Image above: Bridget Osborne, Zeinab Badawi and Lucy Doggett filming in Egypt

The History of Africa with Zeinab Badawi, Series 1

After I left the BBC in 2014, I worked on a documentary series with Zeinab Badawi on the History of Africa, from its inception in the offices of UNESCO in Paris, where we came up with the idea while on a visit to talk about something else entirely, through film making trips to 13 African countries over the next few years and many hours of editing and scripting.

I had a fantastic time travelling around in jeeps and landcruisers, small planes and speedboats with African crews – witty, knowledgeable, talented guys, experiencing the impressive heat of the deserts of Sudan and safaris on the plains of the Serengeti, filming the surreal Italian art deco architecture of Eritrea’s capital city, and the stunning remains of the Roman cities of Algeria. Zeinab and fellow producer Lucy Doggett and I had such fun making this series and to say I learned a lot would be something of an understatement. Now the programmes are available to watch on BBC News Africa’s Youtube channel

I hope you enjoy watching them. Bridget Osborne, Editor, The Chiswick Calendar

Episode 1: Mother Africa

In this first episode, Zeinab Badawi travels across Africa examining the origins of humankind; how and why we evolved on the continent. Africa is the greatest exporter of all time: every human being originated from there. During her journey Zeinab is granted rare access to the actual bones of one of the most iconic discoveries in the field of paleontology, ‘Lucy’ in Ethiopia, or as she is known in Amharic, ‘Dinkenesh’, which means ‘you are marvellous’. Zeinab also spends time in Tanzania with an ethnic group that is unique in the world because they live in the way our ancestors did: as hunters of big animals and gatherers. This community, who have rarely been filmed, provide a fascinating insight into how we humans have lived for most of our history.

Episode 2: Cattle, Crops and Iron

Zeinab Badawi continues her journey through the history of human development travelling to meet the Maasai of  east Africa – one of the best known of the continent’s ethnic groups. They help explain how human beings began to domesticate animals and become pastoralists. Then in Zimbabwe with one lively farming family, Zeinab examines how humans also began to settle and make a living from farming. And  she also looks at how the Iron Age transformed life in Africa and paved the way for the development of rich urban civilisations.

Episode 3: Gift of the Nile

Zeinab Badawi’s quest to uncover the history of Africa takes her to Egypt where she explores the most famous ancient civilisation on the continent. Zeinab takes you beyond the usual coverage of the pharaohs, mummies and pyramids and examines the controversial question of who the ancient Egyptians actually were. What was their ethnicity? What made such a great civilisation possible and how did the ancient Egyptians order their society? And she is also allowed to capture on film the mummy and treasures of the famous boy king Tutankhamun.

Episode 4: The Kingdom of Kush

In this episode Zeinab Badawi travels to the country of her birth and the very region of her forefathers and mothers: northern Sudan where she sheds light on this little-known aspect of ancient African history: the great Kingdom of Kush. Its kings ruled  for many hundreds of years and indeed in the eighth century BCE (Before Common Era) they conquered and governed Egypt for the best part of 100 years. Furthermore, Kush was an African superpower. Its influence extended to the modern day Middle East.  Zeinab visits the best preserved of Sudan’s one thousand pyramids and shows how some of the ancient customs of Kush have endured to this day.

Episode 5: The Rise of Aksum

Zeinab Badawi travels to the rarely visited country of Eritrea and neighbouring Ethiopia to chart the rise of the kingdom of Aksum. Described as one of the four greatest civilisations of the ancient world Zeinab examines archaeological remains in both countries dating back many hundreds of years before our common era. She explains how the kings of Aksum grew rich and powerful from their control of Red Sea trade and how they were one of the first civilisations in the world that officially embraced Christianity in the fourth century. Also find out why the Queen of Sheba and the secret of the Ark of the Covenant are so fundamental to Ethiopia’s history.

Episode 6: Kings and Emirs

In this episode Zeinab Badawi focuses on the fall of the kingdom of Aksum  and how the Christian kings who followed in the wake of its demise left powerful legacies especially that of King Lalibela who ruled in the 12/13th century. He is credited with building a complex of rock hewn churches which represent amazing feats of engineering at that time.  Zeinab also charts the arrival of Islam in this part of Africa and how the Christian kings and Muslim emirs co-existed. And she visits Harar, the most holy of Ethiopia’s cities for Muslims, where she observes the bizarre long-standing tradition of the ‘hyena men’ of Harar who feed these wild animals by hand.

Episode 7: North Africa

In this episode Zeinab Badawi’s exploration of Africans’ rich history focuses on North Africa. She goes to Morocco to find out about the original inhabitants of the region in particular the Berbers or Amazigh as they prefer to be called. Zeinab visits Carthage in Tunisia and explains who the Carthaginians were and their place in Africa’s history. She also looks at the great Berber kings and how they managed to retain their influence when North Africa came under Roman rule. Zeinab visits some of the most extensive and least visited ancient sites in Algeria built under the Romans.

Episode 8: Ancestors, Spirits and God

In this episode Zeinab Badawi examines religion in Africa. First the enduring presence of Africa’s indigenous religions, to which millions of people on the continent still adhere. She travels to Zimbabwe to find out more about a remote community that follows traditional African religion. In Senegal she meets a Muslim man who, like so many others in the continent, blends Islamic beliefs with his ancestral ones and enjoys talking to trees! She also charts the impact of Judaism and early Christianity in Africa and how Africans in particular made significant contributions to Christian thinking and practice through influential figures such as St Augustine who lived in what is today Algeria.

Episode 9: Islam in Africa

In this episode Zeinab Badawi travels to several countries and looks at the early spread of Islam in Africa and how many Africans practise to this day a mystic, Sufi form of the religion. She shows how not only Islam but Arab culture came to influence a large part of the continent, particularly in the north. And she charts the rise of the powerful Islamic dynasties of North Africa, that built magnificent monuments, mosques and empires, including a part of southern Europe and who helped determine the path of this part of the continent.

Episode 10: Desert Empires

In this episode Zeinab Badawi visits rarely seen historic sites and magnificent ruins in Mali and Mauritania in west Africa. We hear from Africans about how trans-Saharan trade, mainly in gold, meant that by about the 7th century rich kingdoms became established in West Africa.  These eventually gave rise to three of the greatest empires on the continent, including the Mali Empire which began in the 13th century. Under armed guard, Zeinab visits the fabled city of Timbuktu, which was overrun by extremists in 2012. Mali’s ruler Mansa Musa was reputedly the wealthiest individual to have ever lived.   She brings a rich narrative of a period in Africa’s history when it was a significant player in the world economy, and influenced global thinking through great centres of learning.

Continue watching Series 2

Series 2 takes us from the emergence of the city states and kingdoms which gave rise to the rich and diverse civilisations of Africa, including some of the most iconic works of art on the continent such as the Benin bronzes, through the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade and the crushing of the economies of West Africa, through the painful period of European colonisation and right up to independence.

Series 2