By Christopher Charamba
An acquaintance of mine recently made a comment that went along the lines of history is not important and that our leaders should be economists rather than historians. As an individual who has studied history I was quite offended and proceeded to go on a mini rant in defence of the discipline.
History is not a favoured discipline in academia. It is one of those subjects in school that is either adored or abhorred by students. I’ve always taken a liking to history perhaps because of the teachers I had in high school or exploring the stories and imagery of real life events.
The question a lot of people asked as I took on my studies is “what are you going to do with history?” As a discipline it is seen as inferior to all the other disciplines, however it is an integral part of them all.
Most studies are conducted from things that have happened in the past.
We cannot predict the future but we can analyse what has happened previously and how it shall affect what is to come. The importance of history and constantly observing our past is pertinent to our development. It is pointless to live without consequence in the present and not heed what one has gone through.
A plethora of adages can be made in defence of history. One of my personal favourites is that “a history forgotten is a future lost.” It is necessary for us to know where we have come from to have an inclination of where we intend to go.
Knowing where we have come from incorporates the values and belief systems that we uphold and observe. These standards define who we are as an individual, a community, a society and a nation. A better understanding of our past helps to build our identity.
One key instrument of oppression that slave owners in the Americas used when acquiring slaves from Africa was force the Africans to change their names. This had an effect of changing the identity of this slave. The African name they had carried was no longer part of their identity as a new one had been formed, an identity that subjected them to the life of a slave.
The same can be said of the missionaries who when they baptised the Africans made them take up Christian names. The African name that a person previously had that made them identify with their kinsmen was removed and a new identity was created, one controlled by the giver of the name.
The late Nigerian author Chinua Achebe is attributed with the saying “Until the lion has his own historian, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” Achebe is stressing the fact that he who controls the history controls the narrative.
This is evident in history and in the present. Empires, governments, regimes, dictators have long controlled the history of a people to control the narrative going forward. Nazi Germany perfected this art and portrayed Jewish people in the worst possible imagery culminating in the Holocaust.
In our 21st Century, governments world over use events in history as a constant reminder to their people to why they take certain political decisions both good and bad. Controlling the narrative allows for the control of the people.
It is certainly true that knowledge of history alone will not bring about the economic turnaround that is surely desired in Zimbabwe. However we can learn from the mistakes of the past be it in finance sector, agriculture or industry.
Albert Einstein said “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” The danger in neglecting what has happened in the past is to succinctly put it, insanity. Mistakes are a part of life and also important life lessons. Knowing where we have gone wrong can propel us to making different and better decisions.
We are a total sum of the events that have occurred in our lives. These events define us and what we will become. It is therefore important for us to cherish these events as a human race and use them to better the development of our species.
The case made for history is one that intends for its importance to be recognised in fusion with all other disciplines. Let us learn as much as possible about our history in order for us to build our identity as Zimbabweans. Let events from history serve to guide our economic and political policies moving forward. Let traditional principles such as Ubuntu return from archives of history to form part of our society and culture. Let us own our history.
(This piece first appeared on January 1, 2015 in The Herald under the title “Why we should take history seriously.”)