Sunday, 19 June 2011

More on African History

Sometimes a book seems to appear at just the right time. Sometime last year, I decided to get serious about Knowing Stuff About Africa. After all, it's really quite difficult to do productive work in a place when your level of engagement is limited by stereotypes and perspectives on current activities through the lens of those stereotypes.

Of course, it shouldn't be necessary for me to put quite this much effort into understanding Africa. After all, I was born, raised and educated on the continent. And to be fair, I could probably have paid a little more attention in history lectures on the subject. But the sad truth is that I, like an alarming number of South Africans, know remarkably little about my own continent, far less, to be honest, than I find myself knowing about other parts of the world.

In an effort to remedy this, I've started consciously seeking out books about Africa. Over the last two weeks, I have been happily absorbed in John Reader's excellent Africa - A Biography of the Continent. It's a great read for a couple of reasons.

The writing style is fairly easy and flowing, unlike a lot of more academic texts, but the work draws heavily on academic sources, giving credibility and detail that might otherwise be lacking. The book also talks in facts and figures. This helps to alleviate the problem experienced by many writers of Africa who tend towards emotional biases, using facts only as a crutch to support pre-established notions. Reader draws heavily on human ecology and the logic of basic economics. This avoids the blame-game ("it's the colonialists fault, no it's the Africans fault") by being a little more realistic about the kind of motivations and drivers of change or continuity that might have played a part in the history of the continent. Similarly, he is careful to avoid the "great man" approach to history, including - to my glee and based on the work of my former Professor, Julian Cobbing - refuting the prevailing myth of the crucial role of Shaka in South African history.

Ultimately, the work is a broad sweep of the history of the continent from geological formation to the 1994 elections in South Africa and genocide in Rwanda. It's a great introduction to the past of a much-maligned, widely-misunderstood continent. It was also a great reminder to me of the complexity of the place - a continent far too large to be considered to have a single, uniform history - and that some areas of Africa are of more interest to me than others. I found myself struggle through bits of the West African slave trade, but positively devouring sections about East and Southern Africa. Definitely worth a read and a great way to spend several evenings.

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