It’s a Continent
It’s great to welcome some relatively new faces on the history podcast scene to Intelligent Speech 2023. But while It’s A Continent launched in March 2023, it already has an impressive back catalogue and a book, recently available in paperback, It’s a Continent: Unravelling Africa’s History One Country at a Time.
Chinny Ukata and Astrid Madimba are the powerhouses behind all this content. They both identify as African and British, Chinny is Nigerian, and Astrid is Congolese. Having both grown up in Britain, they realised how little they had learned about the other countries that they identified with and decided they would do something about it.
They describe how they had both studied history in the British education system, where World War Two is heavily covered but realised that they had not learned anything about the significant African involvement in the war.
“We met in 2015 on an internship… the black nod… we looked across the table, the only two black girls, you know how it is in white spaces… internships.” So they nodded at each and thus their story began.
They were encouraged to live together, which turned out to be a very good thing as they instantly forged a strong friendship, then they followed each other to the same companies, and this bond finally led to the creation of It’s a Continent.
And documentaries, of course! Watching documentaries is an important part of this story. They both love documentaries and they loved watching them together, over a glass of wine and pulling them apart – these were the kinds of conversations that made creating a podcast a natural next step.
During these conversations they say that, “We actually found out we didn’t know anything about each other’s countries. And we didn’t know enough about our own.” So, they decided to fix these gaps in their knowledge and to bring their listeners along as they learned.
Because, naturally, if Chinny and Astrid realised that they had significant gaps in their knowledge of Africa, then that lack of knowledge is much more widespread. The title of the podcast conveys a little of their frustration at having to explain that Africa is a continent and it is vast and massively diverse.
They do admit to enjoying the banter between each other but It’s a Continent is essentially an educational venture for Astrid and Chinny and for the wider world. And it’s working – they have been contacted by teachers who have included the podcast in lesson plans and assignments. “There are teachers who are interested in decolonising curricula who are looking for fairer ways of looking at people’s history. It’s those sorts of teachers who have reached out and are using our podcast as an educational tool.”
The podcast they have created is the kind of thing they would have liked to have learned about when they were at school, it’s not only African history that is missing from the school curriculum but also women’s history, Astrid says, “When it comes to African women… it’s really nice to be able to pull out those stories… when I was younger I would have loved to have heard more of these stories.”
Like all the best podcasts, It’s a Continent is a collaborative venture, not just between the two hosts, but also with their audience. As Chinny describes it, “It’s really nice to know that lots of people are learning along with us. We do topic polls on Instagram… and we get lots of suggestions… we crowd-source the topics from our audience.”
For instance their episode on the Chagos Islands, which Astrid recommends as a good place to start for new listeners, is a great example of how their audience can bring so much to the podcast. They were contacted by a listener who handed over all her notes and references and
requested that they pull it all together into a podcast episode and they got on with it. “That was definitely a revelation,” says Chinny.
The It’s a Continent book follows closely the tagline of “one country at a time” but the podcast format allows Astrid and Chinny to cover some countries more than once and cover topics that are more pan-African, such as Cocoa, the African Union and the impact of fast fashion on the continent.
The topics they cover for each country can sweep from pre-colonial times to the very contemporary, and from pure history to cultural aspects, such as the episode on West African cinema: a Francophone perspective.
They haven’t yet covered all the countries of Africa, and they give Mozambique as an example of a big one still to come. These and the episodes with a wider scope as well as repeat visits to countries, means that the podcast can run and run.
After returning from a mid-season break Astrid and Chinny will be inviting two guests to look at specific countries from a different angle, such as an episode on Sierra Leonean food with chef, entrepreneur, and author, Maria Bradford. And they will be going back to Nigeria, to explore Women’s Movements in the 1920s.
It’s a Continent – the book!
Astrid and Chinny admit that translating the banter that they have between each other on the podcast into the written word was a challenge. Even though they script the podcast, putting things into print and having to include footnotes and such like required a different kind of discipline.
Fortunately, the book retains the voice of their podcast so the reader naturally hears Astrid and Chinny’s voices in their head when they read. They use inset boxes and italics to signal to the reader that they are giving their own opinion and they also use these to link together various recurring tropes in African history, such as the “Coloniser’s Handbook” or the “Despot’s Manual”.
They managed to find a unifying tone to the book although they wrote each chapter separately and only collaborated to polish them off and this is where they made sure that they found a middle ground between their different writing styles. At times this sounds like it was a case of Chinny having to rein in Astrid’s desire to pen the dissertation she never wrote. The book is very much a product of teamwork, Astrid says, “I honestly don’t know how people write by themselves.”
Like many podcasters, Astrid and Chinny podcast for themselves first and foremost, because they enjoy their conversations, but also like many podcasters, they do like to hear positive feedback and words of encouragement. And there really was no greater validation of their work, than when they got a Facebook message from someone at the publisher, Coronet, expressing an interest in turning their podcast into a book when they were barely a year into the podcast.
At only five pages long, each chapter is necessarily short and punchy. Some chapters are highly contemporary like the chapter on the struggle at the only land border between Africa and the European Union in Ceuta and Melilla or the chapter on Professor Wangari Maathai, Kenya’s leading eco-activist. While other countries’ histories are examined at greater distance, such as Tunisia’s Carthaginian roots or sexuality in pre-colonial Uganda.
It’s a Continent, the book, is a great introduction to Africa and an excellent read. It’s one of those books that’s handy to have on you for when you are stuck somewhere dull and can only snatch a quick read and want to lose yourself in something interesting. But when combined with It’s a Continent, the podcast, you have a treasure trove of African-related media covering a whole range of aspects from which everyone and anyone will learn something. It’s a great pleasure to be able to welcome Chinny and Astrid to our Intelligent Speech 2023 conference.
Chinny and Astrid are very happy with their Intelligent Speech Conference talk title: Beyond Flags and Anthems: the Ongoing Effects of Incomplete African Independence and it does sound great and will doubtless explore a lot of the recurring themes of their podcast.
They will also be appearing with Andy from The History of Africa podcast on a roundtable panel with the topic to be announced.
Photos: © Joseph Osayande