Ethnography of West Africa

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Module code
FHEQ Level

Module overview

This module is an introduction to anthropological studies of West Africa, dealing briefly with the variety of the region and its relevant outline history as contexts, while concentrating on the issues that have particularly attracted debate, such as: 'wealth in people', governance, the triple religious heritage, urban and rural livelihoods, identity, and diaspora.

Typical course outline:

  • Week 1: The ethnographic region: Atlantic and Saharan worlds and issues
  • Week 2: ‘Wealth in people’: descent; kinship & marriage
  • Week 3: Post-colonialism and contemporary governance
  • Week 4: Historic religions and the modernity of the occult
  • Week 5: World religions and contemporary transformations
  • Week 6: (Reading week)
  • Week 7: City and country: migration & urban growth
  • Week 8: Getting by: ‘informality’ & illegality; patronage & networking
  • Week 9: The politics of belonging: notions of inclusion and exclusion
  • Week 10: Political identity and youth culture
  • Week 11: West Africans in diaspora


This module is open to all undergraduates as an Open Option.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

On successful completion of this module a student will be able to:

  1. critically evaluate a range of theories and ethnographic source material relating to West African society
  2. locate and use secondary sources relevant to selected topics
  3. have a grasp of the key debates in the anthropology of West Africa
Developing regional expertise is a key component of the study of anthropology, and central to programmes across the school. The learning outcomes are designed to ensure that students develop a solid grounding in the anthropology of West Africa, refine their ability to critically engage diverse literatures and communicate their knowledge in a variety of ways. These processes of comprehension, analysis and communication are central to all anthropology programmes, as well as to the broader humanities and social sciences at SOAS.

Suggested reading

The nearest thing to a textbook is:

  • Eugene L. Mendonsa 2002 West Africa: an Introduction to its History, Civilization and Contemporary Situation, Carolina Academic Press

Also see:

  • Carola Lentz 2013 Land, Mobility, and Belonging in West Africa, Indiana University Press
  • Reginald Cline-Cole and Elsbeth Robson 2005 West African Worlds: Paths Through Socio-Economic Change, Livelihoods and Development, Routledge

If you want a reader; this is a useful selection of articles (but not just about West Africa):

  • Roy R. Grinker, Stephen C. Lubkemann, and Christopher B. Steiner (eds) 2012 Perspectives on Africa: A Reader in Culture, History and Representation, Wiley-Blackwell
  • Stephen Ellis 2011 Season of Rains: Africa in the World, Jacana.

A good and concise history of the recent past (again for Africa as a whole):

  • Frederick Cooper 2002 Africa since 1940: the Past of the Present, Cambridge

And for the more distant past:

  • Richard Reid 2011 A History of Modern Africa: 1800 to the Present, Wiley-Blackwell

Also see:

  • Achille Mbembe 2001 On the Postcolony, London & Berkeley

A journalist’s intelligent and comprehensive tour of end of the millennium Nigeria can be found in:

  • Karl Maier 2000 This House has Fallen: Nigeria in Crisis, Penguin


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