Dictionnaire de l’Afrique: Histoire, Civilisation, Actualité – Bernard Nantet
Reviewed by Françoise Herrmann

Publisher: Larousse
Publication date: 2006
ISBN 2-03-582658-6
Available from: www.fnac.com
Price: €20

Nantet’s Dictionnaire de l’Afrique is long overdue. Africa is the world’s second largest and second most populated continent (after Asia). By way of comparison, Africa is three times the size of the United States. With a population of 906 million (in 2005), Africa is three times more populated than the United States. Yet, in the overwhelmingly white, industrial and post industrial world, what is really common knowledge about Africa? Even if Darfur, Kenya and the plight of Somalian refugees periodically make waves in the news, or via the big screens from Hollywood, is it possible to actually pin-point where these countries are located on the African continent? What languages are spoken? Who governs and under what political systems? What events have thrust these countries into the limelight? Who are the poets, novelists and playwrights? Perhaps not without the assistance of Google or Wikipedia! And certainly not with same degree of scholarly insight and experience as Bernard Nantet, a journalist, writer and professor, specialized in the history and archeology of Africa.

Africa past and present
Nantet’s Dictionnaire de l’Afrique seeks to gloss both those terms that refer to the deep cultural traditions of Africa and those that refer to the present diversified socio-economic and political context. Thus, you will find included in the dictionary articles about ancêtres (ancestors), masques (masks), initiation (initiation) and cauries (cowries), next to articles about micro-crédit (micro-credit), Nelson Mandela and Indépendances (the plural form of Independence). You will also find at the end of the dictionary an Atlas with maps of the geography, populations and history of Africa, spanning 9500-4500 BC to the present, via pre-colonial and colonial eras. The dictionary, written in small-size font in a two column format, is packed with 700 headwords. It contains an Index of entries, and 300 pages (Atlases excluded).

A dictionary that reads like a novel
Nantet’s Dictionnaire de l’Afrique would no doubt be a great reference for the translation of news bulletins from Haiti or the translation of labels for an exhibit showcasing tribal art from one of the great regions of Africa. However, it is also the kind of dictionary that you may enjoy reading, just like a novel, and especially if you only have small snippets of time in your busy day. The articles under each head word are brief, but packed with information and a scholarly perspective that will give you an understanding beyond the factual. Nantet draws parallels between past rituals and present situations; explains differences between Western and African conceptual systems surrounding such phenomena as art and the mundane rituals of funerals; outlines the significance of such items as shells, masks and calabashes, and traces the history and ethnology of such crops as cocoa and coffee. The result is dense, pleasant and illuminated reading.

Sample entries
Among the 700 hundred articles of this dictionary, there are three that truly impressed me.

1. enfants-soldats
The first is an article about the enfants-soldats [child-soldiers] of modern day terrorism in Africa. The definition reads: "Enfants capturés par des mouvements insurectionnels et conditionnés pour devenir combatants." [Children captured and trained by rebel groups for combat], following which the article draws striking parallels between the ancient African traditions of initiation and this present day perversion. For example, Nantet explains how the drama of ritualized initiation, consisting in symbolically removing children from their mothers for the purposes of bestowing upon them the knowledge needed to uphold the village’s way of life, is co-opted by rebels, who steal children, and condition them to kill and to plunder their own villages so that they become forever banished, at the sole mercy of their surrogate "father" and Commander-in-Chief. Furthermore, he explains how efforts to subsequently rehabilitate these children become quite problematic since it is difficult to erase the damage done with drugs, depravation and the violence of the methods used.

2. gastronomie
The second article that I found quite fascinating was the article about gastronomie [culinary arts] . In this article Nantet offers an anthropological perspective on the birth of gastronomy, during the Neolithic age (circa 8500 BC!), as it is deemed linked to the invention of pottery, and the resulting change towards a more sedentary lifestyle. (It is assumed that pottery finally allowed food to blend and simmer for a certain amount of time in contrast to grilling and heating in the ashes of a fire.) Included in this article, there is also an overview of the history and diversification of available staples: yams, with evidence of cultivation dating as far back as the fifth century BC in Western Africa; mil (millet) in the second century BC, and a type of orge (barley) found only in Ethiopia and the Nile Valley; rice and spices on the Eastern coast of Africa, imported from Asia by Indian sailors in the fifth century BC, that took several more centuries to penetrate inside the African continent, and the important discovery of the Americas during which many new staples (corn, cassava, potatoes, avocadoes, groundnuts, peppers, pumpkins, tomatoes), and spices (nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger), were eventually brought to the Western coast of Africa via Europe, and fused with local cereals, fish and meat to create a more diversified and healthier diet.

3. micro-crédit
Thirdly, the article on micro-credit as a viable form of development, specifically linked to the economic activity of women, was another entry of particular interest. Micro-credit in Africa, as elsewhere in Asia (and Bangladesh in particular) involves loaning small amounts of money (that do not exceed a few hundred dollars) for trade purposes, tools or supplies needed for viable economic activity. In Africa, as elsewhere, micro-credits are mostly awarded to women, who form small cooperative groups benefiting from the credits and pooling their savings. The small amounts of money loaned empower women for example to buy products directly from producers and to sell their goods on the market without relying on middle persons or having to pay any added daily interest rates. Money is paid back on a daily basis and loaned out in progressively larger amounts in exchange for the deposit of a small savings amount. In 2003, the Central Bank of West Africa estimated that 3.7 million people in Africa had benefited from Micro Credit.

There are many more of these articles left for you to discover about Africa. Each of these contains a treasure of information, presented in a perspective that is both scholarly and captivating. Whether you need this information as reference for translating material from, or related to, an African country, or whether you are reading the Dictionnaire de l’Afrique for your own reference and pleasure, you will gain much insight into these faraway and exotic countries that from time to time take center stage in newscasts worldwide, movies, great sporting, music and political events. In any event, Nantet’s Dictionnaire de l’Afrique deserves a prominent space in your library of dictionaries. So grab a copy, and enjoy!