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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.
Fatima Mernissi (1940–2015) was a sociologist, writer, feminist, and activist, and above all a free thinker and an avowed humanist. She was committed to dialogue, dismantling all sorts of boundaries, whether between East and West, South and North, women and men, rural and urban, illiterate and educated, activism and academia, as well as that between fiction and scholarly writing. Her work is multifaceted, intersectional, fluid, and organic. In her scholarly writings Mernissi was concerned with identifying and critiquing the different structures that intersect to oppress women, ranging through colonialism, nationalism, patriarchal interpretation of Islam, capitalist development, and imperialism. She was also dedicated to shedding light on subaltern women’s agency, amplifying their voices for the hearing of decision-makers and development planners. She significantly contributed to the emergence of “Third World feminism,” fostering pan-African and transnational feminist solidarity. Credited as one of the founders of “Islamic feminism,” she inspired Muslim women all over the world to advocate for women’s rights from a faith-based position. At the end of her life she identified as a Sufi, committed to fostering civic bonding and synergy between civil-society actors, intellectuals, and ordinary women and their communities, always struggling against elitism and egoism.
Mernissi wrote over sixteen books, edited a significant number of volumes, and authored numerous articles. Some of her books have been translated into over twenty-five languages. She directed many writing workshops and was the founding member of numerous research groups and organizations. Mernissi was also the recipient of prestigious awards, among them the Prince of Asturias Award in 2003 and the Erasmus Prize in the Netherlands in 2004. The Guardian ranked her among the top 100 most influential women in the world in 2011. Another recognition—that of which she would perhaps have been most proud—is the acknowledgment and love ordinary women and their communities, with whom she mixed and worked for decades, continue to vow for? her after her passing.
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.
The nature of motherhood and maternalism in Africa challenges perceptions and assumptions about women, families, and societies in unexpected ways. Across Africa, motherhood has operated as an institution and ideology that shaped social, economic, and political organization, especially before European colonialism expanded across the continent during the late 19th century. The sociocultural significance of biological motherhood and childrearing remains an important theme in the study of the past and the present as African women form families, sometimes outside of the bonds of marriage. Ideas about biological motherhood have also shifted to address health, disease, and sexuality. African women and men are reimagining motherhood in the face of diverse issues such as infertility, the impact of HIV/AIDS, and an emergent, self-identified LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) community.
Similarly, maternalism in Africa extends beyond the common focus on issues such as women’s rights, reproductive health, or children’s education. Maternalist politics in Africa in the 20th and 21st centuries have addressed broader political questions such as state policies, housing, and infrastructure, often with an internationalist vision. Taken together, motherhood and maternalism in Africa not only encompass personal and emotional realms often associated with both terms but also bridge historical and political questions, including ones about belonging and citizenship in an interconnected world.
Over the long haul of geological time, the natural history of Africa’s mountains is a story of the lithosphere’s rise and fall. For hundreds of millions of years, tectonic forces have heaved up layers of metamorphic and igneous material while wind, water, ice, and gravity combined to open basins, scour valleys, and obliterate rock. The most recent phase in mountain building in Africa began in the Miocene (twenty-three million years ago) and continues today. Some mountains, like the volcanic mountains Kilimanjaro and Cameroon, are only a few million years old. Other highlands, like Tanzania’s Eastern Arc Mountains, derive from crystalline rock formed more than thirty million years ago. As they appear on the landscape today, Africa’s mountains present a mix of old and new landforms covered by a biosphere of resident plants and animals that evolved in the countless niches provided by elevation, slope, temperature, rainfall, and aspect. Human beings, relative latecomers to mountain history, have altered the highlands dramatically. In Africa, mountains attract people.
Africa’s mountains do not constitute a discrete subject of study in the discipline of environmental history, though important studies of individual mountain zones do exist. Nor is the historical scholarship limited to the humanities. In studies that are essentially historical in approach, the natural sciences use empirical evidence to reconstruct mountain landscape change under human use. What follows is an attempt to knit together coherently a messy, multi-disciplinary scholarly literature.
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.
Yaa Asantewa, the female ruler of Ejisu, a town near the Asante capital of Kumasi in the Ashanti Region of modern-day Ghana, inspired and led an armed resistance to British colonial rule of the Asante Kingdom from April 1900 until March 1901. The only female Asante ruler known to have commanded a national army, she assumed the mantle of responsibility to preserve the Asante kingdom when no male ruler would step forward. Under her leadership, Asante fighting forces developed the innovative technique of building stockades to block all the major roads and paths leading in and out of the kingdom, won numerous battles against British forces, and trapped the British Governor of the Gold Coast in the British fort in the Asante capital for nearly three months. Judged to be about sixty years old at the time she organized the war against British imperial forces, the elderly queen mother is credited with safeguarding the Golden Stool, the symbol of Asante unity, and fostering pride in the Asante nation. She is an international symbol of dynamic female leadership in a bloody struggle against colonial rule.
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.
Lilian Masediba Matabane Ngoyi was a passionate anti-apartheid and women’s rights advocate and one of the most prominent woman leaders during the 1950s. Born in Pretoria in 1911, she attended primary school through Standard 6 and trained as a nurse for three years before becoming a seamstress. Her marriage to John Ngoyi ended with his death in an automobile accident. In 1945 Ngoyi began working in a garment factory and joined the Garment Workers’ Union of the Transvaal. Her union activism led her to take part in the Defiance Campaign against apartheid laws. Ngoyi’s arrest in 1952 for standing in the whites-only line at the post office in Pretoria changed the course of her life.
From this time onward, while still struggling to support her family, she devoted herself to anti-apartheid activism. A passionate speaker, she was elected to the top positions in the Federation of South African Women and the African National Congress Women’s League and became the first woman elected to the ANC Executive Committee. In 1954, as a delegate to the World Congress of Mothers, she traveled widely in Europe, China, and the Soviet Union. Upon returning to South Africa, Ngoyi was a key leader of the historic demonstrations against passes for women in 1955 and 1956. But her political prominence also made her a target of state repression. First arrested in the Treason Trial in 1956, she was among the anti-apartheid leaders detained after the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960. Between trial appearances and imprisonment, she continued her political activities. In the last two decades of her life, she suffered from a series of banning orders that restricted her to her Soweto home. She died on March 13, 1980.
Njinga a Mbande (1582–1663) is the most famous and controversial historical figure in the history of the West-Central Africa region during the 17th century, the region of present-day Angola. Her political trajectory contributes to the understanding of the troubled context of the Portuguese expansion in the region and the establishment of the Atlantic slave trade. The Ndongo state was at the very core of this struggle, a state mainly comprised of the Mbundu peoples. It was also the Queen’s original birthplace and a major area in the dispute for ensuring control of the trade routes between the inland and coastal regions. The Portuguese arrived in the region in 1575, and settled on the coast. Luanda was the first area of the Portuguese occupation. From there the Portuguese waged wars of conquest, moving toward the sertão (hinterland). On the Portuguese side, the action unfolded in the constant attempt to control the sobas, the local authorities, the construction of fortresses in the Mbundu territory, and the wars that were initially meant to obtain captives and form an African Army (Guerra Preta). The army would later serve Portuguese interests in controlling the routes and fairs (i.e., the hubs, or centers, of slave trade). On the Mbundu authorities’ side, even before the queen’s reign, and later on at her command, the struggles took many forms: the deterrence of the fairs’ functioning; the disorganization of the “tax” system, in which the Portuguese charged the sobas; and the welcoming of hundreds of escaped slaves, as well as other central actions such as wars and diplomatic negotiations.
Njinga a Mbande took on the title Ngola (1624), the position of greatest authority and prestige in the Ndongo. In 1626, after a major campaign by Portuguese settlers, she was expelled from her territory. But by 1631 she re-emerged as a leader, now in another region, Matamba, an important base for her attacks on the areas controlled by the Portuguese. From this region, she made a peace agreement, governing until her natural death at the age of 82.
In the 21st century, historiographical questions abound: how was the leadership of this female figure viewed in terms of legitimacy and gender identity within the power structures of the Ndongo, how was her image publicly projected throughout the region, how did she rise in prominence in European reports, and what was her fundamental impact on the oral tradition of different peoples of West-Central Africa. The presence of Queen Njinga crossed the Atlantic and figures in the imagery of popular and mythical narratives in the Americas.
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?