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The History of Africa enters the College of France


The Collège de France, in Paris, will now have a permanent chair devoted entirely to the study of the continent, and this is unheard of. Called "History and Archeology of the African Worlds", it is entrusted to François-Xavier Fauvelle, who pronounces ...

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François-Xavier Fauvelle. College of France / Patrick Imbert

The Collège de France, in Paris, will now have a permanent chair devoted entirely to the study of the continent, and it is unpublished. Baptized "History and Archeology of African Worlds", it is entrusted to François-Xavier Fauvelle, who pronounces Thursday, October 3 evening his inaugural lecture.

His lectures on medieval Africa , open to all, at the College de France , will begin at the end of the month, for one hour per week. And it's an event, a symbol, says Professor Fauvelle. " It means that something is moving in our perceptions, that we are no longer in a time when we can still think and say that there is no history on the African continent, or that would not be feasible, "he says," on the contrary, it is an area of ​​scholarly knowledge, and the responsibility of all historians is to disseminate this knowledge now held by a few dozen researchers . "

Because this knowledge has not been sufficiently exposed, explains François Xavier Fauvelle, " the relative vacuum has been furnished with peremptory affirmations that there is no history of Africa. It is also furnished with ideologies, easy speeches, identities, such as Afrocentrism, which sees a unique relationship between all African societies and ancient Egypt .

To put down the clichés suffering the history of the continent, François Xavier Fauvelle has published books that have made history, affecting the general public. Among them, The Golden Rhinoceros . Stories of the African Middle Ages, in 2013, translated since into a dozen languages. Last year, he also coordinated a voluminous collective work, Ancient Africa, from Acacus in Zimbabwe . 20 000 years before our era - 17th century . Previously, in 2002, he published his thesis on the Hottentots, or rather on the Western view of these populations of southern Africa since disappeared, the Khoisan: The invention of the Hottentot. History of the Western gaze on the Khoisan, 15th - 19th century .

It is this work that has inspired him to dig deeper into the ancient history of Africa. " At the end of this thesis, I had the feeling that I had learned more about European societies than about the Khoisan, those pastoral societies that speak with click languages, which had been described and at the same time destroyed by European travelers, "explains the historian," this is what prompted me to go back in time, to equip myself with archaeological skills, hoping to tear the sails that had interposed the European sources between African societies, and us ".

That's what makes him today as much a scholar as a man on the ground. François-Xavier Fauvelle has since conducted research on the continent. In South Africa. Also in Ethiopia, where he directed the French Center for Ethiopian Studies and co-discovered some ten years ago the remains of Muslim cities, including Ifat, capital of the sultanate of the same name in the fifteenth century. " In the general public, we have the idea of ​​a long-time Christian Ethiopia ," says François Xavier Fauvelle, " in fact, Christian sources from the Middle Ages and external Arab sources mention Muslim societies in Ethiopia. For a long time we searched the wrong place, relying on Christian writings that suggested that the Muslim enemy was necessarily far away. We ended up finding these Muslim cities close to the Christian kingdom, "he says," which partially invalidated the idea conveyed by the written sources : all these societies were not simply juxtaposed, enemies of each other, but in economic, political or cultural conversation with each other ".

Great mosque of Nora in Ethiopia (14th century) revealing an interior building on wooden poles. Personal archives of François-Xavier Fauvelle

François-Xavier Fauvelle has also completed an eight-year excavation project in Sijilmâsa, Morocco. He wanted to know more about this oasis, main port of sands for 700 years, which allowed to cross the Sahara in 50-60 days to reach the Kingdoms of Mali or Ghana and to trade with West Africa. While his courses at the College de France will start, while he will also teach at the American Princeton University, he remains a member of the Traces research laboratory in archeology , which he led from 2013 to 2017 in Toulouse .

And this talkative twenties, who are said to be bulimic about work, admit to looking for a new field of investigation, in West Africa this time. Why not in Mauritania, or in Mali? " For example, I would like to discover the capital of the kingdom of medieval Mali, at the time of the kings Moussa and Souleymane, in the middle of the fourteenth century, " says the researcher, " it is probably somewhere on the left bank of the Niger river. Two Arab writers of the fourteenth century, Ibn Battuta and Al-Umari, describe it, so that one could almost draw it, but one has not yet managed to locate it. It remains a mystery .

Sijilmâsa, a Muslim mausoleum hung on a wall in the 14th century. Personal archives of François-Xavier Fauvelle

For François Xavier Fauvelle, nothing better than collective, multidisciplinary, and cosmopolitan projects, to go back in time in Africa. It is necessary, according to him, to cross the sources, numerous, and varied. First, there are written sources, whether from travelers or merchants who have visited these kingdoms, or that have been produced by African societies: " Think of Ethiopia, for example, which has a tradition written for more than a millennium; we have thousands of manuscripts at our disposal, "says François-Xavier Fauvelle.

Added to this are other types of sources: " epigraphy (the study of inscriptions on stone), oral traditions, collected for a century or more, archeology, which alone is a documentary continent still largely buried in the basement of many African countries, "says the researcher," the rock art, from Sahara to Drakensberg, and then we can also start from the genetics of populations, animals and domestic plants, who also tells us a lot , "and conclude:" thus, we can reconstruct tables of history dating back 10 or 15,000 years back . "

Hence the idea of ​​calling on colleagues with cross-skills for this course at the Collège de France. It will be best to tell the story of the African world, in the plural, as underlined by the title of the chair created at the College de France. Because unlike Europe, societies and very different periods could cohabit on the continent.

" Arriving at the mouth of the Congo River in the fifteenth century, Portuguese navigators have for example discovered a powerful centralized state, the Kingdom of Kongo, which had all the attributes of the state, and which was nevertheless contemporary Pygmies societies of hunter-gatherers with whom he was interacting, economic in particular . " Africa is a geographical continent ," insists François-Xavier Fauvelle, " but it is several continents of history, which evolve over time and are connected to each other, also connected with the non-African worlds ."

On the occasion of his inaugural lecture "History and archeology of the African worlds", François-Xavier Fauvelle signs a text that we reproduce below in its entirety.

The historian of Africa knows that his job is not only to renew knowledge - it is to do it against the clichés of which the history of the continent suffers, be it the denial of historicity, the a fascination for origins (which makes us forget that history has continued to grow), or the "ethnic" reading grid of the past and the present.

This is the first challenge, to surprise. There are others: to make room for the diversity of African worlds, to observe that African societies have borrowed, over the millennia, various historical trajectories in terms of modes of political organization, techniques, types of 'economy. This diversity defies our evolutionary reflexes, because the current hunter-gatherer or rancher societies, which we would too quickly tend to describe as "prehistoric", are indeed our contemporaries. Therefore, what must question us are the social choices that preside over the coexistence of African cultures in the long term, their interactions and interpenetrations, the forms of economic symbiosis they have maintained. Another challenge is that of combining the field and the erudition: the materials that can be documents for the historian are numerous: rock art which, from the Sahara to the Drakensberg, has left striking images of past lifestyles and representations of the world; writing systems much more present throughout Africa than we think, and which reveal multiple uses of writing, epigraphic or manuscripts; stories left by outside witnesses, Greek, Arab, European; oral sources of this particular type that are called "traditions", which claim a patient critical examination work; archeology, which reveals tremendous potential; landscape history, comparative linguistics, genetics ...

At the crossroads of personal trajectories at the same time disciplinary, geographical and chronological, my works camp, since the years 2010, around the domain of the medieval African worlds, that my book The Rhinoceros of gold. Stories from the African Middle Ages (Alma, 2013) made known to a wide audience in France and abroad. Conscious, however, of the accumulation of strata of the past and the presence of the past in the present, this research does not forbid me to interpret contemporary events as a historian, as I have done by editing and annotating several Major Nelson Mandela's political speeches ( Summon the story Nelson Mandela: three commented speeches , Alma, 2015).

Anxious to respond, at the same time, to the need of renewal of the documentation and to the requirement of making knowledge available, it is a question of promoting a multidisciplinary practice of the field and a search of narrative forms in adequacy with the registers of sources. Hence the fragmentary character of the story in the Golden Rhinoceros , which seeks to do justice to both the precision of the documented fragment and the panorama of the large-scale mosaic that offers to see a connected medieval Africa. From here also the narrations in the form of surveys which, from the painted shelter of Christol Cave in South Africa ( Flight of cows to Christol Cave , Publications of the Sorbonne, 2009, with François Bon and Jean-Loïc Le Quellec) to Islamic cities of Ethiopia ("The Sultanate of Ifat, its capital and the necropolis of Wâlâsma", Islamic Annals , 2018, with Amélie Chekroun and Bertrand Hirsch) or Khoikhoi, the South African people victim of colonization ( In Search of the Ideal Wild , Le Seuil, 2017), they seek to recreate the conversation that is research and to give an identical place to "failures" and "discoveries".

I will work, in the course that I will provide at the College de France, to illustrate the news of research on the history of Africa, medieval Ethiopia (where I discovered, with others , many data on Christian societies, Islamic and non-monotheistic, who coexisted in the Middle Ages) interactions between Sahel and Maghreb (director of excavations of Sijilmâsa in Morocco for the last ten years, I am now moving towards a renewal research on the kingdoms of medieval Ghâna and Māli). In a complementary way, I wish to make of my annual seminar, which will take the form of mini-colloquia, a collective, international and multidisciplinary platform allowing to approach more widely fields of history where the syntheses of the knowledge are still awaited.

Source: rfi

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