This is perhaps the beginning of an audiovisual encyclopedia. For its first season, the African Empires series aims to reveal a story of Africa that is still little told in the West and to demonstrate its universal scope. A story from before colonization. That of the Kush kingdoms and empires in Sudan, Mandé in Mali, Zulu in South Africa and Moogo in Burkina Faso. Broadcast throughout the month of November and until December 2 on TV5Monde in replay, visible in 2024 on Canal Afrique, the first four episodes are devoted to emblematic personalities of the continent.

The first episode takes us to Mandinka country, where the emperor Sundiata Keïta reigned from 1235 to 1255 over a territory which extended from the Atlantic coasts of Senegal and Guinea to the desert expanses of Niger, encompassing part of what is now Mali. A slice of medieval history that has come down to us partly through the voices of generations of griots.

The second traces the dazzling conquests of the Zulu people at the beginning of the 19th century led by Shaka Zulu. Nicknamed the Black Napoleon for his military genius and his will to reform, the warrior managed to extend his domination over two thirds of present-day South Africa before dying in 1827, probably assassinated by half-brothers jealous of his power.

The legend of Yennenga unfolds in the third act. Impetuous, the princess founded the Moogo kingdom between the 11th and 15th centuries on a territory encompassing Burkina Faso and part of present-day Ghana. Celebrated by Mossi oral tradition, this accomplished horsewoman bequeathed to the history of Burkina Faso her most common surname: Ouédraogo, a name she gave to her son to honor the memory of her faithful steed. Since 2002, Yennenga has appeared in majesty on his white horse at the front of the National Assembly.

Finally, the last episode plunges us into the heart of the palace of Meroe, between Aswan and Khartoum, during the reign of the sovereign Amanirenas who administered the kingdom of Kush, in present-day Sudan, in the first century BC. other icons of the continent, the time and life of the queen, famously fierce, have been well documented in writing. Two fascinating steles engraved in Meroitic writing, the centuries-old language of the black pharaohs which has not yet revealed all its secrets, retrace the exploits of this strategist. Audacious to the point of defying the Roman Empire in Egypt and which his Greek contemporary, the historian and geographer Strabo, recounted.

In addition to the reconstructions filmed on the continent by African or Afro-descendant directors, there are drawn animations and the deciphering of African scientists and artists which gives historical and cultural depth to the subject. “We wanted everyone to participate in these stories which are our heritage and that of our children,” explains Sébastien Onomo, Frenchman of Cameroonian origin who created and produced the series with Creative Touch Studios. Because these stories have too often been written by Westerners, or not at all. They have failed us in our personal construction. »

“All history is contemporary”

Based on the work of the General History of Africa, an encyclopedia in thirteen volumes launched by UNESCO in 1980, the series does not avoid the thorny question of the sources of certain stories, transmitted orally. Returning in particular to the case of the Mandé Charter, which in the 13th century proclaimed the prohibition of slavery and the inalienable nature of the human being, and whose classification as a world heritage site in 2009 sparked controversy.

“This controversy is interesting to study because it replays the balance of power in Africa and the West,” says Beninese historian Amzat Boukari-Yabara in the first episode. Was Africa able to produce a humanist text before the Declaration of Human Rights? » The fascinating dialogue that takes place throughout the series between the experts reminds us, as summarized by the Malian historian Doulaye Konaté, that “all history is contemporary” and reflects the civilizational issues of its time. Stories that deserve to be (re)visited.