Wednesday, July 4, 2012

PL 29/12: Reading report from East Africa

Filed under: books — plinius @ 2:43 pm

A month in East Africa ought to mean more time for reading.

But the last few weeks have been intense: attending the SCECSAL conference in  Nairobi, preparing the LATINA Africa training in Kampala (one week), actually doing the training (two weeks) – and running the first African Statistics for Advocacy course on top of that (July 2).


The local newspapers are always interesting.  They document national concerns as well as the trivia and tragedies of daily life. In Uganda I’ve followed New Vision (government owned) and Daily Monitor, and also subscribed to their twitter streams. The East African (weekly) has good analytical articles about regional politics and development. East Africa is visbly taking shape as an economic and political entity of its own.


Girls are rising. After Harry Potter came the Hunger Games, both about teenagers finding their own way in very troubled societies. The Hunger games trilogy was very suitable reading for the long trip from Oslo to Nairobi. Once there, the five hundred pages of the SCECSAL conference proceedings beckoned with delight (sort of):

  • SCECSAL 2012. Information for sustainable development in a digital environment. Edited by Byroenne Omondi and Christine Onyango. Nairobi: Kenya Library Association. – 491 pp.

The fifty-four papers give a good snapshot of the state-of-the-art in African library and information studies, at least from Anglophone Africa. The style of writing tends to follow the US model.

In the future, the major differences between the African and the American library environments could perhaps be more fully explored, leading to alternative models of research, writing and (development) action. As an example, Schoenbrun’s book on the Great Lakes region (below) achieves a type of history writing very different from most European historiography …

Facing Mt. Kenya

The bookshop at the (admirable) Fairview hotel was well stocked with tourist books, including books on East African history. But time was short. I picked Jomo Kenyatta‘s famous monography, Facing Mt. Kenya. The book was originally published in 1938. Kenyatta had Malinowski, the great Polish anthropologist, as his advisor. Kenyatta managed to write an interesting, but rather traditional case study, about his own Kikuyu society. The fight for indigenous power had begun, but it took the Second World War, and the decline of Great Britain as an imperial power, to put independence on the agenda.


In Kampala, at the supermarket just outside Makerere, we found a novel about Kenyan libraries

  • Masha Hamilton. The camel bookmobile. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2007. – 308 pp.

– Once a fortnight, says the blurb, the nomadic settlement of Madidima, set deep in the dusty Kenyan desert, awaits the arrival of a train of camels laden down with panniers of books. The story is fiction, but the bookmobile is real. I look forward to read it.

Finally three acdemic books from Uganda.  Makerere is the leading university in East Africa. Mandani’s book on Makerere’s “turn to the market” (sold in the small university bookshop)

  • Scholars in the Marketplace. The Dilemmas of Neo-Liberal Reform at Makerere University, 1989-2005

shows that the growing market orientation of higher education is a world-wide phenomenon. Makerere used to be a relatively small university for an elite of government-financed students. It has become a large, but fragmented system, with many different interests competing for power and strategic leadership.

Mahmood Mandani, says Wikipedia,

is an academic, author and political commentator. He is a Professor and Director of the Makerere Institute of Social Research at Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda, and the Herbert Lehman Professor of Government at Columbia University, New York.

He grew up in Uganda and acquired his B.A from the University of Pittsburgh, before going on to attain his Masters degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in 1969 and PhD from Harvard University in 1974. Mamdani specializes in the study of African and international politics, colonialism and post‐colonialism, and the politics of knowledge production.

Analytical history

The academic world has changed since I started to read about Africa fifty years ago. The cumulative effect of Africa research on a large scale is now making a strong impact.  The bookstore at Entebbe airport (serves Kampala) has an excellent selection of books on (East) Africa.  In 2010 I bought

  • Johnson, Douglas H. The root causes of Sudan’s civil wars. Kampala: Fountain, 2007. – 234 pp. (orig. 2003)

– a brilliant analysis of the conflict. I am very impressed by the “deep history” books now available, like this text in the “Social History of Africa” series

  • David Lee Schoenbrun. A green place, a good place. Agrarian change, gender, and social identity in the Great Lakes Region to the 15th century. – 300 pp.

Schoenbrun’s book is a masterly synthesis of archeological, ethnographic and linguistic research, and gives a new understanding of the Bantu expansion, from the “homeland” in Nigeria to most of Central, Eastern and Southern Africa. The parallels with the Indo-European expansion (Renfrew) are worth studying. Last on my list is

  • Ronald R. Atkinson. The roots of ethnicity. Origins of the Acholi in Uganda before 1800. Kampala: Fountain, 2010. – 382 pp.

in the series “Fountain Studies in East African History”. Both volumes prove the social, cultural and economic history can be written without (hardly any) written sources. Necessity is the mother of invention.



1 Comment »

  1. […] PL 29/12: Reading report from East Africa. Books, books, books. […]

    Pingback by P 49/12: Feriebøker « Plinius — Sunday, July 29, 2012 @ 12:00 pm

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