The erasure of Africa in the era of ChatGPT

Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy claimed that African societies haven’t made enough history in a speech he gave in Dakar on July 27, 2007. His comment drew harsh condemnation for being rooted in racism, contempt, and a lack of knowledge of African history (Gassama 2012, Kounkou 2010, Lecolle 2009). After the political correctness outcry over President Sarkozy’s remark fades, what remains is the same undeniable fact that Africa continues to occupy a marginal position in canonical human history and more significantly, the history of knowledge. A clear illustration of this is how Sub-Saharan African institutional structures, particularly in the fields of the economy, political and judicial systems, and education, are supported by values and standards that uphold the colonial legacy rather than they are appropriately informed by systematic African frameworks of knowledge. Having received their education in colonially born institutions, the majority of the continent’s so-called educated elites of today, including myself, adopt the prejudiced notion of universal science, where “universalism” more precisely refers to the structure of global power relationships than it does to the inclusion of the knowledge economy on a global scale.  In this situation, being knowledgeable as an African frequently entails being able to replicate and internalize epistemic values and contents elaborated by Westerners.  The mastery of colonial languages is also necessary in order to be knowledgeable as an African. In Sub-Saharan Africa, providing higher education in an African language like Swahili or Amharic is still a rare exception. Particularly notable for their disrespect for schooling in African languages are the former French colonies (Ngué Um 2022).

Speaking from personal experience, I happen to be currently the head of a department of a state-run college in Cameroon which specializes in teacher training for indigenous languages and cultures. This department is infamously underappreciated when it comes to the allocation of positions in competitive entrance exams and the hiring of teaching staff, not to mention the scorn and contempt that students or this department receive from their families, fellow students, professors in other departments, non-teaching staff, and society at large. Yet, colonial and imported languages including French, English, Spanish, German, Italian, Chinese, and more recently, Russian, have made significant inroads in Cameroon’s educational system. 

Possibly the only continent in the world where the reclaiming of colonial identities can result in ferocious contestations and political turmoil is Africa, which includes French colonialist-conquered satellite territories scattered throughout the Indian Ocean. This is demonstrated by the “Anglophone crisis” in Cameroon, where citizens from the areas that were colonized by the British before the country gained its independence are fighting for fair acknowledgment of their British heritage against their numerically superior French-speaking counterparts. Paradoxically, the administrative border between the English- and French-speaking regions of Cameroon crosses over fluid language and ethnic spaces, which is evidence of the arbitrary nature of such divisions. However, pre-colonial histories and trajectories of the cultures involved will continue to be muddled as such distinctions increasingly take on social significance and turn into instruments of political bargaining for the post-colonial elites. The colonialists’ narratives will fill in the gaps left by society’s ignorance of their own past in the interim.

Unsurprisingly, the traditional eras that characterize the intellectual development of humanity, from Antiquity through the Middle Ages to the Pre-modern period, glaringly omit Africa. There is nothing like African Antiquity or Middle Age Africa that systematically accounts for the history of societies living in this region of the world in those periods, save from those related to encounters with Easterners and Westerners. 

  In large part, and as President Sarkozy put it, the apparent vacuum in pre-colonial history in Africa can be attributed to the fact that post-colonial Africa has not yet adjusted to the structures that will allow its societies to produce a commodified history similar to that of antiquity and the middle ages in the Western and Eastern worlds. As an example, 70 years of post-colonial academics have resulted in an insignificant number of text resources that could be used to create a corpus of literature that really counts as African literature. The phrase “African literature” is typically used as a catch-all for works written by Africans in non-African languages. Such proxy terminologies are just unthinkable in the context of Russian, English, German, or Japanese literature, in all respects. 

The concept of hermeneutical injustice suggests that power relations can limit an individual’s ability to understand their own experience (Fricker 2007). Within a century and a half of their encounter with European colonialists, African societies have seen substantial modifications that have transformed their sense of identity (Ngué Um, forthcoming). As ChatGPT and its aliases are set to become fully furnished knowledge providers in the future, it can be feared that Africa’s share in the global economy of knowledge will decrease even further, possibly to the point of quasi-invisibility regarding vast swathes of knowledge systems, values, beliefs, technologies, philosophy, literature, and the arts. Currently, investments in AI are focused more on improving the performance of Large Language Models (LLM) than on diversifying AI. African societies are grappling with the epistemic inequities inherited from colonialism at the same time as they don’t appear to be prepared to handle the added challenge posed by AI. These societies’ knowledge systems remain largely rooted in oral tradition and other non-written and codified ‘archives’.

African epistemologies and perspectives on the knowledge economy, which contributed to social capital and delivered well-being to communities for millennia, resulting in stable empires and kingdoms, must not be discounted in the face of the paradigm brought about by Western and Eastern knowledge systems, values, and beliefs. Research on mathematics education in Africa has shown, for instance, that games and numeral systems widely used in traditional societies of Africa exhibit the logical foundations and creative processes of canonical mathematics (Mizony 1971, Njock 1985).

I do not aim to provide anti-conolinal justifications for the reclamation of African knowledge systems. Up until this point, there has been a lot of research done and literature produced on this. My argument centers on the consequences of the fundamental shift from information to agency in knowledge production processes. Until the event of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) (Schwab 2016), knowledge has been a resource created by socioeconomic agents. However, in the age of Artificial Intelligence, knowledge has evolved into an auto-reproductive agent. As a result, knowledge that is unavailable in formats that permit  such self-agency will inevitably disappear into silence. More importantly, the artifacts that mediate self-generated knowledge are likely to define new modes of literacy, much like how written knowledge came to have authority over oral knowledge in Antiquity.

There are three reasons why I think Africa is destined to serve as a placeholder for artificially generated or reconstructed knowledge.

First off, the epistemic inequalities that support humanities scholarship in Africa have accorded truth value to narratives and points of view on knowing that follow experiments more than experiences, probabilistic likelihood more than factuality, and generality more than details. In order to demonstrate this idea, I’ll use the example of Africa’s linguistic reality, which has been researched from the perspective of nomenclatural epistemologies, ignoring the complexity and fluidity of a common cognition that transcends geography and time. In this regard, a perplexing statement made by French missionary Henri Trilles (1904), who gathered a number of literary works among the Fang of Gabon, is quite noteworthy.

Quelle est l’origine de ces récits? Au premier abord, à la première audition, l’on est tenté de croire qu’ils sont l’œuvre propre, la création des conteurs eux-mêmes. Un examen plus attentif détruit vite cette opinion. D’un bout à l’autre de la tribu, on les retrouve les mêmes, et cela dans des rameaux de la famille séparés dès longtemps et qui, depuis des siècles peut-être, n’ont plus nulle relation entre eux ; on les retrouve avec les mêmes mots et qui plus est souvent avec des mots, des phrases, des proverbes dont les conteurs ne connaissent pas toujours le sens, la signification exacte. Ce qui amène à une constatation curieuse : lorsqu’on interroge le conteur sur la valeur de ces mots qu’il ignore, et ceci, on le comprend aisément, se rencontre surtout dans les Chants, plus faciles à transmettre que les Légendes, il répond invariablement: Je ne sais pa s!

        « Mais si tu ne sais pas, pourquoi employer ces mots inconnus ? »

     « Parce que j’ai appris comme cela, parce que ce sont les mots de nos pères. »

        Et cette double constatation suffit à démontrer la haute antiquité de ces Récits.

        D’ailleurs cette idée n’est point lancée au hasard, sans preuves pour l’étayer. Certains récits, certaines légendes se retrouvent au fond de tous les folklores, aussi bien des peuples blancs que des peuples noirs ; n’est-ce pas là une preuve évidente de leur très haute antiquité ?

        Ainsi nous avons dans le folklore africain un monument antique de l’activité littéraire de l’homme.

Second, I maintain a blatantly negative view of Africa’s capacity to forge new knowledge paths in the age of AI, let alone catch up with prevailing paradigms, given the psychological subservience of the African elite to the intellectual patronage of the West. This assertion is supported, in my opinion, by the continent’s often poor educational vision as well as the shaky bond between socio-political institutions and the production of meaningful knowledge. For a significant transformation of Africa’s knowledge economy, it appears to be necessary to take radical steps toward developing common infrastructures for the production, dissemination, and sharing of knowledge, such as choosing to promote one or two vehicular languages throughout the continent while ensuring the maintenance of all other languages in family, community, and local spheres.

In spite of the glaring dead-end of hyper disciplinarianism of neo-liberal education which Digital Humanities (DH) scholarship and Artificial Intelligence have challenged in recent years, curricula in African schools and universities have vastly remained unchanged. I believe that the term “Digital Humanities” encompasses more than just the skill sets necessary for enabling humanities research. DH is a new epistemology, as Professor Elisabeth Burr stated in a 2019 speech at the University of Leipzig. I believe that DH is also a new hermeneutics that exposes the interdependence of all things, as the Dalai Lama’s interconnectedness perspective on education is described in his biography (Dalai Lama and Chan 2012). In this sense, a vision that seeks to change how African societies relate to knowledge is one that transforms people into subjects rather than objects of education. I am certain that if DH scholarship is implemented in Africa in a way that fosters a deeper awareness by teachers and students about everything that knowing entails, education in Africa may become a setting where intelligence and compassion are fostered simultaneously. If my projection is correct, then perhaps AI is a chance for Africa to escape erasure.


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Ngué Um, E. 2020. Had Ferdinand de Saussure spoken Wolof or Basaa…, the discipline of linguistics would have fared differently. Language, Culture and Society 2:1. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing, 107‑116.

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Schwab, Klaus. (2016). The Fourth Industrial Revolution. Geneva : World Economic Forum.

Trilles (Father), Henri. 1904. Proverbes, légendes et contes fang. Neuchatel: Imprimérie Paul Hattinger.

Vervaeke, J. and Ferraro, L. (2013). Relevance, meaning and the cognitive science of wisdom. In Ferrari, M. and Weststrate, N. M (Eds), The Scientific Study of Personal Wisdom. From Contemplative Traditions to Neuroscience. New York: Springer, 21-51.  

Citer ce billet
Emmanuel Ngue Um (2023, 7 septembre). The erasure of Africa in the era of ChatGPT. Institut des Humanités numériques d'Afrique Francophone. Consulté le 23 juin 2024, à l’adresse

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