An African History of Africa: From the Dawn of Civilisation to Independence by Zeinab Badawi

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Reviewed by Liz Dexter

I would like to say to the non-African reader of this book that I hope I have demonstrated that Africa has a history, that it is a fundamental part of our global story, and one that is worthy of greater attention and respect than it has so far received. And to African readers, I hope I have managed in some small way to enlighten you about the great history of your continent.

Badawi has worked as a journalist in the British media for decades and is on several academic boards as well as being President of SOAS University of London. Born in Sudan and a recipient of the President’s Medal of the British Academy, her position within and outside the Establishment and her record in getting facts across to the general and academic publics means she is ideally placed to compile this fascinating and authoritative history of the continent of Africa and its individual empires and countries, something we haven’t really had in one volume before. And it’s definitely an African history, as the experts, archaeologists, curators and academics Badawi seeks out and quotes are all of African origin, either still working on the continent or based elsewhere but working on African themes. This gives a wonderful showcase of people voicing opinions and sharing information which is often far from the accepted Western narrative and acts as an excellent set of counterarguments to stories by the colonialists. 

Starting with the hominims, precursors to homo sapiens sapiens, who we now know originated in Africa then spread across the world from there, and witnessing Badawi actually “meeting” our ancestor Lucy, or Dinkenesh, we take a journey through empires rising and falling, moving roughly chronologically and also from North to South, starting with the point that Ancient Egypt was more African than its currently Arabic make-up would suggest and moving through people we might have heard of (Mansa Musa I, the richest individual to have ever lived, is becoming more and more well-known) and kingdoms such as Aksum which have become obscured by history. 

We debunk Western views on religion and belief as well as on the development and abilities of the people of various African groups and empires, refreshingly giving alternative authoritative viewpoints and bringing out the facts of the global trade African empires were engaged in, including while Europe was in its own Dark Ages. As well as looking at the Arabisation and Islamisation of northern Africa, Badawi makes sure she concentrates on the region’s pre-Islamic and pre-Arab past, and she ensures oral traditions are shown as sometimes providing a corrective to written sources. She addresses issues of slavery within the continent and promoted by Arab nations but makes sure the differences from Atlantic slavery are brought out and the effects of slavery and colonialism explained clearly from an African perspective, especially the underpopulation the former engendered. 

While most of the book only goes up to the independence movements across Africa in the 20th century, Badawi does look at the background to terror groups in the modern age, and apologies, the return of looted material lodged in museums, and reparations are covered, so it’s brought up to date in some respects. 

Badawi spent seven years researching this book, visiting 30 countries in Africa, so we see antiquities and ruins and meet researchers through her eyes, which adds a personal touch and saves the book from becoming at all dry. She has a nice concentration on both women academics and warrior queens, bringing a good balance where she can. 

The copy I had was very much an advanced readers’ copy, but there are a good number of illustrations and places for notes, sources and an index so those will all be present in the completed item. I really think no home should be without this vital reference source. 

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Liz blogs at Adventures in reading, running and working from home.

Zeinab Badawi, An African History of Africa: From the Dawn of Civilisation to Independence (WH Allen, 2024). ‎ 978-0753560129, 516 pp., ill. hardback.

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