Books I have been reading

Too many months ago, I requested every book in the Free Library of Philadelphia catalog about Zambia. I’ve been (slowly) working my way through ever since:

Art in Zambia by Gabriel Ellison
Summary of this book, as I see it: There is some, but not as much as we would like, art going on in Zambia. Partly this is due to a lack of galleries and prestigious shows, but there is a National Council for the Arts which is doing some good work, including this book. Here are some artists who are or have been operating in Zambia, with not nearly as many pictures as you were hoping for.

Possibly I should not have even bothered trying a book about Art. But it did suggest that the closest thing there is to traditional textiles in Zambia is basketweaving. It did not answer the question, So if there isn’t really anything in the way of traditional textiles, what did people wear before machine-made cotton cloth became available?

Cultures of the World: Zambia by Timothy Holmes and Winnie Wong
Um, this was a book. It was marginally informative, but not significantly more so than the Wikipedia article on Zambia, and not really any better written. There were lots of color pictures. It’s basically what I was expecting from a series with a title like “Cultures of the World” that has something approximating 150 titles.

The one piece of information it provided that is very nice to have, that it didn’t even occur to me to ask about is this: “Issues such as laws of succession have not been resolved to women’s satisfaction, but women may now open bank accounts and obtain credit without permission from a husband or male guardian” (72). It might have been very difficult to not say impolitic things if I arrived in Zambia and learned suddenly that that was not the case.

Culture and Customs of Zambia by Scott D. Taylor
I was not expecting much from this book — it looked like a slightly thicker version of the Holmes and Wong book. I found myself pleasantly surprised. The book is not without flaws (it wants to be pseudo-academic, and has some tendency towards sentences like, “For example, whereas colonial rule was an oppressive system of governance that could enforce compliance and cooperation, . . .” It is never, thankfully, as bad as De Montmorency, and tends to wear off as the author gets into his stride. This is a good thing, both for general legibility and because the grasp of grammar is occasionally not quite good enough for that level of convolution), but it is a much more nuanced view than the other, and managed to describe the political situation in such a way that I didn’t get lost and think I have a bit of a feel for the major players and parties. Also major sources of media.

Overall, it was pretty good at digging deep enough to answer questions like, Maize is a staple of the diet, but isn’t it a new world crop? What did they eat before? Perhaps you’re getting a sense of the kinds of questions that occur to me. I blame Jeremy Ross and his Historian’s Questions. (If you, like me, are curious, the answer appears to be finger millet (Eleusine Coracana) and sorghum. Other interesting factoids in this section are that pumpkin and sweet potato leaves appear to be edible, and that both mangos and avocados grow in Zambia. I don’t think I’ve ever lived anywhere that avocados could be grown locally in any reasonable kind of fashion. (Maybe they could in Spain, since we had local mangos in Málaga. But I wasn’t aware of it.)

This book also answered the textile question: “Prior to the arrival of colonialism, traditional dress consisted mainly of animal skins or bark cloth wrapped around the waist or draped over the shoulders much like a Roman toga” (90). Constance suggests that they probably don’t actually mean like a toga, and upon reflection, I imagine that she is correct. I wonder what the natural shape of barkcloth is. Long rectangles?

This is also the book that provided the statistic on English speakers that I cited in my last entry. I suspect that it will be my favorite of all the books I got.

Right now I’m working on Kate Crehan’s The fractured community : landscapes of power and gender in rural Zambia. It’s very dense in the way that books written by Anthropology professors for people who know things about anthropology probably tend to be (I wouldn’t know, mostly not having read them). I’m hopeful that it’s better after the introduction, when she’s talking more about concrete Zambian examples and less about Hegemony and Gramsci and Marx.

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