Bringing You the Daily Dispatch

An African History of Africa by Zeinab Badawi review – an insider’s take

An African History of Africa by Zeinab Badawi review – an insider’s take

There is no shortage of big tomes about Africa written by old Africa hands – those white journalists, memoirists, travel writers or novelists who know Africa better than Africans. This genre, lampooned by Binyavanga Wainaina’s satirical essay How to Write About Africa, weaves together stories that exalt the continent’s landscape but decry its politics, that revere its wildlife but patronise its people, that use words such as “timeless”, “primordial” and “tribal” when explaining Africa’s historical trajectories.

Zeinab Badawi’s An African History of Africa is a corrective to these narratives. Ambitious in scope and refreshing in perspective, the book stretches from the origins of Homo sapiens in east Africa through to the end of apartheid in South Africa. It is informed by interviews Badawi conducted with African scholars and cultural custodians, whose expertise, observations and wisdom are threaded through the book.

Badawi is among a distinguished coterie who have the resources, networks and bona fides to pull off a work such as this. Born in Sudan and raised in England, she is best known as a broadcast journalist for Channel 4 News and the BBC. Such is her clout that in 2009 she landed an exclusive interview with then Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir when he became the first sitting head of state to be indicted for alleged war crimes by the international criminal court. Since 2021, she has served as president of Soas University of London.

This, her first book, emerged from a nine-part documentary series for BBC World News. Badawi’s opening ploy – “Everyone is originally from Africa, and this books is therefore for everyone” – is followed by nearly 500 pages of dense, often fascinating historical detail. She recounts the epic ruling lineages and dynastic rivalries of north Africa, centuries before the birth of Christ; the fraught expansion and syncretic incorporation of the Abrahamic faiths into the social fabric of the horn of Africa; the rise of the west African kingdoms that powered the global economy when Europe was reeling from the Black Death in the late middle ages; the underappreciated accomplishments of African world-building as memorialised in the majestic stone ruins of southern Africa’s hinterlands. She pays assiduous attention to gender throughout, often pointing out the overlooked ways women have shaped the world around them. She slips into the present tense when discussing the imprint of slavery and colonialism on Africa’s development and on contemporary debates about how we reckon with the past.

But, for its many accomplishments in conveying the dynamism and diversity in Africa’s long history, this book may frustrate readers inclined to either more scholarly or more literary writing. The book’s panoramic historical view comes at the expense of a new, original argument. Badawi’s prose is limpid without being lyrical. Even her presence on the page is fleeting. We see flashes of her experience and discoveries when researching the book but she doesn’t indulge in more intimate self-revelation. The lack of a dramatic arc gives the book the feel of a compendium.

Still, I am reminded of Teju Cole’s recent novel Tremor, a meditation on how African art, culture, resources and people have shaped a western world that knows so little of Africa. The narrator asks: “How is one to live in a way that does not cannibalise the lives of others, that does not reduce them to mascots, objects of fascination, mere terms in the logic of a dominant culture?” Badawi’s book is one answer. The very act of telling African history from an African perspective and by making this history accessible to a wide audience is an assertion of dignity and an invitation to learn more. As Badawi puts it: “I hope I have demonstrated that Africa has a history, that it is a fundamental part of our global story, and one that is worthy of greater attention and respect than it has so far received.” She most certainly has.

Source: theguardian.com