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By George Sydney Abugri, August 2000

Would you believe it if you were told that Wretched of the Earth author Franz Fanon once lived in Accra? Did you know that President Jerry John Rawlings’ father was a pharmacist? That Namibian athlete Frankie Fredericks has a chain of degrees in Computer Science and Business Administration and that Denzel Washington is a highly-trained journalist?

Nearly everyone knows Iddi Amin had a paranoid and volatile temperament but did you know that the former Ugandan dictator was widely believed to have engaged in cannibalism and that he suffered from hypermania, a medical condition characterised by erratic emotional outbursts and extremely rapid thinking?

Oral tradition has it that the Ewe people of the Volta Region of Ghana migrated from Oyo in the Yoruba State of Nigeria in 13th century. Is there any truth to this? Would you like to know all there is to know about Akinwade Oluwole Soyinka ( Wole Soyinka) Whitney Houston, Bob Marley, Martin Luther King, Professor Kofi Awoonor, James Brown, Kwesi Nfume and Michael Jackson? You will find the information and a lot more in Encyclopaedia Africana.

Until months ago no encyclopaedia existed on Africa and the African Diaspora. There was none with detailed entries on every African nation prominent, African ethnic groups, Black history, the influence of African culture on World history and Africans and African Americans of great accomplishment.

For more than half a century Africans on the continent and in the Diaspora have waited for their own version of Encyclopaedia Britannica. It has been worth the long wait. Unknown to many Africans at home and abroad, Encyclopaedia Africana literally sneaked out of the printer’s a few months ago, clad in an aptly black, leathery, water-proof cover with gold lettering, and encased in a colourful black, green and blue box sporting the photographs of some eminent Africans and African Americans.

For sheer weight, Encyclopaedia Africana is the mason’s proverbial 10-tonne cement block, but that is only to be expected of a one-volume Encyclopaedia with incomparable entries on the Black world. The volume is a collosal 2095 pages of articles, maps, tables, charts and photographs chronicling and reflecting the experience of Africans at home and Africans in the Diaspora.

Nearly 500 academics from the very best of universities around the world have contributed invaluable knowledge and information to Encyclopaedia Africana. The Encyclopaedia is really made up of 26 "mini-volumes" corresponding to the letters of the alphabet. Every article in the Encyclopaedia Africana is cross-referenced to others in order to guide readers through a vast range of topics on Africa and the African Diaspora. There is enough to exhaust any researcher’s, teacher’s or student’s curiosity and interest in such issues as the history of African nations, the history of slavery, African American literature, music and art, ancient African civilisations and the experience of black people in France, India, Russia and other parts of the world.

Some Ghanaians and indeed the people of other African countries may have their complaints. While there are entries on some of the greatest African and African American sportsmen, there is none on Ghanaian boxing legend Azumah Nelson. While there is a fairly long one on Professor Kofi Awoonor there is none on such Ghanaian writers of international prominence as Ayikwei Armah and Ama Atta Aidoo.

Exhausting every aspect of the subject matter of an encyclopaedia is almost impossible, explain editors Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates Jr. "Some choices had to be made. In the process some interesting questions have been left unanswered".

The editors say they have sought nonetheless, to provide a broad range of information and to represent the full range of Africa and her Diaspora. About 40 per cent of the text of the encyclopaedia is devoted exclusively to the African continent. The history of every African nation, what happened within their respective territories before their political independence, the names of their ethnic groups and biographies of eminent African men and women are covered. There is information on their geographical features, major cities, lakes, deserts, culture, religion, plants, animals and a lot more.

"A comprehensive reference work that every family should own" African American basketball great Michael Jordan says of Encyclopaedia Africana. American poet Maya Angelo says "Now, with Africana, we have an encyclopaedia where Africa and her descendants are the features, not the forgotten".

"What a wonderful thing for young black people to have at last" notes African-American Marian Wright Elderman. "Within a single source, there is a chronicle of the history and achievements, the suffering and the triumps of African Americans and their cousins in Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America and the rest of the world," Elderman adds.

At home, here in Ghana, the small handful of people who have browsed the volume seem lost for words in describing its value to black posterity.

Encyclopaedia Africana is the brainchild of African American historian, journalist, political activist and sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois. For more that half a century beginning from 1909 till his death in 1963, Du Bois resolutely kept alive a dream to edit an Encyclopaedia Africana, believing as he did, that "a broad assemblage of biography, interpretive essays, facts and figures would do for the denigrated black world of the 20th century what Encyclopaedia Britannica had done for the European world in the 18th century".

Beginning from 1909, Du Bois announced his intention to edit an Encyclopaedia Africana in letters to Pan Africanists around the world. While his proposed project was met with unanimous enthusiasm, Du Bois found it difficult to obtain funding for it.

Eventually and quite surprisingly, Anson Phelps-Stokes, Head of the Phelps-Stokes Foundation which was dedicated to "ameliorating race relations in America" called a meeting of scholars and public figures at Howard University on November 7, 1931 with the express agenda of editing "an Encyclopaedia of the Negro", a project which appeared no different from Du Bois’ 1909 project!

Du Bois was not invited to the meeting. He angrily protested, whereupon a second meeting was convened on January 9, 1932. The meeting unanimously elected Du Bois Editor-in-Chief of the now named "Encyclopaedia of the Negro". After fruitless efforts to raise money from various foundations to start the project, Du Bois eventually abandoned hope of ever editing a great black encyclopaedia. At the invitation of Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, Du Bois repatriated to Ghana 1961 where he established a secretariat for the Encyclopaedia project.

Henry Louis Gates Jr., a former student of African Nobel Prize Literature laureate Wole Soyinka and Kwame Anthony Appiah who had become interested in the project while studying at the University of Cambridge, kept the dream alive and eventually secured the necessary support from such people as Quincy Jones, Martin Payson, Sonny Mether and Alberto Vitale to make Du Bois’ dream come incredibly true.

The chair of Africana’s Advisory Board is occupied by Wole Soyinka and Robert W. Woodruff, Professor of Arts at Emory University.

Schools, colleges, universities, public and work place libraries will find Encyclopaedia Africana a great treasure. Africana is distributed in Ghana by E.P.P. Books Limited.