Sierra Leone’s first-generation professional historians are almost extinct. With the passing of Arthur Abraham and Cecil Fyle within a year, we are now down to a single survivor. The pioneering Durham breed, which commenced the herculean task of reconstructing the Sierra Leonean past are themselves now history: dead, retired, and hors de combat in a field that has expanded beyond their collective imaginations. And this is happening at a time when there are very few practicing historians in Sierra Leone — the second generation —with sadly no inkling of a third generation in sight.
The first generation professional historians — Arthur Porter?, Akintola Wyse, Gus Deveneux, Arthur Abraham, Mac Sam Dixion-Fyle, Cyril Foray, James Lenga Koroma, Eddie Turay, Alpha Bah, Gilbert Cleo-Hanciles — with one exception, have all joined the ancestors. Those with terminal degrees, not including Arthur Porter, Cyril Foray, did graduate work and completed their primary research within four/five years of each other, that is to say, between 1972 and 1977. Graduating in the middle of the second decade of independence was rather late — they could all have studied at the University of Ibadan, the birth place of African historiography; for Ibadan, and the four second generation universities in Nigeria, had all produced PhDs in history by the mid-70s. But Fourah Bay College, and later the University of Sierra Leone, remained an under-graduate liberal arts school, which meant that there were no graduate programmes/ students, just the rare but occasional Masters degree student — three in the last century: Gilbert Cleo-Hanciles, Alpha Lavalie, and Festus Cole.
Within a decade after their graduation, this pioneering cohort started trooping off to greener pastures, even before they could fulfill their historic mission — Abraham was the first to depart to Liberia; followed by Wyse, who moved down the coast to Nigeria; then Dixion Fyle. All this happened within five years — 1977-1981. The Journal of the Historical Society of Sierra Leone — a script taken from Nigerian and Ghanaian historians — started life in 1977 but unfortunately choked to death when Abraham, the founding editor, left for Liberia. As Head of African Studies, Magbailey Fyle would continue editing the Africana Research Bulletin, the flagship publication of African Studies, not history. With his departure to the U.S., Abraham, who had returned, took over African Studies until he himself immigrated to the U.S. in the late 90s, leaving Wyse, the last man standing, solely in charge of the abandoned manor.
As such, a department that started life with Arthur Porter as chair, succeeded by a British expatriate, Peter Kup, and an American in the 60s, John Paterson, who would remake the department by offering the first course in African history, ran a top-heavy undergraduate programme straight into the twenty-first century, when it was mistakenly merged with the externally mid-wifed African Studies programme — a U.S. sponsored outfit dubbed ‘Africanist enterprise’ by leftist critics. The 1960s saw, not only, the establishment of the Institute of African Studies but also the beginning of a full fledged History department, with courses in African history and an honours programme.
But History, the abused queen of the humanities/social sciences, has not been as popular as it used to be — few students now want to offer History or major in a discipline that seemingly has no utilitarian value outside telling boring stories about a past no one cares about/wants to remember. So, students now troop to law en mass at FBC. At Njala and Unimak, History is visibly absent in the menu; it is as if the end of history has been proclaimed with the fundamentalist embrace of a dis-anchored STEM, that promises a rosy future with no sense of the past. Years ago, attempts to recruit graduate students, after a colleague at an American university offered to guarantee a four-year graduate funding, fell apart because there were none to recruit. Law and the social sciences, erroneously seen as lucrative professional pathways, are sucking in students from History at a time when historians are needed to engage in the task of producing historical knowledge for/about the nation-state and the continent of Africa.
The fall in student enrollment for History is admittedly a global trend dating back to the last century. But its deleterious consequences in Africa have meant more non-Africans, especially white European males, exclusively taking over the research and writing of African history. The sprouting of post-colonial studies in the erstwhile post-colony and the global North, and the recent resurgence of counter-hegemonic epistemological agendas in the global South, are indicative of a major seismic shift in decentering and provincialising Euro-America. Can we in Sierra Leone/Africa afford to be left out of this intellectually reinvigorating de-colonial context?
If the first generation academic historians were saddled with producing a ‘nationalist’ history — ‘they wanted their voices heard’, a leading practitioner declared — that narrative came in the form of an ethnic problematic, which served as an ideology for the political class. Undeterred, the second-generation historians embraced this well beaten and discredited pathway in reconstructing the Sierra Leonean past. But unlike the first generation historians, whose terminal degrees were minted within four/five years apart of each other, the second group spanned a whole generation to come on stream — I. Abdullah, 1990; P. Dumbuya, 1991; J. Alie and A. Jalloh, 1993; F. Cole, 1994; S. Ojukutu-Macauley, 1997; I. Rashid, 1998; N. Blyden, 1998; G. Cole, 2000; J. Bangura, 2006; T. M’bayo, 2009; and L. Gberie, 2010. Almost all the above who researched Sierra Leonean history/historiography within that twenty years period lived and worked outside Sierra Leone. And all of them, with the exception of Abdullah, Blyden and Rashid, were trained at FBC, before graduate work in North America/the U.K. Of these twelve historians, eight are currently resident outside Sierra Leoone; one has never held an academic position; while two only recently returned from their sojourn in the U.S.
After twenty years in the trenches, it is fair to say this cohort of twelve, scattered mostly in the U.S., have still not succeeded in making the desired impact, in terms of research output, that would translate to ownership of the Sierra Leonean past by Sierra Leonean professional/academic historians. Indeed this goal, which eluded the first generation, continues to haunt, not only the study and production of knowledge(s) on/about the Sierra Leonean past in general, but also the humanities and social sciences broadly defined.
The intervention of a group of Sierra Leonean scholars spearheaded by two historians — Dixion-Fyle and Cole — on the study of the Creole/Krio, marked the first scholarly attempt by Sierra Leonean historians/scholars to consciously seize the initiative to shape the study of their past(s). New Perspective on the Sierra Leone Krio was therefore timely; it was a major collective intervention by Sierra Leonean scholars in thinking through basic foundational issues in the reconstruction of the Sierra Leonean past, although it remains uncertain the extent to which they contoured the field or re-defined the problematic. But the theorisation around the Creolisation versus Kriolisation binary — the sucking up of autochthonous communities in the Freetown area— revealed contradictory possibilities that the contributors were reluctant to engage. Gibril Cole would pursue this theme of Kriolisation in his monograph that sets to re-invent the Oku community as Krio Muslims in nineteenth century Freetown. But these and other related issues have been challenged by Joseph Bangura — The Temneh of Sierra Leone — who raises fundamental questions about the city of Freetown and its inhabitants, which go against the traditional narrative of Creoledom as the hegemonic cultural capital and political force. Even so, these works remain centered around the original sin — ethnicity and the privileging of specific groups in understanding our individual and collective past(s). Blyden’s work on West Indian identity similarly falls within the suffocating ethnic ambit of the first generation. And Jalloh, following the path of Bah, who was no doubt influenced by the invention of the Creoledom/Mendedom thesis, has presented his own elaboration on this theme in his work on the Fullah in politics and commerce.
But after sixty years of knowledge production, Sierra Leone historiography needs to move away from this ethnicisation of the past and, by implication, the present. This original sin, which defines the first generation historians, has been reproduced with unrefined gusto sans nuance by the second generation of professional historians.
Small gains have been made in the area of the historiography of the Sierra Leonean civil war — where Sierra Leoneans collectively intervened to define and shape the knowledge(s) produced about the war and the subsequent debates around the war and its continuation. This took place in an African Development special issue and subsequently an anthology — Democracy and Terror — under the aegis of CODESRIA. Here the work of Zubairu Wai, an historically informed social scientist, stands out at the end point of this major scholarly intervention in shaping the field — the historiography of the civil war — in how we think and make sense of the war. Individual scholars have made seminal contributions in their specific areas of study — ranging from social history to subaltern subjectivities — slaves, peasants, and workers — to gender and class. The anthology on Sierra Leonean historiography — Paradox and History — was an attempt to chronicle some of the debates and themes in the reconstruction of the Sierra Leonean past(s).
Amidst this dark cloud, there are visible signs of a blue sky in the horizon. The Ebola anthology published in 2017 — Understanding West Africa’s Ebola Epidemic — has laid the groundwork for an opening in medical history/history of an epidemic/pandemic; an hitherto untouched area in the study of the Sierra Leonean past. Festus Cole’s initial foray into public health and disease was a first. Tamba M’bayo’s pioneering article on Ebola and poverty, which appeared in the new Journal of West African History, is also suggestive of the emerging/new thinking around medical history in our understanding of the Sierra Leonean past. An exciting dissertation on Sierra Leone medical history, and the use of medical knowledge for scientific and economic gains, by Chernoh Alpha Bah, is in the making; and a new course on medical history that I proposed in a recent curriculum review are pointers towards an exciting new sub-field within Sierra Leonean historiography, as written by Sierra Leoneans.
Although the study of the Sierra Leonean past has been on the menu at the department of History in Sierra Leone’s premier institution of higher learning since the late 60s, it has not always been taught by a qualified/dedicated professoriate with interest in the area. The dispersal of the first generation of professional historians to different climes in search of livelihoods; the demise of two academic journals dedicated to the study of that past; the fall in enrollment of History majors; the dearth of qualified faculty; the lack of solid long-term research agenda; plus the chronic inability to make the needed transition to graduate education, have all collectively hampered the possibilities within which a third generation of historians could emerge.
Only Sierra Leoneans can write their own history (ies). And only universities in Sierra Leone can produce those historians. It is immaterial at this point whether they troop out to do graduate work or not — the key production point in their making has historically been the Ivory Tower on the Hill.
But we need to do more than recruit and nuture a third generation of historians. There is the dire need to go beyond the year 1500 in our research/understanding of the Sierra Leonean past: no Sierra Leonean historian has done work on the history of the European slave trade or social/economic history of slavery. For a country that memorialises its historicity as an original Pan-African project (nation-state?), these yawning knowledge gaps not only question that claim but also undermine the extent to which it could be persuasively ideologised and reproduced in the service of national, as against ethnic, interests.
As the second generation of Sierra Leonean historians are on their way out — none of them are below fifty-five — should we now start visualising a future without Sierra Leonean historians?
The yawning chasm in the production of historical knowledge about us that excludes the period before 1500 should be made history! This Dark Age in the Sierra Leonean past needs to light up by inaugurating research projects that deal with that period; by reintroducing the subject of History as against Social Studies in the kindergarten/primary school/ and senior secondary school. Bringing History back in schools should be seen as an investment against our individual and collective ignorance; an ammunition to guarantee our collective security against national amnesia. Such an act is not only necessary for our collective liberation/emancipation, it should be seen as the springboard for our individual and collective survival as a multi-national nation-state in the twenty-first century.
It is never acceptable to have non-nationals write your history, nor is it acceptable to have them define the kinds of questions a nation should ask or confront in trying to make sense of its individual and collective identity in the committee of nations in the global arena. We are an African nation and non-Africans cannot and should not be producing knowledge(s) about us that are then appropriated by ‘others’ to define us. Let us collectively re-write our past by actively making history.
Ibrahim Abdullah wrote from Leceister Peak, Freetown, Sierra Leone.