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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Travels in West Africa by Mary H. Kingsley ( Dover ) No European woman had ventured where Kingsley would venture, and no man either. In defiance of Victorian notions about women's roles, she journeyed through West Africa , climbed mountains, experienced harrowing adventures, dwelled among cannibals, and lived to write one of the most admired books of high adventure of all time. First published in 1897, Travels in West Africa has now been replicated and reprinted with new maps and the 42 original photographs.

With the death of her parents in 1892, Mary Kingsley was suddenly freed from family obligations. A sheltered Victorian spinster, she traded her mundane, middle-class existence for an incredible expedition in the Congo . The undaunted Englishwoman traversed uncharted regions of West Africa alone, on foot, collecting specimens of local fauna and trading with the natives – a remarkable feat in any year, but particularly so for a woman of the 1890s.

After hacking her way through jungles, surviving gunshots from hostile tribesmen and attacks by wild animals, Kingsley emerged with no complaint more serious than tired feet. She undertook her exploits in the traditional female garb of the era, clambering in and out of dugout canoes in long, black trailing skirts, tight waists, high collars, and a toque-like fur cap. Despite the apparel, she lived as a native and was drawn into the life and problems of the region: its diversity of customs and beliefs, geography and natural history, trade network, the impact of the missionaries, and many other issues of the day.

Travels in West Africa the amazing account of her experiences, suffused with infectious good humor, was published to immediate success in 1897 and remains a compelling tale of adventure.

The Diwan Revisited by Augustin F. C. Holl (Kegan Paul, Columbia University Press) Discovered in the 1850s by the German explorer H. Barth, the Diwan, or genealogy, is a remarkable collection of facts, deeds, and descriptions of the sultans of Kanem-Bornu, one of the most advanced civilizations in West Africa. In this book, Holl reevaluates almost 150 years of research on the subject.

Excerpt: Since H. Barth's travels and discoveries in North and Central Africa in the 1850s, a series of local written historical records from the 'Kanem-Bornu' kingdoms have been collected and sent to Europe, and have played a fundamental role in the development of the historical scholarship concerning the past of that part of the African continent. One set of these written historical records, the Diwan-or the list of kings of the Sayfawa dynasty-has become famous among the students of the history of the Central Sudan, and is considered by some researchers to provide the longest chronological chart of the rulers uncovered to date in Black Africa. Historical research has thus been focused on the singled-minded attempt to extract 'genuine' historical 'facts' from that important document, leading to an unending spiral of interpretation of interpretations, comments on comments. I do not suggest that the important interpretive works made by various scholars are useless; on the contrary, it is considered that with the accumulation of new data from other fields of research such as archaeology, social anthropology, palaeoenvironmental research, research on oral history and comparative mythology, a shift toward a wider anthropologically oriented interpretation is needed. It appears that the accumulated pieces of historical research dominant in the Central Sudan historiography, are enlightening on some points but at the same time, due to the nature of the academic traditions of the various authors engaged in the debate-historical philology versus local and internal approach-some other points, which may, at least theoretically, be considered as highly relevant for the understanding and the explanation of the dynamics of the past Kanem and Bornu social systems, have been obscured and sometimes simply posited as minor inconsistencies, resulting from copyists' mistakes.

'To be sure, the social occasions which concerns us (as anthropologically oriented students of the past) - whether it be something as conspicuous and formal as marriage ceremony or a sacrifice to the ancestors, or as mundane as a conversation or a court case, or a joking situation - have their recurrent shape and unity of structure. But the elements of which they are composed are of diverse structural and cultural provenance, appear and reappear in diverse situations. (Fortes 1969: 96)

Consequently, the present volume aims to explore other and discarded social aspects of the Diwan in order to asses their importance for a deeper understanding of the dynamics of the actual Kanem and Bornu social systems. In this perspective, the predominant political nature of literacy in African past societies will be emphasized; it is basically within this political framework characterized by fluctuating balance of power and social interaction, with trends toward integration countered by opposite trends toward desintegration, all of them pertaining to the changing aspects of the process of 'state' formation, that some of the inconsistencies recorded in the Diwan, start to make sense. It is argued that in the Central Sudan, literacy and the control of 'historical' knowledge, did not belong to the bureaucratic process`of 'neutral' accumulation of palaces' or rulers'{ archives, but were instrumental in the complex process of competition for power, prestige and claims for ultimate legitimacy in the development of a centralized socio-economic system in the Chad Basin from c. 1200 to 1600.

A Methodological Sketch

The development of modern historical scholarship as exemplified in the research tradition on the past societies of the Bilad es Sudan in general, and more specifically on the Central Sudan, is connected with Islamology and Orientalism. As such, this tradition is characterized by heavy reliance on textual evidence alone which is studied following an above all philological approach. The philological approach aims to retrieve the original or archetypal frame of historical documents which are therefore considered to have been corrupted by lengthy series of interpolation and/or copyists' mistakes. In so doing, inconsistencies and contradictions discovered are relegated to the status of mere accidents in the chain of transmission of historical information. These problems are more acute in research areas without written records (Vansina 1990) or possessing only a handful of such evidence like the Kanem-Bornu area. The philological research tradition has produced important breakthroughs in the understanding of some important parts of the history of Central Sudan and has generated interesting debates on the chronology of past societies and their political histories; the scope of our understanding of the past gained within the limits of the above mentioned approach is, however, severely limited regarding the range of social phenomena of interest for students of African history today. It is accepted that written records concern only a minute part of the transformations of societies from the past, that other kinds of data are needed to achieve a deeper understanding of the historical issues at hand, that oral history and social anthropology can be useful in clarifying some research problems.

In order to achieve a deeper understanding of the Diwan or kings lists of Kanem and Bornu, before considering the long-lasting and important chronological and political aspects of the history of the area, we need to ask some naive questions which may be helpful to devise a problem-oriented research strategy. Such naive questions may be framed as follows: (1) How were these documents collected? (2) What is the genuine nature of the collected documents and how were they produced? (3) What were the socio-political contexts for their production? These questions capture the fundamental issues which will be addressed in this work. Due to the increased amount of research carried out in different fields of study in the Chad basin during the last decades, we are in a better position to ask different kinds of questions in an attempt to integrate the Diwan into a wider socio-historical perspective. In this regard, our exploratory model will be based on three major related aspects which will be investigated relatively independently from each other: the linguistic or, more precisely, the literary aspects of the documents which may allow the discovery of a deeper coherence and organization of the document, and make sense of the apparent inconsistencies or chaos; the anthropological aspects, which concern patterns of social and political interaction between individuals, small and larger social units and their transformations; and, finally, the historical aspects, which are concerned with the temporal frame of human action in the past at different scales. These different aspects will not be treated in a linear fashion; all of them are integrated differentially in the discussion of each of the selected themes. The methodology adopted here is therefore contextual and structural. Instead of proceeding from isolated 'facts'. be they phonemes, words, sentences, toponyms, ethnonyms, titles, etc., the document is considered in its totality as a complex internal system of nested levels of meanings. In this perpective, a deeper understanding of the Diwan may emerge from the discovery of patterned relations between different, complementary and contradictory systems of meanings at various structural levels. Sound, musicality, rhythm, epic, etc. are such important systems of meanings, as are the social and political messages that are thus transmitted.

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