by APEIKE UMOLU
Boubou Hama and Joseph Ki-Zerbo
“The Place of History in African Society”
Methodology and African Prehistory in General History of Africa, Volume 1. Ki-Zerbo, Joseph (ed). Unesco, 1981.
To begin with…
In this article, Dr Boubou Hama and Dr Joseph Ki-Zerbo aim to show that the African conception of time has two distinct features – its intemporality and its social nature. They explore the highly developed notion of time in the African tradition and how this is evidenced in various aspects of social living.
They begin by defining and legitimising the notion of mythical time, showing how it extends out of ideas about time derived from cosmology. This acts as a gateway to conceive of an agentful time beyond empirical verification, i.e. mythical time. This, when combined with the notion of social time, creates space for ancestors who evidence the continuity of time. Hama and Ki-Zerbo then show the multiplicity of the African conception of time by showing that mythical time exists alongside historical time, proving that Africans have a highly developed sense of “the historical” and act as historical agents in time.
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Mythical time, continuity, and the ancestors
Myth is ‘the imaginary representation of the past’ brought into the present by ‘immemorial customs’. Time in the African tradition is held to extend forward and backward into eternity, therefore mythical time is ‘a vast ocean without shores and without landmarks’ as it refers to a time beyond the capacity of recollection, which is also beyond the limits of corporeality and physics [Hama, Ki-Zerbo (1981), 43-44].
Myth and mythical time are central to African epistemology and the African historical tradition such that “real-world” occurrences are sometimes only capable of comprehension and worthy of preservation if they are in alignment with mythical conceptions and sequencing. This mythological conception of time outside of the present, the near past, and the near future is not unique to the African tradition. According to Hama and Ki-Zerbo, ‘it must also be recognised that a mythical approach lies at the origins of every nation’s history’ [Hama, Ki-Zerbo; 46].
From mythical time is born the notion of the continuity of time. Central to this are the ancestors and the part they play in evidencing this mythology and continuity. Ancestors evidence the possibility of the events of historical time passing into mythical time [Hama, Ki-Zerbo (1981), 45]. It could perhaps be said that it is in order to evidence the continued agency of ancestors that mythical time is tolerated in consciousness despite its ambiguity and remoteness. Mythical time is the space in which ancestral agency materialises to show that ‘bygone generations are not lost to the present. In their own way they remain contemporary, and as influential as they were during their lifetime, if not more so’ [Hama, Ki-Zerbo (1981); 44].
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Social time and sovereigns
All of this rests on the notion that time is a social conception as ‘time has no duration as it affects the fate of the individual. It is the rhythm of the breathing of the social group’ [Hama, Ki-Zerbo (1981), 44]. Given the rejection of the absolute and the embracing of the relative and relational, time in the African tradition becomes something that can only be perceived and comprehended socially. The social conception combined with the mythical conception manifests in the person of the sovereign such that the leader came to embody time itself. In their hereditary connection to the founding ancestors and by extension to God, as well as the centring of the public and religious life of the polis around their person, they came in their person to evidence the eternity and continuity of time. The life of the sovereign was thus synonymous with the life of the nation such that the death of the sovereign constituted a death of the nation, and the coming of another king re-started time so to speak [Hama, Ki-Zerbo (1981); 45].
This social conception of time is also seen in the inculcation of time in physical objects so that time is only taken to have passed upon the socially-verified transfer of physical objects from one generation to another. For example, the passing of the golden stool from one Asantehene to another, or the passing of the chains of gold between sovereigns in the Soninke tradition, is what marks the passing of one era and the beginning of another [Hama, Ki-Zerbo (1981); 46].
Historical time and the agentful man
Some people hold as a result that African time is not historical time as the reliance on mythical time leads to cultural and social stagnation because it is myth that becomes ‘the motive force of a history which was immobile’ [Hama, Ki-Zerbo (1981), 46]. As a result ‘the African only sees the world as a stereotyped reproduction of what has gone before’ making him ‘a stubborn disciple of the past’ [Hama, Ki-Zerbo (1981), 49].
Hama and Ki-Zerbo reject this and hold that just because ‘the African is always seeking justification from the past’ does not indicate a ‘static state or contradict the general law of progress and the growth of power’, in fact it is quite the opposite [Hama, Ki-Zerbo; 50]. For the African ‘time is an enclosed space, a market where the forces that inhabit the world contend or conclude bargains. The ideal of both the individual and the group is to defend themselves against any diminution, to improve their health and strength’ [Hama, Ki-Zerbo (1981), 49]. As a result, ‘for the African, time is dynamic. Man is not a prisoner marking time, or condemned to do the same things over and over again…time is the arena where man can always carry on the struggle against the depletion and for the increase of his vital energy’ [Hama, Ki-Zerbo (1981), 49]. Thus, ‘though [time past] greatly influences time present, [this] does not do away with its dynamism…The essential element in historical time is the idea of a development starting from origins which are to be sought after and examined. Even beneath the crust of tales and legends and the dross of myths, there is an attempt to rationalise social development’ [Hama, Ki-Zerbo (1981), 51].
The pursuit of morality in African grapplings with the past further confirms its profound historical nature. This is seen in ‘the idea that the order of the cosmic forces may be disturbed by immoral deeds, and that the resulting disequilibrium can only harm its author. This vision of the world in which ethical values and requirements form an integral part of the ordering of the universe itself may appear mythical. But it exerted an objective influence on people’s behaviour, especially on that of many African political leaders. In this sense one may say that while history is often a justification of the past it is also an exhortation of the future’, regulating behaviour as lessons are passed down through the histories of leaders whose loss of power led to a diminution of the nation. In this way evolution is not only encouraged it is insisted upon [Hama, Ki-Zerbo (1981), 50].
Such capacity for the past, even once it has fallen out of memory proper and exists beyond the limits of corporeality that characterise the temporal world, to continue to stimulate societal change shows a profound appreciation of the historical nature of time and the ability of men to change their worlds. Even in the most closed of African societies, ‘the feeling of autonomy, of self regulation by the community, was vivid and powerful … [the] peasant in his village, when he was master of the house, felt he had ample control over his own fate… In highly structured societies, on the other hand, the African conception of the chief gave the latter an exaggerated position in the history of nations whose collective fate he literally embodied’ [Hama, Ki-Zerbo (1981), 47]. In this way, African man has always has a sense of his historical consequentiality because, whether in the autonomy afforded by the village or the significance afforded by an empire ‘the smallness of the societies concerned made history the business of everyone…the limited nature of historical space meant that it was within everyone’s mental grasp. Hence the incontestably democratic nature of most Africans’ conception of history. Everyone felt he mattered’ [Hama, Ki-Zerbo (1981), 48-49].
Dr Boubou Hama (1906 – 1982) was a Nigerien author, historian, and politician. He was President of the National Assembly of Niger. As a writer he worked in many genres including history and theater. His writing gained international attention when his autobiography Kotia-nima won the Grand prix littéraire d’Afrique noire. His essay on African Art education won the Senghor Prize in the same year. His histories place a great value on oral literature. The national museum of African art in Niger is named after him.
Dr Joseph Ki-Zerbo (1922 – 2006) was a Burkinabé historian, politician and writer. From 1972 to 1978 he was professor of African History at the University of Ouagadougou. He founded the Party for Democracy and Progress / Socialist Party and represented it in the Burkina Faso parliament until his death in 2006. A socialist and an advocate of African independence and unity, Ki-Zerbo was also a vocal opponent of Thomas Sankara’s revolutionary government.