Remembering the achievements of our African ancestors and their journey to emancipation from slavery gives us a sense of identity and helps us to appreciate our roots. This is the aim of celebrations that would be held throughout the month of February, designated Black History Month worldwide.
The Mali Empire and the Mande Charter
Most social studies and history programs teach little about the kingdoms of Africa. Not much is said about the great kingdoms of sub-Saharan Africa such as the Kingdom of Kush, the Kingdom of Axum, the Land of Punt, the Mali Empire, the Songhai Empire, and the mysterious Zimbabwe Kingdom.
This week, we take a look into the Mali Empire and the founding of the Mande Charter.
Many know the Magna Carta, which is regarded as the first document to encapsulate any sort of human rights. It is a charter agreed to by King John of England on June 15, 1215. It is one of the most important documents in history as it established the principle that everyone is subject to the law, even the king, and guarantees the rights of individuals, the right to justice and the right to a fair trial.
However, according to French anthropologist and ethnographer Jean-Loup Amselle, who has studied and written about African society, culture and art, particularly how outside influences are adopted by cultures, the “Kurukan Fuga Charter” also known as the “Mande Charter”, is said to predate the Magna Carta.
The Mande Charter was born at the founding of the Mali Empire. Sometime in the 1200s, a great warrior named Sundiata Keita pronounced it. Though Disney takes credit for the moniker, Keita was the original “Lion King.” After calling for a rebellion, he raised an army and squashed his sovereign’s forces, consolidating the empire, and eliminating the state of Old Ghana.
At the site of Kurukan Fuga, meaning “clearing on a hard rock,” situated between what is now Guinea and Mali, the resplendent Keita assembled a group of wise men, the chiefs of the various clans. These included Sumanworo Kanté, Emperor of Sosso, whom he had just defeated at the battle of Krina.
After the Charter’s declaration, it was passed down through griots or bards, the famed storytellers of the region, and keepers of the culture. This is a family affair, and stories and other items are passed down still today from father to son.
The spoken document, which has also been called a “Constitution”, contains a preamble and seven chapters. It speaks on social peace, the sanctity of human life, women’s rights, the right to an education, food security, and even to self-expression. The charter gave equal rights to citizens including women and slaves. The aim was to provide peace and social stability. It advocated diversity and spoke of abolishing slavery, in this case the razzia or raid.
Since the Mande Charter was derived from an oral tradition, it isn’t easy to date. Historians as near as they can piece together have put it at 1236. Amselle contends that the Mande Charter actually predates the Magna Carta, adding that that most scholars familiar with the subject agree that Mande Charter is either contemporary to or predates the English document.
Black History Month was started by Harvard-trained historian Carter G. Woodson, who also founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH). In 1925, Woodson conceived and announced Negro History Week. The event was first celebrated during a week in February 1926 that encompassed the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.
Woodson and others like him believed that truth could not be denied and that reason would prevail over prejudice. The goal of started Black History Month was to help raise awareness of African American’s contributions to civilization.
This paved the way opening the door to many events, clubs and teachers demanding materials to instruct their pupils as well as scholars and philanthropists stepping forward to endorse the effort.
Carter G. Woodson first coined Negro History Week in 1925 and it was introduced as a full month by President Gerald R. Ford in 1976. Upon Woodson’s death in 1950, it continued to grow into a central part of African American life and substantial progress had been made in bringing more Americans to appreciate the celebration.
At mid–century, mayors of cities nationwide issued proclamations noting Negro History Week. The Black Awakening of the 1960s dramatically expanded the consciousness of African Americans about the importance of black history, and the civil rights movement focused Americans of all colour on the subject of the contributions of African Americans to history and culture.
Throughout this month, Sunday Times Magazine will feature notable achievements by our African ancestors and present-day individuals. (Guyana Times Sunday Magazine)