Cover image for The great lakes of Africa : two thousand years of history
The great lakes of Africa : two thousand years of history
Chrétien, Jean-Pierre.
Personal Author:
Uniform Title:
Afrique des Grands lacs. English
Publication Information:
New York : Zone Books ; Cambridge, Mass : Distributed by MIT Press, [2003]

Physical Description:
503 pages : maps ; 24 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
DT365.5 .C4613 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



The first English-language publication of a major history of the Great Lakes region of Africa.

Though the genocide of 1994 catapulted Rwanda onto the international stage, English-language historical accounts of the Great Lakes region of Eastern Africa--which encompasses Burundi, eastern Congo, Rwanda, western Tanzania, and Uganda--are scarce. Drawing on colonial archives, oral tradition, archeological discoveries, anthropologic and linguistic studies, and his thirty years of scholarship, Jean-Pierre Chrétien offers a major synthesis of the history of the region, one still plagued by extremely violent wars. This translation brings the work of a leading French historian to an English-speaking audience for the first time. Chrétien retraces the human settlement and the formation of kingdoms around the sources of the Nile, which were "discovered" by European explorers around 1860. He describes these kingdoms' complex social and political organization and analyzes how German, British, and Belgian colonizers not only transformed and exploited the existing power structures, but also projected their own racial categories onto them. Finally, he shows how the independent states of the postcolonial era, in particular Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda, have been trapped by their colonial and precolonial legacies, especially by the racial rewriting of the latter by the former. Today, argues Chrétien, the Great Lakes of Africa is a crucial region for historical research--not only because its history is fascinating but also because the tragedies of its present are very much a function of the political manipulations of its past.

Author Notes

Jean Pierre Chretien is Directeur de Recherches at the Centre Nationale de Recherches Scientifique and affiliated with the Centre de Recherches Africaines at the University of Paris.

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

A director at France's National Center of Scientific Research, Chr?tien brings three decades of scholarship and corresponding expertise to this comprehensive history of a part of Africa-Rwanda, Burundi, the eastern Congo, Uganda, and western Tanzania-that remains a blank slate even to well- informed Americans, even in the context of its ongoing human tragedy: at least 3.3 million dead in ongoing civil and regional wars. Chr?tien shows, in economic and elegant prose (as rendered by Straus), that the lake-ful region was long a crossroads of the Congo forest and the plateaus of the Upper Nile and eastern Africa. Contacts and imitations, inventions and adaptations, were normative in cultures lacking the "developed" structures of other African regions. But with them came violence, which in turn, Chr?tien demonstrates, fostered central authorities that sought to keep the peoples of this multicultural region from each other's throats as they struggled for position within political systems. The Europeans exacerbated existing tensions, Chr?tien argues, less by their patterns of rule than by introducing new means of production and profit-and new means of defining power relationships in quasi-biological terms. This racism in turn metastasized, initially among the Western-educated elites, then generally. Notions of post-colonial independence were articulated in terms of an ethnic fundamentalism intended to restore past glories and mobilize in-groups for the sake of an even grander future-at the expense of "others" whose enmity was described as fixed and eternal. Government-run TV and radio made things worse, Chr?tien argues, by supplanting more nuanced traditional cultures and by constantly reiterating a dual message of fear and aggression. Chr?tien's conclusion that central Africa's challenge involves abandoning current de facto ethnic-based factional rule in favor of union along broad-gauged regional lines is eminently sensible. Based on the body of his text, however, the prospects for arriving there are grim. (July) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

This is an impressive and important book surveying 2,000 years of history of the vast Great Lakes region of East Central Africa. Such sweeping chronological and geographical scope results, unsurprisingly, to uneven coverage. The preeminence accorded Rwanda and Burundi, however, leads to the book's most significant contribution: to demonstrate that the region's recent interrelated conflicts claiming over four million lives are not based on ancient, unchanging "ethnic" cleavages, most notably between Tutsi and Hutu. Instead, Chretian (National Center of Scientific Research, France) shows that for centuries, relations between pastoralists such as Tutsi and agriculturalists such as Hutu developed in essentially complementary fashion and with somewhat permeable boundaries, even after strong centralized states developed after 1500. After 1800, Tutsi did develop a newly elite status, as warriors spearheading territorial expansion. But it was racist 20th-century colonial perceptions and policies that created a distorted history reducing virtually all social relations to Tutsi-Hutu differences and leading to new, rigid distinctions between the two that massively favored the former over the latter. Thus, modern and not ancient history created the "ethnic fundamentalism" that has stoked the postcolonial hatred and violence engulfing much of the region, especially over the past decade. ^BSumming Up: Highly recommended. All levels and libraries. R. R. Atkinson University of South Carolina

Table of Contents

Prefacep. 9
Linguistic Notep. 19
Introduction: Writing History in Africap. 21
I An Ancient Human Settlement and Its Enigmasp. 41
II The Emergence of Kingship: Power and Religionp. 85
III The Formation of Monarchical Statesp. 139
IV Colonial Trusteeships and Reconstructions of Traditionp. 201
V Regained Independence and the Obsession with Genocidep. 291
Conclusion: The Fragments of Historyp. 347
Notesp. 359
Bibliographyp. 423
Appendicesp. 473
Name Indexp. 485
Place Indexp. 495