BBC World Histories Magazine

Is Africa a prisoner of its past?

Emma Dabiri

“It is far easier to continue the centuries-old trope of African barbarity, or at best incompetence”

During an appearance on Irish television, controversy ensued after I suggested that we don’t need any more “white saviours” in Africa. To my great surprise, I was immediately met with a comment about “darkest Africa” from a fellow panellist. Though this is a phrase with which I am all too familiar, I have not heard it employed with any degree of seriousness in years. Nonetheless, it was a stark reminder that many continue to perceive the continent thus.

As Hugh Trevor-Roper, the eminent Oxford professor of history, declared in 1962: “Perhaps in the future there will be some African history to teach. But at the present there is none – there is only the history of the Europeans in Africa. The rest is darkness… and darkness is not a subject of history.”

The fact remains that Africa’s past has been almost entirely obscured by an infrastructure that sought to – that seeks to – legitimise the damage that Europe did to it, and to its people: devastation that the forces of global capital continue to perpetuate through various means of exploitation and extraction.

Africa remains a prisoner of the lies told about its precolonial past, and of the legacy of its colonial

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