Africa Focus: Sights and Sounds of a Continent is a repository of images, sound clips, and scanned texts produced by the University of Wisconsin Digital Collections Center. The collection consists of two distinct databases: the Africa Focus: Image and Sound Collection and The African Studies Collection. Africa Focus features an impressive 3,000 slides, 500 photographs, and 50 hours of sounds collected by University of Wisconsin faculty and staff members from 45 African countries. The African Studies Collection offers digitized versions of a handful of European accounts of pre-colonial West Africa, several bibliographic guides to these sources, and a collection of essays on slavery and the slave trade. (These sources are all from the University of Wisconsin libraries.)
The paired databases comprising Africa Focus: Sights and Sounds of a Continent will be useful to teachers, but they will need a background in African history to make effective use of the sources. Essays on the Swaziland Digital Archives site and resources available through the Internet African History Sourcebook can provide contextual information. The pictures and sounds are accessible to non-specialists, but it will still take some care to make proper use of them in the classroom.
Most images in Africa Focus date from after 1950, but it does include some photographs from the early twentieth century. The database can be searched by topics including buildings and structures, cities and towns, transportation, clothing and dress, education, religion, women, food, animals, audio clips of songs and singing, as well as many more many more. These topics are also used for extensive identifying tags which offer educators useful guidance on how to contextualize each image. Visitors can also filter by “Places” which allows students to view the diverse cultures and experiences across the continent. A small number can even be filtered by the languages visible in signage within the photographs.
Exercises drawing on this material can provide a richer understanding of both the unique trials and experiences in Africa. By using the search filters effectively, teachers can have students compare and contrast various images of worship, schooling, work, and landscapes to highlight the vast cultural and ecological diversity of Africa. Instructors can also draw on the collection's images to give students perspective on some of the key problems that have confronted many African societies in the post-imperial era. Nevertheless, instructors will want to take care to ensure that the pictures featuring non-western topics and themes do not reinforce popular stereotypes of African peoples and cultures.
This review was originally written for the Children and Youth in History project. It was revised for World History Commons by Daniel Howlett, George Mason University.