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Africa Focus: Sights and Sounds of a Continent

University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries
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Reviewed by:
Anne Good
University of Minnesota
June 2005

This site presents a large collection of primary sources in African studies, including images (more than 3,000 slides and 500 photographs) and sounds (more than 50 hours), as well as seven digitized texts, four of which are extremely rare works. It represents 50 years of work by the site’s creators.

The site’s home page links to the “Image and Audio Collection” and to the seven texts of the “African Digitization Process.” The digitized texts include translations of 16th and 17th-century European accounts of Africa, two bibliographies, and a recent (1986) edited volume on slavery. The European accounts of Africa are especially useful for beginning researchers, because they provide a tangible sense of how Europeans understood Africans in the early period of contact and interaction.

The “Image and Audio Collection,” the site’s main focus, is divided into “Images” and “Sound” subcategories, which are further divided into topic-specific categories. It is a rich and varied collection that is useful for gathering resources on specific topics, and also rewards longer browsing. The drawbacks of the collection are, first, that it is huge, and second, that it provides little historical context or detailed information on individual recordings and pictures.

The four subcategories for sounds are: “Drums,” “Greetings,” “Rites and Ceremonies,” and “Songs and Singing.” The sound files are in RealMedia format, and most are from West Africa and were recorded in the 1970s and 1980s. Many of the files are over half an hour in length. They are fascinating and often beautiful sounds, but alone they provide beginners with little insight into the complexities of African culture. However, if students had a project on, for example, the Yoruba people of Nigeria, here they would be able to listen to real Yoruba people performing various rites and ceremonies, such as installing a new chief or celebrating a hunting god.

Under “Images” there are seven sub-categories: “Artisans,” “Buildings and Structures,”"Cities,” and “Women.” The choice of “Women” as a category on this page is somewhat odd, but like the other links, it is just one example of ways to group the images and think about comparisons among them. Clicking on “Buildings and Structures” yields a variety of huts; modern skyscrapers; decorated dwellings; mud-brick houses on European patterns; ancient temples and other structures of religious significance; Roman ruins in Libya; and much else besides. Each picture is accompanied by several references and links: where it was taken, by whom, when, its place in the collection, and, most importantly, a variety of links to other images that are similar by place, theme, topic, ethnic group, etc.

This structure and detailed source information allows viewers to browse at length among the images. For example, you might look at all of the pictures of huts and see how they compare over time and geographic space on the African continent. You might also become interested in the photographs and slides taken by specific people, such as the great Africanist scholars Jan Vansina and Philip Curtin.

The site does allow searches by subject and keywords, but the engine is not very flexible, and the terms must be kept simple to get good results. An example of a specific term might be “pastoralism”—a nomadic or seminomadic way of life, centered around herding animals: sheep, goats, cattle, and camels. Students will see how widespread this way of life is across the African continent, and they will be able to gain insight into what this kind of life entails. Examples of striking pictures include: “Blowing inside a cow’s vagina to stimulate milk production after miscarriage” (Sudan), which indicates how integral close knowledge of cattle is in this kind of society. “Young boy leading water buffalo” (Egypt) shows how even the young members of families have specific tasks to perform. And “A nomadic family’s housing made from Guinea corn (sorghum) stalks” (Nigeria) represents the impermanent, yet practical structures that are necessary for pastoralist life.

This site’s resources could be used practically in several ways. The site lends itself to the examination of specific pastoralist groups, such as the Nuer of Sudan. Combined with external sources, the site’s images will bring research into this group to life. For more focused comparisons among regions, try keyword searches such as “marriage” or “food.”

One of the site’s best features, and one that will be particularly useful for viewers who are not familiar with Africa, is the “Atlas Search” at the top of the page. This link takes viewers to a map of Africa, and clicking on the name of a specific country provides access to the whole range of images and sounds available in this archive for that country.

Thus, what may first appear to be an inaccessible site can be a valuable gateway for both teachers and students who want to know more about this wonderfully diverse continent.

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