Saturday 1 July 2017 was a red letter day in the Osborne household. When not editing The Chiswick Calendar website or Out & About magazine, I’ve been working on a TV series – The History of Africa with Zeinab Badawi – the first of which was transmitted this weekend on BBC World.
It’s a history of Africa with a difference, as it is told from an African perspective. That should not be so remarkable, but until the 1960s Africa’s history had been told largely by European historians, if indeed it had been told at all. Hugh Trevor Roper, Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford throughout the 1960s and ‘70s, famously announced that Africa had no history prior to European exploration and colonisation. He said “there is only the history of Europeans in Africa. The rest is darkness”, its past “the unedifying gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque but irrelevant corners of the globe.”
Well Africa begs to differ. At the time of independence Africa’s new leaders commissioned Unesco to ‘decolonialise’ African history so it could be taught in schools and universities across the continent instead of the European history taught as standard. Unesco put together a committee of 30 academics, mainly African, which set about writing the definitive history of Africa.
The ‘darkness’ referred to by Roper was a reference to the lack of written record. Reading and writing was not part of African culture in large parts of the continent until the coming of the Arabs in the 7th century, but as Zimbabwean cultural expert Pathisa Nyathi told us, just because they didn’t use documents it didn’t mean Africans didn’t document their history. The Unesco committee took a much more open minded approach to sources and studied the oral traditions of story-telling and poetry, art and dance as well as linguistics, aerial photography, geography, archaeology and the paleo sciences. The result was a thirty year project which resulted in eight scholarly volumes covering the millennia from prehistory to the modern era.
A few years ago I was with BBC presenter Zeinab Badawi at the Unesco offices in Paris, talking to its Ethiopian-born Deputy Director-General, Getachew Engida when he showed us the volumes and said what a pity it was that they weren’t used in schools and universities as was originally intended. From that conversation was born the idea of a TV series based on the volumes, with African academics as its contributors, to be filmed entirely in Africa with African crews. You may at this point be wondering how come I’ve been involved in this series, being not noticeably African, but Zeinab is Sudanese by birth and as her producer I’ve had the privilege of directing and producing it. Her family are highly regarded in Sudan. Her grandfather set up the first school for girls, which has subsequently grown into a university for women. Her father was imprisoned by the British and went on to be a very well-known broadcaster. Zeinab studied anthropology as well as PPE at Oxford and has travelled the length and breadth of Africa as a presenter for BBC World. We know each other from my 12 year stint as a senior producer on the BBC’s Hardtalk programme and we have worked on other projects for her production company Kush Communications, which has made this series.
Making the series
So began the process of raising money, reading the volumes, planning the programmes and the best bit – filming in eleven countries. In Tanzania we met the Hadzabe tribe of hunter gatherers, who gave us some idea of what life must have been like for our earliest ancestors.
In Zimbabwe and Senegal we saw evidence of Iron Age settlements and in Tanzania we learned a bit about how humankind progressed as pastoralists, meeting Masai tribesmen in the Serengeti who still rely entirely on their cattle.
In Egypt we sailed on the Nile in the beautiful surroundings of Aswan and filmed the pyramids and the Valley of the Kings.
More pyramids in Sudan – many more than in Egypt and previously entirely unknown to me – as we filmed temples and palaces of the Kushite kingdom.
In Ethiopia and Eritrea we documented the rise and fall of the kingdom of Axum and spoke to the granddaughter of Emperor Haile Selassie about the legend of the Queen of Sheba.
We were lucky to get an interview with the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Addis Ababa and to be given a guided tour of the amazing churches hewn out of the rock at Lalibela.
We had unparalleled access to Eritrea at the beginning of this new country’s exploration of its archaeological treasures, travelling through the highlands and pausing at dawn to catch the sunrise through the cloud line and buffeting across the Red Sea on a naval speedboat to visit the Dahlak islands.
On across North Africa to see how the Berbers survived successive invasions from Europe to retain their own culture and language; the breath-taking remains of Phoenician and Roman cities in Morocco and Tunisia, with the flashing lights of our police escort dramatically highlighting our tour around the extensive Roman remains of Algeria.
Maybe it helped that we were three women – myself, Zeinab and our assistant producer Lucy Doggett, fresh from studying African history and in her first media job – less testosterone flying around when things got tricky. We were challenged for filming without the requisite permit in Zanzibar and arrested for filming on the beach in Alexandria (a border). Zeinab can charm the birds out of the trees in English or Arabic and talked the adjudicating colonel out of destroying our footage and confiscating our camera card. Invoking her dead grandmother (who may or may not have been born in Aswan) she managed to persuade him that we and our documentary were harmless and the story we were telling was important.
Unfortunately you can’t see the initial broadcast, as BBC World cannot be viewed in this country, but I hope that it will be shown on domestic TV and meanwhile if you are interested, I can show you some clips. For me it has been an amazing and fascinating journey, so I hope you enjoy them and will get to see the full length documentaries in the foreseeable future.
Click on this link of Kush Communications to watch clips of The History of Africa with Zeinab Badawi.