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…

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