Academic journal article African Studies Review

Honour in African History

Academic journal article African Studies Review

Honour in African History

Article excerpt

HISTORY John Iliffe. Honour in African History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. xxiv + 404 pp. Photographs. Maps. Bibliography. Index. $80.00. Cloth. $28.99. Paper.

John lliffe lays out his premise in the first sentence of his introduction: "The central argument of this book is that understanding African behaviour, in the past and in the present, must take account of changing notions of honour." For the word honour he borrows the dictionary definition ("a [perceived?] right to respect") but grants that it is "a contested category" (4), with meaning that changes not only over time, but also from one cultural setting to another. The author illustrates this by drawing on examples of "honour societies" ranging from Timbuktu to Cape Town and covering the many centuries for which written or orally derived evidence is available. In the process, considerable attention is paid to the notion among women, although, as Lonsdale points out, most of our information has a decidedly male optic.

The numerous cases lliffe has chosen make for interesting and informative reading and clearly demonstrate that concepts of individual and group honor were and are no less prevalent among African societies than elsewhere in the world. Discussing changing concepts of honor-and dissociating one's own from the process-involves, even more than usual, a very close attention to the context of the sources. Honor is one of those concepts that must be understood as operating at two levels, the ideal and the actual, with the amount of overlap left to observers to calculate. Almost by definition, even the actual has a large leaven of the idealized about it. For instance, the so-called flower wars of precontact Mesoamerica, to which lliffe briefly refers, were, if they existed at all, nothing like the nonsanguinary frolics many of the sources depict, but rather ex post facto phenomena, even to some extent a modern anthropological confection. lliffe must rely on oral sources such as praise poems, saga and epics, and chronicles designed to celebrate and foster elitist rule and, along with it, often a sense of noblesse oblige. This sometimes creates an impression that there was little difference between Kano and Camelot, at least as portrayed by die relevant sources. …

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