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  • The African City: a history
  • Laurent Fourchard
Bill Freund, The African City: a history. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (pb £15.99 – 978 0 521 52792 7). 2007, 224 pp.

Since the 1980s there has been a burgeoning of African urban history, both within and outside the continent. Bill Freund’s synthesis of current findings and new ideas in this sub-field of the discipline interestingly includes North Africa. The author hopes that this ‘may help in the task of deracializing the way readers look at this enormous continent’. In so doing the author was probably confronted with the daunting task of gathering the scattered and fast-growing urban study literature emanating not only from historians but also within the larger spectrum of the social sciences. A 200-page book addressing the history of the ‘African city’ since its origins is exposed to the inherent risk of oversimplifying complex processes as well as forgetting specific cases or central debates in various academic communities. Bill Freund’s book is a synthesis which did not totally avoid such shortcomings.

A two-page preface serves as introduction. The historiography of the city in Africa may not be necessary in a collection such as this one, designed as it is to be used in general courses on African history. Moreover, some elements in the burgeoning debates are usefully indicated in the select readings referred to by the author at the end of each chapter. But the will of the author ‘to confront the rural bias that affects much African studies, particularly in the English language scholarly tradition’ (p. viii) is probably more a 1980s concern than a contemporary bias given the proliferation of studies on towns and cities since that decade. The author also proposes to look at a modern and post-modern approach to the city and to examine, following Mamdani, the divide between country as a place of subjects and cities as places of citizens. Unfortunately, these two debates are so partially addressed that the substance of a post-modern approach and why citizenship is a privilege of the city remain unclear.

Most of the book is organized chronologically: early cities (Chapter 1), cities in the world economy (Chapter 2), colonialism and urbanization (Chapter 3), and the post-colonial African city (Chapter 5). Chapter 4 focuses on the longterm crisis of South African urbanism and Chapter 6 on three specific cities (Touba, Abidjan and Durban) and their insertion in the ongoing globalization [End Page 512] process: these are probably the two best-informed chapters in the book. Other chapters, while providing synthetic analysis and interesting parallels among cities throughout the continent, are more problematic.

In the first chapter, the author uses the notion of ‘Islamic city’ (pp. 24–33) carelessly, without mentioning that this notion was part of an orientalist vision of North Africa and the East, and has consequently been critiqued by many prominent scholars since at least the 1980s (Janet Abu-Lughod, André Raymond, Zenep Celik, to mention a few). How can Roger le Tourneau’s monograph on the Islamic city (1961) be used so extensively (pp. 26–7) without any reference to that debate? In Chapter 3, the typology of colonial cities seems irrelevant with its divisions into ‘superficially unchanged towns’, ‘towns with hybrid character’ and ‘new cities’. Differences between the first and the second types are not really explained: it seems difficult, for instance, to understand to what type Dakar or Ibadan belong. The expression colonial city is in itself contested, as it leads to inconclusive typologies which ‘tend to divide between the essentially African and the essentially colonial city’, as John Parker comments (Making the Town, 2000, p. xix). A rather important factual mistake should also be mentioned for those familiar with Senegalese history: the French did not destroy the medina in Dakar in 1915 (p. 76) but instead set it up in 1914 as a sanitary response to the plague. Strangely, there is also a long paragraph on the very small European town of Bone in Algeria, while in the following chapter the ‘white city’ in South Africa does not receive attention, the author preferring to look at the ‘emergence of a genuinely urban culture...


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pp. 512-513
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