From: "Pier M. Larson" <PML9@PSUVM.PSU.EDU>
To: "NUAFRICA: Program of African Studies Mailing List" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Review of Iliffe, "Africans"
Review of Iliffe, Africans
A dialog on the nuafrica list, January 1996
Several days ago I promised some comments about John Iliffe's new textbook "Africans: The History of a Continent" (Cambridge, 1995). The text is published as volume 85 in Cambridge University Press' African Studies Series and available in paperback in the United States for just under $20. The text format is slightly larger than Cambridge's other books in the same series, apparently to accommodate the more lengthy narrative which comes out to 284 pages + sparing endnotes (285-195) + suggestions for further reading (296-309) + index (to p. 323). Iliffe's decision to use few footnotes lends itself very neatly to the project and is a godsend to students. The suggestions for further reading, provided chapter by chapter, are very good and will undoubtedly serve as useful tools to students interested in researching a personal interest. The index is ok.
The work comes in twelve chapters which span the origins of human beings to the South African general election of 1994. Iliffe treats the entire continent, North to South, East to West. There is, therefore, a great deal of generalization between page 1 and page 284, but Iliffe has the uncanny ability to generalize in intelligent and innovative ways (provocative is also an operable adjective here), an admirable skill those who have read his "A Modern History of Tanganyika" are familiar with. What I also like about the text is that Iliffe treats various themes and chronological periods in about the same proportions I do when lecturing. A prime advantage of this text is its cohesiveness (especially vis-a-vis Vincent Khapoya's "The African Experience") as well as the interesting data Iliffe manages to dig up (not always substantiated though). Thus we read on page 264 that "During the 1980s sub-Saharan Africa's townsmen [read townspeople] increased twice as fast as its population, forming 29 percent of the total in 1991," and "Whereas urban wages had far exceeded rural earnings during the 1960s, they fell over 30 per cent on average during the 1980s." Some tidbits are truly fascinating and drive his points home with statements that stick in your mind. Discussing colonial marketing systems on p. 217 Iliffe writes that "In 1942 Kenya's Chief Native Commissioner described its maize marketing system as 'the most barefaced and thorough-going attempt at exploitation the people of Africa have ever known since Joseph cornered all the corn in Egypt'"! Most of all, the text is composed at a reading level and of a length which make it manageable in an undergraduate classroom, especially one in which several other readings are also assigned. Iliffe's "Africans" can efficiently serve as a sort of text or reference for students as they try to integrate lectures and a varied bag of readings which many of us like to serve up (novels, historical monographs, poetry, primary documents, epics).
For those of you interested in the arrangement of chapters in the text, here they are:
1. The frontiersmen of mankind
As you can see the book ends with a separate chapter on South Africa, useful if one spends some extra time on South Africa in an African history survey course. I thought chapter seven on the slave trade was particularly masterful because Iliffe takes students through all the ramifications of political, social and demographic transformations (he misses cultural) in the era of the slave trade rather than sticking to simple platitudes.
I have some nit picking to do. There are plenty of points about which I just don't agree and which Iliffe words, shall I say, indelicately: "Nationalists believed that colonialism had retarded their countries" (252); or "corruption, an ancient feature of African politics" (259) etc. But we need not agree or flinch with every unpleasant turn of phrase. My stomach did turn, though, when I read about the "Imerina Kingdom" of Madagascar, an error (should be "Merina Kingdom"--Imerina is a noun, geonym) signifying how far from Africanist's minds that very large and important island is. Iliffe turns verbose at times; he has a paragraph on pp. 140-141 which runs more than 550 words, and there are several places where he slips into the "one damn thing after another" mode, though such trouble comes almost inevitably with the genre. There are insufficient and inadequate maps and not even one image, save the reproduction of a plate from an early nineteenth century travelogue on the cover, about which more below. These were undoubtedly decisions to keep production costs down but they detract significantly from the pedagogical usefulness of the text, I think, because students in non-African classrooms have such a difficult time beginning to visualize the people and places they are reading about. Another "little problem" is Iliffe's use of the term "colonisation" to denote peopling of the continent. He certainly did not have my classroom in mind when he chose such usage, the problem being, of course, differentiating between "colonisation" and "colonialism" and their disparate political implications. There is apparent confusion in the lexicons on this distinction. But even being generous and allowing a semantic distinction between "colonialism" (A policy by which a nation maintains or extends its own control over foreign dependencies) and "colony" from whence colonization (A group of emigrants or their descendants who settle in a distant land but remain subject to or intimately connected with the parent country) the distinction is sure to be missed and interpreted by students in an unproductive manner. What is most amazing is Iliffe's (and Cambridge's) use of sexually exclusive language. Are we still in the dark ages?
The primary problem as I see it, however, is Iliffe's "theme" of Africa's demographic history, around which he structures the narrative and its underlying logic. Not that Iliffe's facts and figures are wrong, but it is the sloppy, uncritical way in which he interprets them. Like some of his colleagues, he is categorical about the nastiness of Africa's disease and physical environment, inscribing crisis into the continent's very landscape (see chapter one, 66-67). True there are some pretty nasty endemic diseases supported by African environments, but one wonders how humans evolved there. On page one Iliffe incorporates evolution into his narrative of environmental crisis by arguing that one of Africans' greatest contributions to history has been the peopling of the continent itself:
"Africans have been and are the frontiersmen who have colonised an especially hostile region of the world on behalf of the entire human race. That has been their chief contribution to history. It is why they deserve admiration, support, and careful study. The central themes of African history are the peopling of the continent, the achievement of human coexistence with nature, the building up of enduring societies, and their defence against aggression from more favoured regions" (page 1).
Iliffe is categorical that Africa was "underpopulated" until the later twentieth century (p. 1 and everywhere following). In comparison to what? The answer to the preceding question provides a key to the tinted windows through which Iliffe views African experience. Iliffe's terminology of underpopulation is important because it structures many of his arguments in ensuing chapters. These begin on p. 70 with the following statement: "In the West African savanna, underpopulation was the chief obstacle to state formation." And again on p. 81: "Western Africa's non-agricultural economies were also shaped by underpopulation, which impeded transport, inhibited exchange, and encouraged local self-sufficiency.... Only slowly and with great effort could Africans break out of this impasse by enterprise and demographic growth." Africa's population (or lack of it) therefore, was the constant backdrop of crisis against which Africans struggled. The chief difficulty which African underpopulation in a hostile environment produced was a tendency to political segmentation, which in turn prevented the creation of enduring states (159). This is the overriding concern of chapter eight, "Regional diversity in the nineteenth century." Iliffe concludes the chapter in these terms: "Underpopulation, the fundamental reason for political segmentation and economic backwardness, was relieved by demographic growth at certain times and place, but exacerbated by decline at others" (186).
Such thoughts are undoubtedly behind the selection of a picture for the volume, which runs across both front and back covers. The image is identified as "'View on entering the town of Litakun (Litakoo)' from William J. Burchell, "Travels in the interior of southern Africa" (1822), plate 5. By permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library." The color drawing depicts a parched landscape with scrub brush here and there, several people standing, talking, walking, and some very sparsely populated settlements, all set against a vast landscape. The impression is one of dry infertility. To grace his cover with such an image--and this is the important point--Iliffe turned to a published European text archived at Cambridge University Library. Iliffe's text and its accouterments are an interesting study in the persistence of certain European narratives and images.
It is fascinating in Iliffe's demographic schema that colonial rule--at first intensifying the demographic crisis through violence and environmental disequilibrium--overcomes the age long problem of underpopulation. "Between 1920 and the late 1940s," he writes, "Africa's population may have increased from some 142 million to 200 million. It was the most important consequence of colonial occupation. Greater infant survival preserved generational tension as a dynamic of change, carrying African history forward on a surge of youth" (241). Certainly Iliffe argues nothing of the sort explicitly, but the subtext of his underriding theme suggests the liberating effect of colonial rule upon the continent and its people. Yet the liberation (in terms of population growth stemming mainly from declining death rates and consequently longer life expectancies) is fleeting. Iliffe is careful never to argue that Africa in the late twentieth century faces a crisis of overpopulation. In fact he eschews such an interpretation, stating "In 1990 Africa as a whole was neither overpopulated nor underpopulated..." (266). Yet from a crisis of underpopulation, he argues, African history is driven in the twentieth century by population growth. The increasing youthfulness of Africa's population was the prime underlying explanation for the crumbling of colonialism and for the fall of Apartheid in South Africa. Iliffe does not neglect narratives of resistance and nationalism but he returns persistently to demographic forces, beyond the palpable agency of any persons or social groups, as the motors which drive the continent along. Careful never to use the term "overpopulation" Iliffe is nevertheless capable of Freudian (or is it Malthusian?) slips. Thus on page 269 discussing the fact that Africa's highest rates of population growth seemed to have been bypassed by about 1990 he writes: "But Africa had survived its peak population growth rate. Instead it faced "a different demographic threat"" (my emphasis). Iliffe strengthens his thinking about the "new population crisis" of colonialism by ending chapter 10 (Colonial Change, 1918-1950) with the following quotation from a speech by Creech Jones, Britain's Colonial Secretary, in 1948:
"We apply better health arrangements only to be faced with a population problem of appalling dimension. We have to feed that increased population while they employ agricultural methods and ways of living hopelessly inadequate for such numbers... We must expect a troublesome period ahead. We cannot pursue development schemes fast enough to absorb all the rising generation in useful wage-employment. We cannot get for all of them a place on the land and many of them would not wish it. The increasing numbers cannot be supported or fed in the reserves. They cannot on their present economies enjoy all the services which they begin to demand. They clamour for the benefits of civilization without the economic basis to sustain them ... We cannot for a long time hope to satisfy all the new appetites of the colonial peoples and consequently there must be discomfort and agitation" (241-242).
The chapter ends there, and students turn to chapter 11, "Independent Africa."
Although it constitutes a framework for the entire narrative, the theme of demographic history is poorly integrated into the text. In most of the chapters, discussion of demography is relegated to the last pages of each chapter. The relationship between population and history is more carefully spelled out in later chapters, no doubt a function of better data.
There is much in "Africans: The History of a Continent" beyond that which I have been criticizing here, which is why I have decided to submit the book to the judgment of my students by assigning the second half of it as required reading in my introductory modern African history course. I am not against provocative texts. Iliffe may be admired for the integrity and forthrightness of his prose, but I find his readings of African population history to be facile and poorly positioned. I believe he participates in the maintenance of a crisis narrative of African history and, and in a sophisticated way, to the stereotype of a nasty continent whose deliberate human actions are inexorably undercut and overwritten by crosscurrents of an uncontrollable population. These are narratives of venerable pedigree. Our students, I fear, set the book down satisfied that it has validated what they have already received about the African continent and its peoples.
Pier M. Larson
Thank you, Pier, for the long and thoughtful review of AFRICANS by Iliffe. As Pier knows, I too am reviewing the book, for the Journal of Historical Geography. I picked it to review because I thought, by its title and chosen theme, that it would truly be "historical geography'. Well, I agree with Pier that the book has some fine qualities, not least of which is its readability (in most parts) and the presence of Iliffe's considerable research talents (I think it was Tom Spear who mentioned one day at the Tanzania National Archives that he hadn't yet asked for a file - and those who have done research at TNA know this asking, which also means paying dala dala fare and god knows what, is a task in itself - on which John Iliffe's name was not emblazoned already). But I have to say to myself, "where is the geography"? Most importantly, I anticipate that students in my classes at least, reading this book (or parts of it) this Spring, are going to look in vain for maps to guide them; the cartography is insufficient for the broad reach of the history. Secondly, as Pier points out - what happens to this theme of population, what happens to the "continent", to the environment he sees at the outset as so harsh? These are things which just aren't handled sufficiently.
Lastly, Pier suggests that the Europeanness of the approach is telling. Pier has worded his comments well. But maybe I can be a little more blunt. I don't know about the rest of you in your classes, but one trend I see repeatedly in the three year+ that I've been teaching is that galvanized interest of African-Americans (not just from the US) and Africans in "Afro-centric" thinking. Iliffe treats this scholarship with disdain if ever, and this attitude is bound to grate on many students, as well it should, I think. In the US classroom of the 1990s in African Studies, to say discuss ancient Egypt absent Black Athena's meticulously researched and I feel compelling assessment of the directional arrows of influences in the NE quadrant of the continent vis a vis the Near East, Europe and the rst of the continent, is incomplete. I was especially disappointed with this because he makes references to climate change without really detailing any of the many arguments about the geologic history of climate change. I don't think these kinds of problems are nitpicking, Pier. I think they present teachers and students of Africa with dilemmas Iliffe seems to dodge.
On a totally different subject. My students will be reading another problematic but to me truly magnificent book this Spring, Moore and Vaughan's Cutting Down Trees. My problem is, I'm not a Bemba speaker. I need to know straightaway how one pronounces citemene. Being a Swahili speaker but cognizant of the southcentral Bantu replacement of ki with chi, I am wondering if this is pronounced "chi-teh-MEH-neh" or if the c which does not exist in Swahili is actually an s that the White Fathers snuck in from French lexicon. Any takers for an explanation before my Friday class?
Sincerely, Garth Andrew Myers
On Sun, 14 Jan 1996 Garth Andrew Myers wrote;
> On a totally different subject. My students will be reading another
I think the correct pronunciation is ICHI-te-meh-neh. But, there maybe room for refinement. I am a Bemba who has spent all his life in the urban areas of Lusaka. Nonetheless, ichi-te-meh-neh is singular and IFI-te-meh-neh is plural. With regard to the system of farming, I think it would be more correct to call it the "Ichi-te-meh-neh" System of Farming rather than Chitemene which I suspect has been the convenient way to pronounce it for the non-Bemba speaking.