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.
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