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  • The African City: A History
  • Carolyn E. Vieira-Martinez
The African City: A History. By Bill Freund. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. 224 pp. $84.00 (cloth); $22.99 (paper).

At first glance this book appears to be designed to introduce students to a history of African cities, including all the theoretical and practical complexities that go along with attempting such a broad synthesis in slightly more than two hundred pages. The breadth and depth of Freund’s references are impressive. In six chapters he presents a chronological survey, beginning with the pre-urban “agro-towns” of the southern continent and ending with a discussion of the relationship between globalization and the largest settlements in Africa today. The chapter titles are a good indicator of the contents: “Urban Life Emerges in Africa,” “African Cities and the Emergence of a World Trading Economy,” “Colonialism and Urbanisation,” “Cities in Revolt,” “The Post-Colonial African City,” and “Globalisation and the African City.” A bibliography of selected readings at the end of each chapter directs the reader to excellent resources for further study. This book is so naturally designed to serve students that before I had finished chapter 3, I found myself absentmindedly composing the course syllabus that emerged from these pages. As I traced the narrative in terms of the presentation given and the resources that students might need, I found a remarkable strategy hidden beneath the prose. Consider the subject at the heart of each chapter, and the changing lens the author provides.

In the first chapter “urban life emerges” across the African continent. This chapter appears to start the book’s chronology, but internally the story line jumps forward and backward, moving from time to time and place to place across the continent; governed by neither time nor geography the reader is introduced to the variety of reasons that cities were born. Moving from Mbanza Kongo to Great Zimbabwe to Kumbi Saleh by way of Freund’s writing is a little like flying across the [End Page 136] topography, stopping to observe at a reasonable distance wherever and whenever activity is noted.

In the second chapter the perspective becomes more intimate. The reader is familiarized with each settlement and introduced to their personalities. Turning away from a view of the African landscape as a whole, the lens is focused now on the cities, and the spaces between fall from consideration. Cities arose, expanded, and became parasitic or predatory, and some, like Grahamstown, were even “able to exploit” opportunities as if human (p. 62).

In the third chapter the text is less concerned with the cities encountered, reviewing instead the ways in which these cities have been historically understood. In Freund’s view African cities were created by colonialism, unchanged by colonialism, or occupy a position somewhere between these extremes. In the colonizers’ view some cities were chosen as a focal point (Bulawayo), and others were created to serve new forms of exploitation (Port Said). In the anthropological view of the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute the cities were detribalizing, for linguists they were innovative spaces, and for a few Francophone writers the model of the modern city was becoming African. In this literature review Africans participated in the story but clearly were not in control. For example, “as colonial states created social services and allowed for the emergence of a new African leadership, the sites where such elites could make a living were disproportionately urban” (p. 94). It is not until chapter 4 that the full weight of the analysis is directed at the lives lived in African cities. Words are not wasted attempting to identify causation, precipitating factors, or underlying meanings. Drawing on a variety of the best recent scholarship the book presents, as if through a string of vignettes, what happened and where.

In the final two chapters the book turns from historical research to the social sciences, analyzing the past, present, and future of African cities. According to Freund the hope that urban development will be a “modernizing” influence on Africa has “faded painfully” (p. 142). Administrative centers grew fastest after independence, evidence of the pivotal economics of bureaucracy in some cases and the continued military insecurity...