October, 2013

The Melville J. Herskovits Award honors the outstanding book published in African Studies in the previous year (2012).  The finalists and winner are selected by committee, and this year’s committee members are Dr. Toyin Falola (Chair); Dr. Robert Baum; Dr. Jean Borgatti; Dr. Kenneth Harrow; and Dr. Cassandra Veney. 

Hearty ASA congratulations go out to the finalists, and the winner will be selected at the ASA’s Award Ceremony which will take place on November 22nd, 2013 at 8:30PM, in Grand Ballroom Salon VI of the Marriott Baltimore Waterfront Hotel.

The 2013 Melville J. Herskovits award finalists are:

Jennie E. Burnet

Genocide Lives in Us: Women, Memory, and Silence in Rwanda (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2012).

Genocide Lives in Us examines the challenges and complexities of life faced by women after experiencing the devastation of war and genocide captured under three interconnected phenomena—memory, silence, and justice. Writing with sensitivity in light of the heart-wrenching stories of the subjects, Jennie E. Burnet narrates how ordinary Rwandan women overcame the unimaginable— reviving their lives amid the devastation of losing entire families and experiencing unthinkable acts of violence. Yet, as their stories reveal, the Rwandan women who found themselves in the United States as others elsewhere, were slowly able to rebuild their lives; negotiating dangerous political and emotional spaces they emerge as an inspiration to others and as leaders in their societies. The extensive fieldwork done for Genocide Lives in US is aptly clear in the book’s scholarly coverage. Burnet does an excellent job in situating the women’s stories in much broader historical and political themes, allowing not just the silenced stories and the incredible acts of resilience of the survivors to be heard, but also providing a framework within which to understand the events that unfolded in Rwanda in 1994.

Another highlight of the book is how Burnet expertly demystifies ethnic hatred in Africa by juxtaposing it with relations between other ethnicities in the Western hemisphere while providing the social, economic, and political contexts that frame these relationships. Burnet argues in her conclusion that Rwandan women’s recent leading roles in the country’s “rebirth” originated from the dreadful conditions in Rwanda that enabled women to enter into new roles, including ones in the government and in advocacy groups. Genocide Lives in Us makes many important contributions, including breaking the silence of those who, as a result of the power of official narrative, may not have spoken up, as well as open a public discourse on an often ignored issue of forgotten lives.


Richard A. Elphick

The Equality of Believers: Protestant Missionaries and the Racial Politics of South Africa (Charlottesville, and London: University of Virginia Press, 2012).

Elphick’s book explores the paradoxes of racial inequalities and racial egalitarianism espoused by European missionaries in an effort to provide a more comprehensive perspective of South African history. Elphick posits that religion was not only central to South African history, but that one cannot fully understand the history of South Africa without understanding the racial struggles rooted in religious ideology. He utilizes a vast collection of archival mission records, newspapers, state records, and church periodicals to support his claims. According to the author, missionaries developed the idea of a racially egalitarian society based on the New Testament that Christ died for all people regardless of race and that God considers all who accept Christ as equal before Him. Yet, these missionaries and their white minority patrons, at best, only believed in racial equality in theory. In practice, they undermined racial egalitarianism by equating Christianity with a white racial identity, justifying racial inequality on this principle. The result was that at the same time they were canvassing for black converts, they also implemented the segregation of blacks and whites in worship. This would eventually be codified into segregationist laws that encompassed not just separate churches but prevented blacks from accessing avenues of economic and social prosperity and citizenship. Eventually, these practices would lead to apartheid.

Focusing on the period between the mid-seventeenth century, when the first German Moravian missionary arrived in South Africa, to the period of segregation, industrialization, and apartheid in the early twentieth century, Elphick unravels the deep religious roots of racial ideas and plans that significantly shaped South Africa’s history. In three parts, Elphick first covers the colonial period where he stresses the importance and the historical implications of European missionaries’ conversion. He explains that early European missionaries and black converts both valued the idea of racial equality but white missionaries were often at odds in putting racial equality into practice. For instance, the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC), while it did all it could to evangelize and convert blacks, upheld white supremacy by maintaining the two races in separate spaces. Elphick also argues that the missionary establishment of the “Benevolent Empire,” consisting of churches, schools, and hospitals, placed it at the center of racial debates in South Africa because of the extensive number of people who depended on, and encountered one another through these institutions. 

As Elphick sees it, the missionaries certainly fell victim to their own machinations by preaching racial egalitarianism, while living by the standards of racial intolerance. Ultimately, they had to sacrifice altogether the ideas of racial equality for minimal advances in black welfare when they were forced to give up their educational and medical institutions to the government. The Equality of Believers is a well-written account of the role religion played in South African racial struggles. Elphick’s utilization of intellectual and institutional history enables him to provide a stimulating perspective to understanding race, religion, and nation-building in South African history. The role of missionaries and for that matter, religion did not and could not have occurred in a vacuum so that a productive debate can be generated on the other equally important factors, such as class and the voices of the ordinary person of color, in shaping race in South Africa. The Equality of Believers makes an important contribution to the historiography of religion in South Africa.

Thomas Blom Hansen

Melancholia of Freedom: Social Life in an Indian Township in South Africa (Princeton, and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2012).

The universal euphoria which immediately followed the end of apartheid in South Africa in 1994 and brought the promise of a nonracial society gradually created anxieties and uncertainties for the country’s Indian population who, during apartheid, occupied an intermediate position between the privileged whites and the oppressed blacks. Focusing on a period of about five decades, Hansen tells the stories of ordinary Indians in Durban in the KwaZulu-Natal province, especially the Indians of Chatsworth, whose lives were racially defined by the township and its institutions during and after apartheid. Hansen asserts that Indians in this community, while they generally rejected the ideology of apartheid, for practical purposes, the township’s institutions—religious spaces, schools, houses, and hospitals—embraced apartheid for their own survival and identity. But in the period after 1994, township life became complex and ambivalent, and indeed, precarious, as the economic and the social positions Indians had occupied during apartheid started eroding with the influx of Africans into Chatsworth. Linked to these complexities, was the fact they now had to look elsewhere other than apartheid to apportion blame for the social and economic problems. 

The complexity and the ambivalence of life became even more enunciated with the loss of apartheid, and its pleasures and privileges and forms of livelihood became repressed and could not be openly discussed, leaving feelings of loss and nostalgia accompanied by deep-rooted melancholy resulting from anxieties about history and identity. In many ways, Hansen shows that race continues to segment South African society and frame religion, individual and collective identity, daily life, and ideas about race and race relations, and the nation-state. At the same time as Indians and Blacks seek to move beyond the challenges of apartheid and the mistrust of one another, and recreate a new self—defined by contemporary socio-economic, religious, and political structures—they are brought together by a shared “party culture.” And, as Hansen argues, South Africans may soon awaken to a nonracial society recreated behind their backs. Melancholia of Freedom is beautifully and thoughtfully written. It not only calls on us to rethink what we understand about the meaning of freedom and how it frames the lives of those who attain or strive to attain it, but it also challenges researchers to be more inquiring and multidimensional in dealing with race and race-related issues. The book is dense, detailed, and evocative. The ethnography is extraordinarily rich, and the author has an intimate knowledge of South Africa, and of Chatsworth. Hanson Blom is a theorist, his arguments are sophisticated. The reader comes away with a sharpened understanding of the uncertainties and struggles facing ordinary Indians now that the racist state has been dismantled but racial ideology still informs how life is lived in South Africa.

Gabrielle Hecht

Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012).

“Being nuclear” or “going nuclear” has become a hot-button issue, particularly in the twenty first century. Gabrielle Hecht takes us on an interesting journey through the minefields of what she calls the technopolitical sphere, where having nuclear capacity or “nuclearity” is at the core of the contemporary global order and the relations between developing and developed countries. Being Nuclear begs the question what it means for African countries producing the nuclear component, uranium, to have nuclear capacity/power in today’s global world. Hecht brings the seemingly isolated and obscure nuclear world of Africa and the more obviously global nuclear world together by following the production of uranium in Niger, Gabon, South Africa (apartheid period), Namibia, and Madagascar, and the role Africa’s uranium plays in global market and politics. Hecht uses the first part of the book to discuss the ways in which Western powers, more precisely, former Western colonial powers, use their ties to their former colonies to secure for their nuclear programs a cheap and steady supply of uranium, while at the same time developing ways to prevent countries they deem politically unstable from getting access to Africa’s uranium. She then focuses her attention on how postcolonial governments as well as large mining companies in the uranium-producing countries have downplayed the health risks, especially the risks of radiation, associated with uranium mining.

Indeed, any discussion on nuclear energy/power presents a complex research landscape. Hecht does a good job utilizing significantly underutilized written sources from government and company records as well as eye witness accounts to bring out the politics of uranium production in today’s global politics. Being Nuclear successfully connects two main issues, macro-level technopolitics and the regulation of uranium mining and occupational health, while simultaneously creating room for future in-depth analysis of each part. Being Nuclear makes a significant contribution to the scholarship on nuclear energy in Africa, and from an advocacy perspective, it opens an avenue for the ordinary African voice to be heard.

Sasha Newell

The Modernity Bluff: Crime, Consumption, and Citizenship in Cote d’Ivoire (Chicago, and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2012).

Once Côte d’Ivoire was one of Africa’s most promising economies but in recent years, political unrest resulting in economic collapse, has left many Ivoirians unemployed. Yet, it is this very state of economic hardship coupled with the exigencies of modernity that has spawned a cultural economy occupied by young men known on the streets of Côte d’Ivoire as “bluffeurs.” In The Modernity Bluff, Newell takes us on a journey of how young unemployed men use skill, trickery, legitimate and illegitimate means to procure financial resources, which they spend lavishly on Western brand-named clothing, accessories, state-of-the art technology, and a vigorous nightlife. According to Newell, the essence of this “adopted” lifestyle or imitation of Western prosperity is to project a reputation of wealth in order to create wealth. The paradoxical state of wasting wealth to create wealth even in circumstances of abject poverty, Newell argues, is vital for not just individual survival and social status but also for national pride.

The author points out that “bluffeurs” depend on their ability to access expensive and fashionable Western goods to portray their cultural mastery of Western taste, and in so doing they are not just placing themselves at the very center of modernity’s cultural and economic performance, but actually underlining the phony nature of modernity. For readers familiar with African cultures and contemporary changes, The Modernity Bluff offers an interesting nuance to an often taken-for-granted phenomenon. It opens an avenue for understanding some of the economic and cultural struggles that have morphed into political conflict in Côte d’Ivoire. Newell’s ability to use specialized theories and make them easy to digest coupled with significant research work, makes The Modernity Bluff a must-read for all.

Derek R. Peterson

Ethnic Patriotism and the East African Revival: A History of Dissent, c. 1935-1972 (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

Ethnic Patriotism and the East African Revival is set in the last decades of colonial rule and early periods of African political independence, and tells the story of two opposing moral projects in which the converts of the East African Revival, an evangelical movement, and East Africa’s patriots clashed over culture, community, and spirituality. Peterson provides vivid accounts of how the East African Revival converts rejected their compatriots by their indifference to ethnicity, community, and family obligations, and in so doing, earned the indignation of East Africa’s patriots who had worked to secure respectable, progressive ethnic communities rooted in tradition. Peterson’s fundamental focus on the tussles between African traditions and Christian belief systems is not new; what is new is his ability to interweave them to bring to light profound political, moral, and cultural arguments, and the exigencies of life in colonial and early post-colonial Africa. He utilizes an exceptionally wide range of archival materials, listing as much as 46 collections, and interviewing over 170 informants from Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania.

From northern Rwanda, the Kigezi district of Uganda, to Bugufi in northwestern Tanzania and western Kenya in the mid-1930s, Peterson recounts how traditional cultural reinforcements clashed with individual spiritual journeys into the Christian faith (i.e., of the Revivalists), which often resulted in converts publicly confessing their sins. The various regions provided varied contexts for Revivalists’ activities; however, the public confession of sins was a central feature in all the contexts. In discussing the conflict between the Rwenzururu and the Toro kingdoms, Peterson highlights the conflicting position of the Revivalists as well as the parallels between their confessions and Rwanda’s gacaca courts. Peterson concludes that certain moral arguments in African languages, especially regarding gender relationships, should be at the center of colonial history, in the same way as nationalists’ activities and anticolonial struggles. Without doubt, Ethnic Patriotism and the East African Revival is a well-researched, well-argued work, significantly enriching our understanding of colonial history and movements in Africa.