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Reviewed by:
  • Race, Resistance, and the Boy Scout Movement in British Colonial Africa
  • Carol Summers
Race, Resistance, and the Boy Scout Movement in British Colonial Africa. By Timothy H. Parsons ( Athens: Ohio University Press, 2004. xvii plus 318 pp.).

In this sympathetic history of the boy scout movement in areas of Eastern and Southern Africa, Timothy Parsons combines an examination of scouts' local conditions, aspirations and concerns with a sweeping overview that sees scouting as a coherent world-wide movement connected to a non-racial ethos.

Parsons' lens is what he calls "The Fourth Scout Law," in theory memorized by all aspiring scouts, which declared "A Scout is a friend to all, and a brother to every other Scout, no matter to what country, class or creed, the other may belong."(3) This "law" fit awkwardly with the realities of the colonial world from the appalling military career of scouting's founder Lord Robert Baden-Powell through the conflicts over loyalties that accompanied the rise of African nationalism in the 1950s and 1960s. Parsons points out that despite trappings that included loot from the Matabeleland war, Baden-Powell's intent in founding the scouts was to address British social unrest, rather than to train African leaders.(30, 51) But Baden-Powell's intentions were a minimal part of what African scouting became. In Africa, Parsons argues that a wide variety of local actors appropriated scouting and used it as a prestigious club, a system of discipline and a package of ideas. Through scouting, activists worked on their own projects—from cultivating elite schoolboys into strong leaders to getting rich by impersonating government officials or selling scout paraphernalia. [End Page 790]

The movement's central problem was colonial society and its difficulties over race. In the Union of South Africa, scout leaders mobilized to block scout status for Africans. In Kenya, African, Asian and White boys joined segregated troops. Despite the formal principles of the fourth scout law, only in non-settler contexts such as Uganda and Tanzania did scouts avoid conflict over acceptance of African scouts as full members of the international association. In the Union of South Africa, as well as in Southern Rhodesia, Africans were formally relegated to adapted groups known as "Pathfinders" that lacked scouting's pseudo-official status and prestige. And prestige—the idea of scouts as an elite group of leaders—was central to the appeal of scouting. No specific activity earned as much ink from scouting's proponents as questions over scout uniforms. Individuals might not manage a complete, expensive, uniform, but belts and other indicators of status were valuable to their owners as they marked scouts' association with colonial government and power. Despite the occasional effort at outreach and cultural adaptation by white scout leaders at top schools in places like Swaziland, who sought to use adapted scouting to reinforce their ideas of discipline and masculinity on what they saw as a deteriorating population, scouting was an association for schooled people, not the masses (104-110).

Parsons is able to assert scouting as a site of opportunity for Africans in colonial contexts by emphasizing the theory of the fourth law and the success of the movement in offering Africans prestige in local communities and with colonial officials and missionaries. But the study's most interesting material explores what happened when African scouts, scoutmasters, or unofficial scouts, appropriated the movement's prestige for local purposes. The young men wearing bits of scout uniforms in places like Kenya were not necessarily members of a formal organization: individuals and groups from at least the 1920s onward sometimes impersonated scouts, borrowing their semi-official status for private gain or to "bolster their authority", or organized independent groups as part of a movement toward schools independent of colonial and mission rules (143-4).

In studying scouting, Parsons's work connects with a variety of themes central to recent studies of colonial culture and nationalism. He is exploring an institution intended to shape a specific sort of African leadership by beginning with youth. In the process, he is able to analyze aspects of the texture of both African leaders' accomodations, aspirations—and resistance—to British and settler rule, and...


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