Themes in West Africa's History

By O'Brien, Susan | African Studies Review, December 2007 | Go to article overview

Themes in West Africa's History


O'Brien, Susan, African Studies Review


Emmanuel Kwaku Akyeampong, ed. Themes in West Africa's History. Athens: Ohio University Press/Oxford: James Currey/Accra: Woeli Publishing Services, 2006. xii + 323 pp. Photographs. Bibliography. Index. $49.95. Cloth. $24.95. Paper.

This edited volume is an exciting new West African history textbook that could be used effectively at both undergraduate and graduate levels. As its editor makes clear in the introduction, however, Themes in West Africa's History is not intended to be a substitute for a conventional historical textbook: it does not provide a narrative history of events. Nor is it organized, like Boahen's classic (though now out of date) Topics in West African History (Longman 1986 [1966]), around major episodes in West African history such as the trans-Saharan trade, Islamization, the slave trade, and colonialism. Rather, the chapters in this volume focus on themes-poverty, social inequality, environment and disease, religious transformation-that are particularly relevant to current conditions in the region; indeed, the authors of this volume share an interest in contributing to a "history of development" that speaks to Africa's contemporary problems and challenges. Thus while Themes does not solve the problem of out-of-print or out-of-date textbooks, it does potentially serve as a useful substitute, eliminating the need for a supplementary readings that, given copyright laws, can be costly.

The volume comprises an introduction and thirteen essays-including contributions from linguists, political scientists, economists, and anthropologists, as well as historians-organized into three parts. The essays are well-written, reflect up-to-date scholarship, and conclude with useful recommended reading lists. Part 1 provides an excellent introduction to the most significant methodological approaches in the reconstruction of African history. Susan McIntosh summarizes the archaeological and climatological evidence for the prehistory of West Africa from roughly 10,000 BP; underlining the indigenous sources of food production, urbanism, and occupational specialization, she puts to rest earlier theories attributing West African social innovation and complexity to external stimulus. James Webb's chapter on ecology and culture complements Mcintosh's discussion, focusing on human adaptations to the environment through the period of increased external contact brought on by the trans-Saharan and Atlantic trades, colonialism, and postcolonial globalization. M. E. Kropp Dakubu provides a particularly lucid and accessible overview of historical and comparative linguistics, contact studies, and the importance of language studies for historians. And David Conrad suggests how the content and form of Manding oral traditions reveal important cultural values, as well as a sense of history at odds with the European historiographical tradition; his chapter might be productively assigned alongside The Epic of Sunjata, a staple of West African history courses. …

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