Why young Africans didn’t care about the royal wedding. Why they should.
This was a historic moment, but we are not taught about history, especially our own.
As the royal wedding between Meghan Markle and Prince Harry unfolded last month, I was fascinated by the attention it got across Africa. Elites in cities across the continent held champagne and tea parties complete with fancy hats and fascinators. Creatives photoshopped traditional African outfits onto the royal family. Media outlets televised the whole thing. Newspapers’ front pages were covered with photos from the event the next day.
But I realised that not everyone was that interested. On the day of the wedding, I was at a mentoring event with 1,000 young people in Lagos. When I asked them how they felt about missing out on the excitement, their responses were uniform: What relevance does the wedding have for us?
On the one hand, this response was fair enough. Watching the wedding ceremony of two people, one of whom happens to be sixth in line to the British throne, thousands of kilometres is not everyone’s cup of tea. But I was struck by the way in which the historical significance of this moment was lost on Nigeria’s youth too.
For centuries, the British Empire oversaw the brutal transportation of 3.5 million slaves from Africa to the Americas, reshaping the entire globe. For decades, it was Nigeria’s colonial master, rupturing and recasting our entire society. And now, this nation’s royal family was accepting a woman with African roots as one of their own – a fact symbolically emphasised by the role that people of African descent played in the ceremony. But many young Nigerians were unaware or uninterested.
It has now been 58 years since Nigerians fought for and obtained independence from the United Kingdom. However, the legacy of our colonial past continues to resonate in our political, social and economic realities today. It will take much reckoning to fully understand and unpack the myriad complex forms this has taken. Yet until earlier this year, history was not even taught in our public schools. The majority of our youth are unfamiliar with the iniquities of slavery and colonialism, and of the triumph of independence.
The tragedy of this ignorance also has a troubling parallel. Young Nigerians – and in fact, Africans more broadly – do not know about other parts of our history either. We are not taught about Timbuktu, Great Zimbabwe, and the kingdoms of Benin or Ife. We do not learn about the Ghana, Songhai and Mali Empires or about the Sokoto Caliphate. Many of us may never hear the name of Mansa Musa, one of the richest men of all time.
There are very few national or regional museums in Africa to celebrate our history and culture. Meanwhile, many of our treasured relics are locked in the British Museum or among the collections of former colonial families.
This means that the continent’s many contributions to global civilisation are ignored in Africa itself – let alone the rest of the world – allowing the concept of the “dark continent” to perpetuate even among ourselves.
Fortunately, there are some initiatives aimed at changing this and giving young African a strong sense of identity and self-worth. South African History Online (SAHO), a non-profit based in Cape Town, provides resources for teachers and learners for grades 4 through 12. In Mali, UNESCO is working with the government to restore mausoleums and 300,000 manuscripts from Timbuktu destroyed over time. In south-eastern Nigeria, the Centre for Memories, which I helped establish, organises activities and events series for young people to celebrate their history and culture.
The Centre’s first exhibition celebrated the Igbo people and their amazing contributions to politics, law, medicine, sports, the arts, literature, film, business and religion. I saw young visitors often overwhelmed as they learnt for the first time about their ancestors – kings and queens in their own right, who achieved great feats and left behind incredible legacies.
This experience showed that young African have an immense appetite for history and culture. They want and need to know about their pasts, both those chapters to be mourned and those to be celebrated. Filling this gap will require considerable efforts from non-profits as well as the formal education system, which should embrace a full history curriculum from the primary through to secondary school.
Many of us in Africa were unmoved by the prospect of watching the wedding celebrations of a distant family. That’s completely reasonable. What’s less so is that many of us, particularly our young, are simply unaware of how closely our history and present is intertwined with theirs. By embracing our past, we are emboldened to work to build a bright and shared future, in which we all have a place and critical role to play.