Skip to content

Burkina Faso: Joseph Ki-Zerbo, the man who refused to sleep on other people’s mats, By Jean Claude DJEREKE

Born June 21, 1922 in Samo country (in the former Upper Volta), Joseph Ki-Zerbo began primary and secondary school in Senegal. In 1949, after obtaining the baccalaureate in Bamako, he joined the Sorbonne where he studied history. At the same time, he took courses at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris.

In 1956, he became the first African in history. In Paris, he rubs shoulders with most of the avant-garde African intellectuals, those who fight for the decolonization of the black continent. Some like Cheikh Hamidou Kane and Mamadou Dia (Senegal), Albert Tévoédjrè (Dahomey), Georges Ngango (Cameroon) and Joachim Bony (Ivory Coast) will become his friends. He naturally militates in the powerful Federation of Black African Students in France (FEANF).

His studies finished, Ki-Zerbo taught history in Orléans, in Paris, then in Dakar as a French citizen. Africans born before “African independence” were French citizens. In October 1965, he was appointed Academy Inspector and Director General of Education, Youth and Sports. From 1968 to 1973, he gave courses at the University of Ouagadougou. Co-founder of the African and Malagasy Council for Higher Education (CAMES) which advocates autonomy for African countries at the academic level, he will be its secretary general from 1967 to 1979.

From 1972 to 1978, he was a member of the executive board of UNESCO. It is in this capacity that he collaborates in the publication of a general history of Africa. The Center for African Development Studies (CEDA) was brought to the baptismal font in 1980.

After the assassination of journalist Norbert Zongo (December 13, 1998), he took an active part in the constitution of the collective of mass democratic organizations and political parties. Bringing together opposition parties and civil society organizations, this group fights against impunity for political and economic crimes perpetrated in the country. If Ki-Zerbo does not miss any protest demonstration, despite his age, it is because he was shocked by the assassination of Norbert Zongo who was investigating the death of David Ouédraogo, the driver of François Compaoré, brother of the dictator Blaise Compaore.

Not knowing how they could be eaten by the new power, Joseph Ki-Zerbo and his Malian wife Jacqueline went into exile in Senegal in 1983. The exile will last 9 years. In their absence, their library, rich with more than ten thousand books, was ransacked. Difficult to know if it is a coup of the National Council of the Revolution (CNR) which was for a total break with the colonial heritage and for a radical transformation of society.

In 1985, some of his collaborators were arrested while Ki-Zerbo was sentenced in absentia by a popular revolutionary court to 2 years in prison. In addition, he must pay a heavy fine for “tax evasion”. He will benefit from a dismissal after his return from exile.

The German sociologist Max Weber advises intellectuals not to meddle in politics because, in his view, the virtues of politics are not compatible with those of the scholar (cf. Le savant et le politique, Paris, Union générale d’Éditions , 1963). Joseph Ki-Zerbo, he will descend into the political arena, not to enrich himself with public funds, but with the sole aim of changing the course of things. For this, in 1957 he created the National Liberation Movement (MLN) in favor of immediate independence and the formation of the United States of Africa. The manifesto of this party will be presented to Kwame Nkrumah whose country has just gained independence. The militants of the MLN mainly come from trade unions, education and the peasantry.

The MLN played an important role in the organization of the popular movement which, on January 3, 1966, ousted President Maurice Yaméogo from power. The Voltaic Progressive Union (UPV) was created in 1974. The Socialist Party for Democracy and Progress (PDP) was founded in 1993. Pierre-Claver Damiba, Aimé Damiba, Henri Guissou, Alexandre Sawadogo and Bruno Ilboudo, who are left-wing Catholics like himself, are among those recruited by Ki-Zerbo into the new party.
Guinea was the only country in French West Africa to demand immediate independence. She therefore voted no in the referendum of September 28, 1958 on the Franco-African community.

At Sékou Touré’s request, Joseph and Jacqueline Ki-Zerbo then went to Conakry. They find there other pan-Africanists such as the Ivorian Harris Memel Fotê or the Cameroonian Kapet de Bana. All must replace the French teachers recalled by Paris. For the Ki-Zerbo, it is not only a question of showing solidarity with Guinea, abandoned overnight for its refusal to continue to depend on France, but of concretizing their Pan-Africanism. Isn’t it true that love manifests itself more in deeds than in words? It was in 1960 that Joseph Ki-Zerbo returned to Upper Volta.

In 1997, Ki-Zerbo won the Alternative Nobel Prize for his research on original models of development. The Alternative Nobel Prize is awarded to individuals who strive to find practical and exemplary solutions to issues related to environmental protection, development, human rights or peace. In 2000, he received the Gaddafi Prize for Human and Peoples’ Rights. The title of doctor honoris causa was awarded to him in 2001 by the University of Padua (Italy).


‘The black African world: history and civilization’, Paris, Ed. Hatter, 1964.
‘History of Black Africa’, Paris, Ed. Hatier, 1972. This volume shows that Africa had reached a high level of political, social and cultural development before the slave trade and colonization.
‘Anthology of the great texts of humanity on the relationship between man and nature’ (with Marie-Josée Beaud-Gambier), Paris, Éditions Charles Léopold Mayer, 1992.
‘Educate or perish’, Paris, L’Harmattan, 1990.

‘The mat of others. Pour un développement endogene’, Paris, Karthala, 1991. For Ki-Zerbo, sleeping on other people’s mats is equivalent to sleeping on the ground. For a “yes” or a “no”, for one reason or another, the owner can take back his mat at any time. Hence the need to rely on ourselves and not on others, to experiment and build with what we have instead of importing political, economic and educational models from the West.
‘When is Africa? : Interview with René Holenstein’, Paris, Éditions de l’Aube, 2003. This book can be considered as the testament of Joseph Ki-Zerbo, the message he left to Africa, 3 years before his death. There are the following ideas:
Far from being neutral, the techniques carry the vision of the world of the West.
We must be conquerors of the scientific spirit like Prometheus who stole fire from the gods (he stole knowledge from Hephaestus, the god of fire, smithy and metallurgy; wisdom from Athena, the goddess of wisdom) .
We must learn to write and study in our languages.
In African cultures there have always been the seeds of another society. We must start from traditions to think and build the future.
Each generation has pyramids to build.
Oral tradition is one of the sources of African history.
The first humans, who invented standing, speech, art, religion, fire, the first tools, the first habitats, the first cultures, are not out of history.
Slavery and the slave trade are crimes against humanity and it is normal that Africa should be compensated for these crimes against humanity.
We do not develop but we develop. Development is therefore endogenous. It must be based on culture that comes before natural resources and take into account ecological and social values. It’s not a speed race, but rather a progression adapted to our needs. It is not a question of catching up with Europe’s technological backwardness.
All stages of life were marked by meetings. There was a permanent debate, there was the palaver tree where everyone had not only the freedom of expression but the obligation to say what he thinks.
It is an abuse of language to speak of French-speaking, English-speaking or Portuguese-speaking countries insofar as 80% of the African population do not speak the foreign languages ​​which are French, English and Portuguese.
“If we lie down, we are dead”. This slogan signifies, on the one hand, that Africans have no right to tremble or flatten themselves in front of anyone. On the other hand, he invites them to work hard because only work produces wealth which, in turn, ensures respect and independence.

On December 26, 2015, the University of Ouagadougou was renamed Joseph-Ki-Zerbo University. Could we dream of a better tribute to this man who wanted Africans to know their history and take responsibility for themselves?

Jean-Claude DJEREKE

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.