‘Sick Societies’ and other Recent Readings

In a blog last year (Reading Books in Burundi )I mentioned having a number of books given to me by departing friends and colleagues. From time to time I dip into them, as I have the last few weeks while recovering from a low-grade infection that’s really kept me down and mainly in bed or resting.  Here are the books –  just took from the shelf what looked interesting at the time.

The two most fun books were autobiographies, the first by Roald Dahl, about his childhood, entitled Boy.  The second by Wilfred Thesiger, My Kenya Days.  Both are well written and easy reads, Dahl’s with amusing pictures and drawings and Thesiger’s with some of his wonderful photographs.

This was the last book written by Thesiger, whose travels and photos in Africa, the Middle East and Asia over many decades are all worth reading – or at least, looking at the photographs.  He was an uncompromising colonialist, brought up in Ethiopia by Foreign Service parents, who loved the land and the people and was highly mistrustful of much offered by the modern world.  His book on the Marsh Arabs (southern Iraq)  is a classic.

Also an easy read was Nine Hills to Nambonkaha: Two Years in the Heart of an African Village by Sahah Erdman, about her two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon.  An excellent writer whose portrait of her life and times in a small village is just what many westerners like to hear: a romantic view of ‘tribal life’ in Africa.

A very different approach to culture and society is Robert Edgerton’s study,  Sick Societies: challenging the Myth of Primitive HarmonyNot an easy read, because there is so much detail to wade through, but his points are well (and sometimes over) made.  An absolute counterpoint to Erdman’s bucolic village study.

An important goal of the book is to demonstrate as false, the notion of pre-western societies being smoothly functioning ‘wholes’, that with colonialism were thrown into dysfunctional disarray  As part of this reaction, he suggests, is the apparent unwillingness of modern students of non-western societies to identify and analyse negative aspects of the society they are studying.

As to the latter point, I think it is in part due to reactions in ethnographic work of the 20th century to operate within a paradigm set against the kinds of wholesale racism and elitism found in most of the colonial writers, an excellent example being Sir Richard Burton, whose 19th century descriptions of Africans not only were blatantly racist, but also served to help justify the entry of colonial powers to ‘help’ local people, for example:


 The study of psychology in Eastern Africa is the study of man’s rudimental mind, when, subject to the agency of material nature, he neither progresses nor retrogrades. He would appear rather a degeneracy from the civilized man than a savage rising to the first step, were it not for his apparent incapacity for improvement.

 He has not the ring of the true metal ; there is no rich nature, as in the New Zealander, for education to cultivate. He seems to belong to one of those childish races which, never rising to man’s estate, fall like worn-out links from the great chain of animated nature.

 He unites the incapacity of infancy with the unpliancy of age ; the futility of childhood, and the credulity of youth, with the skepticism of the adult and the stubbornness and bigotry of the old.

 He has ” beaten lands” and seas. For centuries he has been in direct intercourse with the more advanced people of the eastern coast, and though few have seen a European, there are not many who have not cast eyes upon an Arab. Still he has stopped short at the threshold of progress; he shows no signs of development ; no higher and more varied orders of intellect are called into being…

 From – Richard Burton, The Lake Regions of Central Africa, 1860

 In west Africa, Burton took similar views of locals, even suggesting to uproot local food crops in order to grow exportable crops, a point that I discuss in this blog: Colonial Musings on Mount Cameroon: Out with the Plantains! In with the Coffee & Sugar! .

Not only most ethnographies, but also Sarah Erdman’s and Wilfred  Thesiger’s books, discussed above, are part of a 20th century approach that glosses over the negative aspects of the societies about which they wrote.

Then, I re-read Edward Said‘s Culture and Imperialism.  Here is a writer whose thinking and writings separate his readers as oil  from water.  A Palestinian, brilliant, direct and never one to make excuses.  He has enraged many people with his writings, a fact that he touches on here:


“I can perfectly understand the anger that fuelled [Salman] Rushdie’s argument because like him I felt outnumbered and out organized by a prevailing Western consensus that has come to regard the Third World as an atrocious nuisance, a culturally and politically inferior place.  Whereas we write and speak as members of a small minority of marginal voices, our journalistic and academic critics belong to a wealthy system of interlocking informational and academic resources with newspapers, television networks, journals of opinion and institutes at its disposal.

 Over a century and a half after Richard Burton’s blatant racism, quoted above, Said is making frontal attacks on Imperialism, Colonialism, and their more recent iterations.  His attacks are as eloquent as they are likely to enrage, such as ‘…[the] paternalistic arrogance of imperialism…’  that considers ‘…the outlying regions of the world have no life, history, or culture to speak of, no independence or integrity worth representing without the West.’ 

 Even if you don’t agree with Said’s point of view, this is a book worth reading and thinking about.  His earlier work, Orientalism, had profound influence on my generation of graduate student colleagues and was a defining feature of our work.   Tim Mitchell’s Colonizing Egypt and Lila Abu-Lughod’s Veiled Sentiments are examples of the new genre of Middle East studies that were inspired, in part, by Said’s writings.

Now, I’m about 1/3 of the way into  Peter the Great, by Robert Massie, which is almost 1000 pp.  The author includes a great deal of European history along the way and it is an excellent read.  Any neocolonial aspiring to notions of Europe being less barbaric that Africa, during the 17th and 18th (or 19th) centuries, better read this book

What next?  Well, this illness is just about finished, and so back to work!

About dianabuja

With a group of BaTwa (pygmy) women potters, with whom we've worked to enhance production and sales of their wonderful pots - fantastic for cooking and serving. To see the 2 blogs on this work enter 'batwa pots' into the search engine located just above this picture. Blog entries throughout this site are about Africa, as well as about the Middle East and life in general - reflecting over 35 years of work and research in Africa and the Middle East – Come and join me!
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