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Zeinab Badawi, the Sudanese-born British TV stars groundbreaking TV series, The History
of Africa, is perhaps the most important contemporary artistic contribution on Africa
today. This eight-part series looks at the history of Africa from the African perspective.
It is also entertaining and will go a long way to filling the current yawning gap in our
knowledge of our history. The series is being broadcast by
BBC World News, starting 1 July. Story by Anver Versi.

The real history of Africa

Zeinab Badawis new
BBC TV series

70 New African july 2017

bout a year or so ago, I once are likely to draw a blank.
again had the pleasure of This is about to change. After
meeting up with Zeinab this series, and hopefully more
Badawi, now probably the seasons to follow, African history
most recognisable face on BBC will enjoy the same dynamic
World News, during a conference relationship with viewers as those
in Addis Ababa. She told me that from the West and Asia.
she had been hard at work going Badawi, who was born in Sudan
from country to country filming a and came to Britain when she was
new TV documentary series on the still an infant, recalls that when she
history of Africa. (The 8-part series returned home after visiting the
is being shown on BBC World pyramids in Sudan once, she asked
News from 1 July.) her parents about the historical sites
The entire project had been in their country.
her own initiative and was being They couldnt really tell me very
produced by her media company, much, she writes in a piece she did
Kush Communications. for the BBCs history magazine.
I had to take a deep breath History has to be seared into the And I thought something wasnt
making a TV programme imagination. And TV can do that. right with that particularly
is expensive but making a because both of them could tell
documentary series covering Zeinab Badawi you a lot about Henry VIII and
the whole of Africa is not only key points in British history. If
very expensive but the planning, my parents didnt know enough
logistics, travel, crewing, about their own history, I thought,
bureaucracy, even the vagaries of history illuminates and helps to surely the same is likely to be true
weather and the million other clarify the present, it can have a of African people of all generations.
challenges necessarily involved massive impact. And, as I talked to various people
make it the most daunting of History has to be seared into over the years, I discovered that
enterprises. It is an undertaking the imagination, said Badawi. indeed was the case.
that had to be a labour of love to And TV can do that. As she went about her career on
have any chance of succeeding. There are countless examples television, becoming a star presenter
Added to that was the subject: of how historical novels, films and with Channel 4 News and then
The history of Africa, as told by television have brought history into with the BBC, the thought of the
Africans themselves. There have roaring life and attracted millions largely blank page in the history of
been a few high-quality series on of people who have been able to Africa kept nagging at her.
African history one by the late place themselves into long lost It had been taken for granted
Professor Ali Mazrui and one ages and to relate to characters and that the history of Africa did not
by the late British author, Basil events at both an emotional and substantially extend beyond early
Davidson. intellectual level. European exploration, followed by
Mazruis looked largely at the For decades, this rejuvenation the slave trade and colonisation.
Islamic influence on Africa while of history was largely confined to That narrative was written by
Davidsons was the more orthodox the West while plays, traditions, Europeans who dismissed Africans
Western rendering of African storytelling through song and as savages whom they had come
history. Both were excellent in dance and festivals were the to save and civilise and was given
their own ways and both were principal means of connecting with popular form through novels
epic productions supported by the the past for other people. such as King Solomons Mines,
full weight of several television That has been changing. Tarzan and its imitators and The
production companies, including Bollywood has produced a number Heart of Darkness, in which the
the BBC. of high-quality historical films and Africans suffering under the yoke
But both had large gaps. China and Japan in particular have of Belgiums King Leopold, did
They were academic and relied been celebrating and interpreting not even have a language but made
on archaeological evidence to their own history through films, guttural sounds.
stitch together a comprehensible novels and television. Those attitudes spilled over into
narrative. Yet it was clear that Africa is one region that has modern times, particularly during
something vital was missing. been left out. In fact, whilst many Africas liberation struggles, and
While academics and educated Africans will be able to continue in some quarters to this
professional historians might drool tell you which kings or queens ruled day. They were justified by a reading
over fossilised history, it has little in Britain or France or the history of African history as written by
relevance for ordinary people. But of the US from the first migrants outsiders, who made a point of
when history comes to life, when landing on the shores on that dismissing and obliterating any
there is a direct connection between continent to the present day, ask vestige of an African civilisation
the past and the present and when ADD CAPTIONS them about African history and you before the coming of the Europeans

july 2017 New African 71

even going so far as to claim that
the pyramids of Egypt and Sudan
had been built by aliens from space. Episodes and programme schedule
Project started by accident MOTHER AFRICA
Zeinab Badawi says she embarked In the first episode, Zeinab Badawi of Aksum.Described as one of the four
on her project to fill this gap in travels across the continent, examining greatest civilisations of the ancient
knowledge by accident. She was the origins of humankind and how and world, Zeinab examines archaeological
at UNESCOs headquarters in why we evolved in Africa.During her remains in both countries dating
Paris, in the office of the Ethiopian- journey Zeinab is granted rare access from many hundreds of years before
born deputy director-general, to the bones of one of the most iconic Christ.She explains how the Kings of
discoveries in the field of palaeontology: Aksum grew rich and powerful from
Getachew Engida, when she spotted Lucy in Ethiopia, or as she is known in their control of the Red Sea trade
a collection of volumes on his Amharic, Dinkenesh - which means and how they were one of the first
bookshelves, the General History of you are marvellous!Zeinab also spends civilisations that officially embrace
Africa. time with a unique tribe in Tanzania, Christianity in the 4th century.She
The massive tomes were the who provide insight into living as also explores why the Queen of Sheba
result of a project conceived by hunter-gatherers.She also looks at what and the Sacred Ark of the Covenant are
the leaders of some of the newly distinguishes us from the animal world so critical to the story of Aksum.
independent countries. Aware of and makes us human.
the deep significance of history CATTLE, CROPS AND IRON In the sixth episode, she focuses on
on their struggles, they wanted to Badawi continues her journey through the fall of the kingdom of Aksum, and
decolonise their history. the history of human development, how the Christian kings that followed
UNESCO helped them travelling to meetthe Maasai of East in Aksums wake left powerful legacies,
put together the project, recalls Africa, where she explains how humans especially King Lalibela.He is credited
Badawi, recruiting 350 experts, began to domesticate animals and with building a complex of rock-hewn
mostly from across Africa and from become pastoralists; in Zimbabwe, churches, which represent amazing
Zeinab visits one lively farming family feats of engineering. She also charts
a range of disciplines, to compile and examines how we became settled the arrival of Islam in this part of
eight volumes, starting from and began to live from farming.She also Africa and how the Christian kings and
prehistory and continuing to the looks at how the Iron Age transformed Muslim emirs co-existed. In the most
modern era. The eighth volume was life in Africa and paved the way for the Muslim of Ethiopias cities, Harar, she
completed in 1990, and theyre now development of rich urban civilisations. observes the bizarre, long-standing
working on the ninth. tradition of the Hyena Men of Harar.
This was exactly what she had GIFT OF THE NILE
Zienabs quest takes her to Egypt, NORTH AFRICA
been looking for. She knew the where she explores the most famous In the penultimate episode, Badawis
volumes would be a good basis civilisation in Africa that of the ancient exploration of Africas rich history
on which to make a series, in Egyptians.Zeinab takes you beyond focuses on North Africa.She goes to
chronological order from the early the usual coverage of the pharaohs and Morocco to find out about the original
emergence of mankind in Eastern asks who the ancient Egyptians actually inhabitants of the region - in particular
Africa to the present day. were.What was their ethnicity? What the Berbers or Amazigh - the best-
It took me a while to negotiate made such a great civilisation possible? known of the people of North Africa.
How did they order their society, and Zeinab visits Carthage in Tunisia and
with UNESCO, but that link is what were their values? explains who the Carthaginians were.
important because this is a unique She looks at the great Berber kings
project African history written by THE KINGDOM OF KUSH and how they managed to retain their
Africans, she writes. Although you In the fourth episode, Badawi travels influence when North Africa came
cant film a TV series based entirely to the country of her birth and the under Roman rule.Zeinab shows you
on scholarly volumes, I have used very region of her forefathers some of the most extensive and least-
them as inspiration, incorporating northernSudan, where she sheds light visited Roman sites in Algeria.
experts and citizens speaking about on a little-known aspect of ancient
African history: the Kingdom of Kush.Its PAGANS AND GOD
their histories and how their lives kings ruled for many hundreds of years In the final episode of the first series,
in the present day tie in with the and indeed in the eighth century BC, Zeinab Badawi examines the role of
past. I interviewed a number of they conquered and governed Egypt for religion in Africa.To this day tens
contributors to the volumes, too. most of 100 years.Furthermore, Kush of millions of Africans are pagans,
Its something of a novelty to hear was an African superpower, its influence who worship a pantheon of Gods and
a Tunisian talking in her own extending to the modern-day Middle venerate their ancestors.And many
language about her own history, and East. Zeinab shows you some of the best- more millions of Africans incorporate
preserved of Sudans 1,000 pyramids pagan customs into their monotheistic
so on. and explains how some of the customs of beliefs.Zeinab takes you through the
Some of the original Kush have endured to this day. stages of the arrival of monotheism
contributors have passed on but in Africa: first Judaism, then early
some, like Dr Richard Leakey, THE RISE OF AKSUM Christianity and then finally, Islam.She
the world-renowned Kenyan Badawi travels to the little visited charts the rise of the powerful Islamic
paleoanthropologist, who helped country of Eritrea and neighbouring dynasties of North Africa, which went
discover the remains of perhaps the Ethiopia, to chart the rise of the Kingdom on to conquer Spain.

72 New African july 2017

earliest homo sapiens to be found, about the people behind them.
contributed to the volumes and is Most people engage with history
also featured in the TV series. not through stones and bones but
through characters and people; for
Giving life to that reason, the challenge was to
historical figures bring to life the historical figures.
But how do you condense volumes I did that principally through
of heavy scholarly text running into interacting with people from the
thousands of words into an exciting, continent today, and allowing them
entertaining-while-informative TV to bring to life their own history.
series? In her search for authenticity,
The challenge is to work out she decided to take a big chance
what is of most interest to both the and instead of working with a
African and non-African viewer, specialised camera crew from the
she says. In television terms, its UK, engaged local TV camera
about visualising key events of operators.
which no images may be available, It was risky, she told me. But
Left: ADD and looking at monuments and on the other hand, these people
CAPTIONS artefacts in a way that tells you would be operating in their own
countries which they know well,
and understand the underlying
cultures. Also, the people we
BBC World TV: Transmission dates filmed and talked to were far more
EPISODE 1 comfortable with their own people
Sat 1stJuly 02:10 (except North and Latin America) than having strangers poking
cameras in their faces.
15:10 I am delighted we took the
Sun 2ndJuly 09:10,21:10 gamble. You get an authenticity that
EPISODE 2 cannot be replicated. What is more,
Sat 8thJuly 02:10 (except North and Latin America) some of these guys we worked with
15:10 are the best in the world. The whole
Sun 9thJuly 09:10,21:10 thing was a truly African project
and I am proud of that.
EPISODE 3 Its also important to consider
Sat 15thJuly 02:10 (except North and Latin America) how the African diaspora considers
 15:10 its history. As part of my agreement
Sun 16thJuly 09:10,21:10 with UNESCO, Badawi says,
these programmes will be made
EPISODE FOUR available free of charge to all state
Sat 22ndJuly 02:10 (except North and Latin America) TV stations in Africa, Brazil and
15:10 the Caribbean, because this story is
Sun 23rdJuly 09:10,21:10 important for their identities, too.
Indeed. What I have seen of the
EPISODE 5 episodes sparkles with an energy
Sat 29thJuly 02:10 (ADD LINE) that is rare in documentaries. This
15:10 is a magnificent series and it will
Sun 30thJuly 09:10,21:10 change attitudes, both in Africa and
outside Africa and I have no doubt
EPISODE 6 that the series will be repeated over
Sat 5thAug 02:10 (except North and Latin America) and over again once its first run
15:10 comes to an end in August.
Sun 6thAug 09:10,21:10 What does she expect from this
first series? Three things: to teach
people a bit about Africas history;
Sat 12thAug 02:10 (ADD LINE) to excite them and leave them
15:10 wanting to know more; and, where
Sun 13thAug 09:10,21:10 I can, to entertain them. Of course,
EPISODE 8 my overall objective is to develop a
more holistic look at Africas history
Sat 19thAug 02:10 (ADD LINE) and to change the way that Africa
15:10 is seen. NA
Sun 20thAug 09:10,21:10