Author Archives: jrpweis

Review: “Modern Muslims”

51tjum9zsfl-_sx322_bo1204203200_I cannot think of a more timely arrival for Steve Howard’s excellent Sudan memoir, “Modern Muslims.” Howard retells his experience living with the Republican Brotherhood in Sudan in the 1980s while undertaking dissertation research in the country. The Brotherhood, while little known in the West, was a progressive, and highly influential political movement in Sudan led by Ustadh Mahmoud Mohamed Taha. Taha first began his political career in the independence struggle against the colonial British, and then grew his movement as a critical voice against the increasing extremism of both Sudanese politics and the Muslim world at large in the twentieth century. Taha’s vision of the modernizing force of Islam was centered on the belief in gender equality, continued deepening of faith for the individual, and social and democratic freedom of society. In his writings, Taha made distinctions between the divine prophecies of Mecca and Medina, noting that while the mysteries of the Quran were endless and perfect, Shari’a was meant to change and adapt to history. The Republicans were strong, vocal opponents of the oppressive rule of Sudan’s President Nimeiri and his “September laws,” or imposed Shari’a on the country. The Republicans objected to Nimeiri’s brand of Shari’a for its imposition of medieval law on a modern society, and its exclusion of the large Christian contingent in Sudan (especially the South, where armed struggle continued), ignoring the Islamic tenet that there should be no compulsion in religion.

In “Modern Muslims,” Howard details the ideological thrust of the Republican Brotherhood not only in theory, but also in the quotidian practice of its adherents. A Muslim himself, Howard lived in a Republican community as one of its members, striving to live more closely to the path of the Prophet. He explains that this arrangement provided him with a critical “Afro-centric” perspective, not gazing at Africans as an exotic “other,” but rather implanting himself as a learner in Africa to understand “ways to organize society that may be useful in the West.” This perspective is evident throughout the book, as Howard reverences the modern advances of the Republicans and their leader, not in relation to Western ideology or events, but centred fully within Islam and Sudanese cultural mores.

One of the most potent examples of this modern ideology is gender equality: the Republicans were adamant about the equal place of women in both the spiritual quest to the path of the Prophet, and also for greater social democracy and freedom. This was one of the most radical elements of the movement, and one which led to its greatest censure. Howard details the bravery of Republican sisters, living their faith openly in public, in a country which increasingly demanded the seclusion and guardianship of women in private life.

There is much to learn in this memoir, especially given the normalization of extreme Islamophobia in the Western world. The answer to Islamic extremism does not lie in Western belligerence and fear, but within Islam itself. Howard reminds us all of the importance of re-centering these conversations within the communities of people who live this diverse and complex faith. This book is a critical addition to the library of anyone wishing to move forward against extremisms within and against Islam. Nimeiri’s crack-down against the Republican Brotherhood, and the eventual killing of its leader is a true tragedy of thwarted progress and the victory of extremist thought. Nevertheless, the official suppression of the Republican ideology only grants it more importance, and more urgency in moving forward. There is ample fight ahead, and it is time we listen and learn from those already versed in crafting ideologies of peaceful resistance from within.

Book details: Steve Howard. Modern Muslims: A Sudan Memoir. Ohio University Press (2016).

A review copy of Modern Muslims was kindly furnished by the Ohio University Press. 


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Review: “South Sudan: A New History for a New Nation”

978-0-8214-4584-6-frontcoverIn this new edition of the Ohio Short Histories of Africa series, Douglas Johnson has managed to pack a vivid, longue durée history of Africa’s newest nation into a highly readable book. For anyone gripped by the tumultuous current events of South Sudan, and those speculating about its future, this book is essential reading.

From the outset, Johnson attempts to reverse pervasive myths about South Sudan, beginning with the notion that its peoples have no history at all, or that its archaeological wonders – including thousands of pyramids – were mere copies of Egyptian prototypes. Johnson demonstrates the ways in which the peoples of South Sudan have been influential on the Horn of Africa region, continuously entangled with the historic movements of surrounding nation states, not remote peoples separated from the politics of the day. The book also details the complex history of statehood itself within South Sudan, including the various kingdoms and chieftaincies of South Sudanese tribes which stretch back to the middle ages. This is a pertinent, but consistently overlooked, background to the contested notion of statehood and self-rule for the country.

After this informative overview, Johnson details the increased movements of the slave trade and the ways in which Arab and European empires began to encroach on the peoples of South Sudan in the business of imperial growth and conquest. Both the persistence of slavery, with raids in South Sudan extending nearly to the turn of the twentieth century, followed on by pernicious British invasion of the region – Johnson recounts an astonishing 36 military campaigns and patrols by the British between 1899 and 1930 – demonstrate the degree to which prejudices and misunderstandings of the peoples of South Sudan have led to an unusually brutal history of exploitation and political violence. It is clear that this history is vital to understanding the pervasive nature of militarized aggression and violence in South Sudan today. Johnson’s slim narrative helps readers glimpse the origins of political contestations in contemporary South Sudan, providing a vivid summary of the nation’s history, and a thorough bibliography of sources for further reading.


Book details: Douglas H. Johnson. South Sudan: A New History of a New Nation. Ohio University Press (2016).

A review copy of South Sudan: A New History for a New Nation was kindly furnished by the Ohio University Press. 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Review: “The Boy is Gone: Conversations with a Mau Mau General”

The Boy is Gone: Conversations with a Mau Mau General is a wonderful, highly readable book. The book is a compilation of thousands of hours of interviews with Japhlet Thambu by Laura Lee P. Huttenbach. Huttenbach first met Japhlet, or the General, whilst traveling in Kenya as a recent college graduate. Struck by his rich personal history in living through British colonialism, Mau Mau, and liberation, Huttenbach returned to Kenya for the purpose of recording the General’s life story. The General’s testimonial joins the number of other oral histories reported from the Mau Mau, most notably in Caroline Elkins’ work. This collection of histories is vital, given the volume of written documentation either inaccessible or destroyed from the Mau Mau era. Whilst Professor David Anderson and others have helped bring a large number of previously ‘missing’ documents in the colonial archive to light, even these recordings of the time period are heavily biased to the British version of events.

The important work of recording Kenyan voices is brought to bear in Huttenbach’s excellent compilation: the General’s retelling of the Mau Mau period is highly vivid and complex. He is balanced in his narrative, bringing up challenging moments in the movement like the Lari camp massacre, and criticizing some of the more ‘vigilante’ elements of Mau Mau. The General carefully explains his involvement in Mau Mau, arguing repeatedly that this was about land and the rights of the indigenous Kenyan, but decrying any ruthless or senseless violence. In the General’s memories of colonialism, he is also careful to note those Europeans who helped him, who were ‘friends’ of Kenya. This pivoting between multiple sides is interesting, and demonstrates the highly pragmatic ways in which the General was forced to negotiate his position in a highly unequal society. When describing his profits from the illegal timber trading business, he recognizes the absurdity of colonial rules which limited African business pursuits, continuously reinforcing an artificial economic hierarchy based on race, but was careful to note when the dangers of the illegal trade were no longer worth the risk. The General actively resisted colonialism, but at times was also forced to comply with its rules in order to secure his livelihood and the safety of his family.

Even in Mau Mau, the General concedes that he quickly confessed to taking the Oath when placed in the infamous Manyani prison camp. This exonerated the General and allowed him to move down the detention ‘pipeline’ more quickly than other more ‘hard-core’ Mau Mau who refused to confess or cooperate. The General describes again the practicality of moving forward, peacefully. Having spent two years in the forest, fighting for the rights of Kenyans against colonial rule, the General felt he had contributed directly to Kenya’s independence. At the same time, he feels no need for compensation for his time in the forest, and is happy to govern his farm and business pursuits in peace.

To hear the General recount these life experiences is truly absorbing, and will benefit both scholars of Kenya and the lay public. As part of the Ohio University Press’ Africa in World History series, this volume helps expand narratives way from the Western-centrism of traditional history. The Boy is Gone helps place the telling of history away from the victors, demonstrating the ways in which racial biases have distorted our understanding of the world, especially Africa and colonialism. My one regret for the book is echoed by Huttenbach herself in its introduction: I want a companion volume recounting the life of Jesca, the General’s wife. Unfortunately Jesca would not go into detail about her own involvement and eventual detention for Mau Mau activities, though this would be a compelling companion to the General’s history.

Book details: Laura Lee P. Huttenbach. The Boy is Gone: Conversations with a Mau Mau General. Ohio University Press (2015).

A review copy of The Boy is Gone was kindly furnished by the Ohio University Press. 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Review: James McCann’s “The Historical Ecology of Malaria in Ethiopia”


James McCann’s newest book on malaria, agriculture, and ecology in Ethiopia is a superb and rich study. McCann helps fill many gaps in scholarship, including the grossly overlooked history of medicine in Ethiopia. The book narrates malaria in Ethiopia in both the past and present, demonstrating how this ever-evolving, clever disease has shifted with the ecological and political landscape of the nation. To understand malaria today, McCann rightly demonstrates how an exploration of the past is essential. Unfortunately, there is very little written about Ethiopia’s medical history – Kloos and Zein’s Ecology of Health and Disease in Ethiopia (1993) is the most useful volume in an otherwise bleak academic landscape. McCann’s new study is a welcome start to what should be an expansion of research on past efforts to combat disease and install an effective public health network in the country. Because of Ethiopia’s unique ecological and political character – a highland nation, free of a colonial past – the challenges faced are unique in comparison to other African states. McCann’s rigorous exploration of Ethiopia’s ecological and agricultural histories, both in this and previous books, provides refreshing insights into this singular landscape.

While this study is especially insightful for scholars of Ethiopia, it also provides a rigorous exploration of the failures to account for local ecology in the planning of disease management and control. This is a lesson worth exporting far outside both Ethiopia and even the specific case of malaria. McCann repeats often in the book how malaria is a deeply ‘local’ disease: the ways in which mosquitos breed and prey on human populations varies considerably based on ecological and political landscapes. While malaria ‘eradication’ efforts in the past century have been forged on a global scale, most notably with DDT spraying and bed-nets, such efforts have all fallen severely short of their goals, largely because of the highly adaptive nature of the disease. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to malaria eradication, and in some cases, the insertion of development programming itself can increase the risk of disease.

Indeed, one of the most striking findings in the book is the relationship between increased maize production and the spread of malaria. McCann describes how mosquitoes thrive off the seed fall of maize plants, leading to a dramatic increase of malaria risk in highland zones of Ethiopia that were previously largely immune to malaria due to altitude. Large-scale maize production has been touted by international organizations as an answer to hunger and poverty in Africa, but this clearly has dangerous unintended consequences to the ecology of disease.

McCann’s work is truly a must-read for experts in many fields, from public health, agriculture, and history, to politics and development. This book is a brilliant demonstration of the deeply local and highly adaptable nature of disease and mortality, and the ways in which the historical ecology of disease effects household decision-making and trends in food production and economic development on a national scale.

Book details: James C. McCann. The Historical Ecology of Malaria in Ethiopia. Ohio University Press (2015).

A review copy of The Historical Ecology of Malaria in Ethiopia was kindly furnished by the Ohio University Press. 

Leave a comment

Filed under Development, Ecology, Ethiopia, Health, Malaria

Review: Bereket Habte Selassie’s new ‘Short History’ of Emperor Haile Selassie

51bVLS-3yhL._SX310_BO1,204,203,200_Bereket Habte Selassie begins his short history of Emperor Haile Selassie with a caveat: he served in the late Emperor’s cabinet for over twenty years, both as Attorney General and in other ministerial offices. Given the author’s connection to Haile Selassie, it is not surprising that his biography of the independent Ethiopian ruler has tendencies towards hagiography. The numerous studies written on Haile Selassie so far have largely been divided into two camps: positive praise of the Emperor as visionary monarch, and detracting criticism of an autocratic ruler. While his personal approval of the Emperor is evident, Bereket largely manages to evade this polarized historiography, attempting to, in his words, provide a ‘well-rounded’ history of Haile Selassie, describing both his triumphs and failures in ruling independent Ethiopia in the pivotal moment of Africa’s decolonization.

The volume is part of a new series of ‘Short Histories of Africa’ by the Ohio University Press. This is a promising series to help introduce the varied history of the African continent to a wider audience. Because of the brevity required in this series, Bereket cautions that he had to omit a great deal of history from his telling of Haile Selassie’s history. It is unfortunate, however, that he mostly omits the meaty history of the Emperor’s rule in the 1950s and 60s, concentrating largely on his long rise and fall from power. The first half of the book concentrates on the early years of Haile Selassie’s life, as Ras Tafari Makonnen, and the fraught power struggles which characterized his ascension to the throne. While this is in an interesting history, given the length of the book, it could have easily been summarized to make room for more discussion of the Emperor’s actual decades of rule.

Bereket focuses on Ras Tafari’s power struggles at such great length largely because he believes they help explain why Haile Selassie as Emperor became fixated on defending his autocratic right to reform the empire. Bereket describes how Haile Selassie failed to live up to early promises to adequately reform the nation’s most destructive practices, including land tenure. He argues that because Ras Tafari had to struggle against so many conservative forces in pushing a reformist agenda through in his ascension to the throne, once Emperor, Haile Selassie felt convinced the modernization of Ethiopia was his own personal responsibility. This short history of Haile Selassie therefore falls in line with the general historic consensus, led by Bahru Zewde, that while Haile Selassie was a necessary force for reform in Ethiopia in the 1930s and 40s, his usefulness wore thin by the second half of the twentieth century. In continually seeking power and refusing to instill a proper democracy, the Emperor largely failed his populace, leading to his inevitable overthrow in 1974. Bereket describes this history carefully, at once admonishing the late Emperor for autocratic measures like annexing Eritrea with no respect of international law, while also praising Haile Selassie’s overall vision to modernize Ethiopia as an “enlightened monarch.”

Bereket doesn’t question the concept of “modernization” itself within Ethiopia, largely agreeing with the superficial dictum which pits Haile Selassie’s “progressive” retinue against a “traditional” and even “backward” past. This lack of reflection is unfortunate, as there is much debate on the merits of modernity as a measure of “progress” in Africa at large. At the same time, anyone searching for a quick introduction to Ethiopia’s fascinating history could happily turn to Emperor Haile Selassie as a starting point. There is enough meat here to examine the history of the one “true independent African country,” written from the perspective of one of its elite history-makers.

Book details: Bereket Habte Selassie (2015) Emperor Haile Selassie. Ohio University Press.

This review was kindly furnished by Ohio University Press.

Leave a comment

Filed under Ethiopia, Haile Selassie

Ian Campbell on the Addis Ababa Massacre of 1937


Yekatit 12 Monument in memory of the 1937 Massacre, Siddist Kilo, Addis Ababa

This week, Oxford’s Horn of Africa Seminar hosted Ian Campbell to present his research on the events surrounding both the assassination attempt on Italian commander Rodolfo Graziani in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on 19 February 1937, and the reprisal killings and massacre that occurred in the days and months which followed.

Ian presented a harrowing and detailed account of the extent of the massacre which resulted in the deaths of an estimated 18-20% of the population of Addis Ababa, the majority of whom were women and children. While Graziani lay in a coma at Ras Desta Hospital following the grenade attack, a killing force comprised of members the Italian Army, Black Shirts, and civilians was organised. Forces were loosed on the city as the Italians feared the grenades thrown at Graziani were a precursor to wide-scale Ethiopian insurrection. Ethiopian servants were dragged out of houses in the Greek and Armenian neighbourhoods of the city and shot in the street. Black Shirts began burning down whole residential sections of the city, targeting Ethiopian homes with the residents still inside, and throwing any babies or young children who tried to escape back onto the flames. Hundreds of intelligentsia and young Ethiopians were rounded up and shot opportunistically, despite their obvious lack of involvement in the plot against Graziani.

The killings in Addis went on for three days, until Mussolini himself sent orders to stop. Graziani emerged from his coma, but remained in recovery in hospital for months. Reprisal killings were then taken outside city borders – mobile gallows were erected and transported across the countryside, with the Italians targeting local aristocracy and community leaders. Graziani also targeted the Debre Libanos monastery for its symbolic link to the Orthodox church and Ethiopian cultural heritage, killing 3,000 monks, priests, and local residents.

Ian Campbell has spent twenty years amassing documentary evidence on the extent of the reprisal killings in the months following February 1937. While the massacre has been memorialised in Addis at Yekatit 12 square in Siddist Kilo, the extent of the destruction has largely been hidden over the last decades. Ian has collected film and photographic evidence of the burnings and murders, the majority of which were taken by Black Shirts themselves as souvenirs of their time in Ethiopia. The photos were initially gathered by Sylvia Pankhurst for her anti-fascist newspaper, New Times and Ethiopia News, in addition to other foreign diplomats and Ethiopians living in Addis in the late 1930s. Ian has also unearthed critical documents within the national archives in Rome demonstrating that the massacre was deliberately planned and orchestrated by senior Italian leadership, and was not, as often asserted, a random act by a group of belligerent Black Shirts.

Ian’s careful collection of evidence demonstrates the extent to which the full picture of this massacre has largely been erased from history, and the way in which its erasure has contributed to the myth of Italy’s “benign” occupation of Ethiopia. Why was such an atrocious series of events forgotten in time? Not only by the international community, but to a large extent by Ethiopians themselves? Ian argued that the forgetting was a deliberate political tool, both by prominent British politicians intent on securing Italy’s alliance at the end of World War II, and even Haile Selassie himself. The Emperor’s quick forgiveness of the Italian occupiers is striking given the widespread destruction, violence, and oppression they enacted in Ethiopia, but is symptomatic of Haile Selassie’s desire to merely move on and begin industrialising his reclaimed empire. Territorial disputes with the British, both Eritrea and the Somali Ogaden region, also left the Emperor with little choice but to capitulate to foreign pressure to not pursue justice against the Fascist occupiers.

Post-war political juggling aside, the fact that no war crimes trials were conducted for the Italian occupiers of Ethiopia is striking, especially given the new evidence unearthed by Ian Campbell. His scholarship begs larger questions about the politics of memory in relation to acts of violence, especially in colonial contexts. In the wake of ongoing revelations about the extent of organised killings and brutality across colonial Africa, we must continue asking why certain acts of violence are allowed to be committed with impunity, and how to most effectively memorialise atrocities from the past.

Leave a comment

Filed under Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Haile Selassie

Language endangerment in the Horn

by Graziano Savà

Several languages spoken in the Horn of Africa are now endangered as more dominant and economically important languages begin to gain ground in the speech habits of smaller communities. The adoption of another language passes from a stage of strong bilingualism in which the target language is used in economically and socially more important contexts and the local language in limited to internal and familial domains. In this situation, the local language acquires a negative image because younger generations tend to see it as “ugly”, “useless” and “difficult”. The decision to give up speaking ancestral languages is thus made by rising generations who may or may not decide to teach them to their children. Once the transmission to the following generation is interrupted, the language is no longer a mother tongue and is destined to become extinct.

The phenomenon of extinct languages is by no means limited to the Horn: it is now expected that in the coming years, half of the world’s languages will disappear. However, while strong languages used in trade, technology, administration, and media such as English in North America, Spanish in South America, and Russia in Siberia gain ground at the expenses of smaller tongues, the situation in the Horn typically involves local dominant languages. The spread of Somali in Somalia and Djibouti makes these countries linguistically relatively homogeneous.While the interesting thing here might be to see which Somali variety, or dialect, has become economically and socially more prestigious, one should not forget the small Bantu languages of Southern Somalia and minority Cushitic languages such as Afar and Saho, on the Ethio-Djiboutiborder. Sudan and South Sudan are more varied. Here it is mainly Arabic that puts at risk a number of minority languages, particularly those whose speakers have suffered forced migrations due to warfare. The social and economic role of Tigrinya in Eritrea is absolutely dominant. The Eritrean constitution states this, implicitly creating a danger for the dozen of minority languages spoken in the area. At the same time, Ethiopia is probably the country of the Horn with the greatest variety of languages and cultures in danger. Out of the about eighty Ethiopian languages, including the majority languages Amharic and Oromo, half are declared endangered by Unesco. Continue reading


Filed under Ethiopia, Language, South West Ethiopia