Africa is such a complex and misunderstood continent that many history teachers shy away from it. Too often, they do not have the knowledge or the language to feel that they are getting it “right”. In an era of culture wars, the default response to such worries is to hide.
Yet no one should feel ashamed of their ignorance about Africa created by its under-representation in materials taught at school and university level. As Trevor Getz shows in this landmark and user-friendly book, the potential in the subject outweighs all the misgivings that educators might very reasonably have. A lack of knowledge is the norm, but that does not mean it must remain so. There is a large amount of material online, textbooks and discussions that can all help teachers tackling this topic feel less alone – and develop a way of addressing the subject. These resources are listed in Getz’s helpful work.
As well as improving people’s awareness of the continent, studying African history has the benefit of redefining the ways in which we approach history as a discipline. It offers a new perspective on thinking about the past because history is an oral discourse in much of Africa, so in order to learn students are introduced to different approaches to gaining knowledge. The source base is then transformed. No longer is historical discourse reduced to endless books of Nazi-era documents and the like: instead, students and teachers must engage with sources such as music, art, archaeology, literature, religious practice and more. The disciplinary boundaries of what can be studied as history are radically altered by the end of such an immersion.
Regarding Africa itself, the challenges are huge. How to summarise such a complex past and history? If you are not African or of African descent, are there not vast ethical and moral dilemmas in teaching this topic? Getz’s book is very useful – vital, even – in charting a course. It introduces teachers to the key questions regarding approaches, debates and the ethics of studying Africa. It offers different starting points and themes that must be tackled (time and place; identity; gender; frameworks; Africa at global and local levels). And, above all, it creates a sense of a shared community of practice, linking the different points where this history is taught and where it matters.
Having taught African history for almost 15 years, I have seen how students approach the topic with all kinds of preconceptions. One of the guiding principles of the A-level option on precolonial Africa I have helped design was to challenge some of these. Explanations of Africa’s past are diverse and contradictory – and people will never entirely agree.
Instead of manufacturing a false consensus, what studying the topic does is help create a shared language, so that diverse histories are understood and included within a sense of common identity. In a world of increasing fragmentation and echo chambers, this is just one reason why studying and teaching African history is more important than ever.
Toby Green is senior lecturer in Lusophone African history and culture at King’s College London, the lead designer of the A-level option “African Kingdoms” and the editorial coordinator of a new West African Senior School Certificate Examination textbook for English-speaking West Africa.
A Primer for Teaching African History: Ten Design Principles
By Trevor R. Getz
Duke University Press
184pp, £65.00 and £16.99
ISBN 9780822371038 and 9780822369820
Published 22 March 2018