The African Experience

Roland Oliver, late of the University of London’s Chair of African History, has spent his retirement not golfing but writing, “for sheer pleasure,” an excellent basic history of the continent that gave birth to the human race and that served as the main battleground for European colonialism at its peak. THE AFRICAN EXPERIENCE is the kind of basic secondary text that only someone thoroughly steeped in a given subject could write.

In twenty chapters, with unbending confidence and authority, Oliver ranges from prehistoric archeology to the politics of postcolonial nation-states. He shows how the Nile watershed cradled an Egyptian civilization unique in Africa at the time, and how cities and empires developed in West Africa (while East Africa remained predominantly rural); discusses the spread of Islam; and treats head-on the continent’s impoverished present and parlous future.

Across Africa as elsewhere, geography and climate have been crucial to development. The tsetse fly’s sting is fatal to domestic cattle. “Very much of African history has been affected by the consequent lack of beasts of burden from large areas of the continent,” writes Oliver. While Egypt was thriving as a centralized, urbanized state, in much of what he calls the “fly-belt,” “Late Stone Age hunting, without benefit of intensive fishing or cereal gathering, remained the rule.”

Though meant for the general reader, THE AFRICAN EXPERIENCE is not casual history. It is dense, and can be slow going. But for the beginner intent on finding his or her way through a complex subject, there can be few better guides.