Challenges for Anthropology in the "African Renaissance": A Southern African Contribution

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Debie LeBeau and Robert J. Gordon, eds. Challenges for Anthropology in the "African Renaissance": A Southern African Contribution. Windhoek: University of Namibia Press, 2002. Distributed by African Books Collective Ltd., The Jam Factory, 27 Park End St., Oxford 0X1 IHU. xiv + 306 pp. Maps. Figures. £23.95/$39.95. Paper.

Challenges for Anthropology in the "African Renaissance" proceeds from a conference of the Association for Anthropology in Southern Africa that was held in Windhoek in May 2000. The conference organizers had asked how the concept of the "African Renaissance," coined by South African President Thabo Mbeki, challenged postcolonial southern African anthropology, and vice versa, how anthropology challenged the implied celebration of the greatness of that which is African. Mbeki called upon intellectuals to address African problems by using African ideals and institutions. Now, this book claims, however modestly, to rise to Mbeki's challenge, and "to add to the strengthening of the movement for Africa's renaissance" (xiii).

Despite the editors' efforts to have the idea of the "African Renaissance" wind through the book's chapters, it is obvious that most of the contributors have not given it much thought, simply adding a paragraph or two on the "African Renaissance" to papers that originally were written without the theme in mind. Several such comments, indeed, read more like declarations of political correctness or restatements of African essentialism, such as Innocent Modo's statement that the discipline of anthropology was well placed to find the "genuine African cultural path" (15).

LeBeau and Gordon have grouped the twenty-six papers into five sections: "Rethinking Anthropology," "The Reinvention of Culture and Tradition," "Perspectives on Gender and Youth," "A Place for Anthropology in Development," and "Land, Space and Landscapes." Contributors to the volume include established anthropologists as well as younger scholars and postgraduate students from different countries in the southern African region and beyond. Like many conference-based volumes, this one is a bit of a mixed bag. There are a few excellent papers and too many others that are not of a very high quality. The most compelling chapters are those, like Sian Sullivan's fascinating contribution on prevailing modernist environmental discourses and their juxtaposition in local narratives in northwestern Namibia, which combine critical perspectives on the anthropologist's positionality with a renewed dedication to an "unabashed attempt to make accessible views that exist alongside, and perhaps run counter to, those elaborated in 'expert discourses'" (263). …