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Empires of Medieval West Africa : Ghana, Mali, Songhay
Conrad, David ; Empires of Medieval West Africa : Ghana, Mali, Songhay. New York: Facts on File, 2005. $35.00, ISBN 0816055629.

Note: Empires of Medieval West Africa: Ghana, Mali, and Songhay discusses the vital role salt and other natural resources played in the development of the empires, the rich and diverse cultures, and the influence of the growing Islamic Empire on everyday life. (CABA Honor)

This book covers familiar ground: the succession of empires in the western Sudan (the region of west Africa lying between the forest zones and the Sahara, watered by the Niger river, mostly in the modern republics of Guinea, Mali, and Niger) has been repeatedly described over the past half-century. Ghana (or Wagadu) is known around 1000 AD, followed by Mali (1200-1450), and then Songhay (1450-1591). The limitations of our primary sources make it difficult to introduce new perspectives and materials. The written basis for the history of this area remains the documentation provided by Arabic-speaking travellers, geographers, and some historians (including two chronicles written in Timbuktu in the 17th century), who wrote mostly from outside the region on the basis of travellers' information. Other tools, such as archaeology, suffer from a lack of funding, personnel, and interest: this reviewer would wager that for every bucket of sand excavated in West African archaeological digs, truckloads have been moved in more telegenic areas such as the near-East and Egypt. The archaeological picture of West Africa is woefully incomplete, and is likely to remain so.

David Conrad brings another tool to bear: oral tradition, and he is uniquely qualified to do so. Over the past twenty-five years he has published editions of local historical traditions dealing with the Bamana empire of Segu and particularly the traditions relating to Sunjata (Soundiata, Son-Jara), the legendary founder of the empire of Mali, as well as numerous studies tracing the historical elements to be found in the oral tradition. His approach to the topic is thus informed with a deep and respectful sense of the way in which the descendents of these empires view their past. His approach also benefits from excellent recent work on the available written sources: a new translation of the Tarikh es-Sudan (one of the 17th century Timbuktu chronicles) of Abdurrahman es-Sadi, by John Hunwick, and an epigraphical study of the tombs around Gao by Paolo Moraes de Farias.

The author's expertise also enables him to steer clear of some of the questionable claims made in past work. His title invites immediate comparison with a 1994 work aimed at roughly the same middle-school audience, Patricia and Fredrick McKissack's _The Royal Kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay_ (New York, Henry Holt and Company, 1994). Their book is grounded in English-language sources (the principal language of study for the region is in fact French), and a somewhat romanticized vision of the past (most evident when they discuss the oral traditions of Ghana).

Conrad's book consists of an introduction, six chapters, and an epilogue. The introduction lays out the methodological problems in reconstructing the region's history, and this is an essential point. We do not know as much as we would like to about region and the period. The six chapters are divided into two sections. In the first, three chapters treat the political history of the three empires under study; in the second, the author describes the societies involved. The division (possibly suggested by the publisher, in conformity with other titles in the series) seems awkward, especially since each empire involves a different people, terminology, and social patterns. Reaching Chapter 4 (on Soninke society), the reader must remember back past Mali and Songhay to what was said in Chapter 1 about the Soninke of Wagadu, and readers unaccustomed to dealing with the dense ethnographic particularities of Africa may find the stretch a challenge. The epilogue brings our vision of the area into the present era. The bibliography is a curious mix of middle-school standards (web-sites) and specialized historical articles, reflecting a dearth of good general-reader-oriented materials.

In keeping with modern technovision, the book includes side-bars (pop-ups?) on tangential topics: the Sahara, age-grade societies, rock-pythons, Muhammad and Islam, ivory, etc. The author's personal interests are most evident in the chapter on Malian society, which is primarily devoted to a discussion of the human vehicles of oral tradition in the culture, and the different categories of singers and their instruments. Some of this material is actually relatively new. It does come, however, at the expense of more mundane considerations: discussion of village organization and crops. The west African domestication of rice and millet deserves mention when treating the great river- and agriculture-centered empires of the middle ages, as might the concept of ecological niche-specialization proposed by Roderick J. McIntosh (from an archaeological perspective). So do the southward trading networks which the empires made possible, and their effects upon neighboring peoples (the author does, of course, discuss the salt and gold trades, omitting the hoary old travellers' tale of the silent-barter system). In one case, the side-bar on the tse-tse fly and sleeping sickness, two central points seem to have been lost: that the disease prevented horses (and thus, cavalry) from penetrating the forest areas, thus limiting empires to the drier areas. The disease also prevented the use of draft-animals in agriculture, leaving human labor as the basic economic force.

Readers should be alerted to one problem area in the book; I would like to thank Veronika Jenke of the National Museum of African Art for drawing attention to this issue. Half a dozen of the illustrations are inaccurate or very questionable. Ms. Jenke notes that the 'Songhay' masks on pp. 48 and 96 are in fact Songye masks, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This observation raises questions about the two masks shown for the Soninke on pp. 16 and 79; in fact, the Soninke are not known for their masking tradition. The bronze jug illustrated on p. 66 may serve as evidence for the extent of trade in medieval west Africa, but it was not made (as the caption states) in the nation of Ghana; it was made in England and imported. Nor is it the fruit of an archaeological dig; rather, it and its companions (all now at the British Museum?) were part of the plunder following the British capture of the royal Ashanti capital of Kumasi in 1896. The photograph of a royal procession on p.73 seems most likely to be from northern Nigeria, rather than the Soninke area it is intended to illustrate, and the mosque shown on p. 102 looks far more like the mosque and the weekly market of Jenne than the mosque of Timbuktu.

This sort of confusion is unfortunately perennial; responsibility probably lies with an overworked and under-informed art department in a large publishing house. We can hope there will be a second edition, correcting these errors. After all, the cultures and the historical problems involved in this enterprise are fascinating, and Conrad's text is a good introduction to the topics and a reliable guide to the current best information.

Copyright ©2005 by Africa Access, all rights reserved. Africa Access permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and Africa Access Review. For any other proposed use, contact AfricaAccess@aol.com

Rating: HR Grade: M / H Type: Book

Reviewed by: Stephen Belcher, (spbelcher@mindspring.com) Independent Scholar

Subject: West Africa / Ghana / Mali / Songhay / Songhay / Soninke / Mandingo / History / CABA Honor