The African City: A History (review)
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Reviewed by
Freund, Bill. 2007. The African City: A History. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. 214 pp. $19.99.

This book succeeds in its primary mission: to provide a student-friendly overview of Africa's urban histories. Bill Freund is a proven master of concise yet empirically and theoretically informed textbooks on African history. [End Page 131] This book could not come along at a better time, when a stimulating array of work on African cities is appearing in a variety of disciplines. Some are edited volumes that are uneven in quality, while others are highly detailed case-studies on particular cities or products of high-level research projects. This outburst of urban studies for Africa is encouraging as a sign of growing interest in African cities—intellectually, practically, and creatively. But as books go, neither the gather-what-one-may edited book, nor the research-monograph approach, works as well as a text in an undergraduate course as the sort of book Freund has produced here.

Following a helpful preface, The African City: A History is organized into six content chapters, each one between 28 and 42 pages long. The book is not a comprehensive tale, and it is thankfully bereft of long diversions to adhere to the impossible task that comprehensiveness would inevitably be. Instead, Freund forthrightly admits that he places more emphasis on the things he knows best and does extremely well: economic history, colonial history, and South African urbanism. Yet there are welcome surprises: a strong and extensive commitment to reconnecting North Africa back to sub Saharan Africa; an impressive dialogue with Francophone urban scholarship on Africa, a neat insertion of the Sufi city of Touba, Senegal, into the list of three case-studies on African cities and globalization (with Abidjan and Durban); and an ecumenical and respectful discussion of what Freund terms postmodern approaches to African cities. If ever one can term a textbook a page-turner, this is the book!

Freund insists from the beginning that his intention is to "confront the rural bias that affects much of African studies" (p. viii), yet he succeeds in a less intentional way: this is a useful book for broader urban studies and urban geography. This is because Freund takes African cases seriously within the broader understanding of why cities come in to being and what purposes they serve. He is a lively writer, appealingly literary in his prose. The book's organizational structure is likewise appealing, at least to me as a geographer. Rather than proceeding in chronological order through a catalogue of the history of cities in Africa, Freund moves geographically—appropriately enough, given Africa's long story of synaptic and circuitous human mobility. He is more concerned with concepts of urbanity, or ways of cityness, than he is with timelines. Thus we begin, in chapter one ("Urban Life Emerges in Africa"), not with the usual suspects, but with the nineteenth-century "agro-towns" of the Tswana. We move steadily northward and back in time to Great Zimbabwe, then hop west a bit (and several centuries back closer to our times) to Mbanza Kongo, thence to Ethiopia, ancient Egypt, and counterclockwise around the western reaches of the continent, back and forth in time. Freund singles out several cities for detailed attention in small sections I found fascinating: on ancient Alexandria and Carthage, then Kumase, Cairo, Fez, Kilwa, and Timbuktu.

Chapter two ("African Cities and the Emergence of a World Trading Economy") continues the pattern of smooth transitions from place to place [End Page 132] and back and forth in time, with great care for networks and commercial interconnections. Kano, Zanzibar, Bouna, Accra, Ouidah, Lagos, St. Louis, Luanda, Mozambique, and Cape Town take their turn at the center of attention to the ways cities in Africa engaged with the rise of Europe through the slave trade, legitimate trade, and even settlement in the early modern era. Not surprisingly, chapter three ("Colonialism and Urbanization") is the book's longest. Moving through the formal colonial era, we get snapshots of how European rule affected preexisting cities, led to the creation of entirely new ones, and altered African social life, but also of how...


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