Academic journal article History In Africa

Literacy and the Decolonization of Africa's Intellectual History

Academic journal article History In Africa

Literacy and the Decolonization of Africa's Intellectual History

Article excerpt


In his book In My Father's House Anthony Appiah made a powerful argument for historians and intellectuals at large to recognize the diverse and complex nature of Africa's cultural and historical experiences. He stated, for instance, that: "ideological decolonization is bound to fail if it neglects either endogenous 'tradition' or exogenous 'Western' ideas, and that many African (and African American) intellectuals have failed to find a negotiable middle way."1

During the past fifty years, Africanist historians have focused much of their efforts on the goals of decolonizing or Africanizing the study of the African past.2 These have been guided by the need to produce a more authentic and relevant history of the continent. The search for such authenticity has shown that African cultures and societies are often the result of a broad range of influences and that the notions of what is indigenous or authentically African needs to take into account this historical complexity. Intellectual historians, in particular, have faced this question with regards to written sources. The question of literacy and its impact on the intellectual development of Africa is an interesting example of how historians have made some strides towards redefining the notion of a decolonized African history.

Africa's intellectual history is rich in the range of sources, methods and approaches that have been used to investigate the ideas and values held by African societies.3 Relative to this richness, however, little attention has been given to the examination of African intellectuals who were literate and used the written word as their means of expression. This paper will examine three examples of how the study of written traditions can contribute greatly to the kind of ideological decolonization advocated by Appiah.


In a recent book entitled The Meanings of Timbuktu various authors make a compelling argument for examining the literate traditions represented in the libraries of Timbuktu as part of an African intellectual history that is both diverse and deeply rooted in African historical realities.4 Souleymane Bachir Diagne, for instance, argues that Arabic sources are of enormous importance precisely because they illustrate the historical process of Islamization that not only transformed states and societies throughout West Africa, but also had a profound impact upon the intellectual production of the region. In his view, the serious examination of these intellectuals would:

(...) put an end to the preconceived notion that African cultures are oral cultures in essence; that Africanity is, at its very core, orality. What Timbuktu and other places where Islamic scholarship was developed teach us is to have a sense of history that opposes this identification of Africa with orality, a generalisation which is just not accurate. Of course orality is important in all cultures and especially in Africa. But we should not ignore that the graphic rationality of Islam has meant, in many areas, the adoption of Arabic, or rather Arabic script, by populations who, among other consequences of their conversion to the Muslim religion, literally rewrote who they were and created a written intellectual tradition that we need to study.5

According to Bachir Diagne, this process of self-writing represents "a deep reorganisation and reappraisal of the social imagination that occurred in West Africa."6

An illustration of the importance of written Arabic documents for the study of intellectual history is presented in Paulo de Moraes Farias' contribution to the volume. Among the many manuscripts that have been discovered, there are a number that contain written histories of the West African region. Modern historians have often seen these as potential sources, but rarely have they been seriously examined for their historiographical value. Moraes Farias illustrates how this has been the case in the study of works that belong to the Tarikh genre which emerged in Timbuktu during the second half of the seventeenth century. …

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