Although Africa: A Biography of the Continent is, at its core, a history of Africa, readers need go no further than its title to sense it is something a bit more than a mere history. Otherwise, why does author John Reader call it “A Biography of the Continent”? Human beings, as we have been trained to think, have “biographies,” while places have “histories.” Fortunately, Reader’s preface is quick to define his terms:
As a “biography” of the continent, this book presents Africa as a dynamic and exceptionally fecund entity, where the evolution of humanity is merely one of many developmental trajectories that are uniquely evident there.
In balder language, Africa weaves human history into what is known about Africa’s geology, geography, and biological history. As the Literary Review has described it, the book constitutes “geography, history, anthropology, and ecology on a grand scale.” Although its eight sections follow a broadly chronological arrangement, the book makes no attempt to chronicle every major epoch in every region of Africa. Instead, it examines broad ecological questions, narrowing its focus to particular times and places as they prove useful to illustrating Reader’s points.
For a long book on an immense subject, Africa is written with exceptional passion and energy. Most of its fifty-five chapters can be read as individual essays arguing convincing theses. It is in presenting these theses that Africa is at its best. Reader makes his points by examining all relevant aspects of each issue in whatever detail is necessary, while citing the most up-to-date and compelling evidence and carefully explaining his reasoning. When Reader deals with particularly controversial issues, such as the Atlantic slave trade, he generally presents all sides and is anything but dogmatic. He is satisfied to present his case, move on, and let readers draw their own conclusions. And why not? His arguments are typically too persuasive to reject out of hand, and it is nearly impossible to find flaws in the evidence that he musters. For a photojournalist with apparently little scholarly training, he meets a high standard of scholarship.
In the study of human history, it has become a commonplace to observe that Africa is at once both the oldest and the youngest continent. It is the “oldest” because it was home to the earliest human beings; it is the “youngest” because all but a handful of its fifty-plus nations came into being in the late twentieth century. Until the 1960’s—the period in which the most new nations became independent—Africa’s history was a little-understood and rarely taught subject, even within the continent. The 1960’s launched such an explosion in scholarly research and writing on Africa that perhaps 80 percent of the nearly one thousand titles Reader lists in his bibliography have been published since then. With the flood of historical works about Africa written over the past four decades, it is only natural to ask what a book such as Reader’s can contribute to our understanding of Africa. The answer lies in his original, holistic approach to understanding why Africa has developed as it has, and how and why it differs from the rest of the world.
Several themes pervade this book. The most refreshing of these is that because all humankind originated in Africa, we are all, in a sense, Africans. For this reason, differences among peoples in different parts of the world can best be explained by looking at their unique environments, not at racial differences among the peoples themselves. Reader’s discussion of African agriculture, for example, alludes to Africa’s European invaders as “return migrants” and attributes the radically different ideas about farming that European tried to introduce to Africa to the vastly different environmental conditions they knew in Europe.
A second theme, closely related to the first, is the crucial importance of environment in human history. Reader has much to say about Africa’s geology, climate, flora and fauna, and unique health problems. Indeed, his book might fairly be described as an ecological history of Africa. And what a challenging ecology African peoples have always faced! Among the special problems with which Africans have had to cope are poor soils, meager and erratic rainfall, stifling heat, and debilitating diseases such as malaria, sleeping sickness, and bilharzia. Similar problems have beset other peoples throughout the world, but Africa’s problems have often been of a much larger scale. In Africa, drought and desertification, for example, have often threatened entire nations. Some diseases have sapped the energy of large segments of communities. Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) has hit Africa harder than any other part of the world; in some countries, more than a quarter of the population is estimated to carry the disease.
(The entire section is 2018 words.)