7 mins

Dr Gus Casely-Hayford on the Lost Kingdoms of Africa

Lost Kingdoms of Africa is back for a second series. Dr Gus talks to Peter Moore about what makes a civilisation great and the joys of eating bread flecked with camel dung

Dr Gus Casely-Hayford

When the first series of Dr. Gus Casely-Hayford's Lost Kingdoms of Africa aired on BBC Four it was the channel's highest rated factual programme ever. Now Britain's favourite curator and cultural historian is back with a new series, uncovering more African kingdoms whose history is sadly neglected in the West.

Can you tell us a bit about the new series of Lost Kingdoms of Africa?

We did the first series a couple of years ago. It was an enormous success. I thought I knew Africa, but getting the chance to see some of these really ancient cultures was an absolute revelation to me. We travelled huge distances across the continent. We were working with African academics and sociologists and they just had a very different perspective on African history than the history we are presented in the West and it was absolutely inspiring.

So we were delighted that the first series was so well received and that we’ve been given the opportunity to do a second. Without giving too much away we explore the Asante Kingdom in Ghana, South Africa's Zulu Kingdom, the Berbers in Morocco and Uganda's two great kingdoms, Bunyoro and Buganda.

In researching the series you travelled the equivalent of two circuits of the earth on African rural roads. Where did your journey take you?

All over Africa. We started in northern Sudan and travelled down through the whole of Sudan. Ethiopia. Uganda. We also went through Tanzania, into Mozambique. Then South Africa, Zimbabwe, so right down that eastern spine of Africa.

We saw some amazing things, going from desert, into tropical forest, into coastal regions and then onto that huge rocky plateau that is part of Zimbabwe. It was absolutely amazing.

We also worked in West Africa, in Mali and in Ghana, and that is an area of incredible kingdoms, amazingly rich material culture. There is gold, textile, carvings.

And then into North Africa – Morocco. Everywhere, the intensity of what we saw and how those ancient cultures are still, in some ways, living through contemporary practices was just stunning.

Why do you think Africa has such a hard time being taken seriously as a home of great civilisations?

It is rather desperately sad. Hegel said “Africa is a place without history” and it has suffered from this idea ever since.

The strange thing is, I’ve never been anywhere where people are more aware of their history, who live in their history. You go to Ghana and everything from cloth to jewellery are all a celebration of history. The place is steeped in stories. These stories travelled with the slaves. Even slavery couldn’t kill those stories.

I studied history throughout my professional career and thought I understood it. But getting to Africa, and hearing the oral history, hearing how deeply it is held and how much it is treasured, I realised that these are people who hold their history in very high esteem. I think we all have something to learn from Africa.

What is it that marks a great civilisation? Here in the West we think of monuments left behind or art. What do you think makes a great civilisation?

Well, I think monuments and art and material culture are important markers of a great civilisation, but I think, with regards to Africa, you have to look at it somewhat differently. This is a landscape where the weather, the temperatures, the humidity is really extreme so a lot of things that survive and tell the story of European culture just hasn’t survived the same way.

But the things that you look for as a historian of ancient cultures are amazing stories and Africa is absolutely full of them. Even in cultures that are a thousand years old, the stories are still very much part of the present, and that, for me, is what is so great about Africans in relation to their history. They keep those histories alive through the retelling. I think that’s a mark of a great civilisation.

In the first series you visited Mapungubwe, in South Africa. To the untrained eye, it just looks like a big rock, yet it was home to an incredible civilisation.

A lot of the first Europeans who travelled to Africa, they thought it was a place without real history. When they saw places like Great Zimbabwe, they thought they must have been created by foreigners. But the kinds of interventions that Africans have traditionally made on their environment have often been very sympathetic and very subtle.

In many ways Africans have had a very fundamental impact on the environment, so great that we don’t even recognise them as human. The huge plains of southern Africa for example. To Europeans it looks like a wild area, but actually the land and the animals were being very subtly managed. Our need for straight lines and fences and substantial buildings means that we couldn’t actually recognise it.

You're passionate about art in Africa. For a lot of people who visit it’s basically wooden giraffes.

There is a real rich, deep hinterland of traditional African art that is still being made. And a lot of that is a mechanism for holding the history, a way of binding communities together, of keeping narrative. People can unravel a textile and it tells an incredible story. People can use sculpture as a way of invoking spirits. They can pierce objects as a way of releasing medicinal powers. These are the traditional ways that art was used. It actually had a very concrete connectivity.

Over time some of that has been lost. But those objects, even though they were practical, were always gorgeous. So the aesthetic, the beauty of those traditions is maintained, even if some of the richness of the practices that surrounded them have been eroded in time.

The wonderful thing is that Africans are prepared to adapt and change their traditions and to work with them in the modern world.

Some of those practices were ahead of their time though. The techniques used to create the Benin bronzes back in 16th century, for example, were much more sophisticated than those used by their European contemporaries.

The bronze heads, in particular, are amazing objects. When Europeans first saw them they didn’t believe they could have been made by Africans. They were made with such precision.

Many of them were made in pairs and they were made using something called the Lost Wax technique, which means that every single bronze is unique. But when Europeans and experts saw them in these pairs they thought they were identical and not unique pieces of art.

Thankfully, we’ve moved through that period, and there is the expertise, both in Europe to appreciate them, and in Africa, to preserve them. We’re in a much better position than we were 20, 30 years ago.

Do you think these works of art should stay in the British Museum, where the sheer number of visitors, from all of the world, means that a lot of people see them? Or go back to Africa where less people would see them but could be a source of pride and inspiration to the nations they originally came from?

I would love to see some of those amazing plaques that sit in museums in the West to now travel back to Africa to be displayed there, whether temporarily or long term.

Not so long ago it was thought that there wasn’t the security or the level of conservation skills that would be required to look after these objects in Africa. But now, if you look at somewhere like Nigeria, which is enormously wealthy in relation to other countries in Africa, it is in a position to create absolutely world class museums.

So I think we need to look again at this situation. Perhaps there’s an opportunity to share these objects. They are world class objects that don’t need to be owned by any particular nation.

What was your most memorable Lost Kingdoms moment?

Probably Djenne, on the inland delta of the Niger river. There’s literally a carpet of archaeology that covers this ancient site. You can’t tread anywhere without your foot resting upon some ancient piece of ceramic.

I’ve travelled so many places around the world, trying to find the remnants of ancient cultures. So finding a landscape that is completely saturated in such incredible things that are up to 1,000 years old, each one with a story, was incredible.

It was analogue for the richness of African culture and the way in which it is everywhere and the way in which people are incredibly relaxed about it. History is just part and parcel of just everyday life. In the West so much history is held in aspic, holed up in museums or in libraries and hidden from everyday life.

What was your most memorable 'travelling in Africa' moment?

In Sudan, driving in the Nubian desert. It was incredibly hot and when you looked out in every direction there was just absolutely nothing. It just gave us a sense of the scale of the country. And made us realise how tiny and vulnerable we were.

When I got out of the car and put my foot down, I noticed that I was treading on a piece of fossilised tree trunk. It reminded me that the desert that occupies most of north Africa was once was forest and that these environments are vulnerable and changing all the time.

Do you like to eat locally when you're travelling?

When you’re travelling long distances, trapped in your vehicle, you can feel hermetically sealed. You listen to your own music and start to feel distanced from the place you’re passing through. I've found that the best places to really feel a place, rub shoulders with local people, is in markets or eating food. When I wanted to connect to a place and its people, I would eat locally as much as I could.

What was your most memorable meal in Africa?

Probably eating insects in Venda, in South Africa. But having said that, I enjoyed some wonderful meals, amazing food. One highlight was being invited by a Zulu King to share a meal with him. A monarch wanting to communicate with me through food. What an incredible thing! We have this idea about Africa being so alien but the people are so open.

I shared another incredible meal with nomads in the desert in Morocco. We were sitting around a fire and half way through the meal they raked the coals away and pulled out what looked like a blackened boulder. I thought “What on earth are they doing?” They pulled this thing out and then broke it and I realised it was bread.

They’d basically put a lump of dough under the sand and it had cooked underneath the embers of the fire. A loaf of bread. They gave me some of the soft doughy bread from the inside. It was crunchy, with bits of sand, you could see flecks of camel dung in it, but it was good and I ate it heartily with camel milk. It was a gorgeous meal.

If someone was putting together an itinerary to see the Lost Kingdoms of Africa, where would you say were the must-see places to go?

Ethiopia is amazing. You get a sense of an almost fairytale kingdom from the churches there. Start in Lalibela and finish in Axum, which will give you a sense of the kingdom at its most ancient.

I would go to Sudan for its ancient archaeology. There are more pyramids in Sudan than there are in Egypt. If you want to see amazing sights, and see them without millions of tourists, go to Sudan.

In Tanzania, check out Kilwa. Here you’ll find ancient cities carved from coral, beautiful places that were built by merchants. People would come to trade from as far away as Great Zimbabwe with their gold to trade here.

Great Zimbabwe, if you get the chance, is a must-see. It’s not easy or pleasant to travel in Zimbabwe at the moment, but Great Zimbabwe, which is the African equivalent of the Parthenon, is worth the effort.

For living cultures, try Benin, Nigeria and Asante in Ghana, all in West Africa. For desert culture, go to Morocco.

Actually, if you visit any of those places you’re in for an absolute treat. As good as anything you’ll see in Europe.

Lost Kindoms of AfricaThe second series of Lost Kingdoms of Africa begins on BBC 4 on January 30 at 9 pm. The book accompanying the series is published by Bantam and is available for pre-order on Amazon now.

The first series of Lost Kingdoms of Africa is now available on DVD, courtesy of Acorn Media.

More like this

For more views from the leading lights of travel, visit our Interviews page.

EthiopiaEthiopia Travel Guide

Mighty mountains, deep depressions, sunken churches, unique wildlife and damn fine coffee - Ethiopia has it all More


SudanRiddles of the sands: northern Sudan

With its Nile-side pyramids, hieroglyphics and ancient trading routes, northern Sudan is a mesmerising history lesson - without Egypt's crowds More


BeninBenin Travel Guide

Tiny Benin, a thin sliver of West Africa, packs a big punch. Come to Benin for voodoo ceremonies, fetish markets, friendly locals and truly wild national parks More

Related Articles