Cultural Memory and National Archives on the African Continent


Published: January 4, 2019 by Dr. Pat Franks


Between September 2016 and November 2017, 46 students and alumni of the iSchool participated in a research project that resulted in the publication of the first ever International Directory of National Archives.

The Directory presents the findings organized into 4 sections: Introduction, History of the Archives, The Archives Today, and Current Focus. All but the introduction contains sub-sections such as Organizational Structure and Physical Infrastructure. 

While the Directory makes a worthwhile reference work, the data gathered can be viewed through various lenses.  This blog post describes the relationship between cultural memory and national archives as it relates to the 54 nations of the African continent.

Cultural Memory: the Concept

Memories of individuals fade with the passage of time, unless the individual has made a significant and lasting impact on the world stage.  But the collective stories of individuals can live on within the context of cultural memories—“those transformative historical experiences that define a culture, even as time passes and it adapts to new influences” (Rodriguez and Fortier, 2007).  

Jan Assmann, a German Egyptologist, introduced the concept of cultural memory to the archeological disciplines to describe “the way a society ensures cultural continuity by preserving, with the help of cultural mnemonics, its collective knowledge from one generation to the next, rendering it possible for later generations to reconstruct their cultural identity” (Holtorf, 1998).

One may wonder how rich cultural memories can be transmitted from one generation to the next without losing much of their flavor.  Some early cultures engraved symbols and writings on cave walls, clay tokens, and stone tablets—informative and lasting but pale in comparison to the memories of other early cultures that relied on an oral tradition where events were passed on by one generation to the next in the form of tales, poems, song, and dance.  Today’s “memory keepers,” archivists and records keepers, are tasked with not only preserving evidence of events and actions taking place today but also gathering, protecting, and preserving evidence of events and actions that took place in the past.

Formal Memory Keeping Institutions and Programs

In the 14th century, formal institutions for preserving the cultural memory began to appear, including the first office of the clerk of the rolls, register, and council, later known as the Lord Clerk Register, responsible for the national archives of Scotland. During the 16th century, Jacob von Rammingen, the father of archival science, wrote a manuscript to provide guidance for others responsible for “keeping” valuable records that would serve to memorialize actions taken. In 1790, as the result of the French Revolution, the Archives Nationales of France was established. Four years later the French National Convention passed a law setting out their role and creating a central depository for the national archives. The law set out the three main principles, which still apply today not only in France but in countries that have emulated this model:

  • The centralization of the nation’s archives,
  • free public access, and
  • the need for a national archives network.

In 1796, the law of 5 Brumaire Year V completed the French archival system, by setting up an archival service in each département’s chef-lieu. (Archives Nationales website, 2018)

Countries like Great Britain and France influenced the archival programs of the African nations they acquired as colonies. Although archival materials had been produced and preserved in some manner in African nations before the 19th Century, the establishment of the first formal archival institution in Africa occurred in 1815 when the British Governor of Mauritius appointed a colonial archivist.  Three additional national archives were established in the 19th Century: Egypt, Tunisia and Togo.

Djibouti, a tiny African Nation that serves as a gateway to the Suez Canal, is the most recent nation to establish a formal National Archives as the result of 2011 legislation. The Vision statement of the National Archives of Djibouti recognizes the role the archives plays in “the assertion of national identity, citizenship, collective memory, and national culture, as well as a testimony to the different periods of national history” (Vision, Law No. 132). Four additional African nations established national archives in the 21st century: Uganda, South Sudan, Morocco and Equatorial Guinea. The national archives of the remaining 45 countries took place during the 20th Century, between 1913 and 1996.

Risk to African National Archives

Despite the best efforts of citizens and professional archivists to protect their national heritage, political upheaval, struggles for independence, and warfare wreaked havoc on archival materials across the continent. In addition, when occupied countries gained independence, many of their records were transferred to colonial powers, leaving gaps in their cultural memory many are still attempting to fill.  Those records that remained after independence were often lost or damaged due to neglect, lack of trained personnel, and unforgiving environmental conditions.

Specific examples of events that impacted archival materials are:

  1. Records were damaged in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Due to past colonization, additional documents were moved to Belgium, Burundi, Congo, Germany, and other countries.  
  2. Records of the South Sudan were damaged during the first and second civil wars.  
  3. Colonial records from the Democratic Republic of the Congo were taken to Belgium. Loss of additional records occurred due to climate, pests, coups, neglect, and even the transformation to electronic records without ability to preserve them.  
  4. Slave traders destroyed many of the records from the Republic of Benin—only 250 remain today.  
  5. The records of the Union of Comoros were destroyed by the incoming regime in 1977. Until 2000, theft, insects, humid climate, and lack of trained personnel destroyed additional records.  (Franks & Bernier, 2018)

Why Do Archives Matter?

One may wonder why there is such a strong desire to gather, manage, protect and preserve archival materials. The value of the archives (records) to nations can be conveyed through the mission statements adopted, for example:

  • The mission of the Research & Documentation Center (RDC) of Eritrea, which has served as a de facto National Archives since 1979, is to:

Establish an integrated information management system in Eritrea so that the protection of the national memory is secure and that the documentary heritage of the nation is made readily available for consultation. 

  • The mission of the National Archives of Zimbabwe, established in 1935, is to:

Acquire, preserve and provide public access to Zimbabwean documentation in whatever format, in an efficient and economic manner.

  • And according to the mission statement of the Botswana National Archives and Records Services (BNARS), established in 1967:

The BNARS exists to provide professional archives and records management service to all its customers in compliance with best practices globally.

Archives provide evidence of events and actions for practical reasons for those living on the continent, such as verifying land rights.  But stories from the past can also instill pride in the descendants of the African Nations whether living at home or abroad.  Have you seen the advertisement of a young woman citing the results of her DNA test showing that she is the descendant of a female African ruler?  The DNA results may point to ethnicity with a certain degree of accuracy, but it does not tell us the complete story about the lives of our ancestors. For some of us, the national archives may.  

The Angolan Warrior Queen

Colonization has been mentioned from the point of view of the colonial powers—the political and administrative value of the records created. But if we look at the same records from the perspective of the country colonialized, they may take on a different meaning.  The account of the exploits of the Angolan warrior queen, Nzinga Mbandi, is a prime example.

Nzinga as illustrated by Pat Masioni for UNESCO’s series on women in African history. (Photo: UNESCO/CC BY 3.0)

Born in 1583 to the king of Ndongo, a kingdom in modern-day Angola, Nzinga was fortunate to have a father who allowed both his son and daughter to witness his governance of the kingdom, including the guerrilla raids against Portuguese invaders.  Her brother became ruler upon the death of the King, and in 1622 he appointed Nzinga as his emissary to the Portuguese. Within two years, her brother died and she, facing stiff opposition as a female attempting to assume the throne, successfully took the reins of power. Nzinga’s courage was demonstrated by her willingness to lead her warriors into battle. By 1657, at the age of 74, having suffered severe losses due to decades of colonial and slave raiding attacks, she entered into peace talks with the Portuguese. Upon her death in 1663, the Portuguese were able to accelerate their colonial occupation (Banerji, 2016).

The collection of the National Archives of Angola, established in 1938, is very important to students of Angolan history. Alexandra Aparicio, Director General of the National Archive explained the types of records most in demand:

Of particular importance are the slave trade documents (with information about ships, numbers of slaves, costs, and process of transactions); administrative documents on health, education, agriculture; economics and finance data, colonial affairs; reports about occupation of the Angola, resistance of local leaders; relations between colonial authorities and local chiefs. (Personal communication, December 1, 2017).   

Positive Steps to Preserve African National Archives

The first International Council on Archives conference held on the African Continent took place in Cameroon in November 2018. The Prime Minister was in attendance to greet the participants and acknowledge the importance of the national archives and the value of the work of archivists. Leaders from all 54 nations and visitors from other countries attended to learn from one another. The host country shared their cultural heritage through song, dance, displays from the National Archives, and a reception at the National Museum.

For many of the national archives, progress is being made in the areas of legislation, physical environments, and training of archival staff; for example:

  • Cameroon anticipates the construction of a new building (with funding by China) to house the national archives with work to begin in 2019.
  • Djibouti expects their new National Archives building to open in 2019 thanks to funding provided by China.
  • The Zimbabwe National Archives is focusing its efforts on an Oral History Program with the goal of creating audio-visual records of the Zimbabwean traditions and culture.  At the same time, they are implementing a Digital Transition Framework for the management of electronic public sector records.  
  • Tanzania is working with the support of the World Bank to create a digital management and preservation system.

In spite of these examples, each of the countries face continuing challenges.

Current Needs

All countries would benefit by economic assistance, additional staff, and archival and records management training (including in the area of digitization of fragile documents). Other needs include:

  • Legislation: a legal basis for national archives and records programs exists in 48 of the 54 African countries.  Four countries have no legislation mandating the care of national archival materials: Eritrea, Somalia, South Sudan, and Sudan. No information could be located for two of the countries: Chad and Togo. Further investigation and, potentially, advocacy within each country without archival legislation is necessary.
  • Physical Infrastructure: Some countries do not have physical facilities to house archival materials and/or allow public access, among them the Central African Republic, Republic of Equatorial Guinea, Rwanda, Somalia and South Sudan. Economic assistance should be provided if/when the countries can demonstrate political stability. In addition, some of the countries with buildings to house their archives need assistance in treating physical archival materials that are in danger of loss due to conditions under which they had been stored in the past.
  • Digital Infrastructure: Thirty-four of the 54 nations reported some type of digital infrastructure, but in some cases that consisted merely of microfilm that could no longer be accessed due to the lack of working equipment. Imaging appears to be a popular way for institutions outside of Africa to lend their assistance, and much work has been done. However, once the imaging takes place, the collection may be housed outside the national archives. For example, scanning of Rwandan documents took place in partnership with Aegis Trust. However, those documents, related to 1994 genocide and part of the Genocide Archive of Rwanda, are housed not at the National Archives but at the Kigali Genocide Memorial. 
  • Outreach through websites and social media: Twenty-nine of the 54 nations had working websites for their National Archives. In some cases, those that were working were not complete or reliable. Sixteen of the nations used Facebook to reach out to the public, and only two (Botswana and Zimbabwe) had twitter accounts.


It was my privilege to present a report on the findings of this research related to the 54 African Nations at the ICA Conference in Cameroon in November 2018. A blog article with additional information and images is posted to the IDNAproject blog.

The biggest lesson I learned in reviewing the data gathered for all 54 African countries is that in each either government employees or citizens were dedicated to gathering, preserving, and making available documents that are important for the study of the history of their nation.

It was exciting to speak with many of the individuals who had contributed to this project by providing information and reviewing entries about their national archives. They were eager to learn how their archival efforts compared to those of other African nations. They were energized by their interactions with their peers at the conference, and they were committed to working together to ensure the rich cultural heritage of the people of all African nations will be preserved.

It was both interesting and gratifying to hear the message received by some of the participants who attended my presentation and quoted my main message in subsequent meetings:  much work is yet to be done!


Banerji, Urvija. (2016, June 19). Portuguese Slave Traders were no Match for Angolan Queen Nzinga Mbandi. Atlas Obscura. Retrieved January 19, 2019 from

Franks, P. (2018). Records and Information Management, 2nd edition. Chicago, IL: American Library Association.

Holtorf, C. 2000-2008. Monumental Past: The Life-histories of Megalithic Monuments in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (Germany). Electronic monograph. University of Toronto: Centre for Instructional Technology Development. Now available at The page in question on Assmann is at

National Archives of Zimbabwe. (2018). Vision, Law No. 132.

Rodriguez, J. & Fortier, T. (2007). Cultural Memory: Resistance, Faith, and Identity. Austin: University of Texas Press. Retrieved December 30, 2018, from Project MUSE database.

Note: The source for all facts not accompanied by a citation is the International Directory of National Archives.