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Africa Today 50.3 (2004) 152-154

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White, Luise, Stephan F. Miescher, and David William Cohen, eds. 2001. African Words, African Voices: Critical Practices In Oral History. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 322 pp. $22.95 (paper).

In a work prepared for Nigerian independence day, dramatist Wole Soyinka invited his audience to ask themselves whether their ancestors, if summoned to a significant event of the African present, would come to bless or to curse. The discipline of history has always rested upon this awareness of the past as a different place, difficult perhaps of access, but valuable precisely because it offers more than a mere reflection of the passing passions and fantasies of the present. The editors of this postmodernist compendium, in contrast, doubt that history "should be about 'what really happened'" (p. 15). They are "less interested in how Africans recalled their past than how they felt—or understood or represented—the experience of being African" (p. 19).

For the editors, the past should be "usable" (p. 8), in the sense that it must serve political and intellectual agendas. This past can extend no deeper than living memory. Attempts to explore earlier times are "difficult to fund" (no foundation-sponsored junkets to Bellaggio here!), and are therefore "exceptional, rarely done" (p. 2). Worse, when occasional studies of older African history have in fact been produced, they have insisted that oral sources be considered within a wider conceptual context, one that includes archaeological, linguistic, and documentary evidence (p. 2). That degree of intellectual responsibility is anathema to the editors, who believe that by the deconstructed 1990s "oral testimonies had achieved a transcendent status, by which they could stand by themselves as authoritative accounts of lived experience, unmediated and uncorrected by the domains of knowledge that professional historians of Africa were trained to bring to the evaluation of texts" (pp. 2-3). Thus liberated from mere positivist objectivity, the editors feel free to hold up as a praiseworthy exemplar to Africanists the notorious academic fraud attributed to Rigoberta Menchu (p. 9).

The book is divided into three parts. Five essays comprise a unit entitled "Giving Africa a History." Abdullahi A. Ibrahim delivers a ringing denunciation of the interview as a source of information for oral historians (it's an abuse of power); neither Abdullahi himself, nor any of the other [End Page 152] contributors, however, take this premise seriously enough to act on it. E. J. Alagoa endorses a new form of consensus history: why not let the living community, acting in public conclave, create its own past? Bethwell A. Ogot argues that several neglected Luo writers are the source of virtually everything known about this community. Megan Vaughan discovers that speech is not the only kind of symbolic behavior worthy of historical consideration, and Isabel Hofmeyr demonstrates that John Bunyan is a writer best considered in a context wider than Africa.

Four essays comprise a unit called "African Lives." Stephan F. Miescher and Babacar Fall offer biographical sketches of three twentieth-century individuals of comparatively modest station in life, a male schoolteacher of Ghana and two female politicians of Senegal. Corinne A. Kratz reflects at length upon theoretical and methodological implications of her apparently brief and unproductive oral encounters with two men from the Okiek community of Kenya. Tamara Giles-Vernick demonstrates that being neither an experienced Old Africa Hand, nor a committed feminist, can compensate for the absence of an intellectually adequate social and historical perspective; it must indeed be difficult to generate competent life histories while innocent of broader context and process.

Four essays address a genre of storytelling that contemporary Americans would call "urban legends." These tales describe events that in all probability never happened, but which may nevertheless be read as a commentary on certain aspects of the cultural settings within which they are invented and retold. Kwesi Yankah discusses the use of folkloric materials with oblique political implications by the prominent Ghanaian singer Nana Ampadu. Laura Fair composes a setting for "Kwa Heri Rupia," the most famous song never issued by pioneer Swahili recording artist Siti...


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