Africa Today 47.2 (2000) 196-198
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Tom Killion has produced a very useful guide for those seeking to understand the history of Africa's newest nation. The Historical Dictionary of Eritrea is in keeping with a long tradition of scholarly works which served two generations of students and scholars of Africa, beginning with the excellent volume on Cameroon published twenty-four years earlier. The author should be commended for taking on the difficult, and at times impossible, task of documenting the fragmented history of this mutiethnic nation which joined the family of states in 1993.
The author introduces the reader to the history of this nation from 6,000 B.C. to 1997, when the State of Eritrea emerged from its postwar transition with a Draft Constitution and a new currency, the nakfa. He provides a rich glossary of events, names, places, and institutions which reflect the fusion of Eritrea's history with different civilizations across the Red Sea, the Mediterranean, and the hinterlands of present day Ethiopia and Sudan. Killion introduces the reader to key figures in Eritrea's social and political history, as well as American, Arab, Ethiopian, and European personalities who shaped the physical and political map of what was to become modern Eritrea. In doing so, the author locates the history of Eritrea in its regional and international contexts.
Killion has also succeeded in filling the "unusually large blanks" 1 about precolonial and postcolonial Eritrean society. 2 He has compiled interesting vignettes about the country's heroes and villains, and has provided information to render its geography and archaeology accessible to the layperson as well as the specialist. More important, this work provides the first comprehensive, historical reference in the English language, facilitating future research on Eritrean studies. Students and scholars seeking to disentangle Eritrea's relations with its neighbors will find information about its multifaceted social make-up, economic resources (hydraulic, oil, natural gas), and background information on its border disputes arising from different interpretations of colonial treaties. The accomplishment of [End Page 196] this gargantuan task, though, is not free from the biases and blinders of an "external" investigator into a closed society. The result has been an enhancement of "official" versions of history which de-emphasizes ongoing "lived" experiences of the nascent Eritrean polity.
Although society-state dynamics remain an ongoing process, the fledgling social and political institutions of civil society play a role in the history of the nation. Mention of the existence of such organizations seeking to counter forces of tradition and political conservatism provides a more realistic picture of the complex historical process unfolding in the young nation. There are numerous instances when either omissions or qualifiers used to describe political parties, governmental, and nongovernmental associations require clarification and substantiation. For example, the following two statements made by the author require clarification and/or substantiation: (1) the transformation of the EPLF to PFDJ to a "civilian party;" 3 (2) the relationship between the government and the local organizations, such as the NUEW, "reorganized as an independent nongovernmental association in September 1992," 4 and the NUEYS which is presented as a "legally and independent organization." 5 The dictionary, in the above cases, raises questions about the applicability of the term "nongovernmental" to refer to Eritrean organizations, as well as to the author's sources.
There is also the need for consistency about items included and excluded in the dictionary, especially regarding ethnic origins which are highlighted for some personalities but not for others. Although inadequate information can be the reason for some of these inconsistencies, there are instances when the choice to amplify some sections, while neglecting others, is questionable. The high profile given to the colonial and postcolonial history of prostitution, in contrast to the silence about voluntary organizations, such as Planned Parenthood Association of Eritrea (PPAE), is rather puzzling. 6 PPAE has been at the forefront of the struggle to enable women to learn about their choices in life in order to empower them as active and...