African history deserves more

2017-03-12 06:02

Johannesburg - If the thought of a series dedicated to the ancient cultures of Africa sounds like the most thrilling thing in the world to you, PBS’s Africa’s Great Civilizations is not going to be what you’re looking for.

Not only does it insult the epic legacy of this continent, but it patronises the very people working to preserve it.

Produced, written and narrated by outspoken US intellectual Henry Louis Gates Jr – whose previous work was instrumental in the development of decolonial curricula in academia and the media – the project was seemingly an answer to the massive void in the popular imagination surrounding the civilisations of Africa.

But Africa, it seems, is another dark continent that needs US explanations to demystify it.

For six hours, Gates traverses the continent in search of the "undiscovered" – those sites so precious to Africans, and so carefully layered in political histories – but includes no interviews with African academics of his stature.

Would it have been so difficult to include a few interviews with Zimbabwean academics when discussing something such as the ruined city Great Zimbabwe?

Beyond that, the few Africans he does include are reduced to the sort of tour guides that Gates can use to motivate his reductive narratives of Africa.

It feels equally simple of me to criticise something we Africans should be doing ourselves (even those soil-borns like me), but nothing lets down the continent more than wasting money on something that could inform the future ideas of coming African generations.

If you’re looking for some popcorn history, check it out – maybe it will be enough to get you reading and researching the extraordinary stories that built this continent into what it is.

And hopefully you’ll agree with me once you do.

Watch the trailer here:

Africa’s Great Civilizations is available for free in some regions on

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