African Studies Quarterly
Volume 8, Issue 1
Fall 2004

The Great Lakes of Africa : Two Thousand Years of History . Jean-Pierre Chrétien (translated by Scott Straus). New York : Zone Books, 2003. 503 pp.

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In reviewing a five hundred page book that claims to cover two thousand years of history, it is important to lay out some initial parameters. Most importantly, there should be no easy shots taken. For example, it would be unfair to harp on what Jean-Pierre Chrétien skims over. He simplifies a great deal of very complicated information. In one sentence, he will note the significance of sleeping sickness control within the colonial project (a subject that Kirk A. Hoppe expolores in Lords of the Fly [Praeger, 2003]). Chrétien occasionally glosses over some historical debates-- he has to. He is trying to cover two thousands years of history in a region where people continue to violently contest the meanings and make-up of those narratives. This is difficult and contentious terrain to cover. Any knowledgeable reader will undoubtedly find sections of this historical survey frustrating because of its omissions and simplifications. But such criticisms are both too easy and simply unfair.

In his preface, Jean-Pierre Chrétien establishes the book's objective: "to offer a synthesis of research contributions from various sources (9)." Thus, Chrétien's fairly modest goal is to take stock of existing knowledge regarding the history of the interlacustrine region. It should be noted that Chrétien openly acknowledges that he is attempting to re-balance the regional focus by providing equal (and occasionally greater) attention to the northwest corner of contemporary Tanzania and the Kivu provinces of the Congo -- areas that have often received short shrift in other histories of the region. This more balanced regional focus is certainly one of the book's strengths. Another strength is Chrétien's impressive familiarity with a wide range of historical sources. In the end, Chrétien offers a history that manages to avoid the pitfalls of simplistic and propagandistic historical narratives of the region. Rather than providing a tale of the "natural" progression of the region, Chrétien offers a nuanced narrative of the ruptures and contradictions of political, economic, and social life in the region over the past two millennium.

Chrétien divides the book into five chapters. The first focuses on ancient human settlements in the region. Chrétien deftly explores and navigates the ideologically-laden narratives of "Bantu agriculturalists" and "Nilo-Hamitic pastoralists" and the supposed timeless socio-ethnic cleavages between the two. The second chapter examines the emergence of kingdoms in the region. Particularly interesting in this chapter is Chrétien's treatment of the foundational myths of various kingships. Chrétien also provides an exploration of the roles of ritual and religion in the foundation of the regional kingdoms. Chapter Three examines the formation of regional monarchical states, with an interesting discussion of the role of ecological control. The fourth chapter focuses on European intrusion and the establishment of colonial control in the region. Chrétien's discussion in this chapter is particularly nuanced, as he explores the fragmented, complex, and occasionally contradictory colonial practices enacted upon the region. His discussion of the reconstruction of tradition -- by both colonial agents and African elites -- is quite well done. This is also the longest of the chapters. I only mention that because I feel the final chapter suffers from being too brief (half as long as the previous chapter). This final chapter deals with independence and the post-colonial experience. Insightfully, Chrétien titles this chapter "Regained Independence and the Obsession with Genocide," as the shadow of genocide -- both real and imagined -- informs this chapter. Indeed, the bulk of the chapter deals specifically with the events of the 1990s. After the more nuanced historical build-up, I felt Chrétien did not bring his same high level of nuance and insight to this final chapter. Moreover, the volume deserves far more than the ten-page concluding chapter Chrétien offers. This is really meant more as a compliment than a criticism. The work is an excellent historical study by most standards.

Returning to his own stated goal for the book, it should be stressed that Chrétien's work provides a wonderful synthesis of vast amounts of scholarship. It is written (and translated by Scott Straus) in a lively and accessible style. Let me conclude with a personal testimonial to underscore these points. As something of a litmus test, I assigned various sections of the book (alas, it is not in paperback yet) to my students in a senior seminar. They were unanimous in their praise and admiration of the work. Moreover, the students were able to have some of the most informed and historically grounded conversations of the semester when discussing Chrétien's work. As an admirable synthesis of vast and rich archival works, this is an impressive contribution to the field, and a well-written resource for students and scholars.

Kevin C. Dunn
Hobart and William Smith Colleges