By Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Mpilo Tutu
Let me tell you about one of my most beautiful memories of my childhood as a boy from a township near the small town of Klerksdorp in the Western Transvaal, South Africa. It had been a long day and I was sleeping in our modest home, which belonged to the Methodist Church. My father was headmaster of the Methodist Primary School; my mother was a domestic worker.
I don’t remember what had happened the day before, I just remember how tired I felt that day, and I must have fallen asleep, although all the adults were still up, and visitors were yet to come. Much later that evening, I was woken up, I don’t even recall by what – and while my eyes were getting used to the few lights still on, unprecedented beauty unfolded in front of me and all around me! Drums – big and small in all colours; trumpets of brass and silver with gleaming reflections, all standing on top and next to each other – and I was a apart of this magical feeling.
What had happened? Well, my father had organiszed a huge troop of Pathfinders, something like the Boy scouts, and as there was no safe place for them to store their instruments, he had agreed to keep them all in our small house!
When I read Lutz van Dijk’s A History of Africa, this moment of joyful surprise came to mind. Yes – it is possible to tell the history of this continent through the diverse voices of African women and men, old and young, in their own words, through their laughter and pain, through their mistakes and successes, through their hope and despair. No interpretation is needed, just an open mind – to listen.
Many volumes have been written and published on the history of this continent, among them distinguished works of internationally acclaimed historians. This book, however, offers an additional experience for young readers, no matter whether they have an African or European background. It offers an unlimited invitation for dialogue, a dialogue that is possible only when all voices are equally respected.
When I was a student at university I was taught that history, as all other science, should not pass moral judgements, but should instead focus on facts and figures. Indeed, you are able to learn the chemical reaction of certain elements with water with such a neutral attitude, but you cannot understand history properly without listening compassionately to all possible perspectives. There is never just one story that is capable of capturing the full reality – as, also, there is never just one truth that is enough to understand the whole truth. When we study the history of the African continent it is only too true that the voices of the majority of the “different” people, people who have and had been here for ages, have been ignored for far too long. History has been misused on many occasions in order to justify injustices.
Lutz van Dijk’s A History of Africa teaches us that one can understand history far more accurately by listening to those who have been silenced in the past. Empathy and compassion are not weaknesses. They will empower all for us who are not afraid to be confronted with a more complete reality.
Lutz van Dijk’s has not been afraid to go through such a process himself. Born and raised in Europe, a teacher, historian and writer by profession, and a human rights activist at heart, he came to South Africa a few years ago to report on the youth hearing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). He decided to stay in South Africa, to contribute to the peaceful transformation for my country, by working with children affected and/ or infected by HIV/AIDS. Fortunately for us all, he also continued to work as a writer for young readers. Finally, let me tell you about another surprise that might unfold through reading Lutz van Dijk’s book: a dialogue about the future of this continent, among young people, from all ethnic backgrounds, a dialogue that will be so much more effective when the historical tools for mutual respect are learnt in our schools from the very beginning – when learning about history becomes an adventure to discover and understand the other humans like me.
Allow me to paint you a picture:Imagine young learners, some black, some white, in a school somewhere in a small town in Western Transvaal, South Africa. Imagine these young learners explaining to each other how their parents and grandparents might have felt and thought, unable to speak to each other. Imagine these young learners – talking and listening to each other.
Just imagine . . .
Certainly, Lutz van Dijk’s A History of Africa is not complete. It cannot be complete, as this new journey is just beginning. It would be easy to criticize him for all that has not been mentioned in this book, a book of somewhat more than 250 pages, a book that covers the incredible time from prehistoric ages to modern days, written in a language that can be understood by young readers and all of us who are not historians.
This book inspires us to ask more questions – without simplistic accusations.
This book resists all black and white stereotyping.
Just to confirm again, and again: None of us is good or bad because of the colour of our skin, or any other superficiality, but only by virture of our character and action, and our ability to be kind to the person next to us. Remember, we are all created in the image of God.