“African history over the long run is environmental history,” writes Kathleen Smythe in Africa's Past, Our Future. The book offers a concise introduction to Africa's past for non-specialists with an interest in questions of sustainability and contemporary problems. Smythe seeks to make African history relevant to these questions, arguing that “long-standing traditions and ideas in African history [are] sources of wisdom and creativity for those caught in practices, ideas, and institutions that are not sustainable in social, economic, or ecological terms”—an assertion she struggles to support (p. 3). The book is organized in four sections. The first explores human origins, the domestication of plants and animals, the impact of climate change on the earliest human societies, and cultural and technological diffusion and borrowing across the continent. Smythe notes that one of Africans’ major contributions to human history is their success at settling and adapting to difficult environments. The second section, “African Institutions in the Middle Time Frame,” explores institutions and ideas common across much of the continent but perhaps foreign to most Western readers: matriliny, hetarchy—“diffuse, independent sources of power, rather than concentrated, vertical power” (p. 103)—and wealth in people. The long period that humans spent in Africa before they moved on to the rest of the world means this is a history shared by everyone, in which basic ways of living were worked out. Smythe is very clear about the sources that historians use to get at these more distant pasts, making these sections a valuable introduction to historical methodologies. The third and fourth sections deal with recent history and politics and include chapters on colonialism, development assistance, and African contributions to global institutions such as restorative justice, women in politics, and informal economies. The book concludes with Somaliland as a counterintuitive example of an African success story that does not rely on Western political institutions. These chapters are much less environmental in their focus; they are intended to illustrate a range of ways in which Africa has contributed to the main currents of world history rather than being a marginal player in that history. This is a tricky balancing act, and Smythe does not always succeed. While it is valuable to challenge the teleologies built into narratives of Western history, Smythe sometimes comes dangerously close to returning to what historians in the 1970s called “Merrie Africa,” a romantic vision of a peaceable and harmonious continent. In her exploration of matriliny, she asserts that there are “broad patterns of gender equality and complementarity throughout the continent” (p. 126). While it is true that gender relations in much of Africa rest on different assumptions from those prevailing in European history and that women had spaces for autonomy, very few historians would characterize Africa’s past or present as marked by gender equality. Smythe’s laudatory analysis of Somaliland’s clan structure as an alternative to Western state institutions is silent on the near exclusion of women from decision making in that structure. The book also tends to assume that the concept of “Africa” has meaning before the colonial period, potentially leaving readers with a sense that there is, in fact, a set of uniquely “African” historical institutions. When Smythe describes the spread of agricultural practices around the continent, she writes, “This type of communication is a common African trait of openness to new ideas that are often incorporated into older systems” (p. 47). What, ultimately, is “African” about this fact? Smythe’s quest to demonstrate alternative paths that human societies have taken, and thus to challenge ideas of what is “natural” or “inevitable,” is laudable and can serve as a thought-provoking introduction to those with no familiarity with these concepts. But her attempts to show their relevance today result in vague and even politically troubling statements. For example, she writes, “Western culture believes that a woman’s importance is not based on her reproductive capability, but many psychologists feel this abandonment of biological imperatives comes at great emotional and social cost,” a statement that carries no citation and is not elaborated on (p. 130). Africa’s Past, Our Future is an intriguing thought experiment but one that demonstrates the difficulties that most teachers of African history face when seeking to integrate the continent into the global past and the global present. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Society for Environmental History and the Forest History Society. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Environmental History – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 1, 2018
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