/ 4 November 2022

One Book, Two Takes: It’s a Continent

It’sacontinent Unravellingafrica’shistoryonecountryatatime
Cover of It’s a continent book. Photo: Joseph Osayande

The book It’s a Continent: Unravelling Africa’s History One Country At A Time is a debut book by two “non-historians”, Astrid Madimba and Chinny Ukata. By making a note at the beginning that “this isn’t a classic history book, nor is it a textbook” the writers circumvent certain conventions associated with the subject.

For starters, the reader can’t demand the methodology used to determine the criteria used to select interesting bits about the selected African countries (and here the book errs on the side of brevity -the average chapter being 5-pages long). Nevertheless all 54-odd states as recognised by the African Union (AU) are covered, including the continent’s newest state of South Sudan.

The tagline on the jacket of the book is even more ambitious: “There are (hi)stories you were never taught in school.”  If the book is not a conventional history textbook, then what is it all about? The authors boldly pronounce: “Think of this as a collection of stories you never learnt about in school.” Outside of the mainstream curricula stuff. 

But for me a chapter on Tanzania’s founding father, Julius Nyerere reveals a major flaw of the book – an overuse of parentheses. These feel instructional as if the reader is being taught a history lesson, presumably one he/she has never learnt at school. 

Still, there are some interesting bits about the leaders of the continent, including its illustrious women leaders such as Queen Nzinga of Angola. Given the staple diet of representing the continent as a subservient “Third World”, this narrative turns the tide. Africa had powerful women leaders who held their own against arrogant colonial conquering men. To rub salt into the wound, these women led their armies from the front. This was unheard of in Western colonial military strategy. The colonial rulers would have none of this “disrespect” for their institutions by an African woman, and later would declare war on the indigenous inhabitants of the land.

The chapters on Thomas Sankara, and Kwame Nkrumah’s Ghana are some of the must-reads in this compilation. The former was a revolutionary leader from Burkina Faso and the latter the first president of independent Ghana in the late 50s.

Call me patriotic as much as you like. But as a local, I couldn’t skip the chapter on South Africa which highlights the role of the Black Consciousness Movement and its leader Steve Biko. Credit should be given to the authors for seeking out another leader in the national liberation struggle outside the mainstream telling of only one liberator of our people. Thus, Biko is contextualised within the South Africa of his time, referencing academics such as Xolela Mangcu, and is shown to be a fighter against the discriminatory policies existing then. His tragic death at the hands of the state is also highlighted.

Given the brevity of the chapters, and what I suspect is the overall project of orbiting the continent in one sitting, I realise it would be a tall ask to appeal for inclusion of more role players in the struggle. If anything, this book should inspire a more extensive project on the desperately needed new and decolonised African narrative for our times. – Lehlohonolo Shale 

It’s all good: Authors of It’s a continent Astrid Madimba and Chinny Ukata are all smiles on the release of their debut book on Africa. Photo: Joseph Osayande

It’s a Continent was born of the eponymous podcast hosted by Astrid Madimba and Chinny Ukata: two women of African heritage currently living in Old Blighty. From the home of colonialism, they correct misconceptions about Africa on a show that was recognised as the 25th most popular history podcast in 2020.

“Before we begin,” note the authors, “this isn’t a classic history book, nor is it a textbook. Think of this as a collection of stories you never learnt about in school.” History has not been fair to Africa for the simple reason that it was written by its conquerors. No one expects the victors to write glowing reports about the vanquished. How else would they justify the rape, pillage and slaughter with which they dispossessed people?

This is why titles such as It’s a continent: Unravelling Africa’s History One

Country At A Time are necessary, with their tongue-in-cheek challenge to the Western narrative about Africa. “If you have children,” prompts the afterword, “find out what they’re learning. Do you need to provide them with a wider narrative about the way the world works?”

Ensure that what they hear about Doria Shafik, Queen Nzinga, and Wangari Maathai is the full story, if they even hear about these revolutionaries. One of the seminal points It’s a Continent highlights is the role of powerful women in the anti-colonial struggle. As women, it is imperative to Madimba and Ukata that the protagonists above are not subsumed by narratives privileged by patriarchy.

Balance also needs to be restored to the perception of Africa as victim. Uncomfortable truths — such as the Orungu Kingdom’s enrichment from the slave trade — need to be brought to contemporary light, to remind us that expansionism and its concomitant barbarism were not the sole preserve of Europeans.

Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Warren Buffet perpetuate the association between whiteness and aspiration, but how has the world not heard of Mansa Musa, whose wealth was greater than that of all three? “It’s challenging to quantify Musa’s vast wealth,” reads the chapter on Mali, “as he’s regarded as the richest man of all time. Even the billionaires of today are just a drop in the ocean.”

Such stories should not be relegated to the pages of supplementary reading on African history. People of colour should not have to look in specialised avenues, well-researched as some are, to find history unfiltered by the white gaze.

It’s a Continent is your starting point to understanding African history [by] highlighting that Africa is not a country, (with a side of shade).” So closes Chinny Ukata’s introduction, setting the tone for a text that strives to drive colonial hypocrisy back home. The informal tone belies the thoroughness of the co-authors’ research and makes the book accessible: “Neither of us are full-time historians,” they admit, “but that’s a good thing — you won’t see any academic jargon, but we’ve got the receipts.” Their playful candour reads a progressive agenda into African affairs, while questioning inherited institutions such as democracy, artificial borders, and made-up ethnicities. – Lumumba Mthembu

It’s a continent: Unravelling Africa’s History One Country At A Time by Astrid Madimba and Chinny Ukata is published by Hodder&Stoughton, R450.