Volume 11, Issue 1
Fall 2009

Emmanuel Kwaku Akyeampong (ed.). Themes in West Africa’s History. Athens: Ohio University Press. 2006.

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Themes in West Africa’s History is an impressive book. The thirteen well-organized essays essentially represent various aspects of West African history from the pre-colonial to the contemporary periods. These essays are key learning tools towards an overall understanding West African history. Additionally, the authors’ interdisciplinary approach as well as their focus on new themes make the book totally different from conventional history books on West Africa. The book’s objective is to discuss “various disciplinary approaches to West African history, providing overviews of the literature on major topics, and breaking new ground through the incorporation of original research.” The contributors accomplish this objective through thorough research and lucid presentations.

Divided into three parts, the book examines new themes that are often not well taught due to a lack of research and knowledge. Part I chapters are inter-connected with the focus on the prehistory, ecology, culture, language, and oral traditions of West Africa. Part II discusses topics on environment, the slave trade, class and caste systems, religious interactions, diseases, poverty, and urbanization. Finally, Part III considers some contemporary issues such as the political economy of West Africa, structural adjustment, military intervention in politics, ethnic conflicts, and the intermingling of religion and culture, especially Pentecostalism and Islam. All are basic ideas for a better understanding of the overall history of West Africa. The themes are well connected and the smooth transition from one theme to another is one of the book’s strengths. Another strong area is that the essays are rich in sources and detailed notes. This is evidence of comprehensive research on each of the themes discussed. Aside from the references, each chapter contains recommended sources for further reading that provide an opportunity for further investigation.

Unlike eastern and southern Africa, where hominid fossil finds have proven the ancientness of humans in Africa, such discoveries are lacking for West Africa. Artifacts of material culture, however, provide convincing archaeological evidence of human life and activities in West Africa over the last 10,000 years. Climatic changes have occurred, but food production in the savanna and forest regions has consistently supported a steadily growing population. The development of the Neolithic revolution that brought about a change from subsistence economy to cultivation of crops, the growth of commerce, and the favorable environmental and living conditions gave rise to urbanization as well as socio-political interactions within the region. All of these factors contributed to the emergence of great empires in West Africa. As an important and integral part of the history of West Africa, it would be necessary to refer to the empires and how the geography of the region contributed to their rise and growth.

Oral traditions pervade West African culture and history. While the focus in this book is on the different dimensions of oral traditions among the Manding peoples, it is important to show that oral traditions existed in other West African cultural settings. For example, the ba-gesere in Borgu and the arokin in Yorubaland perform the same functions of palace historians in their respective societies. As well, the pride of “the power of the brain” and the reliance on memory (since writing was not developed in West African civilization) was commonplace throughout the region. Thus, there is tremendous historical knowledge to be gained in oral tradition. Readers should be fully aware of the prevalence of such historical traditions in West Africa.

The colonial period brought about some significant political, economic, and social changes in West Africa. This period and the profound changes that accompanied it cannot be overlooked. Not much was written about this period, which provides a useful link between the pre-colonial and contemporary times. Because West African states inherited a weak economic base from their colonial masters, they have been struggling economically since independence. The mono-economic style in which the British and French made Africans specialize in producing specific cash crops turned out to be a negative economic legacy. Lacking industrial and technological capability to tap mineral resources, Africans have been forced to depend largely on their former colonial powers for economic support. West African states are importers rather than exporters. Hence, they have resorted to taking loans from international financial institutions (IFIs) to revamp their economy. Instead of improving, the Structural Adjustment Program (SAP) has actually sapped their economies. Through this neocolonial economic experience, poverty has become a major problem. As the book suggests, however, West African countries must cultivate the culture of a sustainable economy through meaningful and relevant projects. The weak economy West African states are experiencing is closely linked with the growth of diseases and poor health conditions. As governments endeavor to address economic problems, they must also provide better health services for the people who constitute the workforce.

The book is unique, interesting, and illuminating. It overflows with anthropological, cultural, and historical information. Contemporary issues such as ethnic conflicts and the growing influence of religion on politics add flavor to the richness and uniqueness of the book. The writing is clear, understandable, and concise. Emmanuel Akyeampong has done an excellent job putting together a volume that provides high quality analysis. The authors have done a commendable job explaining some difficult concepts which in turn makes the book comprehensible to ordinary readers. This book will be very helpful and enlightening to general readers, undergraduate and graduate students of West African history and anthropology.

Julius O. Adekunle
Monmouth University