Encyclopedia Africana

Speech by Osagyefo the President
At the Opening Session of the
First Meeting of the Editorial Board of the
Encyclopedia Africana

Thursday, September 24, 1964 -- At the University of Ghana

Distinguished members of the Editorial Board of the Encyclopaedia Africana

Ladies and Gentlemen:

It is a great pleasure and privilege for me to inaugurate this first meeting of the Editorial Board of the Encyclopaedia Africana. The presence on this Board here today of representatives from all parts of the Continent of Africa is yet another token of the African cultural renaissance which is manifesting itself side by side with the political resurgence of the African Continent.

I must also confess, distinguished guests, that today I feel a great sense of relief and joy to think that at long last a first significant step has been taken towards the positive realisation and consummation of a long cherished dream. Years ago, I felt that Africa needs to buttress her unimpeachable claim to political independence with parallel efforts to expose to the world the bases of her rich culture and civilisation through the medium of a scholarly Encyclopaedia. I therefore invited W.E.B. DuBois of blessed memory to come to Ghana to help us establish the framework for this great natural heritage. Dr. DuBois was happy to come to Ghana in the very evening of his life to embark upon this task; he took Ghanaian citizenship, and immediately plunged headlong into the stupendous work of setting out the general aims of this project and securing the interest and support of eminent scholars throughout Africa for its realisation. To him this was an exciting state of affairs to produce such an Encyclopaedia. It is perhaps not without significance that DuBois should have had to wait until the very sunset of his life to find and receive encouragement and support for this project, not in the abundance of the United States, but rather in an Africa liberated from the cramping and oppressive conditions of colonial rule.

In taking upon ourselves this great responsibility for Africa, we are reminded of an old Roman saying: "Semper aliquid novi ex Africa." Africa had a noble past which astounded even the ancient Roman world with its great surprises. Yet, it was only much later, after a millennium and a half of African history that we are now busily engaged in reconstructing for all the world to know, that racial exploitation and imperialist domination deliberately fostered a new and monstrous mythology of race which nourished the popular but unfounded image of Africa as the "Dark Continent." In other words, a Continent whose inhabitants were without any past history, any contribution to world civilization, or any hope of future development - except by the grace of foreign tutelage!

It is unfortunate that men of learning and men of affairs in Europe and America from a century ago down to yesterday, have spent much valuable time to establish this unscientific and ridiculous notion of African inferiority. A European author declared that "the history of civilization on the continent begins, as concerns its inhabitants, with Mohammedan invasion" and that African is poorer in recorded history than can be imagined.

Even the Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica also declared: "Africa, with the exception of the lower Nile Valley and what is known as Roman Africa is, so far as its native inhabitants are concerned, a continent practically without history and possessing no records from which such history may be conducted ..... the Negro (referring to the black man) is essentially the child of the moment and his memory, both tribal and individual, is very short," And "if Ancient Egypt and Ethiopia be excluded, the story of Africa is largely a record of the doings of its Asiatic and European conquerors and colonizers."

And here I want to sound a note of caution about the term "Negro." I hope that in the record of the Encyclopaedia Africana the term "Negro", whatever meaning or connotation has been given to it, will not find a place, except perhaps in a specific article proving its opprobrious origin and redundancy. I would like that people of African descent and Africans in general should be described as black men, or Africans. I personally would like to be referred to as a black man, African or Ghanaian, not referred to as a "Negro".

It would be long to attempt to survey this field of malicious distortion against Africa. But this would be a useless and unprofitable venture, and I am sure that your Editorial Board would not suffer this pointless waster of valuable time. But listen a while to Leo Frobenius in his Voice of Africa: "The ruins of the mighty past lie slumbering within the bosom of the earth but are glorified in the memory of men who live beneath the sun." He dwells on the "god-like strength of memory in those who lived before the advent of the written word" and he continues: "Every archaeologist can quote examples from the nations of the North. But who would imagine that the Negro Race (here again referring to the black race) of Africa possessed an equally retentive mind for its store of ancient monuments."

It may be argued, however, that this sort of view about Africa is dying out, and we may be accused of whipping a dying horse. It is also true that, particularly in the years since World War II, there has been a marked improvement in much of the writing by non-Africans on Africa and there are today a number of writers and scholars who have made signal contributions to African historiography. Nevertheless, it is to be doubted if the popular image of the so-called Dark Continent has been much affected by the widening horizon of knowledge of Africa. The fact is that the powerful forces which seek to block the advance of the 280 millions of Africans to a place of full equality in the world community and which strive to maintain neo-colonialist or even overt colonial domination and white supremacy rule in Africa, find it in their interest to perpetuate the mythology of racial inferiority. Thus it is not simple ignorance of Africa, but deliberate disparagement of the continent and its people that Africanists and the Encyclopaedia Africana must contend with. The foulest intellectual rubbish ever invented by man is that of racial superiority and inferiority. We know now, of course, that this distortion and fabrication of the image of man was invented by the apostles of imperialism to salve their conscience and justify their political, cultural and economic domination of Africa.

I understand that through the medium of the Information Report, published periodically by the Encyclopaedia Africana Secretariat, have appeared expressions of support and pledges of co-operation in the work of this great project from numerous eminent scholars. And I am particularly happy that among those who have expressed their endorsement of our work are distinguished scholars in the United States, the Soviet Union, China, India, Britain and other countries outside Africa.

I am sure the members of the Editorial Board share my appreciation of this world-wide support of the idea of an Encyclopaedia Africana. However, it is of course only logical that an encyclopaedia work on Africa should be produced in Africa, under the direction and editorship of Africans, and with the maximum participation of African scholars in all countries.

While I believe that no contribution to the projected Encyclopaedia should be rejected solely and simply because the author happens to be non-African, there are surely valid reasons why the maximum participation of African scholars themselves should be aimed at. Let me illustrate this point with an example from a book published just fifty years ago by George W. Ellis, an Afro-American who served from 1901 to 1910 as Secretary of the United States diplomatic mission in Liberia. From this study came his book, Negro Culture in West Africa, published in 1914. In the Preface to this work Ellis tells how he had sought to widen his knowledge of Africa, before coming to Liberia, by the diligent study of encyclopaedias, geographies, and works of ethnology and anthropology, only to find that much of this information was "unsupported by the facts" and gave a picture "substantially different" from the character of African life which he himself found in West Africa. Acknowledge the services of European authors such as Harry Johnston, Lady Lugard and others, Ellis stated that to him "it seems more necessary and imperative that the African should explain his own culture, and interpret his own thought and soul life, if the complete truth is to be given to the other races of the earth."

But there were already men in West Africa who had blazed a significant trail in this direction: Edward Wilmot Blyden, Joseph Casely Hayford and John Mensah Sarbah. Many other Africans in preceding generations helped to lay the basis of our present efforts to project a new African image of Africa. One thinks of such figures as James Africanus B. Horton and his A vindication of the African Race. (1868) and of Carl Reindorf, Attoh Ahumah, Anthony William Amu, Samuel Johnson of Oyo, Blaise Diagne, Herbert Macaulay and others in West Africa, of Duse Mohammed Effendi of the Sudan, Lewanika of Barotseland, Apolo Kagwa of Buganda, and leaders such as JohnTengo Jabavu, Solomon T. Plaatje, and Clements Kedalie in South Africa.

And let us not forget the import contributions of others in the New World, for example, the sons of Africa in Haiti such as Antenor Firmin and Dr. Jean Price-Mars, and others in the United States such as Alexander Crummell, Carter G. Woodson and our own Dr. DuBois.

All of those whose names I have mentioned believed in and urged the necessity of writing about Africa from the point of view of African interests and African assumptions and concepts - and not from the point of view of Europeans or others who have quite different interests, assumptions and concepts, whether conscious or unconscious. This is precisely what we mean when we say that the Encyclopaedia Africana must be frankly Afro-centric in its interpretation of African history and of the social and cultural institutions of the African and people of African descent everywhere.

It is to be hoped, therefore, that the work on the Encyclopaedia Africana may provide both the forum and the motivation for the development of a virile and salutary new trend in the writing of African history, writing which will rank in scholarship with any other historiography, but which will also be based upon a frame of reference that is independently African, and will lead the way in independent thinking about Africa and its problems.

I am anxious that I should not be misunderstood in my emphasis on an Afro-centric point of view for the Encyclopaedia Africana. There are some who will say that his implies simply reversing the faults and distortions

of the colonialist minded writers on Africa, painting everything white that they pictured as black, and everything black that they pictured as white. I should like to assure our guests, the members of the Editorial Board, that that is in no sense my conception of what the Encyclopaedia Africana should be. Most certainly it must and will set the record straight on many points of African history and culture. But it will do this not simply on the basis of assertion backed by nothing more than emotion, but rather on the foundation of first-class scholarship linked with the passion for scientific truth.

It will not romanticize or idealize the African past, it will not gloss over African failings weaknesses and foibles, or endeavour to demonstrate that Africans are endowed with either greater virtues or lesser vices that the rest of mankind. There is undoubtedly considerable evidence of much that is noble and glorious in our African past; there is no need to gild the Lily nor to try to hide that which is ignoble. But here again it is a question of whose standards and values you are applying in assessing something as noble or ignoble, and I maintain that the Encyclopaedia Africana must reject non-African value-judgements of things African.

It is true that despite the great advances made during the last twenty years in the various disciplines of African studies, so much of Africa's history has yet to be unearthed, scientifically analysed, and fully comprehended. This sometimes gives rise to the question whether enough is yet known to undertake at this time the compilation of an encyclopaedia of the sort envisaged. Those who entertain such hesitation and doubt only expose the extent of their ignorance about Africa's great past.

Before the colonial era in Africa, Europeans had had many encounters with Africans on the cross-roads of history. They had married into African royal families, received Africans into their courts as ambassadors and social equals, and their writers had depicted African characters as great heroes in their literature. In common with the rest of mankind Africans made extensive use of cereals, they learnt the art of raising cattle, adapted metal tools and weapons to their own use, and, to quote Basil Davidson, "undertook mining and smelting and forging on a continental scale, borrowed crops from other lands, introduced soil conservation, discovered the medicinal value of a host of herbs and plants, and worked out their own explanations of mankind and the universe. All this had happened before the first ships set forth from Europe."

Let me give another quotation even at the risk of boring you, this time from Leo Frobenius again, a well-known historian who made 17 expeditions into Africa, North, East, West and South, in order to learn at first hand of the culture of the African peoples. Frobenius makes a basic statement in his book African Civilisation, which unfortunately has not yet been translated into English. Doubtless, there is reason why no completetranslation has yet been made.

From a limited translation made by Anna Malise Graves, I quote: "When they, European navigators, arrived in the Gulf of Guinea and landed at Ouidah in Dahomey, the captains were greatly astonished to find streets well laid out, bordered on either side for several leagues with two rows of trees, and men clad in richly coloured garments of their own weaving. Further south in the kingdom of the Congo, a swarming crowd dressed in

silk and velvet, great states well ordered and down to the most minute details, powerful rulers, flourishing industries, civilised to the manner of their bones. And the condition of the countries on the eastern coast,

Mozambique, for instance, was quite the same. The revelations of the navigators from 15th to the 17th century gave incontrovertible proofs that Africa stretching south from the edge of the Sahara desert was still in full flower - the flower of harmonious and well-ordered civilisations. And this fine flowering the European conquistadors or conquerors annihilated as far as they penetrated into the country."

Indeed, the history of Africa goes back into the dim recesses of time and antiquity. There are even scientists in our time who are beginning to claim that Africa was the very cradle of mankind. The fossil remains of man discovered by Dr. L.S.B. Leakey in Tanganyika have been dated by scientific processes as one and three-quarter million (1,750,000) years old.

From the head waters of the Nile in Tanganyika let us move swiftly to its mouth on the Mediterranean Sea and the Isthmus of Suez where the great civilization of Egypt was fostered for thousands of years down to the Christian era. There, as we all know, man rose to the phenomenal heights of statecraft, science and religion and the excellence of the arts. Evidence from language, religion, astronomy, folklore and divine kinship, as well as geographical and physical proximity, confirms the basic African origin of this Egyptian cultural eminence.

This great flowering of the mind in Africa was unfortunately scorched by the ravages of the slave trade which encouraged extensive destruction through tribal warfare. Close upon this set in the evil of colonisation and the deliberate effort, to which I have already referred, of painting the African black and backward as a valid justification for colonial rule.

I have endeavoured to touch on some of these questions only as a means of making a clear case for justifying our attempts to provide Africa with an Encyclopaedia portraying vividly the glory of Africa's great past.

I should now like to say just a few words on the vital question of how this great undertaking is to be carried through to completion. I must say at the outset that a broad policy having been laid down, the precise plans for achieving it must be left to the Editorial Board and its staff of competent experts. My purpose is only to call attention to the underlying principle - the principle of Pan-African co-operation - which I believe to be indispensable in any concrete plans of work on the Encyclopaedia.

As you are aware, the preparatory work on this project has been carried forward for a little more than two years by a Secretariat here in Accra, functioning under the aegis of the Ghana Academy of Sciences. This Secretariat has not been content to work in isolation; it has been continually active in establishing contacts with scholars and institutions throughout Africa and abroad. A motion declaring "that all African countries should contribute to the work of the Secretariat" was unanimously adopted at a Conference on the Encyclopaedia Africana attended by some150 persons from Africa and elsewhere in December, 1962. Soon thereafter, the Secretariat undertook the establishment of Co-operating Committees of scholars in various African countries. The Secretary of the Secretariat, Dr. W. A. Hunton, met with several of these Committees during a tour which he made in East and North Africa some months ago. Following this came the nominations by the Co-operating Committees of their respective representatives to serve on the Editorial Board of the Encyclopaedia. In this way the basis, at least, of Pan-African co-operation in this work has been established.

The members of the Editorial Board now have before them the Secretariat's detailed prospectus of what the Encyclopaedia Africana should contain and how the material should be presented. This is merely a blueprint of what is to be constructed. The Editorial Board members are asked to examine this blueprint with great care, proposing whatever alterations they consider would result in a more perfect plan for the Encyclopaedia.

One this has been agreed upon, the stage will have been set for the play to begin - that is to say, for the work of preparing and assembling the Encyclopaedia articles to commence. I sincerely trust that the deliberations of the Editorial Board at this first meeting will successfully hit that mark.

The progress of the work from that point on will depend in the first instance, as I see it, on the degree of whole-hearted and effectively organised support that can be procured from African scholars in all countries, from the many institutes of African studies and research agencies of various kinds which are to be found today throughout our continent, and from the various independent African governments which are ready to provide the fullest measure of financial support for this work. So far, the financial burden has been borne by the Government of Ghana alone.

As I have already stated, I have no specific proposals to present with regard to these matters. But I am convinced that the task is not insuperable. The fact that we have advanced this far in accomplishing, almost single-handed, the formation of a Pan-African Editorial Board of the Encyclopaedia Africana augurs success in the further stages of the work.

I trust this project will be welcomed by all the African Heads of State, and will have the full support of the Organisation of African Unity. We must now think in terms of continental political unity in everything we do for Africa. Without such cohesion and unity none of us can survive theintrigues and divisive forces of the imperialists and neo-colonialists. The work of this Encyclopaedia Africana will take us one further step towards the great objective to which we are dedicated - a Continental Union Government of Africa.

Speaking on behalf of the Government of the Republic of Ghana and as Chancellor of our Universities, I can assure the members of the Editorial Board that work on this Encyclopaedia will have the fullest co-operation of our Universities, learned societies and research institutions in Ghana, as well as the financial support of the Government of Ghana.

Distinguished scholars and members of the Editorial Board of the Encyclopaedia Africana, on behalf of the Government and people of Ghana and on my own behalf, I extend a warm welcome to you. May this your first meeting mark the auspicious beginning of your work in a great undertaking for the benefit of mankind.