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While African women in film have distinct histories and trajectories, at the same time they have common goals and objectives. Hence, “African women in film” is a concept, an idea, with a shared story and path. While there has always been the hope of creating national cinemas, even the very notion of African cinema(s) in the plural has been pan-African since its early history. And women have taken part in the formation of an African cinema infrastructure from the beginning. The emergence of an “African women in cinema movement” developed from this larger picture. The boundaries of women’s work extend to the global African diaspora. Language, geography, and colonial legacies add to the complexity of African cinema history. Women have drawn from the richness that this multiplicity offers, contributing on local, national, continental, and global levels as practitioners, activists, cultural producers, and stakeholders.
Animal history in Africa—the multi-species story of the continent’s past—as a separate subdisciplinary “turn” is both recent and tentative, but as an integrated theme within the broader historiography it is both pioneering and enduring. Historians of Africa have long engaged with animals as vectors of change in human history and, of course, at the same time, understood that humans were a key agent of change in animal histories too, especially in the long-lived and extensive writing on epizootics, livestock farming, pastoralism, hunting, and conservation. African animal histories should resist the imposition of intellectual paradigms from the Global North.
In the colonial and postcolonial period, African women have advocated for legal reforms that would improve the status of women across the continent. During the colonial period, European common and civil law systems greatly influenced African indigenous legal systems and further entrenched patriarchal aspects of the law. In the years since independence, women’s rights advocates have fought, with varying degrees of success, for women’s equality within the constitution, the family, the political arena, property rights, rights to inheritance, rights to be free from gender-based violence, rights to control their reproductive lives and health, rights to education, and many other aspects of life. Legal developments at the international, national, and local levels reflect the efforts of countless African women’s rights activists to improve the status of women within the region.
World Wars I and II were very probably the most destructive conflicts in African history. In terms of the human costs—the numbers of people mobilized, the scale of violence and destruction experienced--as well as their enduring political and social impact, no other previous conflicts are comparable, particularly over such short periods as four and ten years, respectively. All told, about 4,500,000 African soldiers and military laborers were mobilized during these wars and about 2,000,000 likely died.
Mobilization on this scale among African peasant societies was only sustainable because they were linked to the industrial economies of a handful of West Central European nation states at the core of the global commercial infrastructure, which invariably subordinated African interests to European imperial imperatives. Militarily, these were expressed in two ways: by the use of African soldiers and supporting military laborers to conquer or defend colonies on the continent, or by the export of African combat troops and laborers overseas—in numbers far exceeding comparable decades during the 18th-century peak of the transatlantic slave trade—to Europe and Asia to augment Allied armies there.
The destructive consequences of these wars were distributed unevenly across the continent. In some areas of Africa, human losses and physical devastation frequently approximated or surpassed the worst suffering experienced in Europe itself; yet, in other areas of the continent, Africans remained virtually untouched by these wars.
These conflicts contributed to an ever-growing assertiveness of African human rights in the face of European claims to racial supremacy that led after 1945 to the restoration of African sovereignty throughout most of the continent. On a personal level, however, most Africans received very little for their wartime sacrifices. Far more often, surviving veterans returned to their homes with an enhanced knowledge of the wider world, perhaps a modicum of newly acquired personal prestige within their respective societies, but little else.
The Empire of Ghana is one of the earliest known political formations in West Africa. Within the context of a growing trans-Saharan trade, Arabic sources begin to mention “Ghāna,” the name of a ruler as well as of the city or country he ruled, in the 9th century. Repeatedly named in connection with fabulous riches in gold, Ghāna had acquired a preeminent role in the western Sahel and was a leader among a large group of smaller polities. Ghāna’s influence waned, and by the mid-14th century its ruler had become subordinate to the Empire of Mali. Over the course of a complex history of research, the Empire of Ghana became equated with the Soninké people’s legend of Wagadu and the archaeological site of Kumbi Saleh in southern Mauritania was identified as its capital. Yet between historical sources, oral traditions, and archaeological finds, little is known with certainty about the Empire of Ghana. Most questions on this early West African empire remain unanswered, including its location, development, the nature and extent of its rule, and the circumstances of its demise.
Raphael Chijioke Njoku
The focus of this discussion is on the lingering questions about the origin, character, importance, and dating of the Igbo-Ukwu findings; what they reveal about the Igbo past; and the interpretations scholars ascribe to them. Named after its location at an Igbo village in southeastern Nigeria, Igbo-Ukwu is an important archeological complex with intricately cast bronze sculptures, chieftaincy paraphernalia, glass pendants, and a wide range of other artifacts and objects that are distinctive in their styles, mysterious in their origins and usages, and revealing in their meanings. For the Igbo, whose early history has been the subject of conjecture, the materials unearthed at the ancient settlement are confirmation of the antiquity of an advanced civilization and its participation in regional and long-distance trade, including the medieval era trans-Saharan trade. The eminent historian Adiele Eberechukwu Afigbo has affirmed that the Igbo of today, like other indigenous peoples without a well-developed writing culture, are “anxious to discover their origin and reconstruct how they came to be who they are” to better understand “the reality of their group identity which they want to anchor into authenticated history.” The Igbo-Ukwu archeological discoveries dated to the 9th century
The French formally colonized Madagascar in 1896. After violently repressing resistance movements, the colonial government began efforts to transform the island into a profitable member of the French Empire by taxing their subjects and instituting a harsh forced labor regime. These exactions were resisted by Malagasy throughout the entire colonial period, culminating in a widespread revolt in 1947. In 1960 Malagasy held their first elections, but the French would continue to exercise political and economic influence over the island’s government for the next twelve years. Madagascar has been ruled by a series of strong presidents who were removed from office following popular unrest and military coups. The pro-French government of Philibert Tsiranana was forced out in 1972. In 1975 the new president, Didier Ratsiraka, implemented socialist policies in the country. After Madagascar experienced a sharp economic decline, Ratsiraka agreed to restructure the economy with the assistance of the IMF and World Bank in the 1980s. Since that period, leaders have struggled to deal with recurring environmental crises and to improve living standards for the island’s residents. The pro-business president Marc Ravalomanana was removed from office following mass protests in the capital, Antananarivo, in 2009. He was replaced by Antananarivo’s mayor, Andry Rajoelina. International groups, viewing such a move as unconstitutional, withdrew economic aid, an act that exacerbated economic crises in the country. Fresh elections were held in 2013 but the victor, Hery Rajaonarimampianina, has dealt with strong challenges from several ex-presidents.
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.
Deolinda Rodrigues is a prominent figure in the Angolan history of the Liberation Struggle. Her thought and life history are relatively unknown in and outside Angola. Reflection on her life and thought is also hampered by the fact that there are few analytical works of literature produced about her life and literary work. Rodrigues is also marginalized in the nationalist historiography on Angola.
Rodrigues’s story is an important one. She was a political activist and nationalist thinker and a woman who struggled in Angola while in exile against the gendered stereotypes of the day and of her compatriots. Studying her life and work opens up late colonial life in Angola for those from the educated classes who fought for their country’s independence from the political, social, economic, and intellectual oppression of Portuguese imperialism. While Rodrigues is considered a heroine in Angola, few Angolans know much about her writing or thinking. Outside Angola she is virtually unknown, yet her life points to the intersection of radical black politics, liberation movements, gendered forms of nationalism, and international beneficence networks that can enrich our understanding of each of these elements.
Rodrigues’s autobiographical work, posthumously published by her brother, Roberto de Almeida, “Diário de um Exílio sem Regresso” (Diary of an exile with no return), 2003 edition, and “Cartas de Langidila e outros Documentos” (Langidila’s letters and other documents), 2004 edition, have made this study possible.
Agathe Uwilingiyimana was the first woman prime minister of Rwanda and only the second woman prime minister on the African continent. A Hutu from southern Rwanda, she was among the first Rwandans killed in the 1994 genocide of Tutsi. She was a political moderate from an opposition political party who rejected ethnic extremism. As the constitutional leader of the country in the wake of the president’s assassination, Hutu extremists killed her so that they could take control of the government. Born to uneducated parents, Uwilingiyimana was among the first women to obtain a bachelor’s degree from the National University of Rwanda in 1985. Before entering politics, she taught high-school science for over a decade. She dedicated her life to promoting women’s equality, removing obstacles to girls’ education, and speaking on behalf of the poor. As one of Rwanda’s first prominent women politicians, Uwilingiyimana faced intense misogyny, particularly from members of extremist Hutu political parties. The media frequently portrayed her naked or in sexual contexts. She was attacked in her own home on multiple occasions and menaced when she appeared in public. She was killed on April 7, 1994, along with her husband and an aide. The Belgian United Nations peacekeepers guarding her were also killed. Her death paved the way for Hutu extremists to take over the government and carry out a genocide targeting Tutsi, members of opposition political parties, human rights activists, and journalists.
Witchcraft in Africa: Political Power and Spiritual Insecurity from the Precolonial Era to the Present
Historically, witchcraft in Africa has not comprised a stable or uniform set of beliefs. The idea of witchcraft, which might loosely be defined as the belief that people exist who use supernatural means to harm others, has existed in African societies from the precolonial, through the colonial, and into the postcolonial periods. But ideas about the kinds of powers that witches are alleged to use and the types of people often accused of using witchcraft have shifted in response to the changing political, economic, and social landscape. While witchcraft beliefs can sometimes be understood as metaphors for political forces and social ills, they must also be understood as separate systems of signs and meanings that have their own historical trajectories rooted in local cultures. Beliefs in witchcraft are beliefs in systems of power derived from unseen forces, and for those people who believe in supernatural powers those forces are quite real and are not merely metaphorical allusions to other phenomena. In the precolonial era, the political power that many chiefs and kings had was based in supernatural powers; these occult powers were potentially usable for either positive, socially accepted ends or for evil, selfish, and greedy ends. In the colonial and postcolonial eras, states and politicians have also been seen to have supernatural powers but are believed to have used them largely for self-enrichment or empowerment.
Systems of global trade, including the trans-Atlantic slave trade and later colonial production of various commodities, both created wealth for a few and inflicted harm on many people. The perceived immorality of these economic and social networks was often captured in stories of witches ambushing people and selling them or consuming their life forces. The spiritual insecurity represented in these beliefs in witchcraft has continued into the postcolonial era.
Mary H. Moran
Liberia is a small country on the west coast of Africa, lying within the monsoon tropical forest belt and recording some of the highest annual precipitation rates of any place on earth. Early agriculturalists adapted rain-fed rice to the forest clearings and the alternating wet and dry seasons, with women providing the majority of the labor in food production. Regional trade routes have historically linked this area with savannah polities to the north and west, exchanging products such as gold, salt, hides, and dye woods across multiple environmental and climatic zones. Europeans who arrived by ship beginning in the 1460s redirected some of this trade toward the coast, making access to the sea strategically important and creating a new source of employment for male laborers as longshoremen and mariners. In the early 19th century, the coast became a site of settlement for free people of color from the United States, and Liberia declared its independence as a republic in 1847.
As in other West African countries, documentary sources on women’s lives are minimal, yet Liberia stands out for the impressive number of women who have achieved international distinction in the 20th and 21st centuries. This small country of fewer than five million people has produced the first woman president of an African national university, the first African woman to chair the United Nations General Assembly, and the first woman elected president of an African country. Liberian women in the past and the present have used their position as breadwinners, as mothers, as community leaders, and as ritual specialists to shape events and assert authority over others. In the early 21st century, they have become known especially for their success in peacemaking, resulting in two Nobel Peace Prize winners in 2011. Comparing the careers of some prominent Liberian women over the decades shows that willingness to reach across lines of ethnicity and language and the ability to coordinate resources from both rural and urban areas have been key factors in explaining this success.
Philip M. Peek
Southern Nigeria is rich in copper alloy cast works, such as those of the 9th-century burial goods of Igbo-Ukwu, the busts from 13th-century Ife, and the heads and plaques from the early 16th century from Benin City. Much scholarship has been devoted to these centers and yet there are other, perhaps even more historically important, works which have barely been acknowledged. The label “Lower Niger Bronzes” was proposed in the 1960s by William Fagg to account for those few pieces which did not fit with the three well-known centers’ works.
On closer examination, these bronzes are far more numerous and of greater antiquity than previously realized. The quality and composition of these works indicate that most were likely cast prior to the European coastal trade in Nigeria which dates from the late 15th century. Leopard skull replicas, humanoid bell heads, small hippos, scepter heads, and masks make up only a portion of the works now under study. Without their original cultural contexts, these artifacts are somewhat mysterious, yet with careful study of their compositions and forms, much is revealed of a period of southern Nigerian history which predates the current arrangement of ethnic groups.
The Mali Empire is one of the largest and most widely known precolonial African states. It has featured in films, video games, works of fiction, and its memory is still a profound force in the articulation of social and political identities across Mande West Africa. Founded in the 13th century in the south of modern Mali, it quickly grew from a small kingdom to a vast empire stretching from the Senegambia in the west to Ivory Coast in the south. Before its disintegration in the late 16th century, its connections to distant trade networks stretched from Europe to China and its rulers became famous across the Old World for their wealth. In the absence of indigenous written histories, knowledge of the Mali Empire has been based on a complex combination of oral traditions, medieval Arabic chronicles, European accounts, oral histories, and archaeology. Through a critical analysis of these sources, it has been possible to learn much about Mali’s history, including aspects its social organization, political structure, belief systems, and historical evolution. However, there is much we still do not know, including the location and nature of its capital(s).
Oral history tells of an indigenous trader who lived in the middle belts of the River Gambia known as Kambi. His wealth and popularity transcended boundaries, villages, and communities from the interior of western Africa to the Atlantic Ocean. When the Portuguese arrived in the region during the first half of the 15th century, they immediately realized that Kambi wielded economic and social authority because of the frequent movements of traders up and down the river. The traders told the Portuguese that they visited Kambi-yaa (or Kambi’s place in Mandinka) in order to trade, and the Portuguese decided to name the region Gambia.
Whether the above oral narrative is accurate is not of great concern. What is important is that the account provides a glimpse of the history of the region and the changes that were already under way by the 15th century. It is evident that the ancestors of present-day Gambians had arrived in waves, or series of migrations, and were fully established on both banks of the Gambia River when Portuguese explorers first arrived in the 15th century. The Portuguese reported having found Mandinka kings on the river who claimed to be vassals of the king of “Melle.” In 1620, Richard Jobson also reported that the Mandingo were the “lords and commanders” of all the Gambia. These early 15th century contacts, led to a continuous Europeans’ presence in the River Gambia that still persist. By 1816, Bathurst was established as the new capital of the Gambia but it was not until nearly 100 years later that the entire territory we now know as Gambia came firmly under British influence. British rule lasted until 1965, when a new era of self-rule began. The country has since witnessed three republics, the first ending in 1994, the second in 2016, and the third still existing as of 2018.
Julius Kambarage Nyerere (1922–1999) was the East African nation of Tanganyika’s (from 1964: Tanzania) central political figure from the struggle against colonialism in the 1950s, through the attainment of political independence in 1961, and into the late 20th century. After briefly serving as Tanganyika’s first prime minister, he was the country’s first president from 1962 until 1985. From these positions and his thirty-five years as the chairman of the ruling party, Nyerere profoundly shaped Tanzania’s political and societal trajectory. Under the guiding ideology of ujamaa (“familyhood”) African socialism, he set out a vision of society built on egalitarian principles and the mutual obligation of its members toward one another. His commitment to this vision saw Nyerere fight for equal rights under inclusive citizenship irrespective of race, ethnicity, and religion in Tanzania and liberation from colonialism and racist rule in Southern Africa. In 1967, the famous Arusha Declaration reinforced the socialist aspects of ujamaa and resulted in nationalizations, the dramatic curbing of the ability of elites to accumulate wealth, and the reshaping of Tanzania’s rural areas in a massive resettlement campaign—notionally a first step in the building of socialist villages. Nyerere was able to override resistance to these policies through a combination of his personal authority with the public and the political class, the ruling party’s institutional monopoly he instituted in the political arena, and resort to usually mild forms of coercion. Thus imposing his vision of a just society over challenges and against resistance that he perceived as illegitimate or misguided, Nyerere practiced a politics that was often in tension with his professed democratic ideals. Although Nyerere was an authoritarian ruler, his voluntary retirement from political office and his support for the 1992 reintroduction of multi-party politics are indications that personal and institutional power had not become an end unto itself for him and that he was willing to relinquish both when holding on to them no longer seemed imperative or, indeed, effective in securing the larger political purposes he pursued.
South Africa’s Apartheid Wars had a profound effect on shaping the postcolonial landscape of the region, as well as the country itself. This much is evident from the difficulties encountered by the liberation movements in making the transition to government. The armed struggle and the experience of exile left a deep imprint on these movements and shaped them as political organizations. They have not been able to divest themselves of internal hierarchical structures, as well as intolerant and authoritarian tendencies. On the other hand, the counterrevolutionary war waged by the apartheid state’s security nexus delayed decolonization and shaped the political culture considerably. The militarization of South African society undermined civil-military relations, contributed to a legacy of corruption in the defense sector, and proved detrimental to the practices of governance.
The integration of the armed formations of the state and the liberation movements into new national armies were fraught processes. Reconciliation became the byword in Zimbabwe, Namibia, and South Africa, but only the latter established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) as an exercise in nation-building. However, cohesion and consensus remain elusive as the fault lines of colonial and apartheid society are still very much in evidence. Moreover, the governments of the region harbor resentment about South Africa’s dominance of the region and remain suspicious of its intentions. Therefore, relations between these states, and groups within them, are still prickly. The conflicts might be over but the countries of the region are still having to deal with contestations over their remembrance and commemoration.
Between 1800 and 1900, West Africa’s coastal states struggled to maintain autonomy in the face of imperial overtures from European trade partners. Simultaneously, these states coped with an overwhelming buildup of domestic slaves, some of whom rose to unprecedented higher political and economic positions. One particular individual, King Jaja of Opobo, came to the fore as an extreme example of how slaves became more capable of taking advantage of the changing political, religious, and economic landscape of the Eastern Niger Delta during this period.
Born Mbanaso Ozurumba in the Igboland village of Umuduruoha in 1821, Jaja, as he would become known to his European trading partners, traversed the domestic slave systems of Southeastern Nigeria and arrived in the Delta trading state of Bonny in 1833. He obtained tremendous wealth and political influence through the burgeoning palm oil trade, ultimately becoming the head of one of Bonny’s most influential canoe-houses. Due to an internal dispute with a rival canoe-house in the late 1860s, Jaja removed his followers to a previously uninhabited island and cut off Bonny’s access to the lucrative interior oil markets. From 1871 on, Jaja monopolized the palm oil trade in the region to become the most influential trader from his new position as king of the island community, which he would name Opobo. However, by 1884, the relationship between Jaja and his British trade partners deteriorated, leading to Jaja’s exile in the West Indies. Political pressure forced the British to return Jaja to Opobo. Unfortunately, the once-powerful slave-turned-king died while trying to return home in 1891.
E. Ann McDougall
The Sahara: bridge or barrier? Today, most would answer that the desert was more a historical facilitator than hindrance in moving commodities, ideas, and people between North and sub-Saharan Africa. A recent publication even coined a new name for the region: “trans-Saharan Africa.”
However, the Sahara is also a place where people live. Complex societies, sophisticated polities, extensive economies—all flourished at various times, waxing and waning in response to much the same factors as societies elsewhere. It is just that in the Sahara the vagaries of climate and the availability of water always established the parameters of development. A long-term drying era led to the dispersal of the Late Stone Age Dhar-Tichitt agro-pastoral settlements in eastern Mauritania, but in the east, Lake “Mega-Chad” shrank, leaving rich, sandy soils that attracted new cultivators. The Garamantes people of the Libyan Fezzan overcame their lack of water by developing a sophisticated underground irrigation system that supported an urbanized, cosmopolitan civilization that outlasted the Roman Empire.
The introduction of the camel in the 4th century and the gradual growth of Islam from at least the 9th century added new possibilities for economic, cultural, and religious life. The Sahara benefited from the sequence of medieval empires emerging across its southern desert edge. Camel pastoralism, salt mining, oasis agriculture, and expansive trade networks shaped the region’s economy; those same networks facilitated cultural and scholarly exchanges. As Islam took root, growing its own understandings of North African and Middle Eastern schools of thought, a prodigious body of Saharan scholarship was created. It underpinned much of the jihad-led political upheaval and state-building in the 18th and 19th Sahel.
Saharan clerics also directed their religious fervor against the invasion of French imperialists; “pacification” took the colonialists decades to achieve. But the impact of this violence exacerbated traditional clan conflict and disrupted economic life. So too did policies aimed at sedentarizing pastoralists and reshaping their social relations in the interests of the colonial economy. Much talked-about but largely ineffective efforts to abolish slavery had far less real impact than taxation policies; these both suppressed traditional exactions such as those levied by “warriors” and introduced new ones, including those to be paid in forced labor. Life in the Sahara became increasingly untenable. The arrival of Independence did nothing to address colonial legacies; the years of drought that devastated herds and crops in the desert and along its edge less than a decade later further fueled both political instability and economic crisis. That today the region nurtures radicalized Islamic movements promising to return “true meaning” (not to mention material benefits) to that life is not surprising.
Susana Carvalho and Megan Beardmore-Herd
The origin of technology is believed to have marked a major adaptive shift in human evolution. Understanding the evolutionary process(es) underlying the first human adaptation to tool use, and the subsequent process(es) that led Homo sapiens to become the only extant primate fully dependent on technology, is one of the most stimulating topics of research of present-day archaeology. New fields of research have been founded (e.g. primate archaeology, Pliocene archaeology) during the quest to find out how old technology is, where it originated, and who were the first tool users. Historically, the vast majority of the information on this topic comes from the study of lithic (stone) tools, tools whose manufacture was generally believed to be a uniquely human characteristic until well into the 1960s. The production of lithic technology was linked first to the origin of the earliest hominins (the taxonomic group comprising modern humans, extinct human species, and all immediate human ancestors), being thought to have co-evolved with traits such as bipedalism or hunting/scavenging, and later to the evolution of the genus Homo and accompanying increases in brain size. As a result of breakthroughs in the field of primatology, and greater interdisciplinary work between archaeologists and primatologists, a paradigm shift in beliefs surrounding the uniqueness of human technology is underway. Following discoveries from the second half of the 20th century and the early 21st century, habitual tool use, tool manufacture, and the production of flakes are now known to occur in extant non-human species, firmly decoupling brain size expansion, bipedalism, and the origins of technology. Knapped stone tools and cut-marked bones have been discovered dating to ca. half a million years before the earliest evidence of Homo, giving rise to the possibility that earlier, previously unconsidered hominins, or even other extinct non-human primates, could have been responsible for the inception of tool use and manufacture. Following these advances, it is reasonable to hypothesize that the origins of technology may lie much further back in time than the earliest discovered modified stone tools—perhaps as far back as the late Miocene with the last common ancestor of Homo and Pan. Moreover, discoveries of lithic technology in more distantly related species, where convergent evolution is the most parsimonious explanation, strongly suggest the existence of multiple evolutionary pathways for technological emergence. While there is still much to unearth, the extension of the antiquity of modified stone tools, combined with the increased focus on interdisciplinary studies between archaeologists, primatologists, and paleoanthropologists, has gone a long way in overturning outdated beliefs by demonstrating that the development of technology is unlikely to have been a simple, linear process resulting from a single event or factor in the evolutionary history of humans.