The Observer (Kampala)

Uganda: Book Review - Rediscover Africa's Lost Kingdoms

Gus Casely-Hayford, a Ghanaian historian living in Britain, gives us what we have been awaiting for long: a detailed, insightful and fascinating look at the history of some of the lost kingdoms and civilizations of Africa: Nubia, Ethiopia, Great Zimbabwe, Shaka Zulu, Benin City, the Asante of Ghana, and the Berber dynasties of Almoravid and Almohad in Morocco.

This book is a record of a series of journeys he made looking for Africa's ancient past in the archaeology, the material culture and the lives of contemporary Africans. He managed to speak to some of the brightest and most radical specialist academics; he visited sites and consulted the custodians of the traditional histories and engaged in traditional practices.

He travelled the ancient trade routes and walked the paths of pilgrims.The richness of the evidence is daunting: five millennia of archaeology - possibly the oldest human remains, the earliest pottery, the most ancient rock paintings.

It often felt, he said, as if history were bursting up through the earth everywhere, virgin archaeology in an almost unique abundance. The variety and quality of finds makes Africa the rival of any other continent.

It is fairly apparent, the author claims, that there never was a time in recorded history when the continent was not at the epicentre of intercontinental routes and systems of cultural exchange.

But it is also time to acknowledge both the uniquely African elements of African cultures and the range and depth of contributions Africans have made to inter-regional cultural activity.

Two stories demonstrate that subtle complexity, the history of the Baganda and the Swahili coast: one an African state that traded and exchanged cultural ideas with almost every nation that has an Indian Ocean coastline, the other a still thriving African culture that can demonstrate a direct cultural link to ancient times, both bound by a Bantu lineage and the drive to create.

Of Nubia, he says: it has left in the desert some of the most spectacular monuments not only in Africa but the whole world. This was a major civilization, but its history is barely remembered.

The history of Uganda provokes a striking statement: (it is) remarkable... that a country with such a history of division, that continues to celebrate its ethnic differences, has today found a way to balance discrete regional cultural needs with national narrative.

In part this is because there is a genuine affection for the country, but also because its kingdoms, though ancient, continue to be celebrated, loved and relevant.West Africa, however, was way ahead of its time.

Archaeologists have found pottery fragments estimated at 11,400 years. Gold, pottery, bronze, and rich cloth denote an advanced way of life. He concludes saying: From the largest mud-brick buildings and the most ancient ceramic to the oldest forms of Christian tradition, Africa is so much more than what conventional media chooses to tell us. From its earliest times, it has pushed boundaries of thinking and creativity to produce astounding things. Elegant, smartly illustrated, it is written with kindness.

Book: The Lost Kingdoms of Africa

Author: Gus Casely-Hayford

Publisher: Bantam Press, 2012.

Volume: 340 pages

Cost: Shs 59,000

Available from Aristoc.

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