To embark on writing the history of an entire continent is inevitably a highly ambitious enterprise. Indeed, given the number of abandoned wrecks littering the historiographical roadsides, one might even conclude that it is foolhardy. To write a history of Africa is yet more ambitious, given the sheer size and complexity of the subject-matter. This remains the case even if one excludes North Africa and some of the islands, as I do here.1 Despite a persistent belief that Africa is vast but pretty much the same — how else can people talk of travelling ‘to Africa’? — it is far more diverse than Europe, whether measured in terms of language, social organisation, religion, environment or cultural expression. It has also undergone even more dramatic upheavals over the past half-century, which is saying something. Finally, Africa is the continent which has been subjected to the greatest distortions and wilful misunderstandings with respect to its past, and this still impedes our progress. Before saying anything substantive, the historian has to spend much of his/her time simply trying to set the record straight. If North Americans find Europe bewildering, with all its historic enmities and obsessions, then they should be prepared for something even more taxing when it comes to Africa.
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