Fiona Macdonald. An Ancient African Town. New York: Franklin Watts, 1998. 48 pp. $24.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-531-14481-7.
Reviewed by Marika Sherwood (Institute of Commonwealth Studies)
Published on H-AfrTeach (April, 1999)
This British book is intended for use with 11- to 14-year olds in those schools which choose to teach the British National History Curriculum's optional course on Benin. It has not met the challenge implicitly posed by a conservative and nationalist Curriculum, of presenting Benin either in a historical or geographic context (there is not even a map). In fact, as in the Curriculum, the book is context-less. The book is divided into chapters which attempt to convey aspects of life in 17th century Benin--mainly in Benin city. The division of the city into craft quarters is clearly explained, as are aspects of religion, warfare and the system of government, though no explanation is offered for the role of the Queen Mother and the prohibition on her seeing the Oba. There is no chapter (and it should be mentioned that each 'chapter' is only two pages much of which is illustration) on women. The author's and illustrator's Euro-centric vision often shows, as for instance in phrases like 'secret festivals' (Surely a contradiction in terms), and 'mud altars'. The profuse illustration show the most peculiar looking Beni I have ever seen, all almost bald and with raised eyebrows. In fact, some do not look human at all. There are issues implicit in the text, which she does not elaborate, but which surely any teacher would want an explanation for: for example, where--and how--does the coral mentioned in necklaces reach Benin? If the Europeans brought the copper which the Beni used to make bronze and brass, what materials did they use in pre-European days? How and when did they discover that mixing copper and tin produced bronze and mixing it with zinc produced brass? What else did they use these metals for? When did Benin expand from a kingdom to an empire, and how? What is it now? Probably the best part of this not very satisfactory book is the 'Time-Traveller's Guide', which includes 'Guided Tours': these address the would-be traveler and are a good idea, giving a concise summary of the material in the previous pages. There is a useful glossary and an index.
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Marika Sherwood. Review of Macdonald, Fiona, An Ancient African Town.
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