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Understanding Africa

Africa and Africans

by Paul Bohannan
Natural History Press, 259 pp., $4.50

The African Past

by Basil Davidson
Atlantic, Little, Brown, 392 pp., $7.95

One of the menaces in African studies today is the fact that too many publishers are chasing too few qualified authors for the one short book which is to tell the general public all that it needs to know about Africa. The latest victim of this man-hunt is Professor Paul Bohannan, a social anthropologist of great distinction, who in the last hundred pages of Africa and Africans has come near to supplying just that thumb-nail sketch of life in a tribal society which the urban Westerner has always wanted and never yet received. Bohannan describes the problems of the polygynous family with a rare brilliance:

Americans think that the impossible thing to share is the husband. If American women would really look into their souls, they know that it is really the kitchen that they would refuse to share…If you think that one wife can henpeck a husband, you should see what three in league can do. If co-wives live up to the ideals of the roles, even just barely, no man exists but is under greater strain and control than he would be if there were only one woman involved…Women in polygyny have grave trouble only when the interests of their children are involved…A woman, as a co-wife, can learn to accept all sorts of real or fancied slights. The same woman, as a mother, will have difficulty in accepting real or fancied slights to her children…The man who has a strong senior wife is a fortunate individual, because she will run the household and straighten out the fusses among the co-wives. If he does not have such a wife, two-thirds of his energy goes into administration…But the rewards involved may be great: it is possible in a polygynous family to spread your regard, your love and your dependence over a wider range of people. You don’t put all your emotional eggs in one basket.

This is lively, interpretative stuff, and he keeps it up. He explains a view of land-use based, not on economic exploitation, but on the social organization which dominates all. He explains a view of labor whereby people help one another in their work for an approximate return in kind, and in which different age groups combine to carry out the chores which have to be done in any local community. He discusses the various kinds of African states, and is the first author I have ever read to give an intelligible account of a “stateless society” and of how it can still do the things which every Westerner imagines can only be done by states. After this, courts, markets and religion. All this is popularization at a high level. It holds the attention throughout. I particularly liked his opening proposition that Africa shares many of its most important cultural traits with Europe.

Unfortunately, however, this is not all. Rather more than half of the book is about the past—both the remote, precolonial past and the recent, colonial, and post-colonial past. This is not Bohannan’s field, and his attempt to master it quickly through the shorter works of half a dozen well-chosen authors has resulted in the publication of an appalling number of major errors of fact. I give a few examples. Agriculture in the Jordan valley did not originate about 6000 B.C. on the base of a Mesolithic culture (p. 80), but about 8000 B.C. on the base of an Upper Palaeolithic culture. To describe the stone cairns, mostly about four feet in height, which are found here and there in the East African Rift Valley as “degenerate outliers of the old Egyptian pyramids” (p. 91), is to let the imagination run riot. So far as we know at present, the Nok culture was by no means coextensive with the Sudanic region of West Africa (p. 92), but was confined to a comparatively small area in northern Nigeria. It is not true to say that historians have only just begun to read the Arabic writings about the medieval West African empires (p. 92), and Bohannan’s own paragraphs about those empires are far too sketchy to be meaningful. He does not tell us who were the “Moslems” who destroyed the empire of Ghana, nor does he mention the major turning-point in the history of the western Sudan that came with the Moroccan conquest of 1591. Turning to eastern and southern Africa, the Greek Periplus, or mariner’s guide to the Indian Ocean, which is the first written source for East African history, belongs to the end of the first century A.D., and not to the third century B.C. (p. 96). The 27,000 Chinese who are said on the same page to have landed in East Africa are news to me. The idea that Portugal left Africa after discovering it, and that she did not return till 1870 (pp. 104-5), is perhaps the most extraordinary assertion of all.

Bohannan’s presentation of the colonial period in Africa is no more satisfactory than the pre-colonial. For one thing, he puts it first, which is confusing. For another, he presents it in terms of two principles called “the working misunderstanding” and “the absentee sovereign,” which I found quite unenlightening. I believe that his notions that colonialism “froze” social change, and that it resulted in the “splitting up of Africa,” are both simply wrong. I think that, on the contrary, it accelerated social change, and that it resulted in a great simplification of the pre-existing political divisions. Also, it shows a curious lack of proportion to describe the rise of nationalism in terms of a long essay on Mau Mau (though without mention of Kenyatta), and a brief reference to Sekou Touré, but with no word at all of either Azikiwe or Nkrumah, or to the fact that African nationalism received its biggest impulse from the education of a handful of West African leaders at Negro colleges in the United States. I am sorry, therefore, that Bohannan was tempted to stray from the “tribal Africa” which he knows so well, and concerning which his generalizations really do hit the mark time and time again.

The African Past is an anthology, put together by the well-known British journalist and historian, Basil Davidson. It contains extracts from 113 different hands, ranging from the inscription of Harkuf, the caravan-leader of the Sixth Dynasty Pharoah, Merenre, to the living Nigerian historian and Vice-Chancellor, Kenneth Dike. Davidson describes it as “a guide to the wealth of material that exists for Africa south of the Sahara” and adds that it is designed “to be read as a continuous story.” In fact, however, I think it should be seen mainly as a companion volume to his two earlier African histories—The Lost Cities of Africa, in which he successfully summarized and popularized recent work in early African history and archaeology, and Black Mother, in which he focused attention on the first period of European contact with Africa, from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century.

Primarily, The African Past illustrates the documentation underlying both these works. There are some fragments from antiquity. There is a good selection from the medieval Arabic writers on West and East Africa, mostly translated into English from the standard French editions of the later nineteenth centuries. With the later nineteenth century Davidson begins to lose interest, and the colonial period is so distasteful to him that it is passed by in virtual silence.

The chief technical difficulty about a source-book on pre-colonial Africa is, of course, the fact that so much of the evidence lies outside the range of contemporary eye-witness accounts. Much of it, for example, is archaeological, and here Davidson’s solution is to include, alongside of the inscriptions and the travelers’ accounts, extracts from modern authors—Desmond Clark on the Stone Age art of southern Africa, Bernard Fagg on the Nok sculptures, Caillaud on the discovery of the ruins at Meroe. It is an interesting experiment, but not completely successful. Much more of the evidence comes ultimately from oral tradition, written down and codified several centuries after the events described. This results in a special kind of document—Samuel Johnson’s History of the Yoruba and Egharevba’s History of Benin, the Kano Chronicle or that of Kilwa—where the written text requires a mountain of commentary before its value can be assessed. Here the anthologist’s powers are stretched to the limit, and the reader has to exercise enormous concentration if he is to prevent his eye from skipping along from fragment to fragment is an uncomprehending daze.

However, teachers and students will bless this book. It makes readily available a mass of material which can at present be found only in the most specialized libraries. The accompanying commentary is skillful, judicious, and frequently original and penetrating. It is not, I think, a book for beginners.

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