Honour in African History

Article excerpt

Honour in African History. By John Lliffe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. African Studies 107. Pp. xxiv, 404; 5 maps; 8 illustrations. $80.00 cloth, $28.99 paper.

Press headlines remind us daily of the consequences of lapses in honorable behavior in militaries, governments, corporations, and other organizations around the world. Yet we usually use the word "honor" without much reflection. Scholars have extensively studied the concept of honor, especially in the Mediterranean and North Africa. In this innovative study, John Iliffe takes up this "most elusive of concepts" (p. 4), using it to analyze one thousand years of sub-Saharan African history. In Iliffe's estimation, the coming of colonialism was a watershed event that redirected honor concepts without necessarily destroying them. He defines honor as "a right to respect" that exists both subjectively and objectively, as well as vertically and horizontally, meaning that honor is always "a contested category" (p. 4). In order to understand Africa and its current problems, which are "so often attributed to lack of honor, to corruption and cruelty and greed," Iliffe contends we must understand codes of honor at work in African history because they "[express] a group's highest values" and are "powerful motivators" that drive people to act in sometimes self-destructive ways (p. 8).

The book is divided into two sections. The first examines the role of heroic and householder honor in precolonial Africa and the effects of Islam and Christianity on indigenous notions of honor. The second analyzes the "crisis of honour" that occurred in the wake of colonial conquest, leading to the "fragmentation and mutation" of these notions. Throughout, Iliffe traces how diverse forms of heroic and householder honor influenced African men and women in all manner of political and social interactions. For example, he explains the problem of corruption in post-independence African politics as having roots in principles of clientage characteristic of precolonial honor cultures, but which were ill suited to new governments based on European models. Similarly, ostentatious displays of wealth by African leaders can be traced to the central role of display within heroic honor, which had deep historical roots in many parts of Africa.

Iliffe's sources are varied, including epic and praise poetry, archival materials, and an array of secondary literature. He pays close attention to the vocabularies that existed historically in various African languages to express notions of honor. This technique yields some wonderful results, most notably in his sophisticated chapter on praise and slander in southern Africa, where Iliffe convincingly marshals evidence to show the workings of gendered honor in one precolonial context. By comparing different peoples living in this war-torn region, Iliffe creates a richly textured portrait of how senses of heroic honor were heavily infused with a masculine military ethos. Yet in the same region, householder honor, which emphasized good standing within the community, economic stability, and maintenance of a stable home life and providing for the family, gave women grounds to fight for "respectability" when they were defamed by others. …