Cambridge Admissions Tutor

Dr Bronwen Everill

When I first started teaching African history at university, I found it intimidating that my students had no background at all in the history of that continent.

I spent much of the first year tackling a persistent image of Africa as all one thing; as a place of suffering and oppressive poverty; as a place with no history. Luckily, I had some fantastic students who were excited to be learning completely new things and who were ready to have their preconceptions challenged.

But since that year, I have been hopeful that the introduction of new A Level options in African history – options that took the continent’s variety and deep history seriously – would start tackling these preconceptions earlier. As fun as it had been to see the students really changing their mind and being excited about learning completely new things, it was frustrating that this had to wait until university (and often until the second or third year), meaning that a deeper engagement with specific regions or actors or time periods would often have to be pushed back even further.

If students began learning these things at A Level, at university we could offer more advanced options earlier in the degree course.

This is a rather selfish reason to hope teachers take up the new A Level offerings in African history. More importantly, the African history that is offered can open up all kinds of new ways for budding historians to think about what it is they are doing. Teaching and learning about different groups and periods in Africa’s diverse history is a great way to think afresh about assumptions that we make all the time about change over time, Whig narratives, ‘bias’ in history writing, the sources that make up our understanding of the past, and the different approaches – political, cultural, economic and social – that historians take.

African Kingdoms c.1400–c.1800: Songhay, Kongo, Benin, and Oyo and Dahomey

What is a ‘state’ and how it is different from, or the same as a ‘nation’? Does the Songhay Empire resemble European state structures of the same period, or do we have to rethink what the ‘early modern state’ looks like?
What impact does the individual make on historical processes? How do Oba Equare and Oba Ezuola affect the rise of Benin?
What assumptions do we make about the importance of politics (or economics, or culture, or religion) as a driver of change? Does it matter that Nzinga a Nkuwu converted to Christianity in the Kongo? And why?
What causes change over time? And how do we see change over time when there are few preserved documents? Changes in material culture? In settlement patterns? In trading partners? In religion? In food?
Teaching and learning about the Kingdom of Kongo, the Songhay Empire, the Kingdom of Benin, and the Empires of Oyo and Dahomey provides a way of thinking about these historical questions in ways that challenge assumptions based on European norms. Students who study African history as they are forming their ideas about whether to study history at university will be better informed about the processes of history writing, the philosophical work of being a historian, and the challenges and limitations that historians are always working against in crafting our narratives. They will be more sophisticated historians not only because the range and depth of their knowledge will go beyond that of their peers, but because they will have already grappled with the kinds of questions that will come up again and again as they write their application statements, prepare for interviews, and experience their first year coursework.

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