19th century philosopher Georg Hegel wrote, “We leave Africa, not to mention it again. For it is no historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit... What we properly understand by Africa, is the Unhistorical, Undeveloped Spirit...” At best, these words seem dated, reductive, and solipsistic. In 2007, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy made a speech at a university in Senegal and stated (amongst other things) that “Africa's challenge is to enter to a greater extent into history... It is to realize that the golden age that Africa is forever recalling will not return, because it has never existed.”
Ghanaian cultural historian and filmmaker Nana Oforiatta-Ayim is challenging this prevailing narrative. For Oforiatta-Ayim, it’s the informal methods of passing down knowledge alien to Western cultures which have contributed to this idea of ahistorical Africa.
From oral histories to drumming communication, the cultural historian hopes to “validate more informal types of knowledge by translating them into more contemporary forms.” Oforiatta-Ayim has developed the Living History Hub which involves her setting up small kiosks—initially within different regions in Ghana—which become centers for collecting oral histories managed by local communities. In photo-booth style, people enter the kiosk to be filmed telling their histories. Initially the project was funded by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), and has grown into the Cultural Encyclopaedia online platform.
The space continues to evolve as people bring along objects which have been passed down to them and photographs which can then be scanned. This way, histories are recorded in more accessible and lasting formats, while the cultural value of traditional methods of historical storytelling is maintained.
Leaders of independence political party United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC) and their lawyer, 1940s. Photo: J.K Bruce Vanderpuije. Courtesy of Deo Gratias Studio, Accra, Ghana.
How has history traditionally been passed down on the continent? One example is the fascinating world of Ayan drum poetry, where histories are told on the drum. Oforiatta-Ayim explains, “all this knowledge is encapsulated in drum language.”
There are different levels through which the listener may understand drum language—the first just hearing the drum tone as a tune, then you understand what the language is saying, and the highest level of knowing is the Odumonkomakyerema (divine drummer) who can “understand the language of the drum but also understand the meaning behind the drum language.”
Nana Oforiatta-Ayim at her studio in Accra, Ghana. Photo: Alice McCool. Background artwork by Ibrahim Mahama.
Oforiatta-Ayim knows so much about this method of knowledge transfer because of its history in her family. Her uncle reached the highest level of drum poetry understanding and Oforiatta-Ayim has been documenting his extensive historical knowledge for years.
In some ways this is similar to the way elders in Ghana speak in proverbs. Oforiatta-Ayim explains that an older person might say something cryptic that one will only understand days later. This purposeful layering of historical knowledge may well have been a deliberate cultural defence against colonial powers—like a secret code. Imperialists were unable to access African histories. Oforiatta-Ayim agrees that this deliberately cryptic method of knowledge transfer is linked to power and hierarchies.
Oforiatta-Ayim’s uncle recently passed away and it’s her fear that his knowledge will begin to die out, as will their histories—unrecorded. She’s concerned that as the continent continues to globalize, young Ghanaians are becoming less and less interested in their country's traditions, including cultural festivals, which have always been one of the ways oral histories have been passed on to younger generations.
Libation (a drink poured out as an offering to a deity) at Homowo festival, Ghana, late 1990s. Photo: Nii Obodai
The historian hopes this project will encourage the continent’s younger generation to take inspiration from their forefathers as opposed to focusing on Western influences. She cites the example of the fast growing photography scene currently going on in Accra, where young photographers take influence from external works such as American fashion photography.
It is little known that back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries there were also a string of early photography studios in Ghana producing inspiring works, depicting everything from politics to fashion in the colonial era. Ghanaian journalist John Owoo writes of the works of West African photography pioneer J.K Bruce Vanderpuije, “They provide a deep insight into activities and situations that may never be seen again, especially the architecture of the era, which is being replaced by buildings with borrowed designs from the west owing to lack of policies to protect and preserve them.”
By bringing these histories into the contemporary through online and audio visual content, Oforiatta-Ayim believes there is a chance to record Africa's untold stories, and show nuances within them. Outside of books and glass cases, we can learn from such embodied forms of knowledge in Ghana and the rest of Africa.
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