Reclaiming History from the Historians

Today there lies few larger tasks for historians than those reconstructing Ghana’s and thereby Africa’s history. The first history books for Ghana were written by European academics and this remains true of many books available today. Inevitably these books are written with a European world-view that distorts the nation’s history. Those of us committed to studying Ghana’s history must now invite the African people to tell their own story.

The history of Ghana requires the examination of different sources including oral traditions, linguistics, ethnography and archaeology. Throughout history, when European scholars came to Africa they assumed, wrongly, that African people were illiterate and had not recorded their history. Academics since have proved that Africans could write and that Ghana has indeed a recorded history with oral traditions and in various ways that European societies haven’t.

Written sources existed long before the arrival of the Portuguese in on the Gold Coast (modern day Ghana) in 1482. For example in Northern Ghana the Kitab-Gunja (Gonja Chronical) was written and in Timbuktu Ta’rkh al-Sudan (Chronical of Sudan), Ta’rkh al-Fatrash (Chronical of the Enquirer). These texts date back to the 9th Century and were written in Arabic.

Europeans in Africa have also left many written sources. While the majority of them date back to the 16th century, earlier ones do exist. Most of these were written by missionaries, merchants and traders who exploited Ghana for its abundance of natural resources including gold and ivory. The authors of many European sources were involved in atrocity of The Transatlantic Slave Trade and they are therefore short sighted and self justifying.

They are blinded by their search for riches and disregard the human suffering they brought about as unimportant. Despite their historical inaccuracies and downright lies, these sources must be examined and not ignored in rediscovering Africa’s true history. They are amongst some of the most revealing sources of the colonial propaganda and racism which was used to excuse and perpetrate the slave trade.

European sources include “A New and Accurate Description of the Coast of Guinea” by W. Bosman in 1705, “18 Years on The Gold Coast of Africa” Written by B Cruinkshank in 1815 and Pieter de Marees, “A description and Historical Account of the Gold Coast of Guinea” which he wrote in 1601.

It is vital to remember that since the end of colonialism many Europeans portrayed the history of Ghana closer to the perspective of Africans . These include “Fanti National Constitution” Written by J.M Sarbah in 1906, “Towards a Nationhood in West Africa” written in 1928 in J.W de Graft Johnson and “A history of The Gold Coast and Asante” written by C.C Reindorf in 1895.

The study of archaeology provides considerable opportunities for reconstructing the nation’s history. It’s particularly valuable in showing how people migrated and where settlements were formed. It also distinguishes the developments of architecture. In the Dawhenya region kaolin clay was used to produce pottery. This led to a 19th Century boom when the clay was exported to be used in the production of red tiles for kitchen flooring.

Whether it is the pottery, weaponry, carved artefacts, tools or the ruins of houses and other constructions: Archaeology tells the story of the nation’s people and offers precise information for the mapping of migration and settlements.

History is also painted by Ethnography, which is the study and description of contemporary cultures. For example festivals and celebrations show how and what people have chosen to commemorate. There are stories of famine, war and migration which are all revealed through ethnology. For example The Hogbetsotso in The Volta Region were exiled from their land by a tyrannical leader called Torgbui Agorkoli in Notsie. The Hogbetsotso have recorded this story with festivals.

The carved artefacts of Ghana are another way in which its history has been recorded. Figurative arts are used, for example plaques, by different members of societal structures. For example a carving which shows a fat person eating and thin person with hunger in his face shows that the owner of such a carving has enough to eat and is the envy of other people. Such carvings are found to have been held by chiefs and royal families. Another figure is a bird holding an egg in its beak with its head turn backwards, this represents a person who is searching for his roots.

Throughout the past, the ancestors of Ghana have passed on stories orally from generation to generation. In many societies there were individuals appointed as historians, they were responsible for recounting histories as accurately as possible. They would be given the task of presenting its history to Ghana’s visitors, or at least those who have cared enough to attempt to find out.

The drum has often been employed to tell traditional stories. In turn the drums are interpreted through dancing. Traditional drum beats have been preserved and capture the music and experience of societies in ancient time. For example certain beats are reserved for the story of famine or a victory or defeat in a war. During performances a singer is appointed who is responsible for translating the drums to the audience whose members cannot ‘hear the language’ of the drums.

Family heads would also have the responsibility of orally passing on their families history to younger members. Important information would include stories and events in their family history and any important impact they made on the surrounding society. They will also tell the story of how their family came to settle on the land which they have now inherited.

Despite the fact that most of its history books are written by European scholars, Ghana has kept and translated their history in ways originally unheard of or unaccepted by the academic institutes of former Colonial powers. The European-written books have persistently offered a European perspective and have credited authors and sources involved in the exploitation of Ghana and The Transatlantic Slave Trade.

The history of Ghana has been distorted not only from its own people but also for people throughout the world. It is now necessary for both Ghana and Africa to reconstruct their history through an inter-disciplinary approach. They must draw upon archaeology, written sources, ethnology and oral traditions in order to render a true picture of Ghana’s history.

Those individuals in Ghana who have become well educated and respected historians though traditional oral story telling must now be interviewed and their words recorded for posterity. Their oral traditions deserve to be given a lead role in telling their country’s history. They can now be cross referenced with previously accepted and validated sources.

Academics must stand up and use these spoken stories not against but alongside the history told by the Arabs and Europeans. In the future, academic institutes must not just accept oral traditions as an academic source or use oral traditions just to add to validation to the pre-existing sources: Oral traditions must stand in their own as one of many independent sources of African history.

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