Africa Will Always Have History Art and Literature in My Sleepless Pursuit of African Pasts

Now, Western institutions, theorists and analysts sell catchphrases like ‘the future is African’ as compensation for the distortion of our roots, and those of us on the continent gladly comply. But which future can exist without proper recognition of the present and past? 

When I was an undergraduate student in Ogbomoso, I lived alone in a self-contained studio with two wide windows and three doors—one led to a restroom, the other, to a kitchen and the last one opened into a corridor. I barely had any wall space. In the little space I did have, I installed a small hanging bookshelf where I kept books like Chinua Achebe’s There Was a Country, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, Nelson Mandela’s A Long Walk to Freedom and Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-wine Drinkard.

My room was small, but it was beautiful. I loved it like that until I started writing on the walls and started wishing for more wall surface area to write on. The wall in my apartment became a repository of culture, memory and timeless beauty. 

We Are All Historians 

If I remember correctly, the first thing I ever wrote on my wall, was a line in black marker from a Kendrick Lamar song: ‘Shit don’t change unless you get up and wash your ass, nigga.’ I copied out the line because I thought it was really beautiful—and I live for beauty. Elsewhere on the walls, you’d find scribbled: ‘Not Today’, a popular refrain from the TV series, Game of Thrones; ‘The Sense Of An Ending’, the title of the most striking Juliane Barnes novel I ever read; and ‘Flygol Was Here’, written by a visitor who desired remembrance. Above my bed, I had two other important fragments:


Stop acting so small. You are the universe in ecstatic motion.

— Rumi


I asked myself:

What, Sappho, can

you give someone who

has everything,

like Aphrodite?

— Sappho

Rumi was a thirteenth-century Persian poet. His corpus, dense with Islamic mysticism, has been condensed, translated and re-translated into the English language so much that what is often understood of him these days reflects the antediluvian optimism of his American translators—precisely this is why he is a twenty-first-century pop culture phenomenon. Sappho, on the other hand, was a queer woman and a Greek poet who lived from 620-570 BCE. I hadn’t heard about her until Logan February, one of my favourite contemporary poets who claims her as their root, referenced her in a poem. So, I dived into the vast expanse of the internet and emerged with a Sappho poem, one that touched me so deeply I graffitied it on my wall. The fact that Sappho existed long before the advent of the internet and that her medium was performance are noteworthy. I consider it nothing short of a miracle how the gospel of Sappho travelled over 2,000 miles, across about 2,500 years and ended up on my wall in Ogbomoso. It is always a privilege to find a gem this way; it is the bodacious triumph of art.

I’m not particular about graffiti. What I’m suggesting is that we, every last one of us, are passive historians, collectors of art, memory and culture. We are constantly curating our personal stories through the conversations we have, our social media posts and, most especially, the art we make. Each of our stories is also the story of the world—and if that sounds too sentimental, then it is the story of our portion of the world. I splayed my story on the walls in my home with graffiti flecked with blue, green and red. Anyone who looked at that wall could swear that I was a psycho. Or they would look closely at it and see that I admired Kendrick Lamar, poetry, books, television and beauty. They would see that I live for beauty. I live for history, too.

Chasing Beauty

I once followed the artist, Ayo Akinyemi, on Instagram. My lust for history and beauty drove me to do it. Akinyemi creates abstract images and leaves vague messages in his portraits like clues to the multiple chambers of his mind. I wanted to write about him. His Instagram was filled with stylized images that look like colourful mind maps. When Akinyemi’s story is told, it will be his work that will speak for him. The things we create are evidence of when and, more importantly, how we lived; and the personal essay has emerged as a literary encapsulation of this evidence, a testament of our personal history; and, in recent years, there has been a surge in the writing of personal stories. New prizes like Writivism’s Kofi Addo Prize, and anthologies including the Ellah Wakatama Allfrey-edited Safe House and Goethe-Institut’s Limbe to Lagos: Nonfiction from Cameroon and Nigeria are a product of this growing attention to personal histories. But not everyone is a fan of the personal essay. 

A corresponding influx of criticism from people who are nostalgic for the carping of a more critical era—the era of Professor Wole Soyinka’s ‘Pretenders to the crown of Pontifex Maximus of African poetics must learn to mind the thorns’—say that the writing of treatises, commentary and moral pontification has been largely replaced by a potluck of confessional materials. These critics tag the personal essay with the problematic labels of ‘poverty porn’ and ‘trauma writing’. 

Within this polarized context, in 2018, I co-edited an anthology of personal essays by some African writers. One of the writers I had the privilege to work with in assembling that particular anthology was Moyosore Orimoloye, a brilliant, socially aware poet whose work bridges the critical and the personal. Orimoloye’s piece was titled ‘Four Vignettes on the Disappearance of Things’. The third vignette in his essay began ‘I cannot deny that some things are on the precipice of disappearance’, and I swear, I can’t deny that either. 

Africa’s Skewed and Unfinished History 

A German ghost vomited on Africa. This German was the influential guy, philosopher and idealist, George W. F. Hegel. One of his lecture series, presented at the University of Berlin between 1822 and 1830, was published in a book called The Philosophy of History six years after he died. But Hegel’s lecture was not really a lecture. It was a diatribe against Africa. He dismissed Africa as ahistorical: ‘At this point we leave Africa, never to mention it again. For it is no historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit.’ The fact that Hegel’s words were published after he died meant that his words still carried weight. It meant that a ghost was hurling phlegm on an entire continent.

Then, there was Leo Frobenius, another freebooting German. The man visited Ile-Ife in the early 1900s. Ile-Ife is a living, breathing memory of art and culture, with life-sized and miniature bronze sculptures carved by the skilled hands of its locals. But Frobenius gave no credit to the Africans he encountered. He claimed that the sculptures he saw there were the handiwork of the lost city of Atlantis, a fictional city. Frobenius believed that white civilization existed previously in the region that is now Africa. He theorized that the sophisticated art, culture and architecture that he witnessed in Ile-Ife and other parts of Africa where he sojourned were residues of this fictional Caucasian civilization.

Even today, that is the relationship between Africa and the rest of the world: mainstream pop culture of the Western world has an alarming propensity for portraying Africa in a way that usually misrepresents, skews and fails to reveal deeper truths about the legacies, history, and art of the black continent. It is a culture casting a ‘white anthropological gaze’ in its superficial storytelling of the ancient empires of Benin, Oyo and Ife, Ethiopia’s royal history of sovereignty and the legends of ancient Egypt. 

Now, Western institutions, theorists and analysts sell catchphrases like ‘the future is African’ as compensation for the distortion of our roots, and those of us on the continent gladly comply. But which future can exist without proper recognition of the present and past? How can the future ‘be African’ when the telling of Africa’s history has been skewed? How can the future ‘be African’ when Africa is not yet finished with its past? In Yoruba we say, ‘Odò ti ó bá gbàgbé orisun gbi gbẹ ló ngbẹ.’ It means, ‘the stream that forgets its origin dries up in earnest.’

Most volumes of African history books are the works of white, male scholars like Heinrich Barth, Frederick Cooper, William Leo Hansberry, Martin Meredith; scholars who exhibit the anthropological equivalent of a fetish towards what they have pompously christened ‘African Studies’. Africa, so far, has been taken for a free-for-all. It is the classic tale of the lion and the storytelling poacher. Telling, then, that Things Fall Apart, the most acclaimed novel out of Anglophone Africa is perceived as the fictional response to Joseph Conrad, another mendacious white man about whom Achebe wrote, ‘Africans are not really served by his compassion, whatever it means; they ask for one thing alone—to be seen for what they are: human beings. Conrad pulls back from granting them this favour in Heart of Darkness.’ 

Reclaiming Africa’s History

Africa has always had literature, both written and oral. There were the Egyptian hieroglyphs; the Isefra of the Berbers; the manuscripts of Timbuktu; the griots of West Africa; call-and-respond tales by moonlight, which are still told in rural areas around the continent today, formalized and repackaged for commercial television in cities. Our oral literature is so grounded it is almost as casual as banter over kegs of palm-wine. Casual enough for my father to once remark as we strolled on the ramps of a hospital one random morning (after I had spent the night watching over my brother who was ill), ‘My life is a novel.’ After which he opened yet another epic chapter in my family’s history book. Africa will always have literature.

My father’s life is a novel whose writing I’d gladly cede to others because my vision is already fixed on the unfortunate, eventful life of Esther Johnson. Her name was immortalized on the wall of my undergraduate room after I encountered it briefly during a stint of chasing excitement down the streets of Lagos Island. I was always in the food court at Freedom Park in those days, staring patiently into the eye of a bottle, as if waiting for someone who, in hindsight, never came. Until I got bored of waiting and began to explore the park.

Freedom Park is the reclamation of a crucial part of Nigeria’s colonial history. Built in 2010, on ground that was previously Queen Elizabeth’s Broad Street Prison, it was repurposed to serve the multiple functions of relaxation, memorial preservation and artistic expression; for it was at Broad Street Prison that anti-colonialists and freedom fighters were imprisoned in the build-up to Nigeria’s independence. Somewhere in that web of national history is entangled the personal and marital struggle of a Nigerian woman. Esther Johnson was incarcerated at Broad Street for slaughtering her white husband who stole her money to establish his white wife back in the United Kingdom. I have begun to search for proof of the early life of Esther Johnson, to probe the guts of history for a definitive truth in the quest to tell her story. The archives of the internet are notedly silent (as they are on a lot of African concerns), the several people I’ve queried seem to derive their knowledge from the same source as I have: writings on a wall, a white rectangular plaque in the cell where she was a prisoner. I intend to one day reconstruct the story of Esther Johnson, jigsaw piece by piece, a hard task, no doubt, but a necessary one. 

Africa Has Always Had Literature

In ‘Four Vignettes on the Disappearance of Things’, Moyosore Orimoloye imagines a sculptor in his workshop in 1300s Ife, hard at work on the mask of Obalufon—one of the bronze heads central to Yoruba history. Orimoloye offers him a watershed: ‘I want to ask him if he, slaving there over the creation of beauty, thinks he’d ever be forgotten, his name varnished from history, unlike that of his patrons’. But Orimoloye’s wisdom is the clarity of posterity; it has arrived at least seven centuries too late. That sculptor, whoever he was, has already been excised from his work, a rare case of the artist successfully separated from his art, his place within history with him…

Africa has always had literature. The continent has always had art and history, too. Those bronze sculptures at Ile-Ife are ours. The hieroglyphics are ours. We claim the griots. Nsibidi, the pyramids, the tales by moonlight—they’re all ours

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