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  • The History of African Cities South of the Sahara: From the Origins to Colonization
  • John Parker
The History of African Cities South of the Sahara: From the Origins to Colonization. By Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch. Translated by Mary Baker. Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers, 2005.

According to United Nations population figures, in 2008 humanity will make the transition from a being a predominantly rural to a predominantly urban species. This historic shift will be led by Africa and Asia, where it is estimated that over the next quarter of a century the urban population will double, adding a total of 1.6 billion people to already overcrowded cities. Although at present Africa remains the least urbanized of continents, with only eleven of its fifty or so nation-states with a majority of urban dwellers and only two ‘mega-cities’, Cairo and Lagos, with a population of over ten million, its rate of urbanization in the twentieth century has been explosive. With regard to scholarship on Africa, an important impact of this has been an increasing concern on the part of historians over the past twenty years with the continent’s urban past. In line with the field of African history more generally, much recent work has sought to reconstruct the complex dynamics of the colonial city. But there has also emerged a greater awareness of the processes of urbanization and the fabric of urban life throughout Africa’s long pre-colonial history, especially that of its sub-Saharan region, long regarded as having little in the way of indigenous urban cultures. It is somewhat surprising, therefore, that there exist so few general surveys of the history of the African city. Like the old joke about London buses (or perhaps Lagos mini-buses?), you wait for ages and then two come along at once: Bill Freund’s The African City: A History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007) and that by Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch under review here.

Coquery-Vidrovitch, Professor Emeritus of Modern African History at the University of Paris-7, is without doubt the best-known historian of Africa in France. This book is a translation of her Histoire des villes d’Afrique noire: Des origins à la colonisation, which appeared in 1993 as the first instalment of a projected two-volume work, the second of which will take the history of African cities south of the Sahara into the colonial and postcolonial eras. As the author acknowledges in a new preface, the original text has been only partially updated; in fact, revisions are limited largely to a scattering of additional footnote references and a selection of recent works - mostly in English - added to the bibliography. Indeed, one of the great strengths of this volume is the way in which it draws upon both French- and English-language scholarship - a divide that remains all too sharp in Africanist literature. The result is a richly textured work of synthesis, which like her other recent books manages by and large to combine broad reflection and comparative overview on the one hand with nuanced local detail on the other. After an opening chapter which grapples with the old problem of defining urbanization and the nature of the city in a sub-Saharan context, the book proceeds by way of five chapters that examine, in turn, ‘Ancient Cities’ (focusing on the eastern and western Sudanic zone), ‘Bantu Cities’ (of southern and central Africa), ‘Islam and African Cities’ (West Africa and the Swahili coast), ‘The Atlantic Period’, and finally ‘The Nineteenth-Century Urban Revolution’.

As a seasoned practitioner of synoptic, continent-wide analysis, Coquery-Vidrovitch is a bold and often thought-provoking writer. Here, however, boldness slips rather too often into idiosyncrasy, imprecision and outright error. Problems begin in the introductory chapter, where the attempt to provide a set of cross-cultural criteria for what constitutes the urban is confusing and apparently contradictory. Many subsequent lines of argument, too, left this reader scratching his head in puzzlement. The concluding remark that ‘African cities were not physical constructions but spatial and social dynamics that were constantly changing’, for example, seems misplaced when so much of the book actually concerned itself with the built environment. Another conclusion, that ‘Western...

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