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Article

African Masculinities  

Ndubueze L. Mbah

As a system of identity, African masculinity is much more than a cluster of norms, values, and behavioral patterns expressing explicit and implicit expectations of how men should act and represent themselves to others. It also refers to more than how African male bodies, subjectivities, and experiences are constituted in specific historical, cultural, and social contexts. African masculinities, as historical subjects embodying distinctive socially constructed gender and sexual identities, have been both male and female. By occupying a masculine sociopolitical position, embodying masculine social traits, and performing cultural deeds socially construed and symbolized as masculine, African men and women have constituted masculinity. Across various African societies and times, there have been multiple and conflicting notions of masculinities, promoted by local and foreign institutions, and there have been ceaseless contestations and synergies among the various forms of hegemonic, subordinate, and subversive African masculinities. Men and women have frequently brought their own agendas to bear on the political utility of particular notions of masculinity. Through such performances of masculinity, Africans have constantly negotiated the institutional power dynamics of gender relations. So, the question is not whether Africans worked with gender binaries, because they did. As anthropologist John Wood puts it, African indigenous logic of gender becomes evident in the juxtaposition, symbolic reversals, and interrelation of opposites. Rather, one should ask, why and how did African societies generate a fluid gender system in which biological sex did not always correspond to gender, such that anatomically male and female persons could normatively occupy socially constructed masculine and feminine roles and vice versa? And how did African mutually constitutive gender and sexuality constructions shape African societies?

Article

Anthropological and Ethnographic Methods and Sources  

Constance Smith

For scholars of African history, anthropology offers a number of valuable and invigorating methodological avenues, from engaging directly in ethnographic fieldwork to analyzing anthropological data compiled by others. Given the asymmetries of written documents and the biases of archival material for Africa, anthropological methods and sources offer a different type of access to those who, for various reasons, tend not to appear in other forms of documentary record. The materials of past ethnographic research—texts and material objects, produced and collected by anthropologists and their assistants as well as by missionaries, government officials, travelers, and others—constitute one of the largest categories of written source material. However, the contexts in which such research was conducted can present certain challenges when using these materials as sources. For example, the complex entanglements between colonial governance and the making of anthropological knowledge make it imperative for historians to be aware of the discipline’s intellectual history and how its ways of seeing and ordering have shaped portrayals of Africa’s diverse cultures. Methodologically, historians are also experimenting with field methods that draw heavily on ethnographic techniques. The emergence of historical ethnography has developed a rich, syncretic approach, in which communities’ own relationships with, and understandings of, the past are brought to the fore. Although ethnography is known for its immersive and long-term fieldwork, elements of the technique can also be incorporated into other historical methods. This is in part a matter of approach, rather than of different source material. For example, engaging ethnographically with archives can offer different insights into issues of governance and the production of knowledge.

Article

Bori Religion in West Africa  

Kari B. Henquinet

Bori is a religious tradition with origins in West Africa dating to at least 1500 ce. Based on oral histories, ethnographies, archaeological analysis, and limited written sources, its origins lie in complex, syncretic blendings of pre-Islamic Arna (Maguzawa) religious traditions, Hausa aristocracies, and Islam throughout what became Northern Nigeria and south-central Niger over many centuries. Bori practitioners have special knowledge of the spirit world and thus are skilled at healing spirit-induced illnesses or interpreting communal problems with a spiritual basis. Individuals are frequently initiated into Bori as they seek healing but also sometimes through their heritage. Once initiated, Bori adepts learn to live with their spirits for the rest of their lives, inviting spirits to possess them during ceremonial rituals. Bori specialists are more prominent in areas heavily influenced by Arna traditions or Hausa aristocracies that maintained special leadership positions connected to Bori for the protection of the kingdom. Women have often found opportunities for power and prestige through Bori in a patriarchal society, although in some regions, men dominate religious leadership and healing practices in Bori. From the early 19th century, Bori was condemned and banned in the Sokoto caliphate and subsequently under British rule in Nigeria. Nevertheless, it persisted in these areas and especially flourished in regions of Hausaland outside of the caliphate, where historical practices of Hausa kingdoms and Arna religion were practiced more openly and centrally in society. Over the course of the 20th century, Bori has been studied by researchers not only in these regions of West Africa but also among diasporic communities and pilgrims with ties to West Africa.

Article

Culture and Society at the Cape of Good Hope, 1652–1795  

Gerald Groenewald

In 1652 the Dutch East India Company founded a “refreshment station” in Table Bay on the southwestern coast of Africa for its fleets to and from the East Indies. Within a few years, this outpost developed into a fully-fledged settler colony with a “free-burgher” population who made an existence as grain, wine, and livestock farmers in the interior, or engaged in entrepreneurial activities in Cape Town, the largest settlement in the colony. The corollary of this development was the subjugation of the indigenous Khoikhoi and San inhabitants of the region, and the importation and use of a relatively large slave labor force in the agrarian and urban economies. The colony continued to expand throughout the 18th century due to continued immigration from Europe and the rapid growth of the settler population through natural increase. During that century, about one-third of the colony’s population lived in Cape Town, a cosmopolitan harbor city with a large transient, and overwhelmingly male, population which remained connected with both the Atlantic and Indian Ocean worlds. The unique society and culture that developed at the Cape was influenced by both these worlds. Although in many ways, the managerial superstructure of the Cape was similar to that of a Dutch city, the cosmopolitan and diverse nature of its population meant that a variety of identities and cultures co-existed alongside each other and found expression in a variety of public forms.

Article

Dar es Salaam  

Eric Burton

Dar es Salaam, a major urban center in early 21st-century East Africa, was founded in 1862 as a mainland outpost of the sultanate in Zanzibar. From its very beginnings, the town was a cosmopolitan, polyglot, and multiethnic space. Following colonial conquest, the Germans used Dar es Salaam as their capital of German East Africa from 1891 onward, as did the British administration of Tanganyika, as the territory was renamed after the transfer of power following World War I, until independence in 1961. Colonial rule shaped the city’s geography according to racialized zoning, yet both colonial and subsequent postcolonial governments often found themselves reacting to dynamics (particularly immigration and informalization) rather than initiating them. Since the late colonial period, social and political dynamics in Dar es Salaam—such as the growth of nationalism—have had repercussions in all of Tanzania. In the 1960s and 1970s, the city became a transnational revolutionary hub at the crossroads of Pan-Africanism, anticolonial currents, and Cold War rivalries. At the same time, at the national level, the government tried to peripheralize Dar es Salaam and announced the relocation of the capital to Dodoma in 1972. Despite the antiurban bias of Tanzania’s policies of African socialism ( ujamaa ) and neoliberal reconfigurations from the 1980s onward, both of which put a brake on state investments in urban infrastructures and services, Dar es Salaam remained a commercial, cultural, and diplomatic center. With a population that grew from 22,500 in 1913 to 5.4 million inhabitants in 2022, it has become one of Africa’s major metropolises.

Article

Ethnicity in Africa  

Gabrielle Lynch

Among today’s scholars there is a near consensus that precolonial African identities were relatively fluid, permeable, overlapping, and complex; that ethnic identities are socially constructed; and that a colonial order of delineated control encouraged Africans to rethink group identities and heightened a sense of socioeconomic and political competition along ethnic lines. There is also growing consensus that ethnic identities are nevertheless the subject of ongoing (re)negotiation and that, to find resonance, the politicization of ethnicity, while instrumental in motivation and opportunistic in character, must be rooted in linguistic, cultural, and socioeconomic similarities and communal experiences of marginalization, neglect, injustice, and achievement. Many scholars also emphasize how the realities of ethnically delineated political support reflect pragmatism and expectations of patronage in the context of difficult and unequal socioeconomic contexts, as well as the significance of remembered pasts and associated narratives of justice and strategies of acquisition. Such realities and discursive repertoires provide a list of grievances that elites can use to foster a sense of difference and mobilize local support bases, but that also provide nonelites with a means to question and counter intra- and intercommunal differences and thus social and spatial inequalities. Ethnic support then strengthened by a reinforcing cycle of ethnic bias and expectations of greater levels of assistance from co-ethnics. According to such arguments, ethnic identification and political support are rational, but not for the simple reasons that classic primordial, instrumental or neo-patrimonial accounts suggest.

Article

Football in Lusophone Africa  

Nuno Domingos

Since the beginning of the 20th century, the game of football has spread across the territories of the Portuguese colonial empire in Africa—Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, and São Tomé and Príncipe—quickly becoming part of the daily life of main colonial cities. It was introduced by Portuguese settlers and by individuals of other nationalities; in particular, members of the English business diaspora. Religious missions and schools as well as migrant individuals from trade and labor networks were all agents in the expansion of the game which, since the first decades of the century, has become integrated into the leisure practices of different imperial territories through the formation of clubs, associations, and tournaments. Sports associations were the most mobilizing form of its integration in the Portuguese colonial empire. This network became more extensive in colonies that were significantly urbanized, more populated, had more dynamic economies, and that had more settlers, who increasingly became fans of the game and followed competitions in the newspapers and on the radio. The institutionalization of the game incorporated the discriminatory structure of the Portuguese colonial system. The logic behind official sports policies created by the Estado Novo regime (1933–1974), which until the early 1960s did not include natives (indígenas), was thus applied. And yet, Africans soon took over the game, creating their own clubs and competitions. Resistance to Portuguese colonialism forced political changes, which resulted in a war fought on three different fronts, but also in a gradual abandonment of official policies of racial discrimination. In the colonial football sphere, this opening, combined with the development of a professional market, led to the movement of African players first to colonial clubs, and then to metropolitan clubs, and even to the national team. The fame and talent of these players, especially Eusébio da Silva Ferreira, ultimately helped in disseminating official government propaganda of a multiracial empire.

Article

The History of Islam in East Africa  

Felicitas Becker

The history of Islam in East Africa stretches back to around 1000 CE. Until the mid-20th century, it remained largely confined to the coast and closely bound up with the history of the Swahili towns situated on it. The Swahili language remains central to many East African Muslims, hence the occasionally heard phrase, “Swahili Islam.” East African Muslims are mostly Shafiites and some belong to Sufi orders, especially Qadiriyya and Shadhiliyya. Since c. 1850, Islam, with many variations in ritual, has become the religion of speakers of a multitude of languages across the region, second only to Christianity. The region’s independent nation-states initially promised equality for all religions within a secular order. Since c. 1990, though, the minority status of East African Muslims has fed into a multitude of grievances related to the region’s economic and political impasses. This situation has led to growing movements of Islamic preaching and activism, supported by increased contacts with congregations elsewhere in the Indian Ocean. At times, they have influenced electoral politics, especially in Zanzibar, where Islamic activism resonates with fear of marginalization by the mainland. In Kenya, Somali-influenced Islamist terrorists committed a series of atrocities in the 2010s. East African governments, in turn, have been proactive in tracking and disrupting such networks, and in Kenya, the government engaged in targeted assassination. Nevertheless, peaceful coexistence between Muslims and adherents of other religions remains the norm in East Africa, and its dynamics are often poorly understood.

Article

History of Sport in Lusophone Africa  

Andrea Marzano, Marcelo Bittencourt, and Victor Melo

Only in the 21st century has sport become part of the research horizon in the history of the Portuguese-speaking countries of Africa. “Modern” sporting practices accompanied the colonial expansion process from the very beginning. In the second half of the 19th century, evidence can be found of sport in Portuguese colonial areas. This presence, to a certain extent premature, led to the transformation of different types of sports into proof of the level of civilization of the Africans practicing them. Sporting practice was thus part of the strategies some Africans used to demarcate themselves from the majority of natives in those regions. This minority of Africans sought to escape the different forms of compulsory labor in the region as a means to be recognized as civilized. The expansion of Portuguese colonial domination was accompanied by the introduction of various sporting practices, justified by governmental authorities as a form of disciplining bodies, improving health conditions, and controlling workers’ free time. However, the colonial project for sport was appropriated and transformed by Africans. With the institutionalization of sport, the colonial powers sought to expand their control and domination, but in many cases they created resistance and new forms of social participation. In the post-World War II period, and especially from the 1950s onward, the increasing international distaste colonialism led Portuguese authorities, among other strategies, to attempt to use sport to attract the support of African populations. Due to its popularity, sport can be understood as a “window” for understanding the historic process and social dynamics of the colonial period, as well as during the anticolonial struggle and postcolonial times in Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea Bissau, Mozambique, and São Tomé and Príncipe.

Article

History of Tourism in Colonial Lusophone Africa  

João Sarmento

Lusophone Africa comprises the contemporary countries of Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, and São Tomé and Príncipe. During colonialism, these territories were part of the Portuguese empire. Tourism developed late and mostly between the end of the 1940s and 1974, when all territories gained independence. Tourism was always very incipient in the three smallest territories, but in Angola, and especially Mozambique, remarkably after the start of colonial/liberation wars in the 1960s, there were significant developments. With independence in the mid-1970s, civil wars in Angola (1975–2002) and Mozambique (1977–1992) did not allow for tourism to flourish. Early tourism developments were related to 19th century explorers and travelers, and their travels and narratives helped to construct an idea of Africa as a pristine and natural land, waiting to be tamed and conquered. Hunting and Safari tourism and beach tourism were key to tourism development. While there are several studies focusing on particular themes or in specific territories of Lusophone Africa, providing particular in-depth case studies, there is a dearth of studies engaging with the colonial history of tourism in these countries, and a panoramic view of the history of tourism in Lusophone Africa is in need.

Article

Indigenous Peoples in Africa  

Renee Sylvain

Moringe ole Parkipuny addressed the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations (UNWGIP) in 1989 and, for the first time, opened up discussion of the idea that certain groups of hunter-gathers and pastoralists in Africa merited the status of indigenous peoples. Local activists and international organizations took up the cause in the following decades. Several international conferences resulted in new forms of activism, the reformulation of local identities, and a growing body of scholarship addressing African indigeneity. As NGOs built solidarity among relatively scattered groups of pastoralists and hunter-gatherers, often skeptical state governments initially resisted what they saw as demands for recognition of status and claims to “special rights.” Disagreements between state interests and newly organized indigenous groups were expressed at the United Nations during the process of adopting the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP); but as the idea of indigeneity evolved through such discussions, African governments gradually came on board. International activism and work done by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights play significant roles in convincing African states to accept the concept of “indigenous peoples.” The issue of developing a definition of “indigenous peoples” appropriate for Africa remains unsettled and continues to present challenges. Mobilization among marginalized groups on the African continent itself, however, has presented NGOs, activists, states, and courts with the opportunity, through well-publicized struggles and several landmark legal cases, to refine the category to better fit with African contexts.

Article

Mass Media in North Africa: From Print to Digital  

Emilio Spadola

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.

Article

Reproductive Health, Fertility Control, and Childbirth  

Susanne M. Klausen

Fertility has long been highly prized in Africa, especially in societies where economic production depended mainly on human labor power. In addition to their role as future workers, children were crucial for, inter alia, securing lineages, providing social security, and ensuring spiritual safekeeping. Women were therefore expected to produce offspring. For them, bearing children was elemental to their social identity, security, and status; failing to reproduce could be calamitous. For both women and their husbands, infertility was often stigmatizing, but women usually bore the brunt of blame for involuntary childlessness and therefore could suffer especially devastating social consequences, such as divorce and ostracism. Managing fertility involved a wide range of reproductive practices. Africans believed infertility was caused by supernatural forces; consequently they sought assistance from spirit mediums and traditional healers to help women achieve or maintain fecundity. Postpartum women practiced birth spacing to ensure infants’ health, achieved through sexual abstinence and prolonged breastfeeding. Because premarital pregnancy was often a serious violation of social norms, youth were typically taught ways to avoid conception while engaging in premarital sex play. Women procured abortions using a variety of methods, including ingestion of plant-based concoctions and extreme manual pressure to kill the fetus. Childbirth, though feared for the risk involved, was typically a welcomed event although the social context for birth varied according to culture and social organization. In some societies, midwives attended women, whereas in others, solitary birth was the ideal. The reproductive politics and practices of precolonial societies informed those of the colonial era, which in turn helped shape postcolonial Africa. Western incursions into African societies had uneven effects on indigenous practices related to reproductive health, fertility control, and childbirth. While some indigenous ideas and practices persist, others, such as post-partum sexual abstinence, have been severely undermined.

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

Sport for Development  

Itamar Dubinsky

Since the late 20th century, governments, international agencies, nonprofit organizations, and entrepreneurs have increasingly promoted sport as a tool to deliver development goals. The efforts to harness sport, and football (soccer) in particular, to address socioeconomic ills in Africa have mushroomed throughout the continent ever since. Sport-for-development initiatives have been focused on improving the well-being of communities through increasing social cohesion, peacebuilding, and reconciliation; improving the health of individuals and groups by educating the youth on HIV/AIDS; empowering girls and young women, tackling male dominance, and promoting gender equality; and acquiring financial, social, and cultural capital through success on and off the pitch. Despite the abundance of such activities, their tangible impacts have been a contested topic for debate among scholars. Some view the positive sides of sport-for-development as a “soft” alternative to economic policies that, owing to the popularity of sports, can reach broad audiences. Others, nonetheless, have warned of the neoliberal agenda they promote, by further lessening the responsibilities of governments to their citizens. These disagreements attest to the need for long-term examinations, as well as critical studies grounded in postcolonial theory, in order to have a more comprehensive understanding of the potential and limitations of sports to serve as a conduit for development.

Article

Urban Life in French West Africa (FWA)  

Odile Goerg

During colonial times, cities, whether ancient or modern, underwent enormous changes. Urban life can be seen as a story of continuity and change, of invention and adaptation. Multiple constraints were imposed by colonial rule (e.g., spatial framework and mobility regulations, sanitation policy, control of the use of time, and so on), but new opportunities also presented themselves, professionally or otherwise, for example, in terms of defining one’s identity. Older inhabitants, as well as newcomers flowing to the main cities, especially from the 1930s, formed the foundation for a new, urbanized society. To frame the study of “urban life” within the political context of “French West Africa” presupposes both that there is something specific to the cities in the eight colonies, which, eventually, constituted FWA (French West Africa) plus the Togo mandate, and that there is something common to all these western African cities under French colonial rule. None of this is really valid. There are as many similarities with urban life in British West Africa as there are differences between the cities. When discussing urban life within the French colonial cities, one can mention the disproportionate allocation of space and resources aimed at satisfying the needs of the colonizers, or the will to rule and control all aspects of urban life. What is common between more than one-thousand-year-old Tombouctou and Conakry, a little more than a century old? Between Saint-Louis du Sénégal, which served as a main entrepôt for international trade from the mid-17th century, and Lomé, with Bè villages in the hinterland, founded by local merchants in the 1880s to escape British customs taxes? But despite the shortcomings of this methodological framework, one can form a general idea of urban life in colonial cities, provided that it be nuanced and contextualized, always bearing in mind a broader comparative framework encompassing British and French policies elsewhere in the empires. Urban life can be understood as the ways city dwellers organize their everyday activities: work, social interactions, but also leisure activities or political involvement. All these aspects changed over time, as city dwellers asserted themselves and, gradually, obtained more legal rights.

Article

Witchcraft in Africa: Political Power and Spiritual Insecurity from the Precolonial Era to the Present  

Sean Redding

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.

Article

Woman-to-Woman Marriage in West Africa  

Bright Alozie

Extensive research has been conducted on the significance of marriage in African cultural traditions, particularly the rites and sociocultural intricacies associated with it. One specific practice that is woman-marriage, also known as female husbandry or woman-to-woman marriage. In this unique African institution, a woman pays the bride price and marries another woman as her husband. This union is legally, socially, and symbolically recognized as a marriage, with the expectation that the woman who pays the bride price will provide for her wife and that the wife will bear children. Woman-marriages have been a part of customary marriage rites in West Africa for centuries. Despite being ignored and condemned by European officials during colonial times and overlooked in earlier accounts of African history, it continues to be practiced in certain parts of West Africa. This article provides a comprehensive understanding of woman-marriage, its cultural implications, and its prevalence in historical and contemporary West Africa by examining various instances from West African societies. It argues that woman marriages, which are different from homoerotic same-sex practices, serve to establish or reinforce women’s autonomy and kinship structures. The practice not only highlights the flexibility of African gender systems by allowing women to take on male roles, but also challenges the traditional roles of women in marriages and society, deviating from the patriarchal framework of marriage. By granting women a degree of social, economic, and political autonomy, this form of marriage allows women to leverage the opportunities it provides to safeguard their interests.

Article

Women in Precolonial Africa  

Christine Saidi

In precolonial Africa, relations between women and men were varied, changing, and culturally specific, yet there were some common themes. Most African societies attempted to attain forms of heterarchy, which meant they often created several centers of authority and aspired to establish communities where gender relations between women and men were equitable. Additionally, throughout history most Africans determined status by the amount of labor a group or individual could control, and in a historically underpopulated continent, this meant that motherhood and giving birth to children was very important. The result is that women, as both biological and social mothers and as grandmothers, were highly respected throughout the history of the continent. The earliest ancestors of modern humans originated in Africa, and so the history of women starts earlier in Africa than anywhere else, probably around 200,000 bce. Anthropologists of early humanity have proposed that the most successful human families in the earliest eras were based on family units that situated grandmothers at the center, a family structure found in many parts of Africa in the early 21st century. Around 5,500 years ago, a small group of Bantu-speaking people migrated from West Africa and over time populated large portions of Africa below the Sahara Desert. Heterarchy and gender equity were features of most Bantu-speaking societies. Their worldviews were manifested in the matrilineal social structure that most Bantu societies preferred until recent history. Even the earliest empires in Africa, Nubia and Egypt, were organized matrilineally. The West African Sahel empires from 700 ce were also matrilineal, and there is a long history of Muslim African female rulers. However, with the creation of empires and more centralized societies, hierarchy among some societies replaced heterarchy. This change motivated a shift in gender relations: Women from elite lineages maintained their status, while other women tended to lose their traditional positions of authority as mothers and elders within their clans. Overall, the Atlantic slave trade severely challenged heterarchical social relations and threatened women’s authority and status in West Africa. Another element of this period is the transference of African gender relations to the Americas. During the 19th century, as Europeans arrived in greater numbers, they imposed new gender ideologies as they began to structure how the rest of the world viewed Africans. From the so-called White Man’s Burden to Social Darwinism, new definitions of the Other placed African women at the bottom of this new social order. While women played key roles in the long term history of Africa, the Western analysis of African gender dynamics began to inform colonial policies, dominate world opinion, and shape academic research.

Article

Youth Activism in 21st-Century North Africa  

Christoph Schwarz

In the 21st century, North African societies have been counting with the largest cohorts of young people worldwide. These demographics, in combination with the highest youth unemployment rates worldwide, have been a cause for concern since the turn of the millenium. But in the respective debates in social research and among policy makers, the political subjectivities of young people themselves were rather overlooked. Instead, the situation of young people was often discussed either as a question of deficit—they were regarded as lethargic and apolitical and in need of help—or security—they were discussed as potential adherents of radical interpretations of Islam, as prone to political violence and as a threat to “stability.” However, in 2010 and 2011, mass protests initiated mostly by young people, starting in Tunisia and soon spreading to Egypt, Morocco, Libya, and, to a lesser extent, Algeria and Sudan, very quickly and effectively mobilized large swaths of the population and thus illustrated young people’s social agency, political relevance, and capacity for inclusive solidarity. To many observers, the events that were soon dubbed the “Arab Spring” came out of the blue and appeared as a sudden “generational awakening.” But the region-wide protests, and in particular the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011, not only mobilized people from all walks of life, they were also the result of at least a decade of persistent experimentation by young and not-so-young activists with different forms of collective action under extremely unfavorable conditions. Youth activism in 21st-century North Africa has been operating and strategizing under the constraints of authoritarianism, surveillance, and violent repression. Young people, particularly young women, have long been excluded from most institutional forms of politics. Against this backdrop, many political activists eschew the terms politics or the political, which they associate with corruption, manipulation, and illegitimate rule. Many other young people who appear at first sight “apolitical” have nevertheless engaged in different meaningful endeavors to improve everyday lives in their communities. Following a critical youth studies and youth cultures perspective, as well as a feminist perspective, young people’s activism can thus be analyzed along a spectrum that ranges from rather innocuous forms of everyday quiet encroachment, to public, but “apolitical” forms of mobilization, to highly committed and exposed social movement activism, as well as digitally networked forms of engagement and explicitly political demands for new forms of citizenship. A decade after the Arab Spring, and despite a “Second Wave of the Arab Spring” in Sudan and Algeria from 2018 to 2020, authoritarian rule has gained the upper hand in the region, even in Tunisia, the country that, for a long time, was considered “transitioning” to a representative democracy. Despite these setbacks, the experience that young people, as part of an organized citizenry, were able to oust long-ruling authoritarian presidents within a matter of a few weeks has arguably had an impact on political culture in the region. In the mid-2020s, their example continues to inspire youth activists in North Africa and elsewhere and will likely continue to pose a challenge to authoritarianism.