Historical Dictionary of Chad. 3rd ed. Samuel Decalo.
Lanham, Md. Scarecrew Press, 1997; $95
Historical Dictionary of Zambia. John J. Grotpeter,
Siegel, and James R. Pletcher. Lanham, Md: Scarecrow
Press, 1998; $95 hardcover.
Historical Dictionary of Burkina Faso. Daniel M.
McFarland and Lawrence
A. Rupley. Lanham, Md: Scarecrow Press, 1998. 95$,
There are currently seventy-five titles
in the African Historical Dictionaries series published by Scarecrow
Press. Jon Woronoff, the series editor, appears recently to have undertaken
a concerted effort to update some of the older titles in the series
by releasing a significant number of second and third editions. Given
the decade or two that has passed since the earlier editions were published,
and given the many important changes that have occurred in the politics
and economies of these countries since that time, Woronoff's efforts
are well warranted. While these updated volumes are expensive (at $95
each hardcover, academic libraries are likely to be the primary market),
they represent an important informational service to the scholarly community.
The improved legibility of the new editions over the small, serif typefaces
popular in academic publishing during the 1980s is in itself much appreciated.
In short, these titles will be useful for Africanist scholars as well
as others who may need a source they can consult to quickly place their
readings about Africa into an understandable context.
These are not sexy titles. They are not
written on the cutting edge of academic theory, nor are they likely
to be cited with any frequency by one's colleagues in heated discussions
over coffee or beer. Rather, this series provides a valuable if unassuming
set of reference tools. Each title is the result of a painstaking collection
of facts by one or more committed scholars who will not often be cited
for their efforts. Nevertheless, each title brings important background
information to anyone willing to spend a few moments to learn the meaning
of an unfamiliar term while reading about the history, politics, or
economy of a relatively unfamiliar place.
Individual volumes are conveniently arranged.
Included with each dictionary is a variety of supplementary sources
that assist the reader in becoming oriented to the country of interest.
There are introductory tables of common abbreviations, acronyms, and
basic demographic patterns. Notes on transliteration and spelling issues
are included where required. Maps also are included to orient the reader
geographically and to demonstrate the approximate boundaries of historical
states, agricultural regions, bureaucratic divisions, ethnic distributions,
transportation corridors and important towns. One may find a list of
major ethnic groups, a chronology of major political and historic events,
an extensive (although not annotated) bibliography for further reading,
and several appendices as the author deems necessary.
To provide a few examples, in the case
of Burkina Faso, the volume lists the ministers and other important
members of the government through fifteen regime changes from 1978-1996.
Samuel Decalo's bibliography of Chad is more than 150 pages long (the
other two volumes reviewed here include bibliographies of close to 100
pages each). Even so, Decalo explicitly concentrates on the English
language literature (which, he notes, has become available only since
the 1970s), rather than on the much more numerous French language sources,
and he omits much of the ephemeral literature included in the second
edition. His introductory bibliographic notes provide a useful overview
of the specific quality and research utility of various sources to particular
fields of inquiry. He then outlines the topical sections into which
the bibliography itself is divided. A final example is the Zambia title's
chronology, which begins in 123,000 B.C. It runs over eighteen pages
long, with entries most thoroughly covering the time period since the
early nineteenth century (there are forty pages of chronology in the
Burkina volume, with a similar concentration on the past 200 years).
Included are entries ordering in time the various missionary and explorer
activities, changes in political organization, political parties and
offices, wars and other conflicts, treaty signings, economic events,
and vital dates of associated individual's lives.
While these volumes are not intended as
sources for looking up basic facts or statistics, the dictionaries,
along with all of the supplementary sections, are designed to help readers
become familiar with the relevant context in which facts must intellectually
be placed. They are particularly good as companion resources to other
works. For example, if one is reading about Chad and runs across a reference
to SONASUT, this source provides more than a simple definition of the
acronym; the entry also includes a short summary of the history, industrial
capacity, and financial background of this Chadian national sugar enterprise.
Military, economic, historical and political personalities, organizations,
resources and events are all similarly described and placed in an understandable
context to make one's reading about an unfamiliar place less tedious
and more informative.
What makes this series unique is that
it is directed not at users searching for particular facts, but rather
at readers of other works who wish to understand unfamiliar terms within
a particular historical, political, and economic context. I recommend
these titles, together with the critically annotated Clio Press (Oxford,
England and Santa Barbara, CA) World Bibliographical Series titles,
to anyone conducting research in any discipline who is not thoroughly
familiar with the specific country addressed in their research . Together,
these reference tools provide the intermediate level researcher with
a context for understanding current readings, as well as a wealth of
suggested paths to additional readings. While the quality surely varies
somewhat over the seventy-five titles published in this series over
the past twenty or more years, its usefulness as a whole is firmly established,
and the current effort to update older titles will be welcomed by a
new generation of Africanist scholars.
Published critical response to the African
Historical Dictionaries series is by no means all positive. For two
alternate views, see Henige (1979) and McIlwaine (1997).
Henige, David. 1979. "African historical
dictionaries through the looking glass." Africana Journal 10 (2):10-128.
McIlwaine, J. H. 1997. "African Historical
Dictionaries re-visited." African Research and Documentation: Journal
of the African Studies Association of the UK and the Standing Conference
on Library Materials on Africa, 75:50-56.
Daniel A. Reboussin
George A. Smathers Libraries
University of Florida