28 July 2018
Meet Stephen Temitope David, a historian and storyteller
It’s not history that matters, but the way it is told, says Stephen Temitope David. The Nigerian historian seeks to add an African perspective to Western narratives. Julia Jaki met him in Stellenbosch, South Africa.
Mungo Park, the 18th century Scottish explorer of West Africa, discovered the Niger river, according to Stephen Temitope David’s school history book. But did he really?
Certainly not, says Stephen. The Nigerian national is now a PhD student at Stellenbosch University in South Africa’s Western Cape Province.
“Through my dad I have heard about people who lived at the banks of these rivers even before Mungo Park was born!”
This, says Stephen, is is a telling example of how history and identity have been shaped in Africa.
“Africans have been robbed of a certain confidence regarding who they are through the way history has been written.”
It is crucial that African historians respond to the Western narratives and that students be introduced to a new perspective, Stephen believes.
“It’s critical for the young people to start having this sense of who they are right from secondary school years, so by the time they get into university they have a deep knowledge of their identity.”
Learning from the war
An important though neglected part of Nigerian identity, says Stephen, is the Biafran War, a brutal episode in Nigerian history that he chose to investigate for his thesis.
The war started in 1967 when a secessionist movement proclaimed the Republic of Biafra. In the years that followed, more than a million people lost their lives due to the war, many through starvation.
It was recent events in Nigeria rather than a pure interest in the country’s past that made him settle on this topic. “In Nigeria, the agitation for secession is at the front of issues once more,” says Stephen. “Lately, it has taken a violent turn.”
But why, after all these years, would people take an interest in this secessionist agenda? And what explains the fact that it is particularly the youth who get involved? “My research reveals that it is because a lot of these young people do not have a proper sense of history, they do not have a deep engagement with what really transpired during the war,” Stephen says.
Encouraging young Africans to follow their dreams
Stephen hopes to fill this vacuum by publishing a popular version of his thesis once he is finished. He wants to get the message across. He finds inspiration from the storytelling tradition of his Yoruba ethnic group. And he hopes that African societies will recognize the value of historical research and of history as a profession.
“I have a lot of people I’m mentoring who would run to me to say I want to do this but my parents want me to be a doctor, they want me to be an engineer. It’s because of the premium we place on certain disciplines, but it’s important that we acknowledge that the humanities as a whole have a lot to contribute, even to the sciences.”
Stephen encourages young people to go their own ways. He knows what it means to feel misplaced in your job. “I had a brief stint in telecommunications back home,” he reveals. “I worked there for six years, then I found that I wasn’t getting fulfilled, I just felt there was a lot more I could do. Now I’m doing what I really want to do, so there is absolutely nothing that trumps that.”
This report is part of the African Roots series, a project realized in cooperation with the Gerda Henkel Foundation. It first appeared in DW, the German public service broadcaster.