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  • Race, Resistance and the Boy Scout Movement in British Colonial Africa by Timothy H. Parsons
  • Tammy M. Proctor
Race, Resistance and the Boy Scout Movement in British Colonial Africa. By Timothy H. Parsons. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2004.

A cursory glance at the Boy Scout Law reveals to any scholar of colonialism the potential problems the Scout and Guide movements faced in introducing their programs in European colonial settings. The second law’s claims for loyalty to King, country, God, and employer provided obstacles enough in exporting the program, but the fourth law’s exhortation to brotherhood regardless of class, race, and creed formed the crux of the problem. Timothy Parsons resists the temptation of taking official Boy Scout and Girl Guide literature and pointing out the contradictions the programs offered for African youth during the British colonial and independence periods. Instead, he sets for himself the more difficult task of unpicking both the problems and the appeal of this colonial organization for African youngsters and adults, relying on painstaking cross-national research to tell this story. By comparing Scouting’s mixed development across national contexts within the British imperial framework in sub-Saharan Africa, Parsons demonstrates that Scouting functioned both as part of the ‘hidden curriculum of colonialism’ and as site of contestation for youth (p. 17).

As Parsons discovers in the course of his research, the Scout and Guide movements had flexible programs that allowed for the adaptation of their main tenets for use in other national, religious, and racial contexts. This flexibility in structure made the organizations appealing to schools in British Africa looking for more informal ways of extending mission education, but it also attracted political leaders looking to promote their own visions of social justice or colonial authority. The flexible approach also meant that local troops could embrace quite variable notions of “scouting,” in keeping with urban versus rural environments or in facing challenges from their constituencies. For youth themselves, Scouting offered the attraction of uniforms, a sense of belonging, and a social prestige within colonial communities. However, as Parsons points out, the very flexibility of the Scout program opened it up to political manipulation (as with the apartheid regime in South Africa), to fraudulent imitators, and to charges that the organization had no core values, and its cost (especially for uniforms) kept it out of reach for many African youth.

Parsons’ book examines the development of Scouting and Guiding through four inter-related themes as a way of providing continuity between varied colonial contexts. These four themes include Scouting’s relationship to 1) concepts of governing, particularly indirect rule and segregation policies; 2) school curricula and mission education; 3) understandings of masculinity; and 4) generational conflict and patriarchy. In addition to this network of thematic concerns, Parsons concretizes his study with two in-depth case studies of Kenya and South Africa, as very different colonial locales. He also provides comparisons with other parts of East and Southern Africa, particularly Uganda, Tanganyika, and the Rhodesias, but makes only passing references to Anglophone West Africa, India, or other British colonies and dependencies. Parsons’ research parallels other work on Scouting in the British, American and European contexts that suggests that Scouting functioned at the local level as a site of contestation, subversion, and adaptation, but the key difference he uncovers is the additional layer of colonial infrastructure that blocked and advanced Scouting’s agenda.

The strengths of the volume include its synthesis of work on the history of missions, colonial education, nationalist movements, and political change in a transnational setting. By placing Scouting at the center of a variety of colonial and post-colonial changes, Parsons is able to situate this youth movement in its multiple contexts, ably showing how difficult it was to practice social ‘uplift’ within the constraints of colonial structures. Another strength is the author’s use of oral history to delve into motives and meanings of Scouting for individual members, rather than relying merely on the official Scout documents or on reports produced by colonial officials. He also shows quite clearly how the transition to independence influenced and affected Scouting’s viability in a post-colonial world, using specific national examples...

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