Review of Africa and the West: A Documentary History, Volume 2: From Colonialism to Independence, 1875 to the Present, Second Edition by William H. Worger, Nancy L. Clark and Edward A. Alpers Oxford University Press

Africa and the West: A Documentary History, Volume 2: From Colonialism to Independence, 1875 to the Present, Second Edition. William H. Worger, Nancy L. Clark and Edward A. Alpers, editors. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. ISBN: 9780195373134

In the second edition of the documentary compilation Africa and the West, Worger, Clark and Alpers set out with the same basic goal as the first edition. They want to “present the story of Africa’s relationship with the West through the perspective of those who lived its history,” and make it accessible to school audiences from  middle school through university, as well as to  a reading public interested in Africa. In many ways, they have succeeded admirably with this updated edition that splits the original into two volumes. Both are reasonably enough priced to make it possible for instructors at the high school or university level to assign the book to a class. By splitting the original into two volumes, the authors also allow the second volume (under review here) to broaden the focus of contacts between Africa and the West beyond slavery. This is, perhaps, the most important contribution of this collection for the teacher who is attempting to develop critical thinking among students about the evolving role of Africa in world affairs. .

Organizationally, the book has sixty-nine documents split between two parts, with one looking at the colonial period (labeled “Reshaping Africa, 1875-1961), and the other looking at the post- independence era. The first chapter starts with the advent of colonial rule in 1875, but as only one document dates from before 1897, the volume is really a documentary history of the twentieth century plus the first decade of the twenty-first. There are four chapters in Part I, which are primarily organized chronologically. The first chapter takes readers up to the end of World War I, the second looks at the inter-war years, the third examines World War II and its aftermath, and the fourth parses out early setbacks in the struggle against colonialism from 1953-1961. Part II is organized more thematically, with chapter five examining nationalist ideologies, chapter six looking at the colonial legacies of authoritarianism, chapter seven looking at colonial legacies of exploitation, and chapter eight attempting to bring the text to the present with a grab-bag of topics labeled “The Continuing Transition to Freedom, 1990-2008.”

In terms of being a teaching text, the collection continues the strengths inherent in the first edition—clear sections that are roughly chronological, but also thematic in a way that allows for time period overlap. Each section has a clear, concise introductory section that contextualizes the documents and orientates students to the general themes of the chapter. Each individual document also contains a similar introduction placing it in its historical context. Both  features lend themselves to good teaching, as students can  read the section introductions to learn the larger context, and how documents fit together, while the individual introduction make documents legible on their own. The text is also impressive for making long selections from most documents. The length might make this collection a bit of a stretch for the middle school classroom, but will certainly be effective for high school and university-level classes looking to teach close and critical reading skills. These lengthy selections, combined with the comprehensive introductions, make this volume a much more useful tool than most textbooks, which only have space for abbreviated documents.

The authors have clearly headed the calls of reviewers of their first version to expand the thematic offerings in the second part of the book. There is still a predominant focus in the text on South African events, as well as Ghana and other parts of Anglophone Africa. This is a limitation to using this book as part an overall African history survey, but it could also be useful for teaching more focused classes. A teacher, for example, looking to focus on South African affairs could craft a number of lengthy primary-source units based on this text that would also be able to give students a chronological account of the apartheid era. As to its stated goal of examining the relationship between Africa and the West, this volume does succeed in presenting an accessible, wide-ranging collection of documents that could profitably find a home in many university classrooms, and certainly in the libraries and classrooms at the secondary level.

On two key and one minor issue, however, this volume falls short in helping students understand the complexities of social, economic and political life in Africa. The first concerns its stated objective of presenting the story of Africa’s contact with the West through the words of Africa’s “kings, slaves, and politicians.” While certainly students should be exposed to the lofty rhetoric of Nelson Mandela, the dignified plans of Nyerere’s African Socialism and pioneering individuals like Kenya’s Harry Thuku, the volume fails to bring in the plethora of voices not directly involved in ruling, negotiating or pressing for reform. There are some attempts to do this, especially in the South African sections, with Charlotte Maxeke and Mark Mathabane being notable exceptions, but by and large, voices of non-politicians are glaringly absent from most of the collection. Relying only on this text, students must be forgiven for thinking that political participation in Africa was limited mainly to a few influential men. The second issue comes from the final chapter of the collection, which the authors misleadingly call “The Continuing Transition to Freedom, 1990-2008.” This chapter contains documents examining the “crisis of the state,” the Rwandan genocide, political prisoners, refugees, resource development, and a variety of statements by South African politicians from Mandela to Zuma. What these documents fail to present is the complexity of African development, tending to focus, as contemporary media often does, on the conflicts and visible tragedies of a diverse continent without presenting any success stories to complicate the narrative. Surely later editions could and should deal with the admittedly unsexy, but equally important topics of regional integration (ECOWAS, SADC, etc.), the changes in multi-lateral organizations (the founding of the African Union in 2002), and grassroots development initiatives that have taken root in many countries (2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai and the Greenbelt Movement being perhaps the most prominent of these). Without these complicated and complicating voices, it is all too easy for American students to continue to see Africa as a place needing “our” help, a place of dependency, rather than as a fully formed place where three-dimensional human beings can and do take charge of their own lives and livelihoods. A final, and very minor issue, concerns the lack of documents dealing with China’s relations with Africa. While it is perhaps too early to have identified suitable documents for China’s latest attempts to nurture diplomatic relationships and gain access to raw materials like copper, this is not a new phenomenon historically. Even a single document on the TARZARA railway project in Zambia and Tanzania in the 1970s would help historicize this increasingly important relationship, and could help challenge the view that it was only “the West” that proffered development assistance to  Africa during the Cold War.

Despite these three quibbles, this text can and should find a place of prominence in many secondary and tertiary classrooms, where it will help the African continent and its relations with outside actors come alive through the words of its residents. Under careful, critical hands, this volume can admirably serve as a one-stop resource for teachers looking to bring more primary source documents into their classrooms and introduce American students to the history of a diverse continent and its role in world affairs.

Reviewed by John Aerni-Flessner, Michigan State University
Edited by Dhara Anjaria

(c) 2012 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 5, Fall, 2012. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy. [Originally published on the St. Scholastica website]