The ASA annually presents the Melville J. Herskovits Award to the author of an outstanding original scholarly work published on Africa, in the previous year. This award is named in honor of Melville Herskovits, one of the founders of the ASA. The winner of this award will be announced during the Awards Ceremony of the 57th Annual Meeting, which will take place on the evening of November 22nd, 2014 in Indianapolis. The ASA Board of Directors gratefully acknowledges the Kennell A. Jackson Jr. bequest in endowing the Herskovits Awards, and additionally is grateful to the selection committee for its service. The committee was chaired by Kenneth Harrow and included Peter Limb, Adeline Masquelier, Alamin Mazrui, and Gay Seidman.

The finalists for the 2014 award are:


Mariana P. Candido
An African Slaving Port and the Atlantic World: Benguela and its Hinterland (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2013)

Benguela in Angola emerged from contacts between Africans, Portuguese, and Brazilians to become the third largest port of slave embarkation from the early seventeenth to mid-nineteenth century. Mariana Candido has written the first major book in English focused squarely on Benguela. Tracing the history of the region from early trade and contacts to the town’s rise as an Atlantic port, the narrative moves on to unravel hitherto neglected connections across the South Atlantic World and examine the diverse mechanisms of enslavement and finally the political reconfiguration of the hinterland and its polities from 1600 to 1850. Comprehensively charting the history, economics, politics, society, culture, and identities of the region, it emphasizes connections between the coast and environs, and shines a long overdue light on the role of African women in socioeconomic and political life, notably their role as entrepreneurs. 

Assessing the impact of the slave trade, and engaging with and adding to the work of scholars such as Joseph Miller and John Thornton, Candido explores the formation of new creole elites and the shifting fate of old and new states. She demonstrates that ‘the trans-Atlantic slave trade provoked more than a demographic drain. It altered social practices and notions of legality and morality and introduced new categories of classification …. It also provoked the expansion of slave labor in colonial centers.’ A particularly original feature is to show the deep impact of connections with Brazil. The South Atlantic opens to the reader as a space for circulation of people, ideas, crops—and a range of cultural practices. This noteworthy and well-researched work demonstrates how the slave trade shaped not only the development of Benguela but also surrounding societies. The book’s wider impact adds to the knowledge of transatlantic networks and the identities of slaves sent to Brazil. Drawing on a broad range of archival and other materials, Candido presents a cogently argued and richly woven tapestry of the history of this part of Africa, long-neglected by scholars, which will stand as a landmark study of an African port. An African Slaving Port and the Atlantic World significantly enriches our understanding of the history of Africa and the trans-Atlantic world.

Allen F. Isaacman and Barbara S. Isaacman
Dams, Displacement, and the Delusion of Development: Cahora Bassa and Its Legacies in Mozaqmbique, 1965-2007 (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2013)

Nearly 50 years ago, Portugal’s colonial administrators began to consider damming the Cahora Bassa gorge, hoping to harness the Zambezi River to expand irrigation, reduce flooding, and above all, generate electricity. But who will use that electricity, and who will bear the burden of this dramatic reconstruction of the river valley? Through successive administrations — from the colonial era, through FRELIMO’s  early euphoria and then years of civil war and South African-backed destabilization, and into the present – the Cahora Bassa dam became to Mozambique’s ‘delusions of‘development’.  In the early 1990s, as the civil war wound down, Mozambique turned to the IMF for funding; the dam’s potential to produce hydroelectric power became a central plank in the IMF’s structural adjustment proposals as an exportable resource, sold to neighboring South Africa rather than providing energy to rural communities in Mozambique.

Dams, Displacement, and the Delusion of Development tells the history of the dam’s planning and construction from two – or perhaps three – different perspectives. First, using archival and interview material, the book lays out the logics of successive governments for building the dam:  the colonial desire to capture hydroelectric power for its ‘modernizing’ drive; the embattled FRELIMO government, as rebel attacks during the civil war, which downed pylons and destroyed infrastructure, pursuing the same project but now emphasizing its (frustrated) desire to provide electricity to Mozambique’s rural poor; and most recently, elected governments pursuing the neoliberal strategies laid out by international agencies, promoting hydroelectric power as Mozambique’s best hope for earning foreign exchange. Second, the Isaacmans use detailed environmental studies to map the impact of the dam on Mozambique’s river valleys and flood plains, showing how the redesign of the river has altered longstanding possibilities of fishing, farming and transport. 

And finally, through powerful oral history based on interviews with Mozambican villagers from the affected areas–including many who have lived through dispossession and loss–the book lays out the way the dam impacted the people who lived along the river. After reading these chapters, the Isaacmans’ claim seems, if anything, understated: “Cahora Bassa not only changed the Zambezi forever, but it also affected the lives of every individual – male and female, old and young, peasant and fisherman – who lived adjacent to the harnessed waters [The] hydroelectric project radically altered livelihood strategies, endangered food security, and transformed residential patterns downriver.” 

Of course, Mozambique is hardly alone in this, but the picture the book offers is as powerful an indictment of an African state’s efforts to ‘modernize’ as we have. The Isaacmans conclude, 

“[The] high-modernist ideology of successive Mozambican governments gave state officials and foreign experts the authority and power to transform the majestic Zambezi. In pursuing this delusion of development, they all subverted the agronomic and economic lives of villagers and marginalized preexisting forms of knowledge and modes of social and political life.” 

For the residents of the Zambezi valley, the state-imposed hydroelectric project was anything but a delusion. Instead, it was a powerful reminder of their insignificance to the national debate on the meaning of development and economic progress.”

Combining nuanced oral histories with insights from environmental history and broad political economy, Allen Isaacman and Barbara Isaacman’s beautifully-written description of the dam’s impact on life along the Zambezi becomes a powerful critique: in ignoring the environmental impact of the Cahara Bassa dam, planners also ignored the voices and concerns of the people who lived along the river – ironically, the same rural poor in whose name those planners claimed they were acting. This powerful book deserves to be widely read.

Carola Lentz
Land, Mobility, and Belonging in West Africa (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2013)

Carola Lentz’s Land, Mobility, and Belonging focused upon the movement of the Dagara people, in the Black Volta region, into territories inhabited by the Sisala. In order to authenticate Dagara claims to the lands, narratives had to be crafted, earth shrines and gods solicited or created, and judgments formed that validated the claims to sovereignty. 

Lentz constructed an extraordinary account of this process by taking her time, interviewing those with the thickest relationship to the social, religious, and political life of the community—often including elders or rulers, or priests—and then sifting, interpreting, translating, and weighing the narratives. The result is a remarkable and precise portrait of the way mobility has become a theoretical concept that can best account for the interaction between those claiming originary rights to a territory and those who came to establish sovereignty over it. Tales of frontiersmen, of courageous or adventurous sons, of communities driven to move, of patterns of warrior culture, proliferate among the Dagara, while alternative versions of first-comer status were elaborated by the Sisala. 

The separation of the two cultures by time and force was overcome by narratives and cultural exchanges whereby the late-comers adopted the shrines and customs of those whose lands they conquered, forging new forms of group identities for both communities. In the midst of these processes came the colonial rulers, the French north of the Ghana-Burkinabe border, the British to the south, each bringing different approaches to the administration of law and rule, resulting in cross-border movements and population shifts. The question of land ownership never disappeared, but had to be accommodated to the new order. 

The central issue in this study turned on claims to sovereignty and property rights. As Lentz put it, “How the transmission of property rights between these groups, often symbolized in the exchange of earth-shrine stones, has changed over time, what role violence and its subsequent suppression through the pax colonia played in these changes, and how people have debated the alienability of the allodial title are central themes that this book explores.” Those central themes, distilled into the narrow space of Black Voltan lands and primarily two competing communities, lead to the questions that find answers only in the local, but that resonate broadly for the larger issues of land, ownership, of immigration and the rights of first-comers.  

Ultimately, behind the research into these questions lies the larger goal of establishing a claim in how historical inquiry can be carried out, along with the ethical implications. 

As Lentz argues, “Studying these questions in a region that is not characterized by far-reaching violent conflict has an added advantage. It allows us to understand not only the ample opportunities for competition and conflict that the local concepts of first-comer status and property rights provide, but also the ways in which people manage to contain such potential for controversy and to farm and live their daily live s more or less peacefully. The widely shared moral principle that everybody should have the rights to the fruits of his or her labor and, even more important, that it is immoral not to grant access to land for subsistence, is one of the factors that allows for the containment of conflict.” 

Land, Mobility, and Belonging in West Africa is a finely wrought and beautifully argued account. 

 Stephanie Newell 
The Power to Name: A History of Anonymity in Colonial West Africa (Athens, OH:  Ohio University Press, 2013)

The Power to Name: A history of Anonymity in Colonial West Africa examines a wide range of anonymous and pseudonymous practices of writing that were evident in African-owned newspapers in West Africa between the 1880s and 1940s, and the rise of named autobiography in the period of anti-colonial nationalism. While the primary focus of is on West African print cultures when the region was under British colonial rule, the book also pays attention to the varied uses of naming in African folktales and other oral genres. The book also examines court cases in which African editors were prosecuted under libel and sedition laws for refusing to divulge the identities of their contributors. The case studies demonstrate the workings of African agency as the space of the local press became galvanized in creative, anti-hegemonic ways. 

In the process of examining this phenomenon in the West African context, The Power to Name explores how the long history of invented, pseudonymous and playful articulation in West Africa relate to or challenge contemporary theorizations of (post)colonial authorship and identity. Looking at the ways in which pseudonymous contributors to West African newspapers drew power from print and playfully engaged with colonial identity, The Power to Name also examines the ways in which practices of anonymity and pseudonymity inform the cultural histories of (post)colonial societies. As a result, The Power to Name brings together two hitherto distinct fields of study – broadly defined as book history and postcolonial theory – into a scholarly monograph that expands and historicizes theories of colonial subjectivity, and accounts for the ways in which colonized subjects used pseudonymous and anonymous designations to alter and play with colonial power and constructions of African identity.

Allen F. Roberts
Dance of Assassins (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2013)

One of the great challenges in African studies and especially African history is to articulate narratives, to construct histories, to present cultures and memories, from the perspectives of the insiders and the outsiders. Researchers have been attempting to bridge that gap by seeking documentary materials and evidence in archives beyond those stored in colonial libraries or European repositories. The difficulty has been to uncover perspectives on a given event in the past lodged in locations often hard to access, as in the memories of older people who might have been heard in years past, but who have now passed on, and whose words are semi-forgotten. 

Allen Roberts took up the challenge to present an extraordinary story that dated to the time of Stanley and the great conquest of the Congo by Leopold and his agents. One of those men, Emile Storms, stayed for a while in a remote outpost, made his mark, collected his artifacts, his memorabilia, his statues, and his head, and then, eventually returned to Belgium, ultimately to move on to another career. While in Mpala-Lubanda he encountered a powerful warlord who was establishing his presence in the area, making claims to sovereignty while carrying out his depredations on the region. The two men clashed, and Roberts presents their story, writing in his inimitable style, with these the opening lines of his book, “This book is about a beheading. The event occurred in December 1884 and has been articulated ever since through competing Congolese and Belgian histories attuned to particular audiences and political goals. Two protagonists engaged in a deadly pas de deux driven by immense ambition, each violently striving to establish hegemony along the southwestern shores of Lake Tanganyika in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC): Lusinga Iwa Ng’ombe, deemed a ‘sanguinary potentate’ by the British explorer Joseph Tomson, who visited the chief in 1879 , because of his ruthless slaving for the east African trade; and Emile Storms, belligerent commander of the fourth International African Association caravan and founder of an outpost at Mpala-Lubanda near Lusinga’s redoubt.  The IAA’s overt mandate was to promote scientic knowledge while helping suppress slavery. Lusinga and Storms were bound for confrontation, and Lusinga lost his head.”

As the above introduction demonstrates, this is no ordinary account. It is not only written in extraordinarily beautiful prose, it actually accomplishes the difficult task of giving us both worlds—the world of the Belgian explorer-adventurer-conqueror-scientist-ruler, that is, the colonialist; and the world of the petty lord, the Tabwa potentate, and more fully, the world of the Tabwa inhabitants of the region which Roberts had come to encounter as a young man when first carrying out his Ph.D. research.

As Roberts has delved into art, religion, theory, literature, as well as history, this multidisciplinary narrative highlights not only Lusinga’s head, which Storms carted back to Brussels, where it remains on ignominious display, but also the statue of Lusinga’s ancestor, likewise captured and exhibited in Europe. The two worlds are put on display to each other in this account of the two men, two assassins, whose “dance” constituted the steps of the colonial encounter, here remembered and rehearsed as though for performance in a tableau vivant that has come to life. 


The Bethwell A. Ogot Book Prize of the African Studies Association is awarded annually at the ASA Annual Meeting to the author of the best book on East African studies, published in the previous calendar year. Initiated in 2012, the award was made possible by a generous bequest from the estate of the late Professor Kennell Jackson, and the award honors the eminent historian, Professor Bethwell A. Ogot. The ASA Board of Directors thanks the selection committee for their service. The committee was chaired by Simon Gikandi, and included Jonathon Glassman and L. Carol Summers. The finalists for the 2014 award are:


Gaurav Desai
Commerce with the Universe: Africa, India, and the Afrasian Imagination (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2013)

Gaurav Desai’s book, Commerce with the Universe, is an original and astute exploration of the life narratives of Indians in East Africa, the literary texts they produced to account for their hybrid identities, and a compelling account of cultural exchanges between Africa and India. The book identifies the Indian Ocean as a significant zone of cultural contact between Africa and India and as a conduit for cultural flows that often found a way around discourses and narratives produced by European empires. The book provides a powerful exegesis of “an African imaginative space that looks to the East as opposed to the West” and seeks to reimagine the cartography of knowledge production outside Europe. Theoretically, the book is animated by a set of questions that are central to our understanding of the nature of cultural exchange in the late colonial period: What happens to our understanding of the history and identity of Africa, especially its entanglement with modernity, if we read this as an encounter not only with the West but also with the East? What are some of the meaningful ways in which societies incorporate strangers and outsiders? What is the role of privileged minorities in the making of national culture?

The great themes that Desai takes up in the book—including the stories of early Indian pioneers in East Africa and the role of Indian merchants and writers in postcolonial society—are brought together by the problematic of citizenship. Indeed, the book provides a most sophisticated exploration of the duality of Indian identity in East Africa, at once identified as outsiders and as a privileged minority. Beyond its concern with the promise and challenges of Indian identity in East Africa, Commerce with the Universe is also a powerful meditation on the shifting meaning and political work of cultural difference. Desai draws on the life narratives and fictions produced by some of the most influential Indians in East Africa to show how religious and linguistic differences among Indian immigrants were often repressed to develop a corporate Asian identity. Drawing from a variety of fields, including anthropology, literary theory, and social history, Desai provides a work of cultural criticism that will force us to rethink many established notions about globalization, diasporas, and the role of minorities in the making of national cultures.

Shane Doyle  
Before HIV: Sexuality, Fertility and Mortality in East Africa 1900-1980 (Oxford, United Kingdom: British Academy Press, 2013)

This study is both a comprehensive demographic history of East Africa built from case studies in Ankole, Buganda and Buhaya and a significant “pre-history of AIDS” that provides an essential background to recent crises. Doyle begins with the rough statistics that point to the region’s complex demographic history, including demographic collapse during 19th-century colonization, the infant mortality revolution and rapid population growth of the middle of the 20th century, and the devastating impact of HIV/AIDS at the end of the 20th century.  He shows how East Africa’s demographic pattern fails to fit conventional population models; in explaining that divergence, he contextualizes fertility changes within broader historical changes. One major contribution of this book to the historiography of disease in East Africa is Doyle’s insistence on looking at local variations and his ability to show how even widespread institutions, such as lineage and marriage, differed from one region to another and changed over time. He presents a compelling case of how variations in sexual and reproductive ideals and practices in pre-colonial Africa continued into the colonial era, and how these shaped—and were shaped by—the nature of colonial diseases, crises in resources and trade, and changes in colonial medical initiatives. Resisting the temptation to provide generalizations that might blur the distinctiveness of local conditions, Doyle produces a nuanced narrative that uses the data from “similar yet different” societies to examine the relationship between social and economic change and the trajectory of disease and mortality. He shows how patterns of sexual and marital practice combined to produce different trajectories in Buhaya’s early trade, Buganda’s aggressive colonial medical interventions, and Ankole’s more laissez-faire administration.

Through a comparative exploration of changing demographic patterns in these three regions, Before HIV rejects any vision of an overarching demographic history of the continent and insists on the need to examine local detail. The impressive research on which it is based draws not only on personal papers, official documents, vital statistics and qualitative observations, but also on critical readings of AIDS-era population research. The book provides systematic historical analyses of parish-level vital statistics that permit family reconstruction, and draws on a wealth of interviews with focus groups that have, in the wake of AIDS, become adept at discussing sex, fertility and marriage with outside researchers. In Doyle’s study, sex and fertility are not abstractions but vital social practices that must be analyzed historically in conjunction with discussions of lineage values, cattle, trade, governance, economic opportunity, and marital authority.

Lidwien Kapteijns
Clan Cleansing in Somalia: The Ruinous Legacy of 1991 (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013)

Drawing on a broad array of Somali-language sources, including poetry and first-person accounts, this powerful and innovative book explains the spiral of clan violence that engulfed central and southern Somalia in the early 1990s. While clan-based violence was nothing new, Kapteijns observes, what erupted after the fall of the Siyaad Barre regime constituted a paradigmatic shift to a new form of collective violence, aimed explicitly at gaining control of the state and rooted in a new set of discursive practices. Kapteijns calls these practices “clan-cleansing,” drawing an analogy to the practices of ethnic cleansing that are so well known in other parts of the world. The seeds for this new kind of violence, she argues, were planted by the Barre regime itself, which routinely perpetrated collective punishment against clans to which its political rivals and enemies belonged. That violence led ordinary Somali citizens to think of politics in terms of clan-based communalism; when Barre was overthrown, rival political entrepreneurs manipulated such sentiment to mobilize civilians in campaigns of violence against clans that had become linked, in the popular imagination, to the ousted regime. The result was a wave of killings and rape in which neighbors and friends turned against one another in efforts to rid themselves of members of what had come to be regarded as enemy clans.  

In telling this tale, Kapteijns sheds light on the processes by which reports of violence, as well as first-hand experience of it, can reproduce and entrench communal conceptions of self and other, autochthony and allogenity. She also advances suggestive arguments concerning the challenges that Somalis face in their continued quest to build stable civil government. She argues that the clan violence resulted in a pervasive and persistent moral crisis that Somalis will not be able to repair without a public reckoning of its causes and costs. Disturbing and strikingly original, Kapteijns’ book speaks to issues of ethnic violence, nation-state collapse, and the links between literature, historical memory, and post-violence reconciliation and reconstruction.

Filip Reyntjens 
Political Governance in Post-Genocide Rwanda (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2013)

In this study, Filip Reyntjens moves from the regional focus of his earlier work to a structural exploration and empirical analysis of how the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) has established and enforced hegemonic power in Rwanda’s new post-genocide state. This is not just another book about genocide, justice, and reconstruction, nor is it a character study of President Kagame, whether as hero or developmental despot. Instead, it reframes discussion around “political governance” as a theoretical and structural category and explores the larger implications of the consolidation of power in the aftermath of violence. Reyntjens’ analysis begins with the devastation of Rwandese institutions after the genocide and invasion, a time when, as he notes, “the RPF had no other choice but to establish full control and eliminate all possible political competition.” He argues that the RPF—unable to rely on any nebulous sense of community, precedent, or majority rule for power or order—established control through force, militarization and party discipline. This shaped a Rwanda where individuals and institutions were considered to be either with the RPF, or disloyal and dangerous. 

What distinguishes Political Governance in Post-Genocide Rwanda from other studies of reconstruction is Reyntjens’ unflinching depiction of the RPF’s use of intimidation and violence to achieve its ends and his exploration of how the party’s use of force shaped the new civil politics and institutions in Rwanda.  Reyntjens provides an uncompromising analysis of the RPF’s systematic control of a whole set of processes and institutions, ranging from formal local and national elections to informal associations such as human rights groups, development NGOs, and religious authorities. He also meticulously examines the diverse resources available to Rwanda’s leadership as it has sought to establish control over the country after the genocide. In addition to using the military and security apparatus, the RPF has deployed the economic capacity of its supporters and the organizational strength of its leadership to consolidate power.  Reyntjens demonstrates how the RPF has even mobilized memory of the genocide to build a state system oriented around a particular model of technocratic development and bureaucratic governance. While he acknowledges RPF’s success in bringing peace and economic growth to Rwanda after the genocide, Reyntjens also uses empirical data to raise uncomfortable questions about external perceptions of Rwanda’s success. His major claim is that a profoundly undemocratic and autocratic peace has been enforced in Rwanda without any coming to terms with the underlying tensions and diverse interests of the country’s people, or with the needs of the wider region.

Rihannon Stephens 
A History of African Motherhood: the Case of Uganda, 700-1900 (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2013)

This is an elegant and far-reaching study, written with a clarity that belies the complexities of its methodology. Using sophisticated methods of historical linguistics and comparative ethnography, Stephens demonstrates how discourses of motherhood were central to longue-durée social transformations, both in the domestic sphere and the realm of politics. To build sustainable communities—communities that could be reproduced both biologically and socially—people in the East-Central region of Uganda made use of matrilateral networks that cut across ties of patriline and clan. As royal families emerged and staked claims to power, those networks were vital to their projects of political centralization. Powerful female figures, often in the form of queen mothers, played significant roles in these projects, their authority bolstered by widespread discourses of public motherhood. Such discourses were never uncontested, however, and in the nineteenth century elite men in the most centralized kingdoms (especially Buganda) utilized new resources to bolster their power and undermine the role of social motherhood. At the end of the century these elite men found potent allies in the new British administration, and together they forced the creation of a new political landscape in which women’s political power was greatly reduced.   

But Stephens’s story is not just about the rise and eventual decline of queen mothers. More broadly, she traces how discourses of motherhood were central to how power was understood, inherited, and practiced throughout the polities she examines, from the level of elite politics to that of the domestic economy. The relationship between political action and discourses of motherhood was interactive; hence by reconstructing Uganda’s deep political and social history Stephens is able to explain the emergence of regional differences in how motherhood is understood. In regions where scattered and diverse language communities met on fluid frontiers, the need for social absorption led to a situation where motherhood was determined by social terms as much as by the simple question of childbirth. In other regions, the political economy of intensive banana cultivation and centralized politics created conditions in which motherhood came to be regarded more as a matter of strict biological reckoning.