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  • Domesticating the World: African Consumerism and the Genealogies of Globalization
  • Erik Gilbert
Jeremy Prestholdt. Domesticating the World: African Consumerism and the Genealogies of Globalization. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008. The California World History Library Series. xiv + 273 pp. Photographs. Figures. Notes. Selected Bibliography. Index. $24.95. Paper.

As the sixth title in the excellent California World History Library series, Domesticating the World offers an unprecedentedly close look at East Africans as consumers and the effect of their consumption on the global economy of the nineteenth century. While the literature on trade in Africa long ago established that Africans did not passively accept whatever goods were presented to them, no one has looked in this detail at the social meaning attached to the consumption of imported goods like mirrors, umbrellas, clocks, and cloth. Prestholdt argues that through their choices and preferences African consumers shaped the development of industry and of a globalized world. Ultimately the book seeks to challenge unilinear and unidirectional accounts of the process and origins of globalization.

Prestholdt begins with an account of the importation and adaptation not of goods, but of language and manners. The island of Nzwani (or Anjouan), in the Mozambique Channel, particularly attracts his attention; although it was not a British colony, Nzwani elites adopted English as a language along with English names, manners, and dress. Indeed, Prince Abudin so perfectly mastered British ideas about the deportment of a gentleman that he managed to travel within the Empire and all the way to Britain and back, collecting stipends along the way from thoroughly charmed British officials. Britons visiting Nzwani in the first half of the nineteenth century were amazed by the knowledge of British affairs that Nzwanians displayed. (In fact, Nzwani sounds so Alice-in-Wonderland odd, that when I read this chapter I had to check some footnotes before I was convinced that my leg was not being pulled.) Prestholdt’s point is that this was not a case of direct cultural imperialism. No colonial state compelled the adoption of British language and manners (which he refers to as “similitude”); rather, this was a locally generated strategy of representation by which Nzwanian elites expressed their status and appealed to the British for political support.

Subsequent chapters adopt a similar approach to consumer goods. One of the interesting things about this book is the new and interesting ways in which it examines consumerism through familiar sources. For example, Johann Krapf’s 1882 pioneering Swahili dictionary, with its reflections on the nuances of Mombasan Swahili, serves as a window on the nature of desire for consumer goods. Likewise, the work of a nineteenth-century poet sheds light on the social importance of clothing in Mombasa and the different types of desire that clothing provoked.

Central to Prestholdt’s argument is the concept of “domestication”—a word he uses to describe the way people take an imported commodity and [End Page 172] use it for purposes that are internal to their own place and culture. Thus items like mirrors, clocks, and umbrellas—all important markers of social status in nineteenth-century Zanzibar—were used or displayed in ways that surprised or amused Western observers. These discordant uses of Western goods were dismissed at the time as evidence of the semibarbarous nature of coastal society; Prestholdt rejects this interpretation and instead sees these adaptations as an example of the active domestication of alien objects into coastal culture.

The final result is to cast the process of globalization as less a unidirectional and unilateral process than a complex series of interactions with agency apparent in multiple locations, and situated within a deeper history than is normally assumed. While the overall argument—that the process of globalization is not as recent as many of its enthusiasts (and detractors) believe—is not really new, the nuance and thought that Prestholdt brings to the discussion of the fine-grained detail of cross-cultural consumption are intriguing.

If there is a problem with the book it is that the author’s preference for dense, academic prose will limit its readership to the insular world of graduate seminars. To be sure, this is an inherently interesting topic and much of...


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