When looking at world maps in most classrooms, it’s difficult to imagine that three full-sized U.S. of A.s could fit into the continent of Africa. But it is possible. The only reason that the idea seems like a stretch is that most of our maps rely on the Mercator projection, which adjusts the sizes of continents to aid nautical navigation, inflating land masses farther away from the equator (i.e., North America, Europe) and deflating those closer to it (i.e., South America, Africa). If you want to see the continents true to size—and who wouldn’t—you’ll have to look up a map that uses the equirectangular projection, a technique that cuts the crap and shows us how it is.
“Cutting the crap” can also be defined here as attempting to rid the West of a distorted reality in which Africa is seen as a lesser continent. When in the 18th century an American missionary named R.H. Stone first laid eyes on the bustling Yoruba city of Abeokuta in modern day Nigeria and said, “What I saw disabused my mind of many errors in regard to… Africa,” he realized what many scholars today want Westerners to understand: Africa is not a disease-ridden, primitively “tribal” land from head to toe, but a complex, multicultural continent that serves a powerful purpose in the modern world.
Tukufu Zuberi is one of these scholars, and in his new book and documentary, he tackles what the title aptly puts as “African Independence: How Africa Shapes The World.” Both bright and badass as hell, Zuberi is the Professor and Chair of the Sociology Department at the University of Pennsylvania as well as the host for the PBS program “History Detectives,” which devotes itself to examining historical myths and conundrums in a nuanced manner. You can find Professor Zuberi on PBS racing around Death Valley in a 1932 Model B Ford or tracking down Japanese internment camp survivors to interview. The man is no joke.
In his new book, Zuberi mainly explores the African Independence Movements of five separate republics: Ghana, Tanzania, Kenya, Zambia, and South Africa. Through these republics, he attempts to make an argument on what independence means to the world, as well as what independence holds for the future. Comprehensive yet brief, the book is split into four chapters, each exploring Africa in relation to a watershed event: Africa and World War II, Africa and the end of colonialism, Africa and the Cold War, and, finally, Africa and the 21st century. As a historian, Zuberi’s strength is not so much in chronicling and explaining history as it is in immersing himself in the lives of those who lived it. To write “African Independence,” the author spent years researching and traveling in Africa, interviewing everyone from political leaders to taxi drivers.
In each chapter, Zuberi highlights lesser-known facts that help illuminate Africa’s role in world affairs. He explains, for instance, that over one million African troops served in WWII, seventeen separate African countries broke out of colonialism in 1960, Africa suffered the most real-world casualties of the Cold War, many political leaders today are working toward a United States of Africa, and more.
As demonstrated through certain editorial and factual errors, Zuberi, however, sometimes seems to rush in his analyses of colonialist history in order to get to independence. For example, Zuberi ends a paragraph in the second chapter without a period, and also mushes Italian Libya into Italian East Africa, when these were in fact two separate entities. Sometimes, too, he introduces information or key political figures, but leaves us hanging as he swerves onto a different subject, such as when he talks about the French Colonial Army in one paragraph but quickly moves onto Italian fascism.
Zuberi’s third and fourth chapters on “Africa in the Cold War” and “African Independence Today” are far and away the better two, as they are much more well-organized and chock-full of conversations with African leaders. As a documentary filmmaker, Zuberi is brilliant at interviewing key figures in history; one can find snippets of interviews in the book with the first President of Zambia, Kenneth Kaunda, anti-apartheid student activist Mbuso Chili, Ghana’s Convention People’s Party leader Samia Nkrumah, and many more.
At times, though, Zuberi quotes these figures so much that the narrative transforms into a transcript of an interview. With Mbuso Chili, for example, the section starts with Zuberi asking Chili about the Soweto Uprising in 1976: “I heard about schoolchildren who had shaken South Africa, and it really made me wonder, what’s going on there?” Chili answers: “What happened is, the apartheid government, they wanted to introduce Afrikaans as a medium language,” and Zuberi continues: “So what was wrong with learning biology, math, and social sciences in Afrikaans?” and so on.
While it may seem as though Zuberi is simply making a rhetorical point here, in the sense that any argument will look more reasonable if you devote yourself to the subject’s primary sources, I think there is also a more subtle, historical point that the author wants to convey in his methods of telling a continent’s partial story. It is the importance of this point, I think, that makes the book worth reading.
To try to explain this importance, I’d like for you to imagine the following: in September 1996, President Nelson Mandela visited the White House. Apartheid had ended two years earlier, and questions about Africa’s future were swirling amongst the U.S. agenda. At this meeting, Mandela spoke about President Clinton’s visit to the South African parliament earlier that year. He said, “He almost brought down the walls of that building when he said, ‘We, in the United States, have been asking the wrong question. We have been saying, what can we do for Africa? The right question was, what can we do with Africa?’” Mandela praised Clinton’s idea of collaboration, when for so long the West had only thought of aid. Whether the South African president’s idea has become truly realized in the 21st century is up for dispute. Nonetheless, it is a powerful one, and Zuberi seems to have listened to Mandela when thinking of how to make his new book.
In a sense, “African Independence” is an attempt to tell history collaboratively from two different points of view: that of the African today and that of the American in the grander African diaspora. Much of the book seems to be written by both Zuberi and his interviewees, and this gives off the sense that Zuberi is not telling history for Africans but with Africans. In the way that Howard Zinn extensively quotes the common people’s voices in “A People’s History of the United States,” Zuberi does so with the voices of Africa. But I would argue that Zuberi goes even further than “People’s History” in how he frames the book. In the acknowledgements, the professor begins, “A book, like a film, is best when created in collaboration with others.” This concept, in my opinion, is much more foreign to Westerners than Zuberi expects; the idea that a book should be written alone, at least in the physical sense, goes arguably all the way back to Descartes’s concept of the solitary self, and this individualism can be hard to break away from. Tukufu Zuberi does it in both a necessary and seamless way, however. Hopefully, his work will motivate a movement toward a new tradition in the telling of African narratives in a global context.
In certain moments, Zuberi’s interviewees even outshine the text completely and take up more page-space than the author does. This is much more apparent in the documentary, where Zuberi actually concludes the film with Samia Nkrumah speaking about the future of Africa. There is no wrap-up or anything after her spiel, just a montage of Zuberi walking around various cities. Ultimately, she gets the last word. It’s not that the professor has nothing left to say—in the book version, he has two more pages of predictions, hopes, and conclusions. It’s that he wants to make a certain statement through his methods. The dynamic that Zuberi shoots for is, in the end, reminiscent of a familiar African proverb quoted on the back of the book’s jacket: “Until the lion speaks, the `story of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”
AVAILABLE ON OLIN’S DISPLAY SHELVES—OR IF NOT, JUST OLIN. 159 PAGES.