The Great Lakes of Africa

The lake region of central Africa is one of the continent’s richest, a highland whose beneficent climate and diverse plant life nurtured sophisticated societies that flourished long before the arrival of Europeans. In the nineteenth century the region drew such explorers as Richard Burton, as well as colonizers who subsequently divided the rich land into the British protectorate of Uganda and portions of the Belgian Congo and German East Africa. World War I changed some colors on the map, but the map’s European-imposed outlines remained largely intact.

Jean-Pierre Chrétien explains how the nineteenth century also saw the rise of aggressive ethnic competition, particularly in the kingdoms of Rwanda and Uganda. It was this situation onto which Europeans projected a pseudo-scientific racial schema favoring the Tutsis, a minority in what would become a Belgian mandate carved out of the former German East Africa in 1923. According to Chrétien, this schema also laid the groundwork for the genocidal atrocities of the last few decades of the twentieth century, in which more than four million Congolese, Rwandans, and Burundians died.

Originally published in France in 2000, The Great Lakes of Africa: Two Thousand Years of History will be of interest to any reader concerned with the region, but the book as a whole is aimed at a different audience. It not only synthesizes a sizeable body of historical, geographical, anthropological, and linguistic research, as its sixty-three pages of notes and extensive bibliography illustrate, but also critiques the very way in which history is written. A landmark if somewhat specialized work.