Review: Africa in Contemporary Perspective: A Textbook for Undergraduate Students

(I read a segment of this review at the launch of the Reader on February 11, 2014 at the Institute of African Studies.)

Africa in Contemporary PerspectiveI live in strange times. Don’t rush to counter; I’m sure there have been stranger times, but it’s the privilege of those living to assert that sometimes happenings in their era trumps other historical and more significant events. It’s best to acknowledge and then suppress one’s privilege, but there it is; I live in strange times.

I live in Ghana where the physical environment and ordered systems that represent our collective living bear little resemblance to the Ghana of our collective imaginings. I live online, where this alienation from the country of my dreams is echoed by thousands of citizens of other African countries.

To the dismay of some of us, phrases and ideas like ‘Africa Rising’, and an equating of the most youthful population in circa 2060 to an automatic positive change in our socio-economic situation, no planning required — come up daily in online conversations.

We often critique ourselves without any consideration to systems that partly made us this way. The optimism and pessimism, indeed our angst, in this current milieu is expressed and analysed in large part without any mention of that significant event. Even naming it is likely to empty a room, offline or online.

And so it’s a balm and a validation to have opened Africa in Contemporary Perspective: A Textbook for Undergraduate Students and find quoted in its entirety, Kwame Nkrumah’s ‘The African Genius’ speech.

Osagyefo delivered the speech at the official opening of Institute of African Studies in 1963. This speech is infinitely quotable. Here are a few:

“One essential function of the Institute must surely to study the history, culture and institutions, languages and arts of Ghana and of Africa in new African centred ways – in entire freedom for the propositions and pre-suppositions of the colonial epoch…. we must re-assess and assert the glories and achievements of our African past and inspire our generation, and succeeding generations, with a vision of a better future.”

“The magnitude of the changes taking place in Africa today is a positive index of the scale and pace necessary for our social reconstruction. Our university should provide us with the force and impetus needed to maintain this reconstruction”

And a personal favourite:

“The time has come for the gown to come to town”

(it even rhymes!)

Nkrumah laid out a number of guiding principles for the Institute, which include:

1. An African-centred academic study of every facet of African life;

2. the “recovery of vital sources material” and the production of new works, in science, in the humanities that represent our realities but which also form the ideological basis and framework for our development;

3. A collaboration between African and Diasporan scholars and other academic centres on this work. He urged an outward-looking posture and the application of the “concept of African unity for the study of African peoples and culture”;

4. an education that produced “devoted men and women with imagination and ideas and who can inspire our people to look forward to a great future. An education not only as a means of “personal economic security and social privilege” but which served as “a gateway to the enchanted cities of the mind’;

5. a study of the arts that stimulate creative activity and which contribute to the development of Africa.

Nkrumah also asked for the production of an “extensive and diversified Library of African Classics”; the books in this library would be of “special value for the students of African history, philosophy, literature and law”.

The Institute of African Studies’ Africa in Contemporary Perspective meets and exceed this; the gown is coming to town and this book, the Undergraduate moniker aside, should be of value to all Africans who are concerned with the state of being African today, the myraid challenges that we face and the not-to-be-missed opportunities to solve our problems.

The 22 papers/articles in this 500-page Reader are grouped under five sub-headings. As I often do, I immediately scanned the first page of the index for the commentary on the Arts, in particular the literary arts, panicked at not seeing it and then breathed a sign of relief on reading ‘Section 5: Artistic Expression and Performance in Africa’. This was followed by a huge smile as I read the The Heritage of Literary Arts in Africa and the other 4 articles in the section. All was right with the world!

The Reader begins with a section on Geography, Population and Languages. These topics, especially geography, can be dry (apologies to any scholars of geography), but I’m reminded from my own undergraduate days how little we Africans know about the physical continent and its peoples.

‘Section 2: Cultural, Social and Political Institutions’ starts with a thorough and powerful introductory treatment of Gender and Society in Africa by Akosua Adomako Ampofo. I note with glee her sub-section on “The Concept of Gender: ‘Female Husbands’ and Men who become Women”. It’s delightfully subversive, a reminder that within the identity and culture that is labeled African, there were and are some who understood that ‘gender is not necessarily equal to sex’.  This sub-section contains the type of information that one can throw at the faces of those who say “that’s un-African”, when confronted with lives that are ordered differently from theirs.

The chapters on the cultural, social and political instructions also covers Africa and its Diasporas, the Cultural Framework of Development, African Worldviews, Religions in Africa and a look at both Traditional and Modern Leadership in Africa.

Kojo Amanor’s introduction of ‘Development Theory and African Society, contained in the section on Economy, Livelihood and Security, includes some notes on Dependency Theory and the Problem of History in which he states that

“modernisation theory denies the historical experience of African countries and people. Their development is assimilated to the experiences of the West”.

Section 3 also includes introductions to Agricultural Development in Africa; Human Security; and Political Economy of Development and Policy outcomes in Postcolonial Africa.

The fourth Section on Health, Environment, Science and Technology begins with the excellently titled “In Search of Health and Well-Being in Africa”. We often talk of health in Africa but seldom refer to our well-being!  Other articles in this section include Environment and Development in Sub-Saharan Africa; and Science and Technology in Africa, which looks at the challenges inherent in a full adoption of STEM in Africa and also lists some African countries who are doing well in Science.

These five sections provide a diverse, wide and panoramic view of contemporary Africa, and offers much needed scholarly commentary and description of who we are, what we’re doing and, to some extent, where we’re coming from. And it is exciting for me, to just even skim the pages.

It would be an impossible task for any Academic Reader to cover in one volume all of Contemporary Africa. But it does provide a detailed snapshot of Africa now and in that regard, it more than achieves its mandate.

However, I do have issues with the book and I’ll note three things before discussing them.

I’ve pondered, on Twitter, the phrase “Nkrumah’s Ghana’ and after a series of tweets, during a short conversation, I asked:

Contemporary Africa is preoccupied with innovation;  how to do it, how to promote it; do we teach it, how to write it, etc — and rightly so, there are too many problems needing urgent solutions and a changing Africa that needs describing.

In the Reader’s ‘Science and Technology in Africa’, co-authored by Ewurama Addy and Ebenezer Laing,  innovation is defined as “the introduction of something new — a new idea, method or device. The novelty is due to changes made to an old idea, method or device”.

Binyavanga Wainaina, in the first of a six-part video series on YouTube titled “We Must Free Our imaginations”, contemplates the ‘new’ in contemporary Africa, and implies that new and innovation is difficult for Africans. He attributes this partly to repressive practices during the colonial era where as colonial outposts, we consumed the Empire’s goods and our new was proscribed, illegal.  We “photocopy’,  we don’t challenge, we “fear imagination”.

How does one place Africa in Contemporary Perspective temporally as a post-independence book and how does it help us assess contemporary Africa on a decolonization spectrum?

Does it show that African scholars have been engaged in new, African centred study? Are we doing new?

I ask because I’m puzzled as to why there isn’t a section in the Reader dedicated to Colonialism and its impact (still) on Contemporary Africa. For so many of the issues discussed in the book, colonialism is a factor. Certainly it casts a shadow over our current reality. While Africa has existed longer then the period of colonialism, that colonial period was long enough and was damaging enough to constitute a significant part of the context within which we discuss contemporary Africa.

What Nkrumah encapsulated in ‘The African Genuis’ is the imperative of an African centred innovation with decolonization as both a tool and an endpoint. This first edition of the Reader should have included a snapshot of colonialism and not peppered it among the various discussions, in order that we may also assess our progress in decolonizing our cultures and systems as we make way for the new.

However, in these strange times, where the mention of colonization brings forth accusations of “blaming white people for our problems’, of our neo-acceptance of our colonized selves, I will dare to suggest the omission is also a reflection of where we are as a people, and marks truthfully the avoidance of the subject by contemporary Africa.

Overall, the quality of work in the Reader is high. However, the article on Africa and its Diaspora is weak and I find analysis of the Slave Trade retrogressive and problematic. The section on religion completely overlooks Islamic colonization and its role in priming and preparing the ground for the longer, bigger second act. Soyinka will rant about this better than I ever could.

As to the question of scholarly new, I find myself wishing for a different way of talking and analyzing population when reading the ‘The Population of Sub-Saharan Africa’!

The Reader is very much a Ghanaian book that comments on Africa. The diversity that Nkrumah spoke about is missing. Though I applaud the academics of my country, I’m very sensitive to the ever increasing Anglophone Africa’s exclusion of all things non-English, especially cultural products.

And another peeve: it appears, if I go by the Reader’s snapshot, then malaria is not a major health problem on the continent!

I will attribute these lapses to the hiccups of producing a new volume and will urge the editors to address them in a second edition.

All of that aside, I absolutely appreciate this book. Because it’s here, Because it marks the beginning. Because we have something to build upon. We can do new, we can measure new or we can go bust.

The editors, Takyiwaa Manuh and Esi Sutherland-Addy begin their acknowledgements with an apology:

“that this volume has taken far longer to appear in print than we would have wished has not diminished our initial conviction about the book’s importance and relevance.”

As Kofi Anyidoho reproached at the beginning of his review during the book’s launch, Africa in Contemporary Perspective is “six decades late”!

There will be other times to interrogate the causes for our collective delay on the African project. Indeed we already know some of the answers.

But the imperative of ‘The African Genius’ is vital, essential and timeless and so is the role of the Institute both in Legon and in the African Scholarly Space. We can only assess the pace at which we achieve the vision that Nkrumah laid out.

For now, it matters only that Africa in Contemporary Perspective is here and this particular journey has begun.

(Africa in Contemporary Perspective: A Textbook for Undergraduate Students, edited by Takyiwaa Manuh and Esi Sutherland-Addy can be purchased at the Institute of Africa Studies, The Legon Bookshop and EPP Books. Ghc 60)



  1. I am so glad that you were asked to do a review, from a non-academic, yet so expressive of ideas that many feel – and of course, some will disagree, but that’s OK too.


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