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Obafemi Awolowo  

Insa Nolte

Obafemi Awolowo (full Yoruba name: Ọbafẹ́mi Jeremiah Oyèníyì Awólọ́wọ̀, b. 1909–d. 1987) was one of the most important statesmen and political thinkers of Nigeria in the 20th century. After losing his father at the age of ten, Awolowo worked as a teacher and journalist to complete his secondary education before moving into business. Following his marriage to Hannah Awolowo in 1937, he was able to mobilize the resources to travel to the United Kingdom, where he obtained a law degree in 1946. Confronted with ethnic rivalry during his early activism in the Nigerian Youth Movement, Awolowo developed a federalist vision for Nigeria. Building on his understanding of grassroots Yoruba politics, he mobilized Yoruba ethnicity and solidarity through the cultural organization Ẹgbẹ́ Ọmọ Odùduwà. Awolowo’s party, the Action Group, became the dominant Yoruba party in the 1950s, and Awolowo served as the first premier of the Western Region in 1954–1960, when he presided over an ambitious modernizing program. Reduced to the leadership of the opposition in 1960, Awolowo was subjected to a politically motivated trial in 1962 and imprisoned. The loss of his eldest son while in prison encouraged a turn toward the spiritual but also gained him widespread sympathy: after his release from prison in 1966, Awolowo was recognized as the leader of the pan-Yoruba politics, to the emergence of which he had contributed. As he also embraced a more distinctly socialist politics, many of his supporters also saw him as a potential reformer for Nigeria. However, as the vice chairman of the Federal Executive Council (1967–1970) and as federal commissioner for finance (1967–1971) during the Nigeria–Biafra War (Nigerian Civil War), Awolowo also attracted bitter criticism by eastern Nigerians, who held him responsible for the loss of human lives caused by the war. In 1979, Awolowo returned to party politics with more explicitly socialist policies but, having failed to win the presidency, resumed his role as the leader of the opposition. When another military coup ended the Second Republic in 1983, Awolowo retired from active politics. Following his death in 1987, Awolowo became a focal point of struggles within the Yoruba elite both over his succession and over the nature of Yoruba politics. In the process, he was posthumously ascribed virtues, agency, and powers beyond the historical record. However, in the context of a broader Nigerian politics, he was also seen as having larger-than-life negative qualities. His legacy continues to divide Nigerian public debate in the 21st century.

Article

Ogidi Women’s Market Protest of 1914  

Tara Hollies

In March and April of 1914, the women of the Igbo town of Ogidi in southeastern Nigeria staged a massive, multiweek protest of the town’s corrupt warrant chief, an Ogidi indigene named Walter Okafo Amobi, as well as the British colonial administration that he represented. The trouble began when Amobi decided to move the sacred Afo Udo market, which was the possession of the Igbo oracle Udo, away from its hallowed location (about a mile and a half from Trunk A Road, the relatively new colonial highway) to a site much nearer that road and Amobi’s palace. Before moving the market, Amobi did not consult Udo, his priest, or the Ogidi women whose duty it was, as intermediaries of the Igbo earth goddess, to protect marketplaces. The women responded by staging protests at the entrance to Amobi’s palace as well as outside the native court and colonial district officer’s post in the nearby city of Onitsha. The Ogidi women’s market protest of 1914 was one component of a prolonged period of strife between the people of Ogidi and Amobi, which a British colonial official documented in early 1915 as the “Ogidi Palaver.” Afo Udo was a large and popular market held on every Afo day, one of the four days of the Igbo market week, and was regularly attended by traders from within and outside Ogidi. The warrant chief argued that moving the market closer to the recently constructed main road would bring more revenue to the town. Regardless, the people of Ogidi did not trust Amobi due to his consistent maltreatment of them since he was appointed a warrant chief in 1903. By the close of the several-week standoff between Amobi and the women, the market was returned to its original, spirit-sanctioned location, but the colonial authorities failed to acknowledge the coordinated and concerted effort of the town’s women to achieve this end. The colonial record only briefly documents one of the many actions Ogidi’s women carried out, and the rest of the narrative has been reconstructed from local oral histories.

Article

Omar ibn Said  

Mbaye Lo

Omar ibn Sayyid (Said is the more prevalent Anglicized version of his name; 1770–1863), a West African Muslim scholar, was enslaved in North Carolina from 1810 until his death in 1863. Omar was captured in Futa Toro, modern-day Senegal in 1807 and transported to Charleston, South Carolina, in 1808, and he spent the first two years of his American life enslaved on a plantation there. He left behind a body of Arabic writings including his 1831 autobiography, which was the subject of two limited translations in the 19th century by Alexander Cotheal in 1848 and Isaac Bird in 1863; a more elaborated translation was produced by John Franklin Jameson in 1925. Since the 1980s, Omar has attracted scholarly interest as a striking example of the presence of enslaved Muslim scholars in the antebellum United States. The Library of Congress has created an Omar ibn Said Collection of documents in English and Arabic to serve as a resource for research on slavery and Islam in America. North Carolina governor Roy Cooper declared May 23, 2019, Omar ibn Said Day.

Article

Ozurumba Mbanaso or King Jaja of Opobo  

Joseph Davey

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.

Article

Political Economy of Textiles in the Atlantic Slave Trade  

Kazuo Kobayashi

Textile production was among the most important manufacturing sectors in precolonial West and West-Central Africa, enabled by the availability of local sources of fibers. Although the origins of this manufacturing are difficult to trace, the spread of cloth production was linked to Islam and consumer politics, followed by specialization of cloth production within the region over time. Textile production was usually based on the household division of labor: women were responsible for the primary activities of carding and spinning in cotton textile production, while men were in charge of weaving and finishing processes, such as embroidery. Male weavers used narrow strip (or band) horizontal looms to manufacture textiles, but in some areas, female weavers used vertical looms to produce textiles from cotton or raffia mixed with cotton. Some weavers were professional, full-time workers, whereas part-time weavers engaged in cloth production in the non-agricultural, dry season. Cloth strips served not only as material for clothing and interior decorations of houses and palaces but also as a currency in the regional economy. From the 15th century, the Portuguese came to West Africa and joined the coastal trade as middlemen who would be trading locally woven textiles from one place to another along the Atlantic coast. The Atlantic slave trade brought in increasing amounts of textiles from overseas, and in the 18th century, Indian cotton textiles became the flagship commodity whose quality met consumer preference. The impact of the influx of textiles from overseas on local cloth production remains a topic of debate. Although the dependency theorists claimed a negative impact, there is no evidence to support such a claim.

Article

Political History of Cameroon  

Emmanuel M. Mbah

First visited by the Portuguese in the 1500s, Cameroon was eventually colonized first by the Germans from 1884 to 1916 and later by the French and British until independence in 1960 and 1961. The division of the former German colony between the French and the British after Germany’s defeat during World War I laid the foundation for a complex postindependence history of Cameroon. This complexity, chaperoned by two presidents, has witnessed a trajectory that starts with a federation and continues with Cameroon becoming a republic that was increasingly challenged by separatists of the former British section. External challenges from a war with Nigeria over Bakassi as well as conflicts with Boko Haram have only made the process of nation-building more complexed.

Article

The Politics of Decolonization in French and British West Africa  

Frederick Cooper

At the end of World War II, Britain and France tried to find new bases for the legitimacy of empire. Their hesitant moves created openings that African political movements exploited. Scholars have tried to capture the excitement of this process, first focusing on the drive to create nation-states, then exploring other possibilities, both regions within territorial states and federations among them. Historians have drawn on archives and interviews as well as a wide variety of texts produced by political movements. Although Africans had long conducted politics through both local idioms and pan-African connections, the postwar openings led political movements to focus on arenas where they could achieve results. In French Africa, this entailed a partially successful struggle for French citizenship, representation in both the French and territorial legislatures, and social and economic equality with other French citizens. Eventually the French government tried to diffuse claim-making by devolving internal autonomy to territorial governments. When Guinea obtained independence in 1958 and other African leaders differed over whether they should create a francophone African federation within a Franco-African confederation or participate as equals in a French federation, the movements shifted to seeking independence and a new relationship with France. Britain failed to get African politicians to focus on local governance. Instead, politicians demanded power in each colony. Meanwhile, Britain tried to appease African social movements with a program of economic development only to face escalating demands and heightened conflict. Although fearful of disorder and corruption, the government decided that the best it could hope for was to have attracted Africans to a British way of life and to achieve friendly relations with African governments that, led by Ghana, came into power.

Article

Postcolonial States and Societies in West Africa  

Ebenezer Obadare

Postcolonial West African history can be understood in terms of transitions across three successive eras: a post-independence era of high nationalism; the military era, characterized by profound political and socio-economic instability; and, finally, since the early 1990s, a democratization era, marked by continued swings between fevered hopes and anguished realities. These temporalities arguably converge on a singular leitmotif, namely, the attempt by state power to preserve its privileges and the struggle by social forces to resist the state and draw effective boundaries between the private and public domains. Gloomy for most of the “lost decade” of the 1980s, the prospect for such a project appears brighter today, especially in the aftermath of pivotal shifts in the global and regional political landscapes.

Article

Precolonial Yoruba States  

Ayodeji Ogunnaike

The Yoruba people, mostly found in modern-day southwestern Nigeria, created one of the most effective, stable, and celebrated civilizations and political structures in sub-Saharan Africa, with the city of Ile-Ifẹ considered its original source. The city’s founder and first sacred king, Oduduwa, was later deified as a mythic ancestor of all Yoruba people. He established a robust system of limited monarchy that was re-created in city-states all over contemporary Yorubaland and beyond. From about 1000 to 1500 ce, Ile-Ifẹ enjoyed a position as the political, economic, and religious center of the entire region, cultivating one of the most famous artistic traditions in African history and exporting its political structure to new city-states that formed their own kingdoms. As trade routes began to shift, the city-state of Ọyọ started to eclipse Ile-Ifẹ in terms of prestige and power. Still operating under the same general political schema, Ọyọ established the largest empire in the West African tropical forest and dominated affairs in Yorubaland until the end of the 18th century. Internal power struggles crippled the Ọyọ Empire, and its rapid collapse set off shock waves that destabilized the entire region. A century of almost perpetual warfare ensued in which cities and states were created, abandoned, and destroyed. No resolution could be found until British military power and intervention brokered peace and established a protectorate over most of Yorubaland, beginning the colonial era in 1893. Speaking of “Yoruba” states in precolonial history is a bit anachronistic in that the term Yoruba previously only referred to the Ọyọ subgroup. Although all people known today as Yoruba were mostly united by similar linguistic dialects, sacred history, and religious and political traditions, the broader term Yoruba came into usage in the 19th century as a result of experiences in diaspora and missionary activity.

Article

Ritual Enslavement in West Africa  

Michael Odijie

Ritual slavery occurs when humans become properties of deities. Ritual slaves fulfill religious purposes for their deity owners, although they may also serve as slaves to a deity’s representative, such as a shrine priest. The transatlantic slave trade altered the ritual slavery practices of communities that were influenced by the slave trade. The abolition of the slave trade also affected the trajectory of ritual slavery. Ritual slavery generally escaped colonial emancipation and the abolition of domestic slavery. As a result, ritual enslavement presents an opportunity to study African indigenous movements for abolition and emancipation, as the colonial administration was typically unconcerned with it and local abolition groups emerged to combat it. The study of ritual enslavement in West Africa mostly focuses on two cases where a domestic campaign evolved. The first is trokosi, which is practiced by the Ga-Adangbe, Fon, and Ewe ethnic groups on Africa’s west coast. Trokosi is the practice of sacrificing young girls to local deities as a means of atonement for misdeeds done by family members. Once dedicated, the girls become slaves of the deity and are typically placed in the custody of the shrine priest, who represents the deity on earth. The second instance is Osu, which is practiced by the Igbo ethnic group in contemporary Nigeria. Osu are people dedicated to becoming properties of the deities. While the majority of the literature has concentrated on trokosi and Osu, owing to the campaign against them, there are other cases for scholars to examine.

Article

The Sahel in West African History  

Barbara Cooper

The Sahel or Sahil is in a sense the “coast” of the Sahara and its cities major “ports” in trade circuits linking long-standing regional exchange in the products of different ecozones to the markets of the Mediterranean through the trans-Saharan trade. Despite botanical diversity and the capacity to support high concentrations of humans and livestock, the productivity of this region depends upon a single unpredictable annual rainy season. Long- and short-term fluctuations in aridity have required populations specializing in hunting, farming, fishing, pastoralism, gold mining, and trade to be mobile and to depend upon one another for their survival. While that interdependence has often been peaceful and increasingly facilitated through the shared idiom of Islam, it has also taken more coercive forms, particularly with the introduction of horses, guns, and a dynamic market in slaves. Although as an ecozone the region stretches all the way to the Red Sea, the political Sahel today comprises Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad—all former French colonies. France’s empire was superimposed upon the existing dynamics in the agropastoral meeting ground of the desert edge. Colonial requirements and transportation routes weakened the links between the ecozones so crucial to the success of states and markets in the region. Despite the abolition of slavery in 1905, France tacitly condoned the persistence of servile relations to secure requisitions of labor, food, and livestock. Abolition set off a very gradual shift from slavery to other kinds of labor patterns which nonetheless drew upon preexisting social hierarchies based upon religion, caste, race, and ethnicity. At the same time, gender and age gained in significance in struggles to secure labor and status. “Black Islam” (Islam noir), both invented and cultivated under French rule, was further reinforced by the bureaucratic logic of the French empire segregating “white” North Africa and “black” sub-Saharan Africa from one another. Periodic drought and famine in the region has prompted a perception of the Sahel as a vulnerable ecological zone undergoing desertification and requiring intervention from outside experts. Developmentalist discourse from the late colonial period on has facilitated the devolution of responsibilities and prerogatives that typically belong to the state to nongovernmental bodies. At the same time, competition over political authority in the fragmented postcolonial states of the Sahel has often reinscribed and amplified status and ethnic differences, pitting Saharan populations against the governments of desert edge states. External and internal radical Islamic movements entangled with black market opportunists muddy the clarity of the ideological and political stakes in ways that even currently (2018) further destabilize the region.

Article

Samuel Ajayi Crowther, 1806–1891  

Oluwatoyin Oduntan

The case for narrating the history of slavery and emancipation through the biography of enslaved Africans is strongly supported by the life and experiences of Samuel Ajayi Crowther. Kidnapped into slavery in 1821, recaptured and settled in Sierra Leone in 1822, he became a missionary in 1845, founder of the Niger mission in 1857, and Bishop of the Niger Mission in 1864. His life and career covered the span of the 19th century during which revolutionary forces like jihadist revolutions, the abolition of the slave trade, the rise of a new Westernized elite, and European colonization created the roots of the modern state system in West Africa. He was intricately tied to the Christian Missionary Society (CMS), Britain’s antislavery evangelical movement, resulting in Ajayi becoming the poster face of slavery, its acclaimed product of abolitionism, the preeminent advocate of evangelical emancipation, and the organizer of practical emancipation in West Africa. The leader of a very small group of Africans who worked diligently against the slave trade and domestic slavery, Ajayi also became a victim of the use of that agenda by imperialists. Thus, the contrasts of his life (i.e., slavery/freedom, nationalist/hybrid, preacher/investor, leader/weakling, linguist/literalist, etc.) were celebrated by himself, his patrons, and his evangelical followers on one hand, and denounced by his critics on the other. They underline the disagreements over his legacy, and indeed over the understanding of the institution of slavery, abolition, and emancipation in West Africa.

Article

Samuel Ajayi Crowther: African and Yoruba Missionary Bishop  

Andrew Barnes

Samuel Ajayi Crowther was a Church Missionary Society (CMS) missionary bishop charged with evangelizing the territories that became modern Nigeria. Over the last decades of the 19th century Crowther was the best-known Christian of African descent in the British empire. Pious offerings from British Christians allowed him to build a network of mission stations and schools in the Niger bishopric, as his territories were called. Crowther’s career ended in tragedy with a group of English CMS missionaries that traveled to his bishopric to dismiss as either corrupt or immoral most of the African missionary agents Crowther had recruited over the decades. Crowther resigned his office in protest against what he felt was the usurpation of his authority. Crowther died a short time later. Most of the historical scholarship since Crowther’s death (1891) has been concerned with assessments of two things: Crowther’s missionary strategies and the circumstances behind the events at the end of his career. The events at the end of his life have drawn the greatest amount of attention, but as argued in this article, Crowther is better appreciated for the revolutionary ways in which he rethought the missiological ideas of Henry Venn, his patron and mentor, and applied these ideas to the evangelization of his territories. The schools established under Crowther’s direction offered students a combination of skills aimed at making those students competitive in the society created by the expansion of British overrule in the lands that became Nigeria. The appeal of his schools drew many Africans toward the Anglican Church. By the end of his life, however, Crowther’s schools were coming under increasing criticism from Europeans for making Africans too competitive with Europeans.

Article

The Saro of West Africa  

Femi J. Kolapo

During the hundred-odd-year period from 1837 to 1944, liberated Africans with their children, mostly from the Nigerian area who were resettled in Sierra Leone, returned to Nigeria. They and their descendants in Nigeria were known as Saro. While most of them were of Yoruba origin, their population included Igbo, Nupe, Basa, Hausa, and Efik. They returned to Lagos, Abbeokuta, Ibadan, Calabar, Onitsha, Lokoja, and Port Harcourt, locations of political-economic or missionary significance during the period. Isolated individuals went as far as Ilorin, Bida, Kano, Sokoto, and Zaira. In many respects, they constituted the earliest social group who, by their distinctive black Atlantic experience of cultural and intellectual hybridity, mediated Nigeria’s engagement with and introduction to the modern and colonial capitalist demands of the era. As purveyors of new sociopolitical and cultural ideas that would come to underpin Nigeria, they were the forerunners of the nation. By their vision of a homeland that was inclusive of multiple ethnicities and that conceived of a single economy emanating from a network of production centers in the interior, they laid its earliest modern foundation. Their significant economic, social, cultural, religious, and political roles in the actions, interactions, and structures that eventually led to the creation of Nigeria justify the consideration of them as founders of the nation.

Article

Slavery and Resistance in West Central Africa  

Esteban Salas

The institution of slavery in West Central Africa predated the arrival of Europeans in the late 15th century, though there is limited information about its nature and extent or the gender and age dynamics prior to that period. Slavery in different West Central African societies in the 16th and 17th centuries was broadly defined as the legal and social outsider status of people originating from different states or chiefdoms and brought under captivity as a result of raids or wars, the payment for taxes from tributary states and chiefdoms, punishment for crimes such as adultery in royal circles, or direct purchase. This has been identified as lineage slavery and was distinct from the Atlantic slave trade. Yet, the characteristics of slavery changed throughout the centuries. In the 16th and 17th centuries, local captives could become part of the kin of their owners after a process of integration in their new host society. They turned into insiders, even in instances in which they retained their enslaved status. However, from the 17th century, the expansion of the Atlantic slave trade and Portuguese colonialism resulted in a growing demand for captives, transforming the relations between captives and enslavers. The increasing presence of enslavers and their demand for different supplies, such as foodstuffs, resulted in a greater demand for labor in Portuguese colonial settlements, vassal chiefdoms, and autonomous states. Violence increased and individual kidnapping became the main method of enslavement, though warfare persisted as a method of capture well into the mid-19th century. Relations of dependency were increasingly disrupted and local captives became more vulnerable to deportation to other areas of West Central Africa and different parts of the world. Furthermore, the risk for insiders to be enslaved, re-enslaved, or deported increased, contributing to the redefinition of the meaning of slavery. Finally, following the prohibition of slavery by Portuguese colonial law in 1876, other forms of forced labor resembling slavery in varied ways emerged and were practiced until the third quarter of the 20th century. Resistance persisted throughout.

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Slavery and the Making of West African Muslim Empires in the 19th Century  

Paul Naylor

The various Muslim theocratic states that emerged in West Africa over the 18th and 19th centuries (including Sokoto, Masina, and, later, the Umarian state) came to power in a series of conflicts, or jihads, against political systems in which slavery preexisted as the basic system of labor extraction and population control and in which slaves were the medium of exchange in wider Atlantic and trans-Saharan economic networks. The conflicts promised emancipation for Muslims enslaved in these systems but also involved the capture and enslavement of large numbers of people. The economic and political rationales for mass enslavement remained. However, for the first time they were framed within a written, Islamic discursive tradition, circulated by the leaders of the jihads. These texts enforced a new policy of enslavement that drew upon Islamic legal traditions but, for the most part, recycled preexisting arrangements of slave raiding in non-Muslim areas. Over time, what emerged were societies in which slavery was essential to the growth, functions, and reproduction of state power and in which slave labor of various kinds fueled the majority of economic, political, and social activity. Because of the multidimensional uses of slavery, the institution continued well into the European colonial period and continues to inform social dynamics in the early 21st century.

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Socialist Politics in Lusophone Africa  

Michael G. Panzer

From the 1950s through the 1970s, several liberation movements emerged in Lusophone Africa (Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, São Tomé and Príncipe, and the Cape Verde Islands) that fought for independence from Portugal. One of the most significant ideological frameworks that informed the political orientation of these movements was socialism. In Lusophone Africa, several liberation leaders gravitated toward the economic and political potentialities inherent in the discourses and practices of pan-Africanism and Afro-socialism. The liberation movements in Lusophone Africa that most identified with a socialist paradigm were the Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA of Angola); Frente de Libertação de Moçambique (FRELIMO of Mozambique); Partido Africano da Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde (PAIGC of Guinea-Bissau and the Cape Verde Islands); and Comité de Libertação de São Tomé e Príncipe (CLSTP—later, MLSTP—of São Tomé and Príncipe). These groups suffered the burden of Portuguese colonialism and actively fought for independence from colonial rule. Although several other liberation movements also emerged in the Lusophone colonies, these four movements most espoused the hallmarks of Afro-socialism to challenge Portuguese colonial rule. All four liberation movements maintained networks with international actors opposed to colonialism, as well as diplomatic connections with sympathetic socialist and communist nations. Most notable among these bases of support were the Conferência das Organizações Nacionalistas das Colónias Portuguesas (CONCP) and the governments of Tanzania, Egypt, Guinea, the People’s Republic of China, East Germany, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), and Cuba.

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Social Media Images as Digital Sources for West African Urban History  

James Yékú

The web has become an important source for understanding the African past. As African cultural and historical records become digital, they specifically invite an intellectual scrutiny of the nature of digital sources of West African urban history. And with more historical scholarship in Africa responding to digitized and born-digital sources, there is an appreciation of how digital infrastructure shapes many aspects of historical study, including the historical development of cities and how urban subjects make sense of the complexities of their urban identities. In this article, social media–based digital projects that are focused on images and other regimes of visuality and that function as public humanities scholarship are recruited to make the case for photographic images from the participatory web as primary sources of African history. While not discountenancing the continued value of printed work and the traditional archive, West African urban history becomes focalized through digital platforms and methods of visual history that foreground African voices and their insights into the historical evolution of West African cites and their urban subjectivities.

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The Soninke in Ancient West African History  

Kassim Kone

The Soninke are an ancient West African ethnicity that probably gave rise to the much larger group that is called the Mande of which the Soninke are part. The Soninke language belongs to the northwestern Mande group but through the dynamism of its speakers has loaned many words and concepts to distant ethnic groups throughout the West African ecological zones. Mande groups such as the Malinke and Bambara may be descendants of the Soninke or a Proto-Soninke group. The Soninke are the founder of the first West African empire, Ghana, which they themselves call Wagadu, from the 6th to the 12th centuries ad Ghana was wealthy and powerful due to its access to gold, its geographic location between the Sahara and the Sahel, and its opening of trade routes from these ecological zones into the West African forest. Long distance trade contributed to the development of an ethos of migration among the Soninke, arguably making them the most traveled people of the whole continent. As they embraced Islam, some Soninke clans became clerics and proselytizers and followed the trade routes, sometimes becoming advisers to kings and chiefs. By the time of Ghana’s fall, the Soninke diaspora and trade networks were found all over West Africa. At present, pockets of Soninke, small and large, are found on all continents.

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Spirits and Healing in West and Central Africa: A New Synthesis  

Wyatt MacGaffey

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.