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Reflections on 1960, the Year of Africa

A little more than a year ago, the archival storytelling group came across a photo of a woman carrying on her back a baby holding a tiny Nigerian flag. The year was 1960. It was a powerful illustration of how new independence felt for so many African nations. Seventeen countries declared independence that year, which became known as the Year of Africa. And with the coming of its 60th anniversary, the idea for this project was born.

We selected images — some from The New York Times’s archive and others from various collections around the world — to tell the story of the heady days around the Year of Africa. Each of the 17 countries that gained independence that year is represented here in photographs, but there are also images from countries, like Ghana, with especially rich photographic traditions.

We then invited a group of creative people of African descent to give us their personal reactions to these images. The responses varied, but all of the contributors saw glimpses of home and family in these photographs. All of them, in their own way, were moved by the sparks of power and possibility that are as much a part of their individual stories as of the collective history of a continent being redefined.

It Was the Year of Africa

An academic conference is rarely an occasion for world-historical predictions, but, addressing a meeting on African politics at Wellesley College 60 years ago, Ralph Bunche made one.

Bunche, the United Nations under secretary for political affairs and the first African-American to win the Nobel Peace Prize, declared that “1960 will be ‘the year of Africa’ because at least four, but maybe seven or eight, new member states will come from the continent,” as The New York Times put it in February of that year.

By December, not seven but 17 new African states had joined the U.N.

The Year of Africa, as it came to be known, was a victory for the black world. It emerged from longstanding global movements for racial equality and gave rise to political and cultural revolutions that forever transformed Africa’s place in the world. Along with the triumph of African independence, however, the political crises of decolonization revealed central quandaries — from the place of ethnic identity in politics to the role and legitimacy of state power — that still trouble the continent and the wider world.

For more than a decade before independence, nationalist organizations like Ghana’s Convention People’s Party and the Tanganyika African National Union had built mass political movements across the continent, using strikes, boycotts and other forms of civil disobedience to challenge imperial rule. This was a strategy that echoed the civil rights movement, whose leaders keenly watched developments in Africa. Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King and A. Philip Randolph attended Ghana’s independence celebrations in 1957.

In 1957 and ’58, my father was part of the Nigerian constitutional conferences in London, working to gain independence from Britain. In ’63, three years after independence, he was appointed minister of education. He went on to become attorney general and minister of justice for the western region of the country. So one could say he was like one of the founding fathers of modern Nigeria. It’s likely that he was present at some of the events in these photos. This was all before I was born.

NIGERIA An education center at the University of Ibadan in 1966. Marc and Evelyn Bernheim/Rapho-Guillumette/Science Source

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC President David Dacko of the Central African Republic and President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi of Israel signing a friendship pact between their nations in 1962. Universal History Archive/Getty Images

FRANCE President Moktar Ould Daddah of Mauritania signing an independence agreement with Prime Minister Michel Debré of France, on Oct. 1, 1960. AFP/Getty Images

NIGERIA Celebrating Nigeria’s imminent independence in Lagos in September 1960. Associated Press

CAMEROON An independence celebration in Douala on Jan. 2, 1960. Kay Lawson/Rapho-Guillumette/Science Source

Rough Passages

Early last year, I received a disturbing text message about a childhood friend. In an attempt to escape the civil war brewing in the English-speaking region of Cameroon, he had left our hometown and was on his way to Libya to get on a boat to Europe. My first reaction was, “Oh no, please no.” It was, of course, too late for me to plead with him not to do it — by the time I got the message, he was already trekking and taking buses across the continent, doing whatever he could to make the 2,000-mile journey. I did not talk to him until the summer. By then, he had made it to Italy and was sitting in an immigration detention center.

“If I were to tell you what I’ve been through … ” he said, trailing off. I did not ask him to tell me. How could I, when he was still in the depths of his suffering, bereft of his freedom and pining for home? Only later would I find out from a relative that the boat on which he was crossing the Mediterranean to Italy from Libya had been on the verge of capsizing — he was minutes away from drowning — when a rescue organization arrived and saved him and his fellow passengers.

They were all arrested by the Italian government, and while in detention they were interviewed by representatives from various European Union countries to gauge the strength of their asylum petitions. My friend was interviewed by the German government and told to wait, perhaps for all bureaucratic steps to be completed. I spoke to him during that monthslong wait, and I could tell he was digging into the recesses of his spirit to find whatever hope was left after all that he’d endured. I could do little besides send him a bit of money to buy his first winter jacket as the temperature dropped. Five days before Christmas, I received a picture of him well dressed and smiling in a German airport. I rejoiced, thinking he was about to start living his dream. Alas, he was merely on his way to another detention center in Germany, where he is right now.

I think of my friend as I look at the photo from the celebratory event held the day after Cameroon got its independence. Men and women with eyes aglow. Watching something delightful in their country. Stretching forward as if to grasp a bountiful destiny. What a glorious day it must have been. Such joy. Such hope. Their country was finally theirs. Imagine the possibilities. Imagine how wonderful their lives would be.

Did any of them imagine a day would come when Cameroonians would risk their lives to flee their independent nation for Europe? Did any of them imagine that 60 years after independence Cameroon would have had only two presidents, both of them dictators, one for 22 years, one now in his 38th year? No, I don’t suppose they did. And I don’t suppose anyone on that day thought independence would come at such a hefty price — a price imposed by whom? By the powers that partitioned and pillaged the continent? Or by the powers that took the reins on Independence Day and said to themselves, “Why not continue the pillaging?” Which is worse — what they did to us or what we’re doing to ourselves? I don’t know. What I know is that my country is broken, and my heart is broken at the sight of it.

Africa in miniature, our teachers said to us — that is what Cameroon is. How my schoolmates and I took pride in that. Everything that was present in Africa could be found in Cameroon. Dry seasons and rainy seasons, elephants and gorillas, jungles and savannahs — we had it all. We had Christians and Muslims and the most fearsome witch doctors. As a child I danced to music by Yvonne Chaka Chaka from South Africa, Angélique Kidjo from Benin, Papa Wemba from Congo. We had a bar in town named after Abidjan, the biggest city in the Ivory Coast. And whenever I went out in a T-shirt bearing the face of Thomas Sankara, the great revolutionary from Burkina Faso, people stopped me to gaze at his picture and worship him. We were so proudly African we did not consider the Ghanaians and Nigerians and Liberians in town to be foreigners.

Our country was beautiful, and we were proud to share it.

Sure, we had a dictator, but he kept the country peaceful. Those of us who spoke English in a predominantly French-speaking country were marginalized, but our country was the rare African nation with English and French as official languages, and that distinction made us special.

Until it didn’t.

Until a separatist movement sprang up three years ago to create a new country for the English speakers, having decided a bilingual country did not serve those who did not speak the language of the ruling class. The government responded swiftly by unleashing its soldiers to slaughter protesters and burn down villages where rebels might be hiding. Overnight, panic arose in the English-speaking regions as innocents fell in the crossfire. Families from obliterated villages fled into jungles, schools closed down and unemployment skyrocketed, causing those like my friend to risk his life on the Mediterranean.

Cameroon will be beautiful again. I will not give in to despair. But in this year of celebration, I must admit that the load history has wrought upon us is enough to shatter any country. How long will it take us to unburden ourselves?

We are encumbered by three distinct colonial legacies. First we were ruled by the Germans, who terrorized and plundered before relinquishing us to the French and British after losing World War I. The French took the majority of the country and massacred civilians, and the British took a minority of the country and neglected it, before both countries decided to grant us independence, making it possible for us to unify ourselves under one flag.

But from whom are we independent?

What good is independence in the age of neocolonialism? Europe still plays the flute and our government dances. We owe billions to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Western nonprofits arrive at a steady speed to improve our education and health care systems. Chinese interests have descended on our resources, taking away the livelihoods of many.

Across my part of Cameroon, the violence rages on, and the hopelessness grows. A village in which I lived as a little girl is now deserted. A town in which I spent several formative years is now overrun by criminals taking advantage of the chaos. I watch music videos from my childhood and choke up. “Don’t come to Cameroon right now,” I’ve been advised by friends and relatives. I’m taking their advice. I’m staying away for a while even as I dream of the day when our country will truly be ours.

Music and dance are such a big part of African culture and, therefore, such a big part of Cuban culture. It’s an expression of something deeper — of faith, of resistance, of protest, of love, of connection, of freedom! Of who you are, and of your culture. It is finally being in sync with your heartbeat.

Lisa-Kaindé Diaz

MALI Circa 1965. Abdourahmane Sakaly/Courtesy Revue Noire

MALI “Dansez le Twist,” 1965. Malick Sidibé. Courtesy of the artist’s estate and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. All Rights Reserved.

BRITAIN Celebrating Nigeria’s independence from Britain in London in 1960, a few weeks before the country became independent from France. PA Images/Getty Images

REPUBLIC OF CONGO Prime Minister Fulbert Youlou, right, with Dag Hammarskjöld, the secretary general of the United Nations, in Brazzaville on July 28, 1960, a few weeks before the country became independent from France. Associated Press

SENEGAL “Bakary,” 1960. Roger daSilva/Xaritufoto

Love Letter to the Future

I am the youngest son of two parents who experienced the independence day of Senegal. In 1960, Mom and Dad became citizens of their own dream.

He was born before World War II, the honorable first son of my grandfather, who was a hard-working and dignified employee of a French colonial company. A good student, Papa, as we affectionately call him, became one of the first chartered accountants this country has ever counted among its citizens.

She was born in 1944, the only girl who went to school among her numerous sisters, an A-student all the way through her numerous degrees, ranging from law to linguistics, and a gracious warrior who didn’t choose between being a mother of six and being a high-ranking executive in the private sector. She did both, gracefully.

But they weren’t born citizens of the République du Sénégal, as my siblings and I were. We did not have to yearn for independence: We were born entitled to a passport, our own.

I often reflect on how such an event in one’s life changes it. Did the simple fact of waking up as Senegalese on April 5, 1960, impact the young, educated, soon-to-be first-generation professionals my parents were? What did they decide to leave behind? What did they carry forward as they stepped into their new Senegalese life?

I don’t know what they left behind, but I know for sure what they carried forward, for it is the foundation of my An unconditional trust in the future. An absolute love for the future. I share it with the people in these photographs. I see it. I see it in each and every pair of eyes in every photograph.

I saw that gaze on my mother’s face when I would bring good grades home. I saw it in my dad’s face when I first voted, in Senegal’s 2000 presidential elections. My mom had the same look when I came back from Paris with a master’s degree, which she paid for with her savings (because she knew the future would give her that day). I saw that gaze on both of their faces when I got my first job.

That beautiful gaze is a proclamation of their love and trust in the future. That’s what we do. Remember that, every time you see one of these portraits.

Today, I take this opportunity to solemnly write my paragraph in this never-ending love story with the future.

Like the gracious people in these pictures, I have faith.

I have faith in our ability to forgive ourselves for not being where we thought we’d be, 60 years after 1960; building a nation and a functioning republic takes time. I have faith in our ability to see that we’ve done great things, staying together in peace being the greatest among them. And finally, I know that like the Senegalese photographer Roger daSilva, I will have the honor to witness the greatness of my hopeful, elegant and future-loving people.

In this picture, they tie their geles (head wraps) very differently from how we tie them now. You also see them in their iro and buba. That’s still done, but it’s not in this sort of fabric anymore. That’s so interesting. Similar buba (blouse) fabric can still be found, but the iros (bottoms) are rare as far as I know. Also it’s interesting that it’s not matching, because now it’s all coordinated — exact same fabric and in the same color. And the shoes. We don’t wear shoes like that anymore. I’m sure their feet were happy for it.

Folake Olowofoyeku

NIGERIA Four sisters in Benin City, circa 1950. Solomon Osagie Alonge, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution

FRANCE Hamani Diori, the first president of Niger, with the country’s national dance troupe in Paris on May 16, 1961. Keystone/Getty Images

FRANCE Prime Minister François Tombalbaye of Chad, left, and Prime Minister Michel Debré of France, center, meeting on Aug. 2, 1959, in Paris. Mr. Tombalbaye, who later changed his first name to Ngarta, became Chad’s first president in 1960 and forcibly held power until his death in 1975. AFP/Getty Images

CAMEROON “Say It With Flowers,” 1966. Michel Kameni, Studio PHOTO KM, courtesy Benjamin Hoffman

GHANA The leaders of Ghana — including the prime minister (and future president), Kwame Nkrumah, seated in center — in February 1957, a month before independence. British Information Services

Full Circle

It’s 5:35 a.m. in Ghana’s capital of Accra. The day is dawning, born out of the receding blue-black night. I’m looking out at the horizon where the ocean meets the sky to see if I can spot the first cracks of sunlight. All I see are the remaining twinkling night stars fading slowly, as the ocean waves crash at my feet and bury them, cementing me into the sand of this land. The water and air are warm, and the breeze kisses my face with familiarity. An instant later, a bigger wave wraps its white crest around my knees and draws me closer, moving me farther into the water. I can feel the pull, like a rhythm that undulates with my pulse. Boom boom crash. Boom boom crash.

There’s another pull, this time from my daughter, Lael. She’s laughing with her mouth wide open, one arm raised toward the dawn, the other intertwined with my own, tugging me farther into the tide. I look at her joyful face and see generations who have come and gone. I see those who were stolen by force 400 years ago across these same waters as they cried out in fear and wished for salvation on these same twinkling stars. I see those who left willingly for a better future on distant shores, like Lael’s grandfather who, as a Fulbright scholar in 1977, went to Wesleyan University, where he earned Ph.D.s in anthropology and ethnomusicology. I see our hope for the future for Africa, even as we’re locked in a global fight for our proper place after centuries of deliberate depression.

Lael’s laughter reaches her eyes, and they twinkle — like the stars — with a bit of mischief. I can’t resist her pull or the ocean’s tug to come closer, to go farther. It was the first day of the year, the official end of the “Year of Return,” declared by Ghana’s president, Nana Akufo-Addo, which brought hundreds of thousands of people of African descent to this country over the past year.

When I first met him, he asked me to help him with his mission to engage the African diaspora, specifically the Ghanaian diaspora. We created the “Full Circle Festival,” a week-long cultural gathering to finish out the Year of Return. Both events are rooted in the Ghanaian adinkra symbol “sankofa.” Adinkra symbols are an ancient communication mechanism often linked to proverbs. Sankofa means to “go back and get it,” and the proverb in which it’s rooted says, “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.”

As the festival draws to a close, I’m thinking of a 1957 photo of 13 men — founding fathers of Ghana, including Kwame Nkrumah — from The New York Times’s archives, taken a month before independence. The men are proudly wearing their traditional kente cloth, and I imagine that the yards of fabric were weighted with purpose — woven with threads of black, for the people; red, for the blood of our forefathers and foremothers; yellow, for our precious gold; and green, for the richness of the land. These men wore the cloth as our people —including royalty on important occasions — had for hundreds of years.

As I picture them with their serious smiles and determination, I wonder: Could they imagine the scene I am seeing today? Did they dream of even bigger things? Were they worried for their own mission, fearful that decades later we’d still be fighting for economic freedom? Are they proud of their daughter standing among strangers and friends on this Atlantic shore in a white dress embroidered with pearls from this very ocean? Can they see my heart racing beneath the black star I’ve tattooed in the middle of my chest?

My mother told me about her march into Black Star Square in the center of Accra on July 1, 1960, when she was 9 years old. Thousands of people crowded around Independence Arch to celebrate the Republic of Ghana. She recalled the stiff starch of her school uniform, her freshly cropped hair, the sounds of the soldiers’ feet hitting the pavement in unison as she did her best to emulate their rhythm. What a day that must have been! The pride of so many gathered, watching the flag flying high, with Mr. Nkrumah waving to the people, as my mother looked up, hoping to catch his eye.

As I search the sky for the last remaining stars, looking for the brightest one upon which to wish, I am struck by a yearning. I instead look down at my feet. They are the deep brown color of my ancestors, with red undertones like Ghanaian soil, and they contrast with the white sand being pushed and pulled by the tide.

The cultural revolution captured in these images happened all over the continent. It could be found in the photography of Sanlé Sory of Burkina Faso, the dance floors of Bamako captured by Malick Sidibé, the rumba of the Congo, the jazz of Ethiopia and Tanzania, the literary renaissance that included the novels of Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiong’o, the plays of Ama Ata Aidoo and many more. Africa’s swinging ’60s melded nationalism and pan-Africanism with global sounds and aesthetics. As Mr. Ngugi would famously put it, “decolonizing the minds” of Africans was just as important as reclaiming the land.

Adom Getachew

BRITAIN Students celebrating Nigeria’s independence on Oct. 1, 1960. William Vanderson/Fox Photos/Getty Images

BURKINA FASO Portrait of the photographer Sanlé Sory at his studio in Bobo-Dioulasso, circa 1968. Sanlé Sory, courtesy of Tezeta and Yossi Milo Gallery

GHANA President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana dancing with Queen Elizabeth II in Accra on Nov. 21, 1961. London Daily Express/Pictorial Parade/Getty Images

BRITAIN Nigerian students on their wedding day in London in 1968. Val Wilmer/Getty Images

LIBERIA President William V. S. Tubman of Liberia and Queen Elizabeth II in Monrovia in 1961. Keystone-France/Getty Images

Monrovia Was the Place

When my uncles and aunties gather, usually around tables topped with seafood-laden palm butter over parboiled rice, spices emboldened, they tell stories of the halcyon days of Liberia, days older than my memory. “Monrovia was the place,” they say. Our oceanside capital, just by existing, carried on its back the elemental spirit of freedom — on those streets, once vibrant and full of hope, lined by soaring coconut palms bearing fruit.

In 1960s Liberia, uniformed schoolchildren were occasionally ushered onto Monrovia’s main thoroughfare, where they waved the miniature flags of newly sovereign African countries as government vehicles breezed past, usually with the heads of state inside. As our neighbors gained their independence, their first stop was our coastal paradise, our sweet mother. Monrovia was the place.

We were the economic stronghold of the region, and primarily used the United States dollar. Liberia’s 19th president, William V. S. Tubman, came into office as World War II was ending. The world was paying closer attention to Liberia after the United States built a World War II base there, and there was a keen and growing interest in Firestone Natural Rubber Company, the largest contiguous rubber plantation in the world, hosted on a million acres of opportunistically leased Liberian land. Mr. Tubman’s “open door” policy of attracting foreign investment, mainly in the country’s bounteous iron ore supply, was such a success that by the mid-1960s the Liberian annual average gross domestic product growth rate was more than 12 percent.

Liberia — Africa’s oldest republic — was founded by freed black Americans in the early 1820s and declared its independence in 1847. Our sovereignty preceded 1960 by more than a hundred years.

To be clear, Liberia was not colonized by a foreign government, but rather by the American Colonization Society — a private organization that obtained the land where the first settlement was formed. Many of those emigrating from the United States to the new colony — some formerly enslaved among them — became its entrenched ruling class

African heads of state, upon gaining their freedom, made Liberia one of their first stops. In those days, it was love. It was beauty. It was newly liberated black bodies in congregation, black excellence and intellectual prowess, musical genius and philosophical innovation, African-American alliances and realized dreams of return. African dignitaries and luminaries came together to acknowledge that the mess of borders created during Europe’s scramble for Africa was now finally — finally — ours to rectify and manage, to color in and make our own. This was the beginning.

Surely, they could not realize then what a thing like freedom could contort to, the many shapes it can take, and what such an abstraction looks like when it ends. A handful foresaw the more ominous scenarios, and therefore assembled to find ways the newly formed nations could operate optimally without Western support. Pan-Africanism was the answer. We could be each other’s safety. We would be each other’s light.

Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of Ghana, sought to unify independent nations under one Pan-Africanist entity, merging sovereignties and human and material resources, similar to the United States. This idea was championed by Guinea’s Sékou Touré and Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, among others. Mr. Nkrumah frequently visited Liberia lobbying for Mr. Tubman’s enrollment in the project.

Instead, Mr. Tubman countered. He used the example of Liberia’s success to try to unify the continent. For one, language barriers, even within the region, would present difficulties in the continentwide political federation that Mr. Nkrumah proposed. Mr. Tubman suggested starting regional organizations, like what would become the Economic Community of West African States. Mr. Tubman’s more moderate approach gained followers, including Nigeria, Senegal and Cameroon. The differing viewpoints eventually merged to form the Organization of African Unity in 1963, where Mr. Tubman’s approach won over Mr. Nkrumah’s.

But before then, when my then school-age uncles and aunties waved their flags, laying sharply patterned country cloth at our visitors’ feet, serving the Ol’ Ma’s best potato greens to say “welcome” and “we are each other’s light,” when our forefathers across the continent deliberated how best to nurture infant liberties, where did they go? Monrovia was the place.

Since I was young, my dad, who was a musician, and my mother, who I always say is a musician without an instrument, gave us the gift of feeling free through music and expression. Our parents didn’t play games with us. Naomi, my twin, and I had each other to play with. But they would dance with us, for hours, in the living room. We listened to every kind of music: traditional Yoruba music, “Pata Pata” from Miriam Makeba, Prince, hip-hop and jazz. The message from our ancestors was to keep dancing and singing until the end.

Lisa-Kaindé Diaz

SOUTH AFRICA The singer Miriam Makeba, in a 1955 cover shoot for Drum magazine — one of the few publications in apartheid-era South Africa to cover black culture. Jürgen Schadeberg

BURKINA FASO Circa 1968. Sanlé Sory, courtesy of Tezeta and Yossi Milo Gallery

BENIN Date unknown. Joseph Moïse Agbojelou/Courtesy Revue Noire

GHANA The boxer Roy Ankrah, a.k.a. the Black Flash, in Accra, circa 1953. James Barnor, Autograph ABP/Galerie Clémentine de la Féronnière

MALI “Toute la famille à moto,” 1962. Malick Sidibé. Courtesy of the artist’s estate and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. All Rights Reserved.

The Family of Sport

DIDIER DROGBA

Didier Drogba is a retired professional soccer player. As a striker for Chelsea F.C., he was the club’s fourth-highest scorer of all time. Born in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, he is also a former captain and the all-time top scorer for the country’s national team. He has been a United Nations goodwill ambassador since 2007, and his Didier Drogba Foundation works to improve health and education in the Ivory Coast.

What I’m proud of when I see these pictures is that they’re very different from the pictures people are used to seeing of Africa. Poor Africa. Dying Africa. The pictures we have here — this is the real Africa. You see people with style. People here enjoy life, and they are looking for freedom as well.

People in the Ivory Coast love style. They need to be well dressed. They need to be elegant. They need to be chic. It’s really a way of living.

I was born in Abidjan, and I left the Ivory Coast — and my parents — when I was 5 or 6 to live with my uncle in France, in Brittany. In our tradition, if one of your family members is in a better situation, you can send one of your sons or daughters to live with them so that they have better access to education. I went back to the Ivory Coast when I was 11, for two years, and after that I went back to France. I felt good in both countries.

In the Ivory Coast, there is a different sense of the word “family.” Family in Africa is large, so it could be your uncles, your aunties, your cousins — all of you living in the same compound. My dad bought two or three houses in the same compound. We were all living in a community. You learn how to share, how to respect. You live with your cousins, and you create memories like this. Family for us has a big “F.” You go to Europe and family is the mom, the dad and the kids. It’s a big contrast.

I believe my kids are lucky because they have both cultures. They know where they come from, and they know where their parents come from. But they also have European culture from England and France. They are influenced by both worlds, which is very important for me. But playing for the Ivory Coast national team was the best thing that really happened to me.

Football is not only a sport in Africa. It’s more than a sport. Football is a religion. Football unites people. For example, when we qualified for our first World Cup, in 2006, the country was divided in two during a civil war. The only moment when people would put the guns down and come together — leaving the guns outside and watching TV — was when the Ivory Coast national team was playing. Imagine that. And then at the end of the game, everybody gets their guns and they start shooting again. It was our reality.

When you see people playing, you see adults, you see kids. It’s the sport of the people. There’s no first class, no business class. Everyone is the same.

These images show the humanity of Africa. They show, “Hey, we’re people just like you. We have babies and children and hopes and dreams for our kids just like you. Hey, we enjoy our lives in the midst of unfortunate circumstances just like you. We love nice things. We’re hard workers just like you.” We’re all an accumulation of our dreams, our experiences, our misfortunes, our gains, our losses. We’ve gained independence and we’ve had civil wars and we’ve risen above. We’re resilient for a reason.

Yvonne Orji

UNITED STATES Omar Abdel Hamid Adeel, center left, a representative for Sudan, and Alex Quaison-Sackey, center right, a representative for Ghana, meeting on March 1, 1961, at the United Nations in New York. Sam Falk/The New York Times

UNITED STATES Joseph Ngoua, Gabon’s newly appointed ambassador to the U.S., with President John F. Kennedy on March 22, 1961. Associated Press

UNITED STATES Félix Houphouët-Boigny, the first president of the Ivory Coast, and his wife, Marie-Thérèse, with President Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, in Washington on May 22, 1962. Harvey Georges/Associated Press

GHANA The soccer players Lamptey Mills and Stanley Matthews with an Accra Hearts of Oak team doctor at a friendly match in 1957. James Barnor, Autograph ABP/Galerie Clémentine de la Féronnière

GHANA The central library in Accra, circa 1960. Interfoto/Alamy

Nations Building

At the beginning of the 21st century — a few decades after these archival photos were taken — I sensed that Africa was on the verge of a boom, at another critical turning point. So, I embarked on a personal journey of documentation.

I wanted to contribute to the visual and cultural history of the continent by creating a visual road map of emergent architecture, urban design and planning — which was urgently needed as there was no other substantial documentation at the time. The images I captured were published, in 2011, as the comprehensive photographic survey of metropolitan architecture “Adjaye Africa Architecture.”

The cities and places I visited became symbols of nationhood and emancipation, and I used photography to illuminate the beginnings of modernity I encountered.

As an architect, I absorb ideas and influences from all over the globe, and I’ve noticed — in reflecting on the images here — that I can draw a line between what the images show me and how I interpret them in my designs.

It is fairly easy to describe what the eye sees, but it is the invisible aspects of a photograph that can transform our understanding of a person, a place and a moment in time. Photos show us how people in the past saw their world, and they help us imagine the future.

Photographs contain a diverse set of particulars, each of which can arouse new interpretations and themes. Photography arrived in Africa in the middle of the 19th century, when the medium was still experimental. The pictures here, taken a century later, hold fragments and memories of some of the most crucial events in the continent’s recent history.

They understatedly capture moments when countries were gaining independence. While the images themselves may be familiar or expected, it is their hidden layers that are the most captivating. They are meaningful time capsules of early nation-building — the making of monuments, buildings and infrastructure.

Such sights influenced future generations’ thinking about how to rebuild the continent in the context of emerging African modernity — continually documenting, and in turn constructing, history in a dynamic fashion.

It’s like he won that award and he’s probably so happy, and his face just reminds me of every Nigerian child after they graduate. You can graduate with your master’s, and at your graduation, your mom is like,“O.K., are you going to get your doctorate next?” We’re never satisfied. It’s not like we’re not grateful. It’s just like we’re conditioned and raised to always seek higher, to be the best. It’s so African of him to have won the thing and his expression is like, “I did this. O.K.”

Yvonne Orji

NIGERIA Circa 1937. Solomon Osagie Alonge, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution

GHANA Kwame Nkrumah, who became Ghana’s first president, kicking a soccer ball in 1952. James Barnor, Autograph ABP/Galerie Clémentine de la Féronnière

TOGO Date unknown. Studio Degbava, Courtesy of Yossi Milo Gallery, New York

SOMALIA Overlooking the harbor, a tower in Mogadishu in 1963. Jay Walz/The New York Times

ETHIOPIA Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia and Queen Elizabeth II observing Tis Abay, also known as the Blue Nile Falls, in 1965. Associated Press

Beyond the Falls

Growing up, there was a postcard of the Blue Nile Falls on the refrigerator of almost every Ethiopian family we knew in America. The falls on the postcards were a roaring cascade of foaming white water tumbling off green cliffs, with an occasional rainbow rising from the mist.

For as long as I could remember, I loved that image — in no small part because it depicted an Edenic version of Ethiopia as lush and as beautiful as any Western fantasy could muster — and I imagined that when I eventually returned to Ethiopia, one of the first things I would do was stand in front of the falls and feel the earth tremble.

It took roughly four decades and several trips back to Ethiopia before I finally made it to Tis Abay, as the falls are known in Amharic. On a rain-soaked Sunday afternoon in August, I flew with my family to Bahir Dar from Addis Ababa, and then drove two more hours along semi-flooded roads toward the national park where the falls are located. It was near the end of the rainy season, one of the better times to visit the falls, which in the dry months are reduced to a few currents trickling down a barren cliff.

That particular August day had seen rain all morning, and when we arrived at the footpath that led up to the falls, our park guide, Deme, told us we were the second and last visitors of the day. On the half-hour-long hike, I talked with Deme about Ethiopia’s new prime minister, whose first name, Abiy, shares almost the same spelling in English as the falls.

Deme, along with many of his friends and family, had spent the past few years in prison for protesting the previous government. He, along with thousands of other political prisoners, had been released recently, when the new prime minister came into power. But Deme was increasingly skeptical, even pessimistic, about a prime minister who, like a monarch, hadn’t been directly elected by the people.

As we neared the top of the hill, the dense stand of trees that had surrounded us abruptly gave way to a clearing with a panoramic view of the falls that, just as I had imagined, could be felt and heard long before they could be seen. The water that poured over the cliffs was a deep, rich, chocolate brown, more striking and more beautiful than any photograph or image I had seen. Deme and I stood more or less exactly where Emperor Haile Selassie and Queen Elizabeth II had stood 54 years earlier. We were all slightly out of breath, with our pants and shoes robed with the same rich soil that was tumbling into the Nile.

Deme pointed straight ahead, to a spot just beyond the falls. In prison, he had lost a brother and many friends. As soon as he was released, he returned to Tis Abay not only because it was a beautiful, postcard-perfect setting, but also because everything Ethiopia needed was here — land, water, energy. He continued to point. His village, he said, was right there, just behind the falls. Of course, from where we were standing, only he could see it.

It doesn’t matter what continent you are on, it doesn’t matter what time period you’re in.

I look at this picture, and I think of “Sex and the City.” It makes me think, “Who’s a Samantha? A Carrie? A Charlotte and a Miranda?”

There’s a girl who might be like, “I’m trying to catch tonight. Somebody’s going to be the person that’s going to get my number tonight.”

Then there’s a girl who’s like, “I do not want to be here.” She’s upset. She’s just like, “Y’all dragged me out here.” I love all the different personalities.

Yvonne Orji

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO Léopoldville (now Kinshasa), circa 1960. Jean Depara/Courtesy Revue Noire

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO The Afro Negro nightclub in Léopoldville, circa 1960. Jean Depara/Courtesy Revue Noire

IVORY COAST Voting in 1958, two years before the country became fully independent from France. Charles Courriere/Paris Match/Getty Images

MADAGASCAR Philibert Tsiranana, the first president of Madagascar, returning to Antananarivo in 1960 after signing an independence agreement with France. AFP/Getty Images

NIGERIA The newly crowned Miss Independence, Rosemary Anieze, going for a celebratory stroll in Lagos on Sept. 28, 1960. Associated Press

Africa, the Motherland

It is the continent that is most maligned, misunderstood and mocked. To a lot of the world, it is the “dark continent.” But to me, it is a home of hope. On the 60th anniversary of the Year of Africa, I’m reflecting on this.

Sixty years ago was yesterday. When we think of history, we tend to picture a long time ago, before planes and cars and electricity. We think of grainy black-and-white photos and muskets.

The fact that countries all over Africa will be celebrating 60 years of independence in 2020 is mind-boggling. My mother is turning 65 this year, 18 days after Nigeria, my motherland. She’s older than the country she’s from! She’s older than the green-white-green flag, the anthem, the coat of arms. (No shade, Mom! You still look super young.)

History is yesterday and now, especially regarding racism, colonialism and apartheid. And as we commemorate this year, I remember that the place considered the birthplace of humankind has some of the youngest independent countries in the world. That’s a mind scam.

What I think of is the unmitigated gall of imperialism, colonialism and white supremacy. For a long time, Africa was seen as a place to be conquered — and Europeans ran through it, drawing arbitrary borders and planting flags. History is crowded with people who showed up and grabbed land, like a Monopoly game with real-life countries. But those countries eventually fought back and insisted on their own autonomy — and succeeded in getting it.

Over 12 months, 17 countries on the continent became free of their European colonizers. Four countries — Benin, Niger, Burkina Faso and the Ivory Coast — became independent in the course of a single week (Aug. 1 to Aug. 7). That’s a continental independence festival! It was an Afro-pendence party! A decolonization soirée!

I am inspired by seeing how swiftly change can happen, when we unite as a Voltron squad of noir pixie dust. When we think about the forces we face today and the systems of oppression that cuff us, they seem too big to fight at times.

Unfortunately, the effects of white supremacy lingered after the laws that codified it had been repealed. Independence did not mark the end of imperialism on the continent, of course. France and Britain didn’t pack their duffels and leave the keys on the counter. They kept their grasp on the economies of many of the countries they had just “released.”

Such lingering effects — not to mention white supremacy — aren’t exclusive to black people in Africa, though.

In his book “The Fate of Africa,” Martin Meredith recounts a story from the Ghanaian independence celebration in 1957, which was attended by Richard M. Nixon, the American vice president at the time. According to Mr. Meredith, Mr. Nixon slapped a black man on the shoulder and asked him what it was like to be free. The man replied: “I wouldn’t know, sir. I’m from Alabama.”

So, wherever we are, we should fight for each other, celebrate each other and share the lessons we’re learning when we win. We are all still struggling for our basic rights, in different corners of the world we inhabit.

In that spirit, I was excited to see Pan-Africanism take center stage in 2019, as it did in the 1960s. Last year was declared the Year of Return, in which hundreds of thousands of people around the world traveled to Ghana to commemorate 400 years since the first ship with enslaved Africans arrived in what is now Virginia.

Then as now, Pan-Africanism beats the drum of insisting that no matter where we are around the world, people of African descent have parallel struggles, shared culture and an obligation to come together for our greater good. It is especially relevant when we realize that, from the United States to South Africa to Brazil, black people are constantly fighting for equality.

The drum is beating once more.

I choose to be as optimistic as the people in these pictures, brimming with anticipation of a new day, full of potential for progress. My girl in this polka-dot dress and peep-toe shoes is a whole mood, and the people around her are the party posse of promise. That’s how I look at the future of the various lands in Africa. Even through the hills and valleys, the wars and the times of peace.