10/10/2013 05:57 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

'Sankofa' -- Return and Get It

The phrase: "Once upon a time" and the choral reply: "time, time," was the prologue to the riveting stories that filled my childhood. As children, my friends and I would listen attentively to the storyteller as we were transposed to a world not in the immediate past but shrouded in mystery -- full of the glories of bygone civilizations, tragedies and lessons of the past, and replete with moral lessons and principles. Singing and dancing sometimes accompanied the stories that left us children transfixed on our grandmothers who, true to the tenets of oral tradition, told us of ancestors who through their Herculean feats had shaped our culture. Through the tales of the guileful Ananse spider we were taught a repertoire of principles, and from our grandmothers' narrations we came to understand how the baobab had once been a seed and how things came to be. However, this part of my education came to an almost abrupt halt with the death of my grandmother. And, looking back, it was this unforeseen cessation in the flow of stories and this disconnection from the past that rooted and grounded my appreciation for the Akan proverb: Sankofa.

Sankofa is an Akan word that translates as "return and collect it." Sankofa reminds us of the need to search through the groves of the past and to bring back its lessons, principles and stories as seeds for the future. Chinua Achebe, a renowned author of African literature, reminds us in Anthills of the Savannah: "It is the story, not the others that saves our progeny from blundering like blind beggars into the spikes of the cactus fence. The story is our escort, without it, we are blind." Without knowledge of Africa's manifold history the dream for an African renaissance can only remain a bud -- full of potential and life but trapped in its infancy. But more significantly, ignorance and a lack of knowledge can threaten the very existence of the dream. Probe the post-colonial era and one will see the words of Achebe manifested; truly without the "story," without an understanding of our history the journey to progress is encumbered with countless pitfalls.

During the post-colonial era the champions as well as the renegades of African independence attempted to re-write history, create new identities of what it meant to be African, and attempt to chart novel political pathways. It was a time of nation-building and identity formation and full of ardor for the prospects of an independent Africa. But it was also a time that was marked by dismay as the zeal of independence crashed on the shores of disillusionment borne from the throes of big-man politics, neocolonialism, conflict and economic stagnation. Leaders like Mobutu Sese Soko capitalized on the ignorance of the past and lack of understanding of our diverse histories and fashioned a movement -- l'authenticité -- to serve as bedrock to his authoritarianism. The so-called l'authenticité movement claimed that democracy -- in its various forms -- was alien to Africa. Leaders like Mobutu stood on false daises of history to claim that Africa had "historically" only known strong-leaders, "big-men" who did not rule by consensus but rather ruled by unequivocal authority -- such views linger today. Sankofa, if employed, might provide ammunition to rebut such claims. Such claims are a distortion of African history and a blatant disregard for the history of peoples like the Igbo who had no "big-men" and no chiefs and practiced democratic governance.

If the adage of Sankofa is not heeded and honored, the victories, developments and success of the Ashanti, Songhai, Mali and Axum empires will be forgotten -- and so will their Achilles' heels; and with that loss, our journey to a secure future will be hindered. In a world where images of Kwashiorkor-afflicted children, war-torn cities and desolate individuals flood media outlets, we need Sankofa to remember what our forefathers achieved, what is possible and the genesis of our challenges in order to fully equip ourselves for the march forward. We need Sankofa to armor youngsters against a media-driven identity that is rooted in helplessness, poverty and dearth. Sankofa will help guide us so we circumvent the mistakes of our forefathers and will help inform the basis of the African Renaissance. The Rwandan genocide of 1994 was rooted in its precursor of the 1960s; Western culture was shaped by Graeco-Roman history. The past immeasurably affects the future, but if it is embraced and utilized the future does not have to be a slave to the past.

It may seem obvious for the need of Sankofa since we theoretically know the importance and value of history. However, when you have students in Africa immersed in Eurocentric curriculums that expose them to the antiquity of Graeco-Roman civilizations, the illustriousness of the French Revolution and the contributions of the Italian Renaissance and Reformation to modern civilization but are not equipped with local knowledge, the necessity for awareness of Sankofa's importance becomes clear. When the African history that is taught heavily focuses on only certain epochs of our history -- the slave trade and colonialism -- and not also on the eras where the African was the agent and central actor of his/her own story are not integrated into the narrative, the need for Sankofa becomes even more pronounced. As in the words of Senegalese environmentalist Baba Dioum, "in the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we have been taught." Clearly, we cannot underestimate the importance of Sankofa, for if we do crucial aspects of our story that help illustrate why things came to be, and how we can chart a new path will be spurned.

Philosopher Georg Hegel, famously purported that Africa has no history and that "it is no historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit." While countless historians have disclaimed this claim of Hegel, in reality conceptions don't seem to have changed; curricular have not altered in a way that reflects the belief that indeed Africa's heritage is rich and its history is diverse, complex and worthy of study.

Embracing Sankofa is important not only because it allows us to debunk claims that Africa has no history, but importantly it may provide vision and help prevent us from repeating the blunders of the past. It also provides people with a sense of identity and saves us from the laborious and pointless task of reinventing the wheel. There's much the past and heritage can teach us; in as much as we strive to focus on the imminent needs of the present and of dreams of the future we should never forget that our history is a pivotal escort.

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