Cheikh Anta Diop – The Pharaoh of Knowledge

I start this blog on the premise that most of us accept today that Africa is the cradle of mankind and that despite the geographical and political demarcations that separate North and Sub-Saharan Africa, all its inhabitants were originally one. But how many of us know of the Senegalese academician, scientist, philosopher and politician who popularised these concepts in the early 1950s and was widely criticised for doing so?

Séex (Cheikh) Anta Diop

His name was Séex (Cheikh) Anta Diop and his research, publications and discussions made him an important figure in elevating Africans, our histories, cultures and identities on the continent and across the Diaspora.

Thanks to Birkbeck University’s free airing of the Ouseman Mbaye film ‘Kemtiyu’ in London on 3 February 2017, I got to learn more about Dr Diop and understand why his arguments were so fiercely criticised by the academic elite. The film (the name of which is fittingly derived from the word Kemet – meaning land of the black people) chronicles Diop – a child prodigy and only surviving offspring of Magatte and Massamba Sassoum Diop. The film takes snippets from Diop’s interviews, footage from his French wife Louise Marie Maes, their children, colleagues and friends.

Pharaoh of knowledge

Born in the village of Thiaytou, central-west Senegal on 29 December 1923, he was thought to be a gifted individual. At age 12, he was reported to be developing a universal ‘African’ alphabet. He was educated in a traditional Islamic school, gained his bachelor’s degree in Senegal and continued his education in France. He went on to study philosophy then chemistry, physics, history, linguistics and anthropology in Paris in 1947. In adulthood, he was described as a ‘warrior of the mind’ and ‘Pharaoh of knowledge’ who believed that language (your own – not that of your coloniser) was the key to a country’s development. During his time in Paris, he reinforced this by giving a lecture in maths in Wolof – a language spoken in Senegal, the Gambia and Mauritania, primarily.

His book ‘Nations Négres et Culture’, published in 1954, revolutionised thinking on the origins of mankind at a time when it was widely believed that the ancient Egyptian civilisations and structures such as the pyramids could not have come from Black Africans. He argued that humankind started in Africa along the Nile River, and argued that the knowledge claimed to come from the Greeks was learnt when the Greeks came to study in Africa.

Ruffling feathers

After obtaining his doctorate in France, Diop returned to Senegal shortly after the country gained independence in 1960. But he faced fierce opposition. He not only clashed with Senegal’s first president Leopold Sedar Sénghor but was imprisoned for a month in 1962 because of his political activism. He was also banned from teaching at Dakar University because of his views. Diop famously said when fending off opposition from fellow Senegalese and Western academics, that unfortunately, for something to be considered objective, it had to come from the white man. Undeterred, he committed much of his life (he died aged 63) to establishing Senegal’s first carbon dating laboratory with IFAN (Institut Fondamental d’Afrique Noire – the Fundamental Institute of Black Africa). According to the Radio Carbon Laboratory (IFAN), the laboratory was the second of its kind in Africa next to  one in modern-day Zimbabwe. His written work was prolific as were his lectures, which attracted wide audiences and included invitations to the US up until his death.

Ironically, it was not until after his death that he was given the honour of having the seat of learning that he was banned from teaching in (Dakar University) named after him. The longest road in Senegal also bears his name. While these accolades are laudable, what is surprising is 31 years after his death, his work is not taught in the university, according to ‘Kemtiyu’ filmmaker Mbaye. There were efforts to introduce it into the curriculum in 2015, but this has not really progressed, Mbaye said.

Have you watched the film ‘Kemtiyu’ or do you know about Diop’s work – is so why do you think his legacy is not more widely known?

For more blogs like this, check out:

Azania – exploring cultural unity across ancient Africa

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