African Studies Quarterly

UNESCO General History of Africa Vol. IV: Africa from the Twelfth to the Sixteenth Century (abridged). Joseph Ki-Zerbo and Djibril Tamsir Niane (eds.). Paris, Oxford and Berkeley: UNESCO, James Currey, & University of Claifornia Press, 1997. 316 pp. Paper: $16.95.


One sign of the maturing of African history has been the publication over the last twenty years of two massive eight volume collective histories -- the Cambridge History of Africa and the UNESCO General History of Africa. They differ in several ways. The Cambridge volumes were produced by scholars, most of whom were linked to the School of Oriental and African Studies. The volumes were divided into a small number of long chapters, usually fifty to eighty pages long. The volumes thus have a greater unity and maintain a consistent standard. They are available only in English. The UNESCO History has a very diverse set of authors. Like most UNESCO enterprises, a lot of politics were involved in the assignment of chapters. They are, however, shorter, and the volumes often seek to present different perspectives. More importantly, although the list of contributors is truly international, the UNESCO project is dominated by Africans. Both the scientific committee and the list of authors are over half Africans. Thus, when published, they represented an effort by African historians to present a predominantly African view of the African past. Given the domination of agendas in the field by non-Africans, and the difficulties scholars within Africa have in publishing, this is important.

The UNESCO volumes were also designed to reach a larger audience. Initial publication was to be in three languages (English, French and Arabic) with the hope of eventual publication in thirteen other languages, five of them African. Equally important, abridged editions of several volumes have been published. In volume IV, the bibliography was cut from forty-one to ten pages, the number of plates were reduced, footnotes eliminated, and chapters reduced in length to a little over a third of the original. There is also no author listed for any of the chapters, but rather a separate list of the authors of the originals. One can only assume that the original authors were not involved in the abridgement and not willing to put their names on the chapters that resulted. This is understandable. Most of the abridgements are atrocious. They are fact-laden and often incomprehensible to a reader not already familiar with the subject. There is little attention to causation and little effort to delineate processes of change. Although the chief editor, Niane, lays out some methodological concerns, discussions of methodology are brief and rare. There is little sense of the larger questions and the debates that mark the history of the period.

Since this is not a period on which a great deal of research or synthesis has been done, a more elaborate discussion of problems and questions would have been useful. In addition, it is dated. One of the problems with large collaborative histories is that chapters submitted early are often out-of-date when the volume comes out, but in this case, thirteen years passed between the original and the abridged edition. A lot has been written since 1984 and even the questions being asked have changed. The selection of themes and the division of chapters also reflects a West African orientation, both in the amount of space accorded West Africa and in the central themes Niane lays out in his introduction: the triumph of Islam, the expansion of trade and trade relations, and the formation of large empires.

Some chapters survive abridgement better than others. Mahdi Adamu's chapter on the Hausa deals with causation and nicely sums up the views of the Abdullahi Smith school on processes of change. Tadesse Tamrat's discussion of the Horn is a coherent picture of process. B.A. Ogot's chapter on the Great Lakes shows that the complicated mosaic of that region can be dealt with coherently. The same is true of A.F.C. Ryder and Yves Person on different stretches of the Guinea coast and Jan Vansina on equatorial Africa. Ogot stresses different patterns of pastoral-agricultural interaction and state formation, but he also underlines that decentralized societies have a history, which is as important as the history of large empires.

The editors' introduction rightly stresses the importance of oral tradition, but the few references to it stress its limited applicability to the period covered in the book. This being true, it is disappointing that few authors use language data. This deficiency is particularly striking in V. Matveiev's treatment of the Swahili. Authors often give language classification, but few use language as a source. Most rely heavily on documentary sources, although Fagan's article on the Zambezi and Limpopo valleys is based almost exclusively on archeology.

The result is a volume that presents basic facts on a period of African history not yet well studied. Some chapters are useful, but there is little reason for anyone to buy or use this book. Students should be directed to the original volume where ideas are developed more fully and there are detailed references that would send the student on to other sources. The original is also uneven. Some chapters stress naked data with little analysis, but many are still excellent. They also present African views of the past, written by outstanding African scholars. Anyone teaching African history should try to come to grips with that. The abridged version of this volume will not help them very much.

Martin A. Klein (Emeritus Professor)
Department of History
University of Toronto