As 2019 winds down, the media has started its annual ritual of taking stock, compiling lists, looking back. In the architecture world, the year’s biggest news story was arguably the Notre-Dame fire. The image of the cathedral’s burning roof—a wrenching sight—filled TV and computer screens around the world and occasioned an outpouring of grief, especially in France, where the building holds a central place in the nation’s collective consciousness. It was an architectural tragedy as well as a cultural one. No doubt: the April inferno struck at the very heart of France.
Here in Africa, the event was viewed by many with a measure of nonchalance, even schadenfreude. This should come as no surprise, since that indifference is a response to generations of angst directed toward European colonialists, particularly the French, Belgians, and British, who for several decades engineered and sustained a continent wide pillage across the tribal states, its agents looting sacred cultural artifacts, often destroying those it couldn’t carry away.
It is a savage legacy. Entire civilizations were destroyed. Benin City, one of the continent’s most sophisticated enclaves, was reduced to rubble in 1897. By the end of the siege, British soldiers had looted nearly 3,500 cultural artifacts from the Palace of the Oba of Benin. A year earlier, the British invaded Maqdala and carted away sacred artifacts during the invasion of Abyssina.
In 1890, the same fate befell the Segou Royal Palace, in the then-capital of the Toucouleur Empire, which covers present-day Guinea, Senegal and Mali; there, French soldiers carted away thousands of artifacts, some of which were removed from shrines or other sacred places of worship. A recent commissioned study undertaken by Felwine Sarr and Benedicte Savoy puts the number of stolen artifacts currently held in French museums at a staggering 90,000. Twice that number is believed to be housed at Musee Royal de l’Afrique Centrale in Belgium. And these figures do not take into account the vast number of looted artifacts in private museums or personal collections around the world.
The fire at Notre-Dame, tragic as it was, does provide an opportunity, a valuable historic backdrop, for a larger and long overdue discussion about France’s cultural legacy in Africa. Keep in mind: that legacy remains every bit as painful for us, as the fire at Notre-Dame was for the people of France. We know what it’s like to lose our culture, to see it looted, to watch it engulfed in flames. I am in no way downplaying or dismissing the fire at the cathedral. Just the opposite: I hope for the full restoration of Notre-Dame and a fuller accounting for events in colonial Africa.
In 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron pledged during a visit to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, to return Africa’s stolen cultural artifacts. “I cannot accept that a large part of cultural heritage from several African countries is in France,” he said. “There are historical explanations for that, but there are no valid justifications that are durable and unconditional. African heritage can’t just be in European private collections and museums. African heritage must be highlighted in Paris, but also in Dakar, in Lagos, in Cotonou.” As a result, the French government commissioned the restitution study by Savoy and Sarr. And yet it’s been a year since the report was submitted, and there has been no tangible progress toward repatriation and restitution.
As an architect who studied the cathedral as a student, I’m thrilled that wealthy French citizens are pooling their enormous resources to help with rebuilding efforts. There is no doubt that Notre-Dame will be rebuilt, just as it was after it was vandalized by angry Parisans in the 1790s during the French Revolution. Sadly, Africa’s looted cultural heritage faces a more uncertain future. As France rebuilds Notre-Dame, it is only fair to ask that it follows through with its commitment to return stolen African artifacts and make tangible restitution for the decades of destruction it caused across the continent. But know this: Africa lost more than just its artifacts. Whole cities were sacked, and along with them went our urbanism and native architecture.
Many non-Africans have often tried rationalizing colonialism as a piece of distant history that Africans ought to have gotten over by now. But its legacy is one that will forever define Africa. This poem by Niyi Osundare, “Africa’s Memory,” captures the despair and anguish still felt across the continent:
I ask for Oluyenyetuye bronze of Ife
The moon says it is in Bonn
I ask for Ogidigbonyingbonyin mask of Benin
The moon says it is in London
I ask for Dinkowawa stool of Ashanti
The moon says it is in Paris
I ask for Togongorewa bust of Zimbabwe
The moon says it is in New York
I ask for the memory of Africa
The seasons say it is blowing in the wind
The hunchback cannot hide his burden