The Great Lakes explained

The Great Lakes of Africa: Two Thousand Years of History

by Jean-Pierre Chrétien

(Zone Books, NY)

s the South African government, after deploying so many troops there has discovered, Africa’s Great Lakes region is a complex place. Yet it is a region outsiders have consistently interpreted through fallacious simplification, and myths dressed up as history. Some of the myths have been adopted with devastating effect by post-colonial elites. In Rwanda, the classic example, Belgian colonists and missionaries once (wrongly) theorised that Tutsis were originally Ethiopian and Christian, and were therefore “born to rule”. In 1994, génocidaires said the rivers into which they flung so many Tutsi corpses would “carry them back to Ethiopia”.


Jean-Pierre Chrétien has been an historian of the Great Lakes region for over twenty years, during which time his research has been innovative and his scholarship far-ranging. He has concisely distilled a remarkable amount of this learning into the book, and if you really want or need to know what is going on in the region, you will find many of the answers here.

But you have to really want to know. While Chrétien is generally not, unlike many French compatriots, wilfully impenetrable, he can be less clear than he should be (despite the best efforts of translator Scott Strauss), and assume too much prior knowledge. Developments in Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and northern Tanzania are deftly, and sometimes brilliantly sketched by Chrétien, but Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) gets oddly short thrift.

Still, this is a good history, with an outstanding bibliography, which deserves wide exposure. Whether it will get it, of course, is another matter. Isn’t there anyone in Foreign Affairs who could do a short summary to distribute round government and media houses?

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