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Though seemingly innocent, descriptive, and even commendatory, both “spirits” and “healing” are problematic terms in the history of African studies. Rather than identifying well-bounded domains of African life, both of them have evolved from the history of European attitudes toward Africa. “Spirits” often give rise to problems of well-being that “healing” is called upon to solve. Despite this close connection, spirits have been the primary subject matter of religious studies, whereas healing is among the concerns of anthropology. The study of African religion has thus come to be divided between two disciplines embodying the distinction between “belief” and “knowledge,” the irrational and the rational, developed in Europe during the Enlightenment. Anthropology itself has long divided social life into the separate domains of religion, politics, and economics, assigning the study of each to a different discipline with its own preoccupations and specialized vocabulary. This ethnocentric template misrepresented African societies whose institutions were unlike those of Europe. In the forest zones of West and Central Africa a particular set of beliefs and practices regulated the use of power for personal and collective well-being. Power, or the ability to effect change for good or ill, was and is still thought to be derived from forces called “spirits,” which are in fact as much material as spiritual. Following special procedures, gifted persons obtain power from an otherworld that is simultaneously the earth itself and the land of “the living dead,” who are buried in it. The uses of such power to kill or to cure, for collective or private benefit, define a contrast set of four roles—called for convenience chief, priest, witch, and magician—whose functions are simultaneously moral, political, economic, and therapeutic. This system is open to novel revelations within a stable cognitive framework, and adapts to new conditions. Different ideologies and practices of social regulation are found in other parts of Africa.

Article

Douglas A. Yates

Primeval rainforest at the Equator on the west coast of Africa, the land we know as Gabon, was settled prehistorically by Pygmies during the late Stone Age, and then by Bantu-speaking migrants during the Iron Age. These culturally diverse peoples did not develop a common language or political system with one another until after their violent conquest by Europeans during the colonial era. The Age of Discovery in the 15th century brought European explorers to the coast. The Atlantic triangle trade, with its slave barracoons and entrepôts, transformed some African communities along the coast into centralized kingdoms, and turned other clan-based societies of the forested interior into hunted peoples suspicious of any and all outsiders, European or African. The Scramble for Africa brought military expeditions into Gabon in the 19th century, when French colonial rule was established. Colonialism bestowed on the ethnic groups of Gabon a protonational identity of being “Gabonese,” although this nationalist impulse was muted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by the effort of French authorities and missionaries to assimilate black Africans into France’s culture and civilization. Unassimilated colonial subjects in the interior of the newly conquered territory violently resisted French colonial rule until the world wars, by which time the assimilation project had sufficiently fashioned a new coastal French-educated Gabonese elite. The two world wars weakened France and led these assimilated elites to a call for political reforms, at first taking the form of mono-ethnic-based political parties, but eventually coalescing around multiethnic coalitions, largely francophone in outlook, while retaining many elements of older precolonial identities. Independence in 1960 brought to power three authoritarian rulers—Léon Mba, Omar Bongo, and Ali Bongo—as well as consolidation of an oil-rentier state and an oxymoronic dynastic republic. “Gabonese” national identity emerged, an imagined community constructed out of African music, literature, and art, yet incorporating French as its lingua franca.

Article

Harmony O'Rourke

Cameroon is a nation-state in West Central Africa. Historical evidence about the precolonial period has revealed the diverse ways women valued their motherhood and fertility, knowledge of agriculture production, membership in secret societies, and their role in transitioning deceased women and men through dance and ritual. Women exercised varying levels of power and experienced a spectrum of belonging as wives, mothers, concubines, slaves, queen mothers, and political intermediaries. Near the turn of the 19th century, political centralization and the expansion of long-distance trade produced new forms of inequality for women as wealth became more concentrated in the hands of elite men who sought to control women’s labor and sexuality. With colonial rule and postcolonial nationhood in the 20th century, Cameroonian women were increasingly integrated into a capitalist political economy that supported local patriarchal authority, changed women’s relationships to land, and engendered new socioeconomic inequalities. At the same time, women worked to check gendered disempowerment through secret societies, cooperative groups, schooling, religious conversion, changes in marriage and family structure, entrepreneurship, and new avenues for political engagement. In so doing, Cameroonian women transformed gender roles, struggled against new forms of discrimination, and altered lines of difference among themselves.

Article

Filip Reyntjens

The successive Congo wars (1996–1997; 1998–2003) involved many countries of the region and myriad governmental armies and nonstate armed groups. They were, to a large extent, a spillover from the 1990–1994 Rwandan civil war and the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi. 1.5 million people who fled the country in the wake of the Rwanda Patriotic Front’s military victory settled in Zaire just across the border, and refugee-warriors among them threatened the new regime in place in Kigali. Uganda, Burundi, and Angola were also attacked by insurgent groups operating, at least in part, from Zaire. This led to a regional alliance in support of a Zairean rebel movement that toppled the Mobutu regime in May 1997. The problems at the origin of the first war were not settled with the installation of Laurent Kabila as the new president of what became the Democratic Republic of Congo. Rwanda, followed by Uganda, launched a new war in August 1998, but this was not a remake of the first. As all actors reasoned in terms of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” alliances shifted dramatically and erstwhile friends became enemies. Hostility between Rwanda and Uganda persists up to today. This led to a military stalemate and eventually to a fragile peace deal in 2003. However, the main factors behind the wars have not disappeared, namely the weakness of the Congolese state and the territorial extension of neighboring countries’ civil wars and insurgencies. Eastern DRC remains unstable and widespread violence continuous to claim many civilian lives.

Article

Bogumil Jewsiewicki and Katrien Pype

In the Belgian Congo, colonial authorities such as state officials and missionaries strongly monitored the leisure activities of the urban population. The latter gradually managed to set up their own sphere of entertainment and communication, and appropriated the popular culture offered to the colonial subjects. An example in case is the Bills movement, a type of masculinity developed in colonial Kinshasa (then Léopoldville), and inspired by American western films. The development of local popular cultures happened in local languages, and, among other things, led to hybrid music and dance forms such as rumba and maringa which set the tune of the townships and mining camps. Locally produced musical styles gradually became important vectors in the search for political independence. One can argue that in Francophone Central Africa, popular culture nourished anticolonial sentiment and expression. Postcolonial leaders invested heavily in music and mass media as well. Probably best known is Mobutu’s politics of animation, which happened in Lingala, and served to glorify the leader and to cement national sentiment. This propaganda program was inspired by the rich cultural heritage of ethnic groups, and relied on mass events and mass media. In Kagame’s post-genocide Rwanda, folkloric dance remains an important technology to solidify national cohesion. Since the mid-1990s, as nation states deregulated their media, new radio and television entrepreneurs appeared, and they nourished local popular culture with new styles and genres. In particular, the Nigerian Nollywood films traveled to Central Africa. This happened in the wake of the increased popularity of Pentecostal-Charismatic Christianity, which has generated a thriving gospel culture. The digitalization of society, especially social media platforms such as WhatsApp and Facebook, transformed how people relate to others in the diaspora, spawned new social groups, such as Yoyettes in urban Cameroon, and had an impact on the ways in which people retrieve and share information, as well as how they engage with their leaders. These then provide alternative avenues for expressing and mediating citizenship and kinship.

Article

In the late 15th century, the coast of West-Central Africa was integrated into Atlantic trading circuits due to the actions of Portuguese navigators and traders, supported by the Crown and followed by the Dutch, French, and English. Thousands of people were enslaved through Congolese routes and sold several times until they reached the Americas, where they were put to work in agriculture, artisanal activities, cargo transportation, mining, and domestic and urban services, among many others. The enslaved Central Africans, for three centuries brought to the Caribbean and the Americas, and especially to Brazil, established new communities and cultural manifestations from the knowledge and sensibilities that they brought from their societies of origin. The Congo has been present in the Americas in many ways. One of these was the election of a Congo king, celebrated with festive processions, in which the royal couple and their court paraded through the streets and attended dances with special choreographies set to African musical rhythms. These celebrations articulated and consolidated black identities and existed in various parts of the Americas and the Caribbean. In Brazil, they have been a tradition since colonial times and still go on today, referred to as congadas. Such festivities project an abstract idea of primordial motherland onto the memory of a mythic Congo, annually updated in festive rites that celebrate a Catholic African king and affirm black identities in Brazilian society.

Article

Jeremy Rich

Jean Ping (born November 24, 1942) was a leading figure in Gabonese politics from the late 1980s well into the 21st century. His mother belonged to the Nkomi ethnic group and his father was a rare Chinese resident of Gabon. Like most other young Gabonese intellectuals, he studied abroad in France and then became a supporter of the ruling Parti Démocratique Gabonais (PDG) party. After working as the Gabonese representative to UNESCO, Ping returned to Gabon in 1984. He became a close associate of dictator Omar Bongo, had two children with Bongo’s daughter Pascaline, and held a series of top ministerial posts from 1990 to 2014. Ping became Gabon’s most prominent diplomat. African Union delegates voted for Ping to become the president of the African Union in 2008. He held this position until 2012. Perhaps his greatest disappointment was the failure of the African Union to successfully mediate between Libyan president Muammar Qaddafi, Libyan rebels, and Western countries who chose military intervention to overthrow Qaddafi. Although Ping had become a member of Omar Bongo’s inner circle, he pulled away from the PDG party after Omar’s son Ali Bongo Ondimba won the 2009 presidential elections. Ping quit the PDG in 2014 and ran for president in the 2016 elections. Many Gabonese and outside observers believed Ping triumphed in this contest. The official results that proclaimed Ali Bongo as the winner stated Bongo had won 95% of the vote in Haut-Ogooué province, where supposedly 99% of all eligible voters actually cast their ballot. Ping rejected the findings and declared he was the true president of Gabon. Ping’s career, starting as a young Gabonese intellectual and becoming a member of the PDG elite and finally the leader of the Gabonese opposition, is a crucial part of the political history of Gabon after the end of French colonization.

Article

Roquinaldo Ferreira

Central Africa became deeply intertwined in the Atlantic world with the arrival of the Portuguese in 1482, which opened up a new world of connections between African societies and European and American partners. As a region, central Africa stretches from Gabon to Mossamedes, near the border of the present nation of Namibia. Two distinct patterns of interaction marked the region’s integration into the wider Atlantic world. On the Loango coast, Atlantic trade by Dutch, British, and French merchants favored African kings in the short term but eventually paved the way for the rise of coastal rulers who seized upon wealth amassed through the slave trade to challenge kingship. After first playing out in the kingdom of Kongo, this dynamic unfolded in several other polities, such as the kingdom of Ngoyo and Ndongo. South of the Congo River, Portugal’s ability to carve out coastal enclaves in Luanda and Benguela powerfully shaped the relationship with the Atlantic world. Both cities developed sprawling trading networks with their immediate hinterlands as well as several cities across the Atlantic, particularly in Brazil but later also in Cuba. Although the slave trade formed the cornerstone of trading networks, a continuum of social, cultural, and political ties bridged the ocean. Portuguese institutional and economic presence was deeply dependent on Angola’s ties with Brazil. The two Portuguese colonies interacted bilaterally, and Brazil was not only the source of commodities for the trade in human beings but also in crops, food supplies, and military hardware. Distinct patterns of Afro-European interaction in Loango and Portuguese Angola should not hide the intense trade between these two regions. Since the 17th century, Luanda had depended on the Loango coast for palm-cloth currencies (libongos) that circulated widely in the capital city of Portuguese Angola. Cabinda men sailed to Luanda to purchase tobacco and sell slaves and other goods. As the French and then the British abandoned the slave trade, the direct slave trade with Brazil intensified and altered the structure of shipments of captives. In addition to the tightening Brazilian grip over central Africa’s slave trade, this development further integrated coastal trade between Loango and Portuguese Angola and set the stage for the continuation of shipments of captives until the 1860s.

Article

Joey Power

Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda was an American- and British-trained medical doctor born in Nyasaland at the turn of the last century. He became leader of the Nyasaland African Congress (NAC) from 1958 to its banning in a state of emergency in 1959; became president of its successor party, the Malawi Congress Party (MCP), after his release from detention in April 1960; and in September became that party’s “life president.” He was the prime minister of Malawi’s first independent government formed in July 1964, its first president when Malawi assumed republican status in 1966 under a single-party system, and in 1971 became its life president. Schools, airports, highways, and hospitals bore his name, and his portrait could be seen in every public and private office and home. He was the embodiment of personal rule. The Banda regime became known for its collaborationist politics vis-à-vis apartheid South Africa and Portuguese Mozambique and for the ruthless repression of all political dissent at home. Banda defended his foreign and domestic politics as necessary evils. White regimes were far too powerful to be antagonized by a small land-locked emerging nation state. To do so would be to cut Malawi’s economic, political, and military throat. He maintained cordial relations with the United Kingdom after 1964 and formally eschewed association with communist states during the Cold War. Western states ignored widespread allegations of human rights abuses until the early 1990s when economic decline, the beginning of the end of apartheid, and the thawing of the Cold War led to a resurgence of protest, both foreign and domestic. In the face of this pressure, Banda allowed for a 1993 referendum on multiparty democracy, which led to multiparty elections the following year. He stood and lost as the MCP presidential candidate, and Bakili Muluzi, leader of the United Democratic Front (UDF), formed a government. The Muluzi administration approved a commission of enquiry into the May 1983 deaths of four MCP politicians in a “car accident” that had long been suspected as a cover for state murder. The Mwanza Enquiry (so named for the highway near the border with Mozambique where the “accident” took place) resulted in a criminal trial in which Banda and four others (see Cabinet Crisis and the Establishment of the Politics of Single-Party Personal Rule) were charged with conspiracy to murder but acquitted for lack of evidence. Banda went into retirement and stepped down as life president of the party in July 1997, a move, it has been suggested, to secure his legacy as elder statesman and father of the nation. He died at the Garden Clinic in South Africa on November 25, 1997.

Article

The Grassfields constitutes a dynamic area covering primarily the Northwest and West regions of Cameroon. Considered by many to be the birthplace of the Bantu languages and a primary source of ancient sedentary cultures for Central Africa, the Grassfields witnessed the proliferation of a bewildering number of states beginning perhaps as early as the 16th century. Originally colonized by Germany, the fault line between the later British-controlled Southern Cameroons and the French-controlled Cameroun ran through the Grassfields, dividing the Bamenda groups from the Bamiléké and Bamum. In the postcolonial period, the Grassfields has been the heartland of important political opposition groups including the Union des Populations du Cameroun (UPC) and later the Social Democratic Front (SDF), and more recently of the separatist Ambazonia movement.