IN THE DEN OF THE ALCHEMIST

Cheikh Anta Diop spent much of his life in academic exile pitted against his political detractors and consequently persecuted by the academy. ‘Exit the pharaoh’ to the Centre of Low Nuclear Energies of the Institut Fondamental d’Afrique Noire (IFAN), better known as the Laboratory of Carbon 14—no ordinary laboratory—the ‘demiurge’ for a new world view, a ‘new African’ conscious and embracing of the genius of the ancestors in all domains of science, culture and religion. Souleymane Bachir Diagne enters the legendary cave.

Following the death of Professor Cheikh Anta Diop in 1986, a burglar worked his way into the laboratory where the professor spent his life, so to speak. Nobody could really tell what was stolen because nobody could tell what was actually there. The only indication that a nightly visitor had broken in was the traces he left. The burglary was a shock for many people. “So here they came to steal the secrets that one has not been able to keep protected by proper custody,” was a commentary heard on the occasion.

Radiocarbon 14 dating laboratory of Cheikh Anta Diop at the Fundamental Institute of Black Africa (IFAN) of the University of Dakar

Which “they”? Which “one”? What “secrets” are you talking about? Oh! Come on! Cinema taught us long ago that there is always a secret in a laboratory and that evil-minded people are planning to get hold of it. Some alien intelligence, if you see what I mean. Remarks like those – table-talk – tell the story of this laboratory in three words: mythology, exit the king, abandonment. Perhaps “exit the pharaoh” would be more appropriate, given the circumstances. But Eugène Ionesco’s Exit the King speaks of a king, and the Centre of Low Nuclear Energies of the Institut Fondamental d’Afrique Noire (IFAN), better known as the Laboratory of Carbon 14, is a story à la Ionesco.

Mythology is at the root of why the laboratory appeared as a mysterious place, where important secrets were concealed. In a country like Senegal, which can be said to be exiled from modern science, the laboratory inevitably conveys mysterious significance: it appears as a cave of sorts, where a (necessarily) solitary genius is pursuing some fantastic goal. To the society at large, the laboratory seems much like the medieval den of an alchemist.

So, there is the laboratory and there is its social significance. On the one hand, what can be done – and, hopefully, is done – in the laboratory,depends on the availability of materials, often as simple as an autonomous transformer for electricity supply. “Maybe, one day, IFAN will have its own transformer,” mused the Professor about the transformer of another institution on the campus, namely the Law School, which was used to provide the laboratory with extra electricity. On the other hand, there is what is imagined about the place, the expectations created by the word “laboratory” itself, especially in a context and a society where science is considered modern magic. Diop’s project, in his own words, was to create a New African. He writes: “The African who understood me is the one who would feel, after reading my books, that he is giving birth to another man, spirited with historical awareness, an authentic creator, a Prometheus bearing a new civilization and perfectly conscious of what the whole world owes to the genius of his ancestors in all the different domains of science, culture and religion.”

Diop’s 1968 report on the centre enumerated the different tasks that could be successfully undertaken in the laboratory. They concerned the different possible areas of research, such as the desertification of the Sahara, determining the age of a lava flow, examining fossil waters, and so on. Top of the list was “the study of the cultural manifestations of homo sapiens since his appearance thirty-two thousand years ago.” The ultimate aim of this particular task was to underline the contribution of the Negro civilizations to the evolution of culture, through which humanity is manifested. Its main thesis: the history of ancient Egypt belongs to the history of Africa in general and constitutes a testimony to the “anteriority of Negro civilizations” while, at the same time, throwing light on the cultural unity of African societies. Of course, such a thesis is supposed to belong to the domain of science. Therefore it has to be scientifically tested, supported by scientific evidence and at the mercy of any contrary proven fact. In a word, and to use here an epistemological concept made famous by Karl Popper, it has to be falsifiable. But the thesis also conveys an undeniable polemical weight given the colonial ideology according to which the very notion of “Negro civilization” is but a contradiction in terms.

The political hostility which, for decades, pitted Cheikh Anta Diop against Léopold Sédar Senghor should not overshadow the actual convergence of Négritude – which undertook the “defense and illustration” of the cultural values of the Black World – and Diop’s thesis of Black Egypt, of the history of different human civilisations. Yet, given the significance of Diop’s thesis and the passionate controversy surrounding it, it is a symbol of the (re)invention of Africa. Diop turned a quite common laboratory for radiocarbon dating, created by Theodore Monod and completely realised by Vincent Monteil, into a legendary place, into the cave of an alchemist. So legendary, in fact, that the government of Senegal has recently decided to fund its restoration. And the current director of IFAN-Cheikh Anta Diop has declared that one of Professor Diop’s sons, himself a physicist, will be consulted about the design and organisation of the place. The laboratory will be completely revamped, as the legend was buried with the alchemist. Exit the king. The legend of the laboratory is heightened by what is commonly perceived as the persecution of Diop the philosopher at the hands of his various detractors.

These included the board of examiners at Sorbonne University in Paris, where Diop read for his doctorate. His dissertation obtained a damningly poor rating, the kind that would make it impossible for him to teach in a university, even, ironically, the university that today carries his name. His position at the laboratory was a pis aller, an exile from the academic life as such. But there is an unmistakable sign that distinguishes great people: the capacity to turn exile into a kingdom.

Diop showed such capacity. His exile from academia also meant solitary research, a situation perfectly described by Yaovi Akakpo: As to the structural, material and human conditions of work, the radiocarbon laboratory of IFAN was isolated or solitary in a context that appeared to be a desert as far as endogenous science was concerned: cut off from any source. According to Akakpo, there are two explanations for this: first, no research training was on offer at IFAN, so the laboratory did not attract junior scientists; second, and moreover, Diop appeared as an eternally solitary researcher, a bachelor of sorts. Akakpo quotes one of Diop’s colleagues at IFAN: “The radiocarbon laboratory became Professor Cheikh Anta Diop’s private property. He was the only one in charge of it until 1986 (the year he died). And the laboratory ceased all activities after his passing.”

Cheikh Anta Diop at his IFAN laboratory, Dakar, 1976 (Photographer: Jake Scott)

Of course, a laboratory should not be the territory of a king. And, of course, a laboratory in this day and age of the Internet should not be the private property of a solitary scientist. By definition, a laboratory is a network that is endlessly open, like science itself; and like science itself, it is meant to survive the exit of any scientist. But Diop’s was no ordinary laboratory.

Beyond the sound and the fury that surrounded most of his famous theses about the African origin of civilization, Professor Diop, in a much calmer atmosphere, meditated and wrote about philosophy – about the contribution of Africa to philosophy, of course – but also about what he called a new philosophy, founded, to a great extent, on sciences and scientific experience and which could, one day perhaps, reconcile man with himself. Thus, the laboratory became a locus for scientific experiences and ideas that would influence the whole of society, as if the laboratory was also the fabric of a scientific attitude vis-à-vis the world. 

The laboratory as a “demiurge” for the world view is a very important, but rather neglected, aspect of Diops reflections. Beyond the daily work done in a laboratory, he meditated about the movement of science in general and the manner in which this movement “deeply modifies our usual ways of thinking and generates a real opening towards an infinite development of our mental structures, of our logic, of our reason.” The lesson of science is not about certainty, it is about precariousness – the precariousness of what we consider to be the external world, outside of us, and about which quantum mechanics, for example, has taught us; the precariousness of the mental structures and categories through which we endeavour to know the world.

Contemporary science conveys the lesson that knowledge can no longer be considered as the simple and progressive unveiling of some pre-existing natural order. Far from being a limitation, Diop argued this was the good news about human freedom. In the domain of scientific knowledge, people have to manifest what Diop proposes to call “logical openness” (disponibilité logique). The only real cosmology is that of permanent innovation, of continuous upheaval. Every moment is unique. And therefore beautiful.

This is Diop’s remark and he cites Goethe’s Faust: “To the moment flying I could say: please hold on, you are so beautiful.” This is probably the ultimate message: in a laboratory, science transmutes itself into poetry.

 

 This and other stories available in the new issue of the Chronic, “The Invention of Zimbabwe”, which writes Zimbabwe beyond white fears and the Africa-South conundrum.

The accompanying books magazine, XIBAARU TEERE YI (Chronic Books in Wolof) asks the urgent question: What can African Writers Learn from Cheikh Anta Diop?

To purchase in print or as a PDF head to our online shop, or get copies from your nearest dealer.

Buy the ChronicSubscribe

,

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply