led major regional stories, such as the general history of Latin America, the Caribbean, The history of Civilisations of Central Asia, the Different Aspects of Islamic Culture as well as the History of Humanity. These volumes and their thousands of pages, written long before the birth of online platforms such as Wikipedia, represent one of the most ambitious scientific endeavours to build a common understanding of our shared human history. The general history of Africa changed the global perspective on the way history has been written ever since and represented a shift in historiographical scale that modern "global history" and today's "connected histories" continue to explore.

General and Regional Histories

General History of Africa in Video

The General History of Africa (GHA) launched by UNESCO in 1964 moved to a new phase with a nine-part documentary series by BBC journalist and producer Zeinab Badawi. She travelled to all four corners of Africa, interviewing African historians, archaeologists, and citizens whose accounts and stories paint a vivid picture of their continent's past and how it informs their present lives. 

Why we need stories? Oral Traditional Art and Human Values

UNESCO Africa

Teaching the General History of Africa

In March 2009, UNESCO launched the ‘Pedagogical Use of the General History of Africa’ to meet requests by African countries to adapt the content of the volumes of the General History of Africa to school education. To this end, UNESCO has developed educational content to be taught to children in African primary and secondary schools in order to improve the knowledge of African pupils and students on how African societies have evolved through time and space and the impact of these changes on the present and the future.

Celebrating a common culture: North to South, West to East

UNESCO Africa

There is an expression that is common across many languages in Southern Africa. "Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu" literally means that ‘a person is a person through other people’.

In African culture, the ‘self’ is not separate from the world, but it is united and merged with the natural and social environment. Even though there are different ethnicities and nationalities – each with its distinctive language, food and artistic expressions – all Africans share a common culture. This African wisdom echoes that of John Donne’s famous quote ‘no man is an island’, recalling how human beings do badly when isolated from others and need to be part of a community in order to thrive.

The end of colonization in the early 1960s did not ensure lasting peace on the continent. 

On the contrary, violent political events, rooted in ethnic conflicts, have plagued sub-Saharan Africa since independence, causing millions of deaths and hampering economic development.

To ensure peace across the continent, regional communities have realised they need to consolidate ties and interact with each other, celebrating their common culture.

Let us draw together on our values, our traditions, our culture to find the path to prosperity and peace.
Denis Mukwege Congolese gynaecologist who received the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2018

Building peace in Africa

UNESCO Africa

Every two years, Angola’s capital, Luanda, turns into a global hub for peace in Africa, as the city hosts the pan-African forum for the culture of peace, also known as the Biennale of Luanda. Over 60 countries are represented, attracting government representatives, international organisations, NGOs and artists. They share ideas, build new partnerships, and engage in cultural events, all with a common goal: reinforcing a culture of peace on the continent. 

The Biennale is the result of the joint efforts of the government of Angola, the African Union and UNESCO. It is organised to tackle the different challenges to Africa’s growth and prosperity.

It is also a privileged platform to take stock and build momentum over some of UNESCO’s most important initiatives for education, science, press freedom and gender equality all over the continent. According to data from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), at least half of all those aged 15 to 17 in sub-Saharan Africa were not in school before the COVID-19 pandemic, and the situation has only become worse. This is the highest proportion for any region worldwide. More than half of those who should, by now, be fine-tuning the skills they need for the job market, or to progress to tertiary education are not even in the classroom. As an example of concrete action, UNESCO Global Education Coalition provided zero-rated internet access in Senegal and other African countries to facilitate immediate distance learning for half a million learners, with an objective of 3,5 million to further enrol in the programme.

The Biennale of Luanda partners forum focuses on how to build innovative partnerships for inclusive democracy and peace across African countries, bringing together international organisations, the financial and private sector, foundations and media as well as civil society, artists and cultural entrepreneurs.

This forum of ideas offers a platform for dialogue on the future of Africa, focusing on solutions to prevent and resolve conflicts using culture, education and free press. It discusses the protection of displaced people and migrants, the contribution of African diasporas and the concerted management of the continent’s natural resources.  

The women's forum focuses on how to end all forms of violence against women, and the role of women's networks for peace in Africa. ‘I believe it is important for us as a continent to come together and have this discussion about the ways we wish to go and how we are going to achieve that,’ said Xoliswa Phenya, Assistant Director for Craft Development at South Africa’s Department for Arts and Culture. ‘Our leaders have spoken about the African renaissance. Perhaps it’s time the younger generations participate so we can bring this dream into fruition.’

UIS

UNESCO Institute for Statistics - primary and secondary education

The Biennale of Luanda – ‘Pan-African Forum for the Culture of Peace’ 

is a joint initiative of UNESCO, the African Union (AU) and the Government of Angola to promote the prevention of violence and the resolution of conflicts, by encouraging cultural exchanges in Africa and dialogue between generations. As a space for reflection and dissemination of artistic works, ideas and best practices related to the culture of peace, it brings together representatives of governments, civil society, the artistic and scientific community, and international organizations. It participates in the implementation of the Plan of Action for a Culture of Peace in Africa/Make Peace Happen adopted in March 2013 in Luanda, Angola, during the Pan-African Forum Sources and Resources for a Culture of Peace.

Biennale Luanda

When African history helps to understand today's societies

UNESCO Africa

Anansi the spider became synonymous with African skill and wisdom in speech and its stories survived via oral tradition. They also travelled afar. It was that same oral tradition that introduced the Anansi tales to the rest of the world, especially the Caribbean, by the people who were enslaved during Africa’s colonization. 

To enslaved Africans and their descendants, Anansi became a symbol of resilience and survival. The tales of the spider’s cunning and trickery helped slaves survive the hardships of captivity, create a sense of continuity with their African past and assert their identity. 

Today, around 200 million people in the Americas identify themselves as being of African descent. Many millions more live in other parts of the world, outside of the African continent. The understanding of these historical and cultural links is an absolute prerequisite dealing with contemporary social cohesion challenges, and the many forms of cultural belonging in modern multicultural societies. It is also an opportunity for all countries whose population is composed of millions of citizens of African descent to foster international dialogue and create bonds with other societies across the globe. Citizens of African descent often constitute some of the poorest and most marginalized groups, with limited access to quality education, health services, housing and social security. The understanding of the past may be one of the conditions to break the vicious circle and heritage of racism, discrimination and exclusion.

During the transatlantic slave trade, some four million slaves were brought to the American coast in Salvador de Bahia, in modern-day Brazil, to work on sugar plantations. Some slaves managed to flee and settle down on free land. Among them were Sandra de Santos’ ancestors, who 250 years ago set up a farming community, Quilombo do Dandá. Yet, Sandra had to fight to keep the land where her family had lived for generations. 

‘Tractors came to destroy our crops. There was conflict. We planted one day and then the next day everything was destroyed,’ she said.  After months of legal battle, she was allowed to stay on the land. 

To help the descendants of African slaves and those of African heritage, UNESCO supported the International Decade for People of African Descent. Launched in January 2015, the project runs through December 2024. The decade aims to celebrate the importance and the contributions of people of African descent worldwide, advance inclusion and social justice policies, eradicate racism and intolerance, promote human rights and create more prosperous communities in line with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals

African culture and art spread around the world

UNESCO Africa

Eveline Murmann, a 19-year-old from the Dominican Republic, is one of the young Afro-descendant activists who fight every day for recognition of their roots and an end to discrimination that has been normalised in daily conversation, such as "straight hair is more formal" and "pale skin is prettier". Others use artistic expressions like songs, rap, poetry and dance to tell their stories, as their ancestors did with the Anansi tales.

‘This is the starting point to end the racism structure that permeates our society. Being Afro-descendants entails embracing our heritage, loving our culture and becoming a part of our history,’ she said. ‘It means to be proud of that beautiful skin and that hair so full of freedom. It is to recognize our value and highlight our contribution to the development of societies. See us! Hear us! Count us in!’ 

See us, hear us, count us in: Voices from the Decade for People of African Descent

Celebrating the midterm of the implementation of the International Decade for People of African Descent (2014–2025), with musical performances, a mini-documentary produced in Latin America, conversations with experts and inspiring voices from young people of African descent from all over the world sharing their testimonies, hopes and dreams through dance, poetry, singing, rap, spoken word and other creative expressions. 

Indeed, the voices of the African diaspora and its young representatives have become strong enough to be heard around the world. Like that of Mohamed Mbougar Sarr, the 31-year-old Senegalese author who has won numerous literary prizes in recent years for books that deal with contemporary issues such as racism, discrimination and Africa's relationship with Europe. Thanks to his latest novel, The Most Secret Memory of Men, he’s become the first author from sub-Saharan Africa to be awarded France's most important literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, and one of the youngest ever. 

Just like African history, African literature has never stopped living. The increasing recognition of its authors is the first important step towards redefining Africa’s relationship with the world. Recent recognition by UNESCO in the form of International Jazz Day or the inscription of Congolese Rumba as an element of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity are among the many recent initiatives taken to highlight and understand the importance of African artists and creators of African descent. Combining their ancestors’ music tradition with embellishments and improvisation, artists of African descent created new musical codes, which led to the birth of blues on the banks of the Mississippi delta and jazz in New Orleans. Singers and dancers of Congolese Rumba were also at the forefront of all the fights and aspirations for Congolese independence. 

To care for Africa is to improve our world. Recognizing and sharing the many ramifications of African history helps us understand today’s societies and live together. This is the guiding principle behind UNESCO’s commitment to Priority Africa, and the reason to believe that African culture is an accelerator for mutual understanding, creativity and innovation, to help us tap into a world of promises. This is UNESCO’s way to fulfil Anansi’s promise and write the next chapter of the spider’s story.

UNESCO and its development partners are attentive to 54 African countries with a stronger and better-targeted strategy. The African Renaissance is underway, with the adoption of the African Union Agenda 2063 and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development paving the ground for the African Economic Community. 

Africa Heritage

UNESCO’s core belief is that lasting peace and sustainable development are rooted in people’s own capacities and skills, in their own dignity and rights. It's about harnessing this impetus by strengthening Africa’s assets of which heritage is a source of vibrant creativity. The richness of the continent's heritage urges for safeguarding it for future generations. While Africa is underrepresented on the World Heritage List with only 12 per cent of sites inscribed worldwide, nearly half of these properties are on the List of World Heritage in Danger.

Agenda 2063: The Africa We Want

Agenda 2063 is Africa’s blueprint and master plan for transforming Africa into the global powerhouse of the future. It is the continent’s strategic framework that aims to deliver on its goal for inclusive and sustainable development and is a concrete manifestation of the pan-African drive for unity, self-determination, freedom, progress and collective prosperity pursued under Pan-Africanism and African Renaissance.

The African Film Heritage Project (AFHP)

AFHP is a long-term project in partnership with the Film Foundation, chaired by Martin Scorsese, and the Pan African Federation of Filmmakers (FEPACI) to help locate, restore and preserve films made on the African continent. It will identify 50 films with historic, artistic and cultural significance and will then undertake the process of restoration. UNESCO envisages inscribing the films on the Memory of the World Register.