- The Human Tradition in Modern Africa ed. by Dennis D. Cordell
The Human Tradition in Modern Africa, edited by Dennis D. Cordell, is a collection of biographical sketches of men and women of varied backgrounds. It consists of four parts: part one, "Encounters: Two Worlds and New Worlds, 1800-1850," presents three wonderful chapters, with one narrating the case of a fair Portuguese colonial official in the tumultuous period of greedy local colonial servants attempting to exploit reconfigurations of imperial power. Part two, "Fashioning African Identities in the Era of European Conquest, 1850-1910," comprises four chapters. Part three, "The Contradictions of Colonialism, 1910-1960: Exploitation and New Rights," has four chapters, which seek to explore a broad theme: from colonial administrator to the offspring of colonial servants. Part four, "Globalization, Family Strategies, and the New Threats in the Era of Independence, 1960-2012," introduces four chapters that concentrate on recent microsocial history.
The editor of the volume is cognizant that questions may arise on "how historically accurate a biography may be" while "how accurate or complete a life history may be is also tied to the question of why the biography or life story is recalled at all" (p. 8). Nowhere are his words much more truly revealing than in Lidwien Kapteijns's case study (part three, chapter [End Page 145] nine), the only chapter concerning northeast Africa, published separately elsewhere with no major textual changes (2009). This piece is a history from above, taking a traditional history-writing stance, which emphasizes the lives of those in power, rather than a history from below, which follows the lives of ordinary men and women, those excluded from state power. Here, I am reminded of Michel Foucault (1980), who noted a subtle parallel between power and knowledge.
Kapteijns' aim is to "tell the life stories of real women" (p. 192); therefore one has to envisage a differentiation between "real women" and "unreal women" in the presentation of a sugarcoated personal narrative of the early years of Maryan Muuse Boqor, a Somali lady who defied her father to marry a fellow political-party member. It is more than coincidence, though Kapteijns seems oblivious, that one of Maryan's great-grandaunts had similarly defied her elders' wishes (see Collins 1960). Owing to her father's privileged political position in Somalia, before and after the achievement of independence, Maryan was sent to be educated in Egypt and Morocco. This fact indicates that, well before Somalia gained independence, postcolonial politicians were sending their children to private boarding schools abroad.
A weakness of individual historical narration is that it can be guided by personal promotion, which seeks to suppress any warts-all narratives. Kapteijns's narrative is no exception, as her approach is uncritical to the narrator. This is not to suggest that personal narratives cannot be used in reconstructing history, but to avoid failing to reach the other side of the story is a problematic aspect of that one-dimensional narrative. This is a clear resonance of why professional historians are often warned by peers not to rely extensively on biographies and hagiographies in understanding the person within the person. Such a method sways historians to put a distinct historical perspective—from that of the protagonist like Maryan Muuse— into a context, stirring debates for and against the mantra of a personalist cult. Kapteijns reminds us more than twice that her narrator is a descendant of clan sultanates in northeast Somalia and that Ambaro, Maryan's grandmother, was the daughter of the sultan of Hobyo. Why Maryan's father, for example, was sacked by the Somali government under the UN trusteeship for which he was serving from 1956 to 1958 is left out.
Kapteijns lists bibliographical works about precolonial and postcolonial Somalia. As usual, she takes on board the scholars with whom she shares ideological views and friendship. Though most relevant to her piece, she does not recommend to readers the personal stories of Aman (Barnes and Bodd 1994), Faduma Korn (2006), and Nimo Mahamud-Hassan (2006). After all, her suggestions...