Born in Khartoum, North Sudan and raised in the United Kingdom (UK), renowned journalist, Zeinab Badawi, decided it was time Africa’s rich and culturally significant history was narrated by the native inhabitants of the vast continent. Through her BBC video series, The History of Africa, she traversed the continent and interacted with African citizens and savants – in history, archaeology and culture. Their stories revealed a graphic picture of their continent’s past and how it has informed and continues to impact their lives today. She talks to Nomad about her journey of discovery.
The History of Africa series is an in-depth look at the continent’s past and untold stories. How many countries did you visit and what were the logistics involved?
I visited around 33 countries to film this series over a period of about six years, not only staying in capital cities but also travelling off the beaten track. The History of Africa isn’t just a series on the history of the 54 individual countries of Africa, but one that goes back so far in time, to before even most of the countries that exist today came into being. Logistically, it was a punishing travel schedule but because I worked with local crews in each location, it was actually a lot smoother than it would have been if I’d flown a crew in from London or Johannesburg. Each local crew knew their country’s major sites, locations and terrain extremely well and their input was invaluable to the making of the series.
You left for the UK aged two from Sudan. What inspired you to come back to document the untold history of the African continent through the series?
Sudan is a country with a long and ancient history. As a regular visitor there, I’ve seen the pyramids and other historic sites. I was very struck by the fact that few people, including my own family, were really aware of the nuts and bolts of Sudan’s ancient history. This was something that niggled in my mind for a very long time and I resolved to do something about it. Many years later, by chance, I was sitting in the office of the Deputy-Director General of UNESCO, Getachew Engida, who had in his bookcase UNESCO’s General History of Africa, which is Africa’s history told by Africans themselves. We discussed what a great idea it would be to bring this concept to television, and the rest is history.
You left Sudan before it was separated into two independent states. Did you feel any connection when you went back?
I was born in the north of Sudan – in Khartoum – and my family is from that part of the country. I’ve remained very close to my roots. I would travel to Sudan often, so I’ve never felt any disconnect. I do still visit as I think it’s important to feel connected to my heritage as it’s part of my identity.
Of all the African countries you visited, which one was the most memorable for you and why?
It would be Sudan because that’s where I was born and it’s where my family is from. Ethiopia and Eritrea were also memorable because my great grandmother was Ethiopian. I’d be really interested to hear from people who watched the series to see what they thought was most memorable.
What place do you think has the most unique cultures in Africa?
I was most struck by the Hadzabe community of Tanzania. They are a unique group in Africa because they are the last peoples on the continent to live entirely as foragers and hunters of big animals. They live as our ancestors did. I was struck by how in tune with nature their lives were and how little they seemed to crave the trappings of modern life. They were devoid of materialism and their life is lived in a very eco-friendly manner, based on strong community values. I learned a lot from their wisdom and appreciation of the simple but profound aspects of life.
What needs to be done so that the history of Africa is told by Africans?
I’m still struck by the fact that Africans are not in the driving seat when it comes to owning, controlling and conveying their own narrative globally, and it leaves a vacuum for that space to be filled by others. I always felt there was a need for global audiences to have African stories contextualised for them by the people who know and understand the continent and can offer a full picture of what’s happening here. That’s why the History of Africa is so important; it’s African history as told by Africans, and I encourage people to watch the last five episodes on BBC World News every weekend from 4th April.
What country do you plan to go back to again and why?
I go back to Sudan relatively often because I have extended family there, but I would rather go to the remaining African countries that I have never visited. I would love to go to Libya – which has a very impressive history – but because of the violence, that isn’t imminent.
In which African places did you experience the best hotels, lodges and camping sites?
I have to say when I went to Tanzania I stayed at a beautiful safari lodge. My only regret was that I only had one night there. All the hotels I stayed in Morocco were also absolutely stunning, but because the filming schedule was so hectic and because I wanted to visit as much of the continent as I could, we didn’t spend much time exploring the amenities of the hotels.
What was the first thing you did every time you arrived in a new country?
I’d always hit the ground running. One of the first things I’d do was to meet the crew, as they’d have such brilliant insights and recommendations on how the schedule should be organised to ensure we made the most of our visit to their country.
As a frequent traveler, what are some three tips you’ve come to learn firsthand?
I have a lot of travel tips, it’s difficult to narrow them down to three. When going to a country on a flight, always make sure you have got enough water to stay hydrated. I get very cold on airplanes so I always take lots of layers and a scarf to protect my throat from the harsh air conditioning. When you arrive at your destination, wear long sleeves in the sun with socks and comfortable shoes that allow your feet to expand in the heat, and a hat and sun protection, regardless of your skin tone. The third tip would be to always be aware of cultural sensitivities.