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Africa: A Biography of the Continent
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BigRead2014-Africa: A Biography > Part 4: African Civilizations (May 5-June 29)

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message 1: by Marieke, Former guide & Chief Chatterbox (new) - added it

Marieke | 2838 comments Mod
Hello everyone,

Apologies for the delay in setting up the next thread. This looks to be a meaty section with eleven chapters that should introduce us to early African civilizations and their development. Perhaps now the book will start getting more interesting for those of you who have been struggling with it. I hope so!

Happy reading and learning!


Mindy McAdams (macloo) | 20 comments I just finished the chapter titled "Aksum." Wow! It's one of the longest chapters so far, but I found it fascinating.

Reader describes a wealthy kingdom that arose in what is now Ethiopia and fell to nothing by 800 CE. He leads us into how the civilization developed by describing the very special geography of the area. Then there's writing, international trade, and gigantic stone monoliths ...

There's a section about teff -- which might be the next fave healthy grain (see this Washington Post article) and at the end, a very interesting part about the Ark of the Covenant. Yes, the one from the Bible.

I really enjoyed this chapter because pretty much every bit of it was new to me, except the behavior of the monsoon. Yet even that held surprises -- I'd never read anything about how the monsoon affects eastern Africa!


message 3: by Carolien (new)

Carolien (carolien_s) | 391 comments I've been thinking that it would be really interesting to read this and compare it to how other parts of the world was developing at the same points in history. I studied town planning so the history of cities and civilizations always interest me. When I checked my bookshelf for something like that I found this Cities by John Reader! I haven't started it yet, but will soon.


message 4: by Marieke, Former guide & Chief Chatterbox (new) - added it

Marieke | 2838 comments Mod
a really long time ago i tried to cook with teff! i grew up in and live in an area with large ethiopian and eritrean populations and teff was/is available in some stores. i was curious about it. i can't remember what i tried to make, but it's something i've wanted to return to...trying to cook with teff.


message 5: by Marieke, Former guide & Chief Chatterbox (new) - added it

Marieke | 2838 comments Mod
Carolien wrote: "I've been thinking that it would be really interesting to read this and compare it to how other parts of the world was developing at the same points in history. I studied town planning so the histo..."

you know, it's funny...i have a little project in mind for myself for reading books about cities. I have books about Jerusalem, Paris, Greenwich Village (or subsections of giant cities!), Detroit...but maybe i should start with just CITIES. lol :)


message 6: by Carolien (new)

Carolien (carolien_s) | 391 comments Ethiopian food is lovely. They make a kind of pancake with the ground teff.


message 7: by Liralen (new)

Liralen | 180 comments Mod
My mother keeps saying that she wants to try making injera. Maybe I can talk her into it when I visit next month...


message 8: by Mark (new)

Mark Wentling | 36 comments My Ethiopian wife feeds me njera almost every day.


message 9: by Carolien (last edited May 17, 2014 10:38PM) (new)

Carolien (carolien_s) | 391 comments The chapter on Aksum is incredibly interesting. It shows great similarities with the history of Christmas Island where the construction of ever bigger monuments eventually resulted in the complete destruction of the environment and the collapse of the society. In this case the population could move away which wasn't an option for the islanders. Google Earth has a whole set of photographs of the pillars (including some of the broken ones).

In one of those coincidences in life, I found this thought provoking link today via a Seth Godin blog post. https://medium.com/thoughts-from-the-.... The village appears to be not that far away from present day Aksum (although not accessible by vehicle, Google Earth cannot determine directions). The photographs show a very harsh landscape.


message 10: by Laura (new)

Laura | 251 comments I lived in Ethiopia for six months and both are great. injera and Aksum. Well worth a visit. I couldn't believe how great and how extended the Aksumite empire is (great museum at Aksum explains the various stages of it) even comprising Yemen and other parts of the Arabian peninsula. Sounds like I need to read this book!


message 11: by Heather (new)

Heather | 7 comments Am I too late to join in? I don't know how I missed it, but I just discovered The Big African Read!


message 12: by Marieke, Former guide & Chief Chatterbox (new) - added it

Marieke | 2838 comments Mod
No such thing as too late around here, heather! You are very welcome to join in :)


Jenny (Reading Envy) (readingenvy) | 124 comments I find myself most drawn to discussions of genetics as I read this book. The last part it was the lactose intolerance issue, and in this part I was fascinated by the connection between malaria and sickle cell anemia. I had no idea!


message 14: by Carolien (new)

Carolien (carolien_s) | 391 comments I'm joining one of the Science groups in reading Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies in July and I think it will actually make such an interesting match with this one.


message 15: by Marieke, Former guide & Chief Chatterbox (new) - added it

Marieke | 2838 comments Mod
Those are great! I want to do extra reading too but haven't even been able to keep up as it is. Life has dumped a bit in my life recently, but I'm getting it back together and pretty pleased to see I'm not late setting up the next thread. ;)


Mindy McAdams (macloo) | 20 comments I agree with Carolien, who wrote: "The chapter on Aksum is incredibly interesting." That was amazing -- all new to me.

I'm almost finished Part 4 (way behind on this), and the highlights for me were:

The repeated evidence for why large cities and large-scale civilizations did not arise in sub-Saharan Africa. Particularly while I read chapters 25-27, I thought of the landscapes of Botswana and Namibia and the savannahs of Tanzania: small villages with big distances between them. The contrast with areas of SE Asia where the land is covered completely with flooded green rice fields. I understand much more now about food insecurity in Africa. It's not only the unproductive land; it's also the amount of labor required to get a crop from the land where crops can thrive.

Salt, gold, and camels. Timbuktu! The tsetse fly preventing the raising of cattle in so many places where the grasses would otherwise support them.

I loved reading about bananas in chapter 29. I've walked through banana gardens in both Kenya and Tanzania and learned from the farmers about the life cycle of the trees, but I did not know all the plant biology that Reader tells us. The breadth of this book is so amazing -- this is one of the examples I would use to illustrate that.

The inland Niger delta. The Great Lakes region (I had to look at Wikipedia's entry about this). The role of parasites in human struggle -- and how the humans who left Africa benefited from leaving these behind as well.

Ukara, an island in Lake Victoria, where a system of private ownership translates to wise stewardship of a limited environment.

Elephants! Such magnificent animals, but so antithetical to human settlement and the growth of agriculture. Co-existence is barely possible.

"The age-grade system": This is the first time I've seen the term "gerontocratic social order." I was hoping Reader would say more about initiation rites, but I was disappointed there.

And then, slavery. I felt that Reader was walking on eggshells in chapter 28, but he succeeded in making me think about slavery in Africa in a new way. As an American, the system of slavery I know most about is the one that existed in the U.S. I know a little about slavery among the ancient Greeks and Romans. Reader's chapter 28 opened my eyes to some new ideas. It's good that he had laid the ground in earlier chapters about the harshness of the land, the uncertainty of crops, the reasons for low birth rates.

One more chapter, and then I'll start Part 5!


message 17: by Carolien (new)

Carolien (carolien_s) | 391 comments Mindy wrote: "I agree with Carolien, who wrote: "The chapter on Aksum is incredibly interesting." That was amazing -- all new to me.

I'm almost finished Part 4 (way behind on this), and the highlights for me we..."


It really is an amazing book. I read Things Fall Apart after I completed this section and quite a bit of it made so much more sense to me having read the section on the Niger.

I need to start the next section.


message 18: by Marieke, Former guide & Chief Chatterbox (new) - added it

Marieke | 2838 comments Mod
I'm so glad you guys are sticking with it and still enjoying it! Things are finally, finally settling down for me, except in one area of my life (surprise! I'm pregnant!!! And that totally threw me for a loop and distracted me from EVERYTHING for a few weeks recently), and while I've been trying to finish a book about Mozambique, I've also had this book on my mind. Seeing your posts makes me anxious to get back into it. :)


message 19: by Liralen (new)

Liralen | 180 comments Mod
Congratulations, Marieke!


message 20: by Marieke, Former guide & Chief Chatterbox (new) - added it

Marieke | 2838 comments Mod
Thanks, Liralen! :)


message 21: by Katy (new) - added it

Katy | 81 comments Oh, congratulations, Marieke! I can see how that might be a tad distracting. :) Good luck!


message 22: by Marieke, Former guide & Chief Chatterbox (new) - added it

Marieke | 2838 comments Mod
Thanks, Katy! It was a huge and unexpected surprise this summer, but I'm pretty excited to be bringing another reader into the world. :)

And as family crisis stuff resolves and I feel better and better, I will be back in the swing of (hopefully) being a proper moderator here again. I hope you all haven't given up!


message 23: by Laura (new)

Laura | 251 comments Marieke. Great news and good luck with everything!


message 24: by Carolien (new)

Carolien (carolien_s) | 391 comments That's wonderful news Marieke. Congratulations!


Mindy McAdams (macloo) | 20 comments Congratulations, Marieke!


message 26: by Marieke, Former guide & Chief Chatterbox (new) - added it

Marieke | 2838 comments Mod
thank you so much Laura, Carolien, and Mindy!


message 27: by Hana (last edited Oct 26, 2014 06:30AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Hana This section is the best so far! I'm so glad I kept reading.

The monsoon patterns that made Roman sailors bypass the eastern coast of Africa in favor of richer trading in India was a great tidbit.

The chapters on Aksum and the inland Niger delta were completely new information for me and utterly absorbing. I sat with my atlas open tracing the Niger on its incredible path northeast and then the right turn to the south and marveled. I was particularly struck that the Niger loses half it's volume by the time it exits the inland delta. I was also fascinated by how the variable flow promoted cooperation between specialist tribal groups.

The Aksum chapter has me longing to find a few big coffee-table books on African art and architecture.

I was surprised that Reader dismissed the Queen of Sheba story so quickly. It may not have happened just as described, but Greek writers document the presence of a significant African population of Jews in Ethiopia as early as 200 B.C.

The Jews of Ethiopia seem to have lost touch with the Jews of Israel, possibly sometime around the Babylonian conquest in 597 B.C., but the Ethiopian Jews retained a written version of the Torah (in Amharic) and observed the Sabbath, holidays and dietary and family laws without some of the details later codified in the Babylonian and Jerusalem versions of the Talmud (the oral laws).

After the advent of Christianity in Ethiopia in the tenth century A.D, those who kept their Jewish religion withdrew to the mountainous Gondar region for much of the next 2000 years. For more recent developments see: http://www.jewishfederations.org/page...


message 28: by Hana (new) - rated it 3 stars

Hana Mindy wrote: "Elephants! Such magnificent animals, but so antithetical to human settlement and the growth of agriculture. Co-existence is barely possible. ..."

I had never thought of elephants as THE ENEMY! Wow. Now I can see them: looming nearer and nearer to your hard-won crops, with their terrible great feet and knowing old eyes and long, long prehensile trunks just waiting to grab the meal you need to get you through the dry season. :O !!!


message 29: by Hana (new) - rated it 3 stars

Hana I know and love Ethiopian cuisine--and injera (made of teff), but has anyone tried African wild rice?


message 30: by Marieke, Former guide & Chief Chatterbox (new) - added it

Marieke | 2838 comments Mod
I have tried a few "exotic" rices, but never African varieties...are they available in the US? I must look...

Also...I was about to pick up a novel I'm halfway through reading but now feel inspired to pick up this poor neglected book about Africa instead ;)


message 31: by Hana (new) - rated it 3 stars

Hana I doubt it. You can find teff at my local Whole Foods Market here is Boston, but I've never seen African wild rice.

I'm really enjoying my tour of Africa! The chapter on diseases and parasites had me squirming, though. What a tough place.


message 32: by Marieke, Former guide & Chief Chatterbox (new) - added it

Marieke | 2838 comments Mod
Okay so now I get to question and quibble! Lol

This would not have stood out to me pre-pregnancy, but he is trying to draw a link between the advent of pottery and population growth, in part because birth spacing was reduced thanks to earlier weaning because of food storage and preparation options (boiling food). I can understand that...who wants to be nursing 5 kids at once? But, then he points to another academic who says using pottery reduced the breast feeding period and thereby post-partum amenorrhea. BUT I have recently been warned by doctors and books alike that breast feeding (and the absence of menstruation) is NOT birth control, and women are not infrequently surprised by a new pregnancy while they are breast feeding, because ovulation is still happening even though menstruation is not; so I just don't think pottery accounts for population growth for the reasons suggested in the book. If anything pottery helped nutrition to get better and women became more fertile and capable of pregnancy because of that. And of course earlier weaning would make it easier to feed multiple small children.


message 33: by Hana (last edited Oct 26, 2014 08:15AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Hana Good point, Marieke! I thought that was a bit of a stretch as well.

On the other hand, I suspect that the post-partum amenorrhea--and suppression of ovulation--might have been more pronounced for ancient women because of their already marginal nutritional status. For us well-fed Westerners, the extra nutritional burden of nursing might not be enough to prevent ovulation.

Also, I've forgotten where he says this, but the women carried and nursed their babies fairly continuously, which most Western women do not, and I seem to recall this has some hormonal effect as well.


message 34: by Marieke, Former guide & Chief Chatterbox (new) - added it

Marieke | 2838 comments Mod
I'll pay attention to this topic...hopefully I didn't miss earlier discussion of it, because earlier this year it would have been rather meaningless to me lol. But these days I'm completely fascinated by fertility, etc. the human body is a wild and amazing place!

Indeed, I was reading yesterday (not in this book) that in other cultures today (and I would expect this applies to very ancient cultures too) that nursing can continue until a child is as old as seven! I was kind of blown away by that.


message 35: by Hana (new) - rated it 3 stars

Hana Did you catch that section on rickets and the dire effects for pregnant women? P. 173 The Pastoral Scene in my edition. Amazing that anyone survived.


message 36: by Marieke, Former guide & Chief Chatterbox (new) - added it

Marieke | 2838 comments Mod
Yes, I just read that! I want to quibble about that too because a friend who is a lactation consultant told me that the big increase in calcium requirement is for me, not my baby...that my body will automatically do everything to keep my baby healthy, but unless I take care with my nutritional intake, I will become depleted, particularly while nursing. Reader wrote about that as if the babies would suffer from not enough calcium, rather than the mothers.

But quibbling aside, I am often astounded at how anyone survived anything. As for rickets specifically, I can't imagine having a distorted pelvis and then trying to give birth. Yikes. So many women must have died in childbirth for that reason alone!


message 37: by Hana (new) - rated it 3 stars

Hana Wait til you get to the part on diseases and parasites!


message 38: by Marieke, Former guide & Chief Chatterbox (new) - added it

Marieke | 2838 comments Mod
Uh-oh... I just posted all these thoughts in the wrong section! Oh well. Oops. I see diseases coming up in Part 4 (whereas I've just been reading the end of Part 3)


message 39: by Hana (new) - rated it 3 stars

Hana Part 4 is the best section so far--I couldn't put it down.


message 40: by Hana (new) - rated it 3 stars

Hana One of the giant obelisks at Aksum.



message 41: by Hana (new) - rated it 3 stars

Hana A spectacular birds-eye view of one tiny section of the inner Niger delta at flood season:




message 42: by Hana (last edited Oct 27, 2014 06:17AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Hana Planting rice in the inner Niger delta:




message 43: by Hana (new) - rated it 3 stars

Hana A town in the Niger delta:




message 44: by Marieke, Former guide & Chief Chatterbox (new) - added it

Marieke | 2838 comments Mod
these are great, Hana!

i tried to start this section yesterday afternoon but ended up with too many distractions. :(


message 45: by Elizabeth (new)

Elizabeth (elizabethinzambia) | 73 comments Marieke wrote: "Okay so now I get to question and quibble! Lol

This would not have stood out to me pre-pregnancy, but he is trying to draw a link between the advent of pottery and population growth, in part becau..."


Hi- just to feed in a little "expert" clarification on the practice of LAM- Lactational Amenorrhea Method- it is considered a formal method of contraception, but it does require adhering to 3 criteria to be considered effective:
1) baby is less than 6 months old
2) the menstrual period has not returned yet
3) the baby is being exclusively breastfed (at the breast, pumping is insufficient to stimulate the needed hormones for LAM to work)- exclusive means no other food or drink and that the baby is feeding at least every 4 hours.

If these three criteria are met, the risk of pregnancy is about 1-2%.


message 46: by Hana (new) - rated it 3 stars

Hana Thanks for the clarification, Elizabeth.

Here's my general question for anyone who knows African flora: what are those nest-like things in the tree shown in the picture above?


message 47: by Marieke, Former guide & Chief Chatterbox (new) - added it

Marieke | 2838 comments Mod
thanks Elizabeth...my reading on that topic so far has been cursory. also, since i have to go back to work after about 3 months and will be pumping, i guess i will be in the danger zone ;)
and this is why the doctors have warned me not to rely on it for birth control if i don't want to get pregnant again right away. lol

fascinating stuff!


message 48: by Marieke, Former guide & Chief Chatterbox (new) - added it

Marieke | 2838 comments Mod
Hana wrote: "Here's my general question for anyone who knows African flora: what are those nest-like things in the tree shown in the picture above?"

i have no idea but i hope somebody does!


message 49: by Carolien (last edited Oct 28, 2014 08:40AM) (new)

Carolien (carolien_s) | 391 comments I read Things Fall Apart shortly after I read this chapter and the whole book made a lot of sense based on my newly-acquired knowledge on how the Niger delta operates.

The African rice varieties grow more like wheat (in fact you can use the same kind of harvester). They need a lot less water although they still have to be irrigated. They're a lot hardier than the Asian varieties. Here's some pictures of rice in South Africa which is an African variety (SA is only producing it very small scale at the moment). The same variety is also grown in places like Zambia.
http://www.genestevens.org/2012/01/pr...

This is fairly up to date in terms of rice varieties in Africa. The pictures are of this variety which is similar to basmati.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Rice...


message 50: by Hana (new) - rated it 3 stars

Hana Thanks for those links, Carolien! I really enjoyed Dr. Steven's post on rice cultivation.

Have you ever tasted the African rice varieties? Do they taste like basmati?

PS Do you know what the nest-like things are in the tree pictured @43?


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