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Robert S. Kramer
It is tempting to seek an auspicious beginning for the Sudanese city of Omdurman, given its eventual significance, but there is none to be found. From its humble origins as a watering place for local pastoralists on the west bank of the Nile, and a mere hamlet and waystation for travelers by the early 19th century, it grew rapidly in the 1880s into a crowded market center, an administrative capital, and even a holy city: all due to the tumultuous events of the Sudanese Mahdist movement (or Mahdiyyah) of 1881–1898. And while it was not the intention of Muhammad Ahmad al-Mahdi to found anything—he considered Omdurman just another “spot” (buq‘a) among the many he had camped at—the policies of his successor and the devotion of his followers enlarged and ennobled the place, transforming it into the dominant urban center of the Nilotic Sudan.
As a holy city, Omdurman can hardly be compared to such places as Jerusalem, Rome, or Mecca, with their centuries or even millennia of existence; and although it resembles Shaykh ‘Uthman dan Fodio’s city of Sokoto in northern Nigeria as the capital of an expansionist jihadist state, it also differs from it in some important ways. Ultimately, whether one considers its messianic or economic importance, its military or administrative functions, its planned or spontaneous origins, Omdurman is remarkable for becoming, in just over a decade’s time, one of the most important cities across Sudanic Africa. Moreover, the experience of the Sudanese people in so tribally and ethnically diverse an urban environment, under such concentrated and extreme conditions, both impelled by the policies of the state and inspired by fervent Mahdist belief, helped to accelerate ongoing social changes, which ultimately led to the formation of a more coherent national identity.
The history of North Africa from the coming of Islam to the rise of the Almoravid Empire in the 11th century is a crucial period in the making of the Islamic Maghrib. From 600
Souad T. Ali
Mariama Ba was a renowned feminist, author, and advocate for women’s rights in her home country of Senegal, Africa, and globally. After attending and thriving at the French École Normale postsecondary school for girls, Ba became a teacher and education inspector for many years. Ba went on to write two novels: So Long a Letter, originally published in 1979, and Scarlet Song, published in 1981. Both novels are critical of polygamy in African life and examine the various ways in which women deal with similar situations, celebrate sisterhood, and demonstrate that there is no right or wrong way to be a feminist. Mariama Ba’s texts demonstrate clear criticism of the polygamous society she grew up in and the abuse of religion by some men to further their agenda. Ba’s essay, “The Political Functions of Written African Literatures,” describes her belief that a writer should be political and serve as a critic of surrounding society and misogynist practices.
Mariama Ba’s personal life clearly influenced her written works, a topic that has been thoroughly examined in much of the scholarly literature that has been written about her. Ba did not try to define feminism. Rather, she understood that it is different for every woman and is a reflection of background, culture, history, and religion. Ba believed it was her mission as a writer to be a voice for the most vulnerable members of society. Ba was a leader in emerging global feminism and created written works that discussed topics that cross cultural barriers and demonstrate the unity of humanity.
Lance van Sittert
The South African fisheries are environmentally bifurcated by the different current regimes on the west (Benguela) and east (Agulhas) coasts. Limited precolonial subsistence use of the littoral zone was supplemented from the mid-17th century by commercial harvesting of marine mammals for international trade and fish to ration imported slave labor. The liberalization of trade after 1814 led to the commercialization of Benguela fisheries by Cape Town merchants drying barrracouta (snoek) for export to ration indentured Indian labor on the sugar plantations of the southwest Indian Ocean and canning rock lobster to feed the urban bourgeoisies of Europe. The mineral revolution in the final quarter of the 19th century created an expanded southern African demand for fish in the new mining centers of the subcontinent, prompting the colonial state to pioneer the demersal fisheries of the Agulhas current, which were monopolized for the first half of the 20th century by British-owned steam trawlers. The motorization of rock lobster fishing in the same period created widespread poverty in the inshore subsistence fisheries. This became an increasingly politicized issue as Afrikaner nationalists laid blame on the British monopoly over the national fish market. Proposed state nationalization of the demersal fishery and reorganization of the inshore fisheries into cooperatives was defeated in 1944 in favor of state financing of private capital through the provision of research, infrastructure, and finance. Afrikaner nationalists after 1948 utilized the latter to engineer the rapid industrialization of the pelagic inshore fisheries and concomitant rise of Afrikaner capital. Falling inshore catches and increasing foreign competition in the demersal fishery led to a crisis in the 1960s that was resolved through the creation and strict conservation of an exclusive economic zone south of the Orange River coupled with the looting of the Namibian colony’s fish resources. The postcolonial states in Namibia (1990) and South Africa (1994) thus inherited severely depleted fisheries resources dominated by white capital and superintended by neoliberal states, severely constraining black capital formation. Both consequently satisfied themselves with blackening the white monopolies and defending their exclusive resource access against escalating insurgencies from the excluded black underclass.
The emergence, spread, and transformation of media technologies in North Africa has attracted much attention over the past decade. Yet the disruptive effects of technological mass media have been a defining feature of North African modernity from the mid-19th century to the present. Classically distinguished from pre-modern oral and scribal transmissions by “technological reproducibility,” mass media offer capacities both for simultaneous collective address (i.e., broadcast), and for nearly limitless copying (i.e., reproduction) and re-transmission (i.e., sharing). As such, dramatic expansions in mass media, from print journals, or “the press,” to electronic broadcast media of radio and television, small media of audio and video cassettes, and Internet-based and mobile digital media, have sustained modern North African political movements and mass publics, from anticolonial nationalism to postcolonial nation-state building and the 21st-century Arab Spring. Any understanding of contemporary mass media, including digital media, in North Africa must consider how these current media movements reprise and transform earlier forms of political consciousness, community, and protest grounded in a century of new media.
Over the last couple of centuries, there has been a profound shift in the things which Africans have around them, or in other words their material culture. At differing speeds and to different extents, depending on the part of the continent and the political and religious positioning of the people concerned, the goods of the globalized world have penetrated to the farthest reaches of Africa. Belongings, and thus identities, have taken on new forms. This, however, is not a completely new phenomenon, as Africans have been absorbing things from outsiders to the continent for as long as there have been humans outside Africa. Understanding these shifts, and analyzing the causes and consequences thereof, requires the study of a wide variety of types of sources, many of which are dealt with by historians of Africa with a rare degree of sophistication, so that the fascinating stories of material change can be fully examined.
Govan Mbeki was a South African politician, writer, long-term political prisoner, and father of President Thabo Mbeki. His political career was distinctive among African leaders of his generation in two respects. First, he combined sustained efforts at rural mobilization and a leading role in building a militant urban organization. His long-held belief in the political importance of rural people carried little weight in the African National Congress (ANC), an overwhelmingly urban nationalist movement. Second, he was both an activist and an intellectual, leaving a body of writing produced over six decades, including a remarkable set of prison writings and a landmark study of rural protest. An ANC member from 1935, he emerged in the late 1950s and early 1960s as a senior leader of both the ANC and the underground South African Communist Party (SACP) and also their armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), formed in 1961. He was sentenced at the Rivonia Trial in June 1964 to life imprisonment, together with Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, and five others. Mbeki spent twenty-three years in prison on Robben Island, during which time significant tensions emerged between him and Mandela. He was active in encouraging other prisoners to study academically and was central to an ambitious program of political education. Mbeki was released in November 1987 and died in August 2001, by which time his oldest son, Thabo, had succeeded Nelson Mandela as the country’s president.
Definitions of and explanations for mental illness differ between societies and have changed over time. Current use of the term arises from secular and materialist epistemologies of the body and mind, influential from the 18th century, which rejected the spiritual or supernatural as causes of illness. Since the 19th century, a specialist body of study, of law, practices, professionals, and institutions developed to investigate, define, diagnose, and treat disorders and illnesses of the mind. This was the emergence of psychiatry and of a professional psychiatric sector. With origins in the West, at a time of capitalism and imperialism, psychiatry was brought to South Africa through colonialism, and its development has been strongly influenced by the country’s economic, political, ideological, and medico-scientific histories. There have been significant continuities: the sector has always been small, underfunded, and prioritized white men. Black patients were largely neglected. Discrimination and segregation were constant features, but it is helpful to identify three broad phases of the history of the psychiatric sector in South Africa. First, its most formative period was during colonial rule, notably from the mid-1800s to c. 1918, with an institutional base in asylums. The second broad phase lasted from the 1920s to the 1990s. A national network of mental hospitals was created and changes in the ways in which mental illnesses were classified occurred at the beginning of this period. Some new treatments were introduced in the 1930s and 1950s. Law and the profession’s theoretical orientations also changed somewhat in the 1940s, 1960s, and 1970s. Institutional practice remained largely unchanged, however. A third phase began in the 1980s when there were gradual shifts toward democratic governance and the progressive Mental Health Act of 2002, yet continued human rights violations in the case of the state duty of care toward the mentally ill and vulnerable.
Sharon E. Nicholson
Environmental constraints have large impacts on populations, especially in semi-arid regions such as Africa. Climate and weather have long affected African societies, but unfortunately the traditional climatic record for the continent is relatively short. For that reason, historical information has often been used to reconstruct climate of the past. Sources of historical information include reports and diaries of explorers, settlers, and missionaries; government records; reports of scientific expeditions; and historical geographical and meteorological journals. Local oral tradition is also useful. It is reported in the form of historical chronicles compiled centuries later. References to famine and drought, economic conditions, floods, agriculture, weather events, and the season cycle are examples of useful types of information. Some of the records also include meteorological measurements. More recently chemical and biological information, generally derived from lake cores, has been applied to historical climate reconstruction. Early works provided in most cases qualitative, discontinuous information, such as drought chronologies. However, a statistical method of climate reconstruction applied to a vast collection of historical information and meteorological data allowed for the creation of a two-century, semi-quantitative “precipitation” data set. It consists of annual indices related to rainfall since 1800 for ninety regions of the African continent. This data set has served to illustrate several 19th-century periods of anomalous rainfall conditions that affected nearly the entire continent. An example is widespread aridity during several decades early in that century.
Increasingly, methods not traditionally used by historians are becoming available for the study of African historical geography, landscapes, and environmental change. Starting with an outline of the main determinants of vegetation formations across African landscapes, the article goes on to look at a selection of macro, micro, and modeling methods. Remote sensing allows analysis of land cover change over the past few decades but also shows enduring features useful in interpreting sources describing these landscapes at times long past. Google Earth–type software makes it possible to take a virtual walk through landscapes with key informants in the present day, exploring how the land was used and has changed. Geographical information systems make it possible to collate different spatially explicit types of information, including qualitative data, for quantitative and statistical analysis. At the other end of the scale, pollen, diatoms, foraminifera, and other micro-particles (spicules, phytoliths, cuticles, micro-charcoal) from lake or oceanic sediment cores, and the chemical and isotopic composition of organic remains, all convey information about the environmental context of a site and its surroundings. Carbon isotope or thermoluminescence dating techniques can pinpoint the changes they indicate across potentially very long time spans. Genetic, protein, and other molecular materials may allow precise lineages and migrations to be traced back across very long periods and distances. Finally, modeling makes it possible to use sparse historical and more robust recent data to predict possible pasts in exploratory but evidence-based ways. The disequilibrium debate in drylands illustrates how environmental narratives, strategically used, silence place-based knowledge in ways that science, seeing itself as apolitical, is not well placed to detect.
Migration has been a central factor in African history. It is likely that the human species started spreading on the planet within and outside of Africa between 2 and 2.5 million years ago. Although the earliest stages of human migrations are the subject of intense debate, most hypotheses concentrate on movements that occurred in the African continent. In historical times, African migrations can be divided into two broad sub-fields looking at, respectively: people moving because they were forced to and people choosing to move on their own free will. Africa has been the source of the largest forced migrations in history. The trans-Atlantic slave trade was the largest long-distance forced migration of people, even though it happened over a shorter period than the trans-Saharan and Indian Ocean slave trades. Within Africa, trade across complementary ecological zones and the seasonality of production propelled free migrations of traders and workers involved in long distance trade. Following the abolition of slavery and the slave trade, free labor migrations rose in importance. European colonialism introduced the need for cash that was often only accessible in cities and areas of cash crop production. It was also responsible for the introduction of new forms of forced labor required for the building and maintenance of colonial infrastructure. The rise of development as a rationale for the government of African societies influenced migrations in multiple ways through national and international policies aimed at channeling people’s mobility. In the last two centuries, African migrants have been unfolding projects of self-development by traveling to places where they hoped to find better opportunities. Yet contemporary trafficking and displacements caused by wars, intolerance, and natural catastrophes attest to the continuing relevance of violence as a key aspect of the experience of African migrants.
Jane I. Guyer and Karin Pallaver
African peoples have managed multiple currencies, for all the classic four functions of money, for at least a thousand years: within each society’s own circuits, in regional exchange, and across the continent’s borders with the rest of the world. Given the materials of some of these currencies, and the general absence of formalized denominations until the colonial period, some early European accounts defined certain transactions as barter. The management of multiplicity is traced through four eras: a) the precolonial period, with some monies locally produced and acquired, and others imported through intercontinental trades, such as the Atlantic slave trade, and eventually under the expansion of capitalism to Africa; b) the colonial period, when precolonial monies, in some places, still circulated with official monies; c) postcolonial national monies for the new African states; and d) the most recent phase of multiplicity in use, due to migration and sales across borders as well as to the use of new technologies, such as mobile money. The management of multiplicity thereby has a long history and continues to be an inventive frontier. History and ethnography meet on common ground to address these dynamics through empirical study of money in practice, and broader scholarship has drawn on a large variety of original sources.
Asma’u bint Shehu Usman dan Fodio (1793–1865) was an Islamic scholar, poet, and educational leader in what is now Northern Nigeria. She is best known as Nana Asma’u. A daughter of Shehu Usman dan Fodio, the founder of the Sokoto Caliphate and sister to one of the Shehu’s successors, Muhammad Bello, Nana Asma’u used her writings to help the Shehu in his quest to break the syncretistic practice of Islam in Hausaland, convert more people to Islam, and help the newly reformed community of faithful Muslims maintain their orthodox religious practice. As one of the longest surviving members of Shehu’s family and of the Degel community, her prolific literary output and enduring presence helped shape the reputation of the Shehu, Muhammad Bello, and early 21st-century scholarship of the Sokoto Caliphate.
As a member of a Fulani scholarly family of long standing, Nana Asma’u benefitted from an early childhood education taught by the scholarly Fulani women of her family. She also transformed that tradition of women as the first teachers of Islamic religious knowledge. Nana Asma’u educated not only children but men and women and established the yan-taru (the associates or disciples), a school of women teachers who traveled to rural areas to improve Hausa women’s education. She was a prolific writer of poems in three languages. Her writings continue to be read, memorized, and recited: the yan-taru concept of making education accessible, especially to women, continues into the 21st century and has expanded into the United States.
The union between the former French Cameroun and the British Southern Cameroons on October 1, 1961, to form the Federal Republic of Cameroon was a unique experiment in nation building and the struggle for independence in Africa. For instance, the Union des Populations du Cameroun (UPC), the first truly nationalist party in the former French trusteeship that advocated immediate independence and reunification with the British Cameroons, was banned in May 1955 by French colonial authorities because of its radical views, since France was still reluctant to grant its African colonies complete independence. For France, the choice of who and which party could lead the territory to independence depended on who French authorities thought could guarantee continued relations with France following independence. In the end, Ahmadou Ahidjo and his Union Camerounaise (UC) emerged as the best candidate to meet France’s objectives in a postcolonial Cameroun. On the other hand, because of the colonial arrangement that allowed Britain to administer its section of the former German colony as part of its colony of Nigeria to the west, the nationalist struggle took a different trajectory and was more against Nigerian rather than British colonial domination. In other words, for many Southern Cameroonians, the focus by the two major parties (Kamerun National Democratic Party (KNDP) and Cameroons Peoples’ National Convention (CPNC)) during the campaign leading to the plebiscite on February 11, 1961, was whether the territory should be part of the Republic of Cameroun, which was engulfed in violence and bloodshed following its independence on January 1, 1960, or face the threat of Igbo domination if Southern Cameroonians decided to become part of an independent Nigeria.
Newspapers have become increasingly important as a source for African history, and the range of historical questions newspapers have been employed to address has expanded dramatically. Newspapers are not only sources for political history, they also have much to teach us about the social, cultural, and intellectual history of Africa. They were spaces of literary and textual experimentation. They also played an important role in the creation of new identities. It is essential, however, that we approach newspapers critically as sources and think carefully about their limitations, as well as the opportunities they present to the historian.
The workings of modern empire can better be viewed through the lens of gender because gendered hierarchies illuminate broad, intersecting aspects of the colonial project.
Community, kinship, household economies, religion, education, sexuality, social engineering, nationalism, and transnational reform movements were all inflected by imperial patriarchy in various guises. This perspective is especially rich for “French” North Africa (Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco) from 1830 until 1962 since the region and its peoples were subjected to intense forms of “European” settler colonialism. From the start, the “woman question” assumed particularly fraught and contentious dimensions whose repercussions can be detected even today. Nevertheless, colonial North Africa did not represent a self-enclosed container. Transimperial and global processes shaped the sociopolitical terrain, and in turn. Policies, practices, and resistance in the Maghrib exerted a powerful torque far beyond its limits. Key to understanding women, gender, and settler colonialism is the state of the “archive,” the sprawling corpus of records, writings, words, things, and images left in an empire’s wake. The voices of women, children, and “ordinary” people, those labeled “the colonized,” have until recently been missing in conventional narratives. As Antoinette Burton observed, the archives themselves structure “the conceptual frameworks of women’s and gender history.” In the imperial historical context, the task of recuperating and restoring lost voices is all the more problematic, yet urgent. One might also add that the fundamental question is “whether ‘women’ is a category at all.”
The use of numerical data and statistical sources in African history has expanded in recent decades, facilitated by technological advances and the digitization of primary sources. This expansion has included new analysis of traditional measures (population, government, and trade) as well as new sources of individual-level data such as census returns, marriage registers, and military and police records. Overall, this work has allowed for a more comprehensive quantitative picture of Africa’s history, and in particular facilitated comparisons within Africa and between African countries and other parts of the world. However, there remain misunderstandings about the collection, use, and interpretation of these data. Increasingly sophisticated methods of quantitative analysis can alienate scholars who have an intimate knowledge of the data and how they are produced, but lack specialist methodological training. At the same time, limited understanding of the origins and reliability of quantitative data can lead to misinterpretation.
Historians, anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, and independent scholars have used oral history and life history, two slightly different but complementary methods, in order to help researchers develop a deeper understanding of the past in Africa. While both methods are best employed when analyzing late-19th-, 20th-, and early-21st-century history, these methods have also been used in histories of slavery and with survivors of trauma, displacement, and marginalization. Oral history is quite effective in gathering the histories of nonliterate populations, or people who are considered marginal to the larger society. While the study of oral history and life history has been powerfully fruitful in Africa, researchers must take care to consider both the benefits and limitations of these approaches. Is an oral history account the ultimate example of an unmediated African voice or do both individual and group memories reflect the selective memory that occurs as a result of the power dynamics evident in any society?
The use of oral tradition is a distinctive and essential element in many fields of African studies. History must acknowledge it; literature sees it as the medium for much of the indigenous creative endeavor across African cultures; anthropology and its cousin disciplines rely upon oral information for their understanding of traditional societies. An appreciation of the value of the oral tradition as a source across disciplines involves two efforts: first, a survey of the reported oral tradition as available and documented in past periods, and second, a review of the principles and practices involved in the collection, analysis, and presentation of the oral tradition.
The paucity of written records has been grounds for dismissal of the notion of African history—most notoriously in the case of Hegel, who in ignorance wrote off the home of the human species—and more recently a cause of pride among African intellectuals who have asserted the value of the oral tradition in the face of skepticism rooted in prejudice and too often in overt racism. An appreciation of the value of the oral tradition threads its path between extremes and occasional controversy. The era of the smartphone has made the documentation (and creation) of oral tradition almost too easy. Past generations made do in different ways. Their reports should not be dismissed, but studied; they are the available background to information collected in the modern era. Accurate collection and critical analysis are the essential tools for the understanding of oral tradition.
Pastoralist societies arose in the arid and semi-arid western regions of southern Africa over the last 2000 years. These were both Bantu-speaking and Khoekhoe-speaking groups who practiced diverse combinations of carnivorous and milch pastoralism but also maintained some dependence on hunting and gathering, with varying but generally minimal reliance on agriculture. Historical sources provide many insights into pastoral culture and husbandry practices, but archaeological and ethnographic evidence is critical to the understanding of precolonial pastoralism. Most research has concentrated on the Cape Khoen, but increasingly, a broader view has come to include archaeological and ethnographic evidence from other parts of the region, casting new light on the origins and growth of pastoralism in southern Africa.