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Catalog Archive / Spring 2023

The Names of the Python
Belonging in East Africa, 900 to 1930

Africa and the Diaspora: History, Politics, Culture
Neil Kodesh and James H. Sweet, Series Editors

Winner of the 2022 Bethwell A. Ogot Book Prize, sponsored by the African Studies Association

“A landmark book. It reminds us that the study of the distant African past need not involve a celebration of kings. In their lakeshore assemblies in spirit mediums' company, African commoners created networks of knowledge that were both cosmopolitan and multicultural. David Schoenbrun gives us republican history of ancient eastern Africa.”
—Derek Peterson, University of Michigan

Systems of belonging, including ethnicity, are not static, automatic, or free of contest. Historical contexts shape the ways which we are included in or excluded from specific classifications. Building on an amazing array of sources, David L. Schoenbrun examines groupwork—the imaginative labor that people do to constitute themselves as communities—in an iconic and influential region in East Africa. His study traces the roots of nationhood in the Ganda state over the course of a millennia, demonstrating that the earliest clans were based not on political identity or language but on shared investments, knowledges, and practices.

Grounded in Schoenbrun's skillful mastery of historical linguistics and vernacular texts, The Names of the Python supplements and redirects current debates about ethnicity in ex-colonial Africa and beyond. This timely volume carefully distinguishes past from present and shows the many possibilities that still exist for the creative cultural imagination.


David L. Schoenbrun is a professor of history at Northwestern University. He is the author of A Green Place, a Good Place: Agrarian Change, Gender, and Social Identity in the Great Lakes Region to the 15th Century and The Historical Reconstruction of Great Lakes Bantu Cultural Vocabulary: Etymologies and Distributions.




“This brilliant new book offers a deep history of the contingent processes of community over more than a millennium in East Africa. David Schoenbrun has produced a remarkably original non-teleological history of belonging, showing how people continually imagined and produced the very nature of society itself intellectually, morally, and metaphysically.”
—Julie Livingston, New York University

“A classic for anyone interested in the long-term roots of group formation in Africa. Schoenbrun's mastery of linguistic, oral, ethnographic, and archaeological sources provides a deep and wide history of different forms of belonging, including ethnicity, for the Buganda state and its neighbors over the last thousand years.”
—Jan Bender Shetler, Goshen College

“Like the mothers, mediums, warriors and spirits plying the Inland Sea, we can all feast on the theoretical and methodological fruits netted by Schoenbrun's innovative rereading of these well-studied, well-storied histories.”
Canadian Journal of African Studies

“A fascinating and compelling book.”
H-Net Reviews

“Excellent. . . . Convincingly illustrate[s] the cognitive and concrete ways that people around the Inland Sea did groupwork, creating and maintaining social groups at a variety of scales to meet the demands of particular historical moments.”
International Journal of African Historical Studies

“This book is a masterclass in the reconstruction of Africa's deeper past. . . . No one working on Buganda can ignore this book, and all future work on the political, cultural, and social past of the region will need to take account of it. Schoenbrun has deepened and complicated our knowledge of how societies are formed, how belonging evolves, and how numerous layers of community are involved in it, especially once people move across longer distances and are no longer able to meet one another face-to-face.”
The Journal of African History



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New in Paperback!
June 2023
LC: 2020035742 DT
358 pp. 6 x 9
16 b/w illus., 4 maps, 1 table

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Paper $32.95 S
ISBN 9780299332549
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Casebound $79.95 S
ISBN 9780299332501
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