Bondarenko on Peša, 'Roads through Mwinilunga: A History of Social Change in Northwest Zambia'

Iva Peša
Dmitri M. Bondarenko

Iva Peša. Roads through Mwinilunga: A History of Social Change in Northwest Zambia. Afrika-Studiecentrum Series. Leiden: Brill, 2019. Illustrations. 444 pp. $59.00 (e-book), ISBN 978-90-04-40896-8; $59.00 (paper), ISBN 978-90-04-40790-9.

Reviewed by Dmitri M. Bondarenko (Institute for African Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences) Published on H-Africa (November, 2020) Commissioned by David D. Hurlbut (Independent Scholar)

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Iva Peša’s project is ambitious, as she tries to trace the history of social change, or more accurately oscillations between continuity and change, in Mwinilunga District in northwest Zambia between the 1750s and 1970s. This demands a study of local societies in three consequent historical periods: precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial. At the same time, Peša does not intend to study equally changes in every subsystem of the local societies. For her analysis, she has selected sociocultural subsystems and phenomena (“spheres of social change,” as she calls them [p. 38]), transformations she considers to be the most important for describing and discussing general directions and trends of social change in northwest Zambia throughout time. Peša claims to study four spheres of social change: production, mobility, consumption, and social relationship. However, it appears that she is actually studying the historical dynamics of two complex and multifaceted factors of social change in Mwinilunga in the most detail. The first is political economy—the economic subsystem from production to distribution and exchange to consumption (discussed mainly in chapters 2 and 4). The second is patterns of immobility (village life) and mobility (cross-border trade and labor migration) addressed in chapters 3 and 5, respectively. Other subsystems are involved in Peša’s analysis to the degree they are inseparable from these two factors. In particular, Peša studies the role of authentic and colonial and postcolonial political institutions in social change at both the village and regional levels (in chapters 2 and 5).

Peša’s research serves as convincing proof of the nonlinear, nondirectional, and evolutionary (continuous) rather than revolutionary (intermittent) nature of the historical process, even under such seemingly punctuated developments as transitions from precolonialism to colonialism and from colonialism to postcolonialism. It is an extremely valuable conclusion that is very well grounded by Peša both in theory and in her analysis of the evidence. Her monograph confirms the argument that “the interplay of evolving institutions explains the non-linear, alternative-pathways character of social evolution”—an idea that has become powerful in both history and anthropology.[1]

Proving the continuous nature of social change in Mwinilunga, Peša masterfully shows that authentic social relationships were flexible and susceptible enough in northwest Zambia to accommodate serious innovations in different spheres without the destruction of the typical African sociocultural community. The indestructibility of a community based on kinship affiliation and village as a settlement pattern was the result of the evolutionary course of processes of social change, and Peša is completely right articulating and defending this position. The community’s indestructibility is also what allows cultures in Mwinilunga and elsewhere across the continent to keep their distinctive African identities under external sociocultural pressures during the precolonial and especially colonial and postcolonial periods. The principle of communality as the foundation of Africa’s sociocultural tradition is not reducible to the temporal and spatial universality of the institution of community (in this or that form) in sub-Saharan Africa. As communal sociopolitical norms and relations, consciousness, and behavioral patterns spread beyond community as social institution, the principle of communality plays a crucial role at all levels of societal complexity and in a great variety of institutions, including, though in modified or sometimes even corrupted form, sociologically supra- and non-communal formations, such as modern African cities and African diaspora networks.[2]

Peša's book promises to become a much welcome contribution not only to Zambian studies but also to fields beyond. The evidence of social change in northwest Zambia between the mid-eighteenth and late twentieth centuries—from the precolonial to colonial to postcolonial period—exemplifies how the interaction between and intricate interlacing of local and Western and pre-industrial and industrial institutions could give dynamism to a colonial and then postcolonial societal system.[3] An exceptionally detailed and nuanced description of social change in concrete cultures in changing historical situations, Roads through Mwinilunga is a significant text for theorists in the social sciences who study general trends of institutional transformations.[4] In short, Peša’s book will no doubt find many grateful readers.


[1]. Stephen A. Kowalewski and Jennifer Birch, “How Do People Get Big Things Done?,” in The Evolution of Social Institutions: Interdisciplinary Perspectives, ed. Dmitri M. Bondarenko, Stephen A. Kowalewski, and David B. Small (Cham: Springer, 2020), 30. See also, for example, Christopher S. Beekman and William W. Baden, eds., Nonlinear Models for Archaeology and Anthropology (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005); and Dmitri M. Bondarenko and Ken Baskin, “Big History, Complexity Theory, and Life in a Non-Linear World,” in From Big Bang to Galactic Civilizations: A Big History Anthology, ed. Barry Rodrigue, Leonid Grinin, and Andrey Korotayev, vol. 3, The Ways That Big History Works: Cosmos, Life, Society and Our Future (Delhi: Primus Books, 2017), 183-96.

[2]. Dmitri M. Bondarenko, “Toward a Philosophy of African History: Communality as a Foundation of Africa’s Socio-Cultural Tradition,” in Knight from Komárov: To Petr Skalník for His 70th Birthday, ed. Adam Bedřich and Tomáš Retka (Prague: AntropoWeb, 2015), 61-80.

[3]. See, for example, Georges Balandier, Sens et puissance: Les dynamiques sociales (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2004); Ato Kwamena Onoma, The Politics of Property Rights Institutions in Africa (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010); Jürgen Osterhammel, Colonialism: A Theoretical Overview (Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener Publishers, 2010); Crawford Young, The Postcolonial State in Africa: Fifty Years of Independence, 1960-2010 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2012); Chrisitan K. Højbjerg, Jacqueline Knörr, and Anita Schroven, The Interaction of Global and Local Models of Governance: New Configurations of Power in Upper Guinea Coast Societies (Halle/Saale: Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, 2013); Ørnulf Gulbrandsen, The State and the Social: State Formation in Botswana and Its Precolonial and Colonial Genealogies (New York: Berghahn Books, 2014); Mahmood Mamdani, Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018); and Amy Niang, The Postcolonial African State in Transition: Stateness and Modes of Sovereignty (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018).

[4]. See, for example, John Bryan Davis and Asimina Christoforou, eds., The Economics of Social Institutions (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2013); Anita Konzelmann Ziv and Hans Bernhard Schmid, eds., Institutions, Emotions, and Group Agents: Contributions to Social Ontology (Dordrecht: Springer, 2014); and Bondarenko, Kowalewski, and Small, eds., Evolution of Social Institutions.

Citation: Dmitri M. Bondarenko. Review of Peša, Iva, Roads through Mwinilunga: A History of Social Change in Northwest Zambia. H-Africa, H-Net Reviews. November, 2020. URL:

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