Until the 19th century, Westerners knew little about sub Saharan Africa and what they did know, was often through what they could glean from Muslim North Africans, who acted as the middle men between what was once a trans Saharan gold trade that linked Europe and Africa. This was before the silver and gold of the New World changed everything and the locus of European interest moved to the Americas (I have written a short article about this at this link:
The settling of America and the transatlantic slave trade that came after it, pushed Westerners into the interior of Africa for the first time in history. There, they came face to face with non-Islamic African peoples and their cultures. Since then it has taken the scholarly world much time and toil to understand their history, culture, archaeology, languages and music, because these were societies where communication across the generations was part of oral tradition.
And so, during the last one hundred and fifty years there has been an avalanche of writings about Africa-geology, geography, the evolution of plants and animals, human origins and prehistory, human migration, archaeology, anthropology, history and as African societies modernize all the “ists” and “isms” of the modern world-socialism in Africa, politics in Africa, and scientists in Africa.
Here are three recommendations, which can give you a broad picture of Africa.
1) The Shadow of the Sun
The late Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, spent much of his life travelling throughout Africa and chronicling its transformation from a continent of former colonial possessions to one of independent nation states. Kapuscinsksi was also a poet, and his reportage often reads like a Kafka story. He is probably the best writer who can evoke Africa and its peoples, as well as its landscapes, and which can only be described as forms of visual poetry, as you will soon see in Tanzania.
2) Africa-A Biography of the Continent
Africa, by John Reader, is a large, long book, but one, which is an easy read as each chapter is clearly written, and self contained. You could call this book, “almost everything you wanted to know about Africa but were unsure where to find out about it” for it also has an excellent bibliography. In this tome, Reader offers a complete social history of Africa, from the dawn of humankind near Olduvai Gorge (which you will visit) to the urbanization of the continent (which you will observe as we drive through Arusha to and from the airport) . He does a good job of it and it is worth the time. You can also read any chapter out of order, depending on your specific interest.
3) The Peopling of Africa-A Geographic Interpretation
Then there is John Newman’s textbook, The Peopling of Africa, that goes into much detail about how the peoples of Africa came to be where they are today. It is a strange and complex story with only four main characters, that is four kinds of people, each speaking a different but related family of languages and how their collective destinies have created the ethnic landscape that you will experience in Tanzania. The members of the four groups are still there -the click language Hadza speakers of Lake Eyasi, the Nilo Saharan speaking Maasai of Serengeti fame, their nearby Bantu neighbours and the Cushitic speaking Iraqw who live near Gibbs Farm, where we will be staying.
You can read all of these books, none of them or, some of these offerings. They are each in their own way, wonderful introductions to the grand sweep of things on that marvelous continent, and they can shed much light on what was once an unknown land.