Unravelling Africa’s History: A Dialogue with Astrid Madimba and Chinny Ukata
Astrid Madimba and Chinny Ukata are co-founders, and hosts, of It’s a Continent, a podcast focusing on African history and current affairs. The podcast was recognised as the 25th most popular history podcast in 2020 and has been mentioned in The Guardian, BBC Radio, Times Radio and PodBible.
BY ÌDÒWÚ O̩DẸ́YẸMÍ
This conversation took place between a decade-old house in Ado-Ekiti and two apartments in the United Kingdom, via Zoom.
Ìdòwú: Tell me about growing up in Britain and your experience in British schools.
Astrid: I was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and moved to the UK when I was 7. There was little exploration of Africa’s history in school, so I felt that part of my identity went unnoticed until I decided to learn for myself.
Chinny: I was born and raised in the UK, so I had no experience of living in Nigeria. Within the UK, there’s a sizeable African population – Nigerians, Ghanaians, Kenyans and Zimbabweans, all former British colonies. When I made this correlation, I wanted to understand more about African history and how we got here.
Ìdòwú: I would like to thank you for what you’re doing with your It’s a Continent podcast – it is an eye-opener and a shift from the West’s monolithic perspective. The book, just like the podcast that inspired it, is expansive and I enjoy how it engages with both the ruins and riches in Africa. The book is that vulnerable. Why did you choose to write this book?
“The book is filling a gap we both felt growing up. It’s not an encyclopaedia but offers insight into the history of all African nations at different points in history, from pre-colonial times to modern and present day.“
Astrid: The book is very much a continuation of the podcast and exists to provide readers with a starting point to learn about the rich histories of African nations. We’ve enjoyed learning and sharing these stories with our listeners, and bringing this experience to a broader audience is exciting.
Ìdòwú: The history of African history is that of erasure. Except when one studies Africa’s history at university level, it is highly possible that one is not acquainted with one’s cultural roots. The book speaks to my younger self and fills in the space of the histories I should have known. Were you motivated to write this book so it would serve as a fill-in-the-gap for fellow Africans to know themselves better?
Astrid: The book is filling a gap we both felt growing up. It’s not an encyclopaedia but offers insight into the history of all African nations at different points in history, from pre-colonial times to modern and present day. The school curriculum is very Eurocentric, and there’s a need to reinsert Africans in critical history moments. We want readers to read this book and say: “Oh, I didn’t know this! Let me go and dig deep into this. Let me get another book and do more research about this.”
Chinny: To add to that: We want people to learn history from a Pan-African perspective too. As a Nigerian, I don’t know much about the DRC’s history, Botswana’s history, or Mozambique, and this is something we also want to improve.
Ìdòwú: Apologies for driving my questions around colonialism. I will be teaching Africana Philosophy soon in my school, and this is a book I look forward to recommending to the class. It draws from stories around the continent, so I know how immersive this book is. It is about more than colonialism, but it is contradictory to not acknowledge that colonialism is a significant part of African history.
Astrid and Chinny: We don’t shy away from covering colonialism, but we’ve strived to show the breadth and depth of the continent’s history.
Ìdòwú: Chinny, you stated in the book’s introduction that “African history is everyone’s history.” This sentence reminds me of James Baldwin’s writing, stating that colonialism and slavery made the world what it is today. In other words, the African history of colonialism is the “world-making” process. Do you think the world owes Africa? Or do you think that is just Afrocentric romanticism?
Chinny: James Baldwin’s words seem to say that if not for slavery and colonisation, we would not have this system we live in currently. Without these two concepts, many Western nations would not be as prosperous as they are today. The reason they are prosperous is because they benefit from the underdevelopment of African nations. There is no way they would have been this successful if that were not the case. We’re starting to see many countries in the West suffering economically. I think that they are suffering because these countries can no longer explicitly exploit African countries for their resources. These economic situations indicate that the exploitation of Africans through colonialism was essential to their success. There is no way these countries would be where they are without the exploitation of Africa, which is why I highlighted that everyone’s history is Africa’s history.
Ìdòwú: You stated that the book is neither a classic history book nor a textbook. Due to its immersion and richness in African history, do you think it will escape these descriptive tags? How do you suggest that this book be read?
Chinny: It is interesting because you don’t have to read the book in a particular order. Like our podcast, listeners tend to listen to the episodes about countries they have connections with and take it from there. There is no one way to read it because the book isn’t chronological; we’ve separated it by regions so readers can at one point read West Africa, then read North Africa, and so on.
Ìdòwú: While reading the book, I noticed that the word “slave” is replaced with “enslaved”. I think this is brilliant. What was the thought process behind that?
Astrid: We wanted to move away from “slave” because it dehumanises people. The extent to which enslaved people were dehumanised reduced them to nothing more than objects that could be owned. We want people to remember that these are actual human beings.
Ìdòwú: Your book also includes profiles on female leaders from Egypt’s Feminist Reformer Doria Shafik and Côte d’Ivoire’s women’s march on Grand Bassam to Angola’s Queen Nzinga. Why do you think these stories remain untold?
Astrid: I think it is a broader challenge, not just with Africa’s history but history in general. We had an interview a few weeks ago where the interviewer mentioned that it was the first time she’d seen two women discussing history. In the book, we’ve intentionally made sure to include women’s voices to highlight their contribution to the continent’s history.
Ìdòwú: This brings us to the end of the conversation. I want to personally thank you, Astrid and Chinny, for writing this book. It is expansive and mind-blowing.
Photo credit for featured image of Astrid Madimba and Chinny Ukata: Joseph Osayande.
Interviewer’s note: For providing critical insight about how African women were erased from African history, I would like to thank Yetunde Oni.
Ìdòwú O̩dẹ́yẹmí is a PhD Student at the University of Colorado Boulder, a poet and essayist and has published and presented his works in Brittle Paper, Icefloe Press, The Nation, the 2022 Ida B. Wells Conference at the University of Memphis, and many others. A few notable awards that Ìdòwú has received are the Ekiti State Prize for Literature and the Merak Magazine (Liverpool, UK) Recognition Award. He was shortlisted for the Nigerian Students Poetry Prize in 2018. His works underscore how existentialism can offer a joint critique of the persistence of social issues such as sexism, racism, expansionism, and classism. His current research centers on social theory, existentialism, and the philosophy of race. As such, he is conceptualizing “soft decolonization” as against its traditional radical form and how African and Black existentialism poses liberation from the arms of neocolonialism and institutionalized racism.