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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

Food and Agricultural History of Ghana since Pre-colonial Times  

Samuel Adu-Gyamfi

The importance of food and agriculture in a nation’s history cannot be gainsaid. Generally, countries like Ghana have maintained consistent patterns of eating local staples that have dominated the food crop space for many decades in their regions. Historically, Ghana has been supported by the domestication of plants and animals and sometimes also by the translocation of the same from other regions or countries. When these new plants were made available, various agricultural techniques were deployed to perpetuate them. In Ghana, the British colonial government took steps to improve aspects of food and agriculture during the colonial period to serve domestic interest and especially European interest abroad. In general, the policies that guided the production, manufacture, and distribution of food during the colonial period continued to remain significant in subsequent years.

Article

The History of Mali: Connectivity and State Formation since the 18th Century  

Madina Thiam and Gregory Mann

The Republic of Mali comprises a very diverse population spread over a vast territory composed of a large part of the southern Sahara, the Sahel, and the savannah. One of the world’s great rivers, the Niger, runs through much of the national territory, reaching its northern apex near Timbuktu. For over a millennium, this territory has allowed empires and kingdoms to flourish alongside decentralized societies. These include the empires of Ghana, Mali and Songhay, as well as any number of smaller states, trading diasporas, and nomadic and semi-nomadic communities. The territory of Mali has long been a hub in African commercial and intellectual circuits, notably those linking the societies of the Maghreb (or North Africa) to those bordering the Atlantic. In the 19th century, as elsewhere in Muslim Africa, new and explicitly Islamic states emerged in western and central Mali. They did not endure more than a few decades, as the territory was colonized by France in the late 19th century. The Republic of Mali claimed its independence in 1960 and rapidly developed greater autonomy from French neo-colonialism than did most of its neighbors. Mali has maintained an out-sized diplomatic and cultural role on the African continent and beyond under a socialist government from 1960 to 1968, military government through 1991, and a vibrant democracy in the decades since. However, since 2011, the country has been increasingly beset by violent conflicts between nonstate actors, the national government, and foreign forces including the French. Thus, in historical perspective, Mali’s geographic position and its environment have proven conducive to the production of expansive, diverse, and mutually dependent communities that have produced radically distinct and often fragile states.

Article

Muslim Brotherhoods in West African History  

Mauro Nobili

Muslim Sufi brotherhoods (ṭuruq, sing. ṭarīqa) are ubiquitous in contemporary Islamic West Africa. However, they are relative latecomers in the history of the region, making their appearance in the mid-18th century. Yet, Sufism has a longer presence in West Africa that predates the consolidation of ṭuruq. Early evidence of Sufi practices dates to the period between the 11th and the 17th centuries. By that time traces of the Shādhiliyya and the lesser-known Maḥmūdiyya are available between the Atlantic Ocean and Lake Chad, but it was the activities of the Kunta of the Qādiriyya and of al-ḥājj ‘Umar of the Tijāniyya that led to the massive spread of Sufi brotherhoods in the region. The authority of leaders of ṭuruq did not disappear with the imposition of European colonialism. In fact, the power of those leaders who adjusted to the novel political situation further consolidated thanks to their role as mediators between their constituencies and the colonial government. Eventually, the end of the colonial period did not signal the decline of ṭuruq in West Africa. Conversely, during the postcolonial years, Sufi brotherhoods continued flourishing despite the secular nature of West African independent states and the increasing tension with a plethora of equally rising Salafi movements.

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

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

Western Education and the Rise of a New African Elite in West Africa  

Apollos Okwuchi Nwauwa

With the arrival of Europeans in West Africa in the 15th century, which preceded formal conquest and pacification, missionaries took the lead in introducing Western education as an indispensable tool for effective evangelism. Subsequently, the various European colonial governments appropriated education as a means of consolidating colonial rule in West Africa. By the middle of the 19th century, Western education began to produce a new, educated elite, at the core of which were “liberated slaves” in Sierra Leone. Western education produced its own contradictions. On the one hand, it produced educated hybrids who were alienated from their own peoples and cultures and who collaborated with Europeans to entrench colonialism in West Africa. On the other hand, the new elite, educated both in Africa and overseas, subsequently morphed into the new nationalists who became valuable agents for the liquidation of European imperialism in Africa. The emergent institutions of higher learning and the three new universities in West African founded in the aftermath of World War II became hotbeds of intellectual discourse just as the debate over the need for adaptation and Africanization resurfaced. Following the end of colonial rule, the “new elite,” now expanding in number, continued to provide contentious, neocolonial leadership and direction for development in postcolonial West Africa. Thus, despite its undesirable effect on European colonialism, Western education played into the hands of the educated elite who appropriated and deployed its latent, potent force in order to dislodge Europeans from Africa.

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 Benin  

Jessica Catherine Reuther

The modern-day Republic of Benin in West Africa was historically a patchwork of precolonial kingdoms and acephalous zones. In the 17th century, the kingdom of Dahomey formed in the south central interior plateau region of modern-day Benin. In the 18th century, Dahomey grew to become the dominant regional power. Dahomey’s women were famed globally for their roles as government ministers, queen mothers, and warriors. Women had multiple means through which to achieve various forms of power. Women’s power was multi-faceted during the precolonial era; however, these women’s power required proximity to the king and incorporation into the royal palace. During the colonial era from 1894–1960, women had much fewer opportunities to achieve positions of formal power. After the conquest of the Slave Coast region in the 1890s, France established a colony named after the kingdom of Dahomey. Women’s roles in politics declined rapidly as part of the shift from the precolonial to colonial systems of governance. This shift continued a trend though, already unfolding in the 19th century, that reduced women’s power in the royal palace. Few women rose to formal positions of authority in collaboration with the French colonial administration. Colonialism irrevocably transformed gendered systems of power and authority in ways that removed Dahomean women from officially sanctioned positions of power. Despite these restrictions, Dahomean women always found ways to express their agendas and exert influence over the colonial government. During the colonial era, market women, in particular, found ways to protest colonial policies and developed gendered strategies of activism. In 1960, Dahomey gained independence from France and was renamed Benin in 1972. Beninese women have struggled to regain their active roles in political life. Since the end of the Cold War and the transition from socialism to democracy in the 1990s, individual Beninese women who had access to education and the opportunity to study and work for extended periods of time have managed to once again participate in national politics. However, they remain a disadvantaged minority in electoral politics.

Article

Women in Mali  

Madina Thiam

Over centuries, a variety of decentralized societies and centralized states have formed in territories across the western Sahel and southwest Sahara, and along the Niger and Senegal river valleys. Women have played central yet often unacknowledged roles in building these communities. By the late 11th century, some were rulers, as tombstones from the Gao region seem to suggest. A travelogue describing the Mali empire, and a chronicle from Songhay, tell stories of women who plotted political dissent or staged rebellions in the 14th–16th centuries. By and large, everyday women’s reproductive and productive labor sustained their families, and structured life in agricultural, pastoral, fishing, or trading communities. In the 1700s in Segu, women brewed mead, cultivated crops, dyed textiles, and participated in the building of fortifications. In Masina in the 1800s, girls attended qurʾanic school, and a woman was the custodian of the caliph’s library. Women also suffered great violence stemming from conflicts, forced displacement, and slavery. By the end of the 19th century, they made up a considerable portion (at times the majority) of enslaved individuals in the region. After the European conquest and creation of the French Soudan colony, the French administration imposed an export-oriented wage economy, in which women worked to supply crops and sustain infrastructure projects. From the regions of Kayes, Kita, and Nioro, many migrated to groundnut- or gold-producing regions of Senegambia. While women’s labor and migrations were seldom accounted for in administrative records, their attempts to leave unhappy marriages or escape enslavement do appear in court records. However, colonial domination was gendered: the administration ultimately shunned women’s emancipation efforts, seeking to channel its rule by reinforcing patriarchal authority in communities. In 1960, the Republic of Mali achieved independence. Under the democratic and military governments that followed, women built pan-African and transnational alliances. In 1991 and beyond, they fought to achieve more rights, and greater political power and representation. Their labor and migrations have continued to sustain a large portion of the economy. Post-2011, they have been both active participants in, and victims of, the conflicts that have engulfed the country, suffering displacement, loss of livelihood, and sexual violence, for which many have yet to receive justice.

Article

Women in West African History  

Barbara Cooper

Across West Africa up to the 19th century, titled positions for women ensured that women’s interests could be voiced and their disputes regulated. Women often had major roles as brokers and intermediaries in trade centers along the Saharan and Atlantic littorals, contributing to the emergence of powerful Euro-African families. Nevertheless, women were particularly vulnerable to the depredations of the trans-Saharan and Atlantic slave trades. Because female labor was so highly valued, female slaves were more expensive than male slaves. The history of women in West Africa has been characterized by marked differences by ecological zone. Those differences have been deepened by Islamic influences in the North and by different experiences under French, British, and Portuguese rule. With the decline in the Atlantic trade and the growing emphasis upon commodity production, the demand for female labor in agriculture and in processing rose. Under colonial rule, the loss of slave labor was partially offset by increasing demands upon the labor of wives. Women mediated demands upon their labor through colonial courts, with some success in the early decades of the 20th century. Later courts and administrators supported patriarchal controls upon women in the interests of order and a smoothly running economy. Women’s control over their traditional means of accumulating wealth through farming, cloth production, and specialized crafts was typically undermined as economies shifted to emphasize cash crop production and tree crops in particular. Women nevertheless could flourish in market trade and could sometimes gain control over new niches in the economy. The growth of colonial infrastructure had contradictory implications. Women’s traditionally important roles as queens, priestesses, and ritual specialists declined in importance. At the same time, schooling gave some women access to new means of gaining income and prestige as teachers and medical practitioners.

Article

The Women’s War of 1929  

Adam Paddock

The Women’s War of 1929, known among Igbo women as Ogu Umunwanyi, occurred from November 23 to January 10, 1930. It was a resistance movement whereby women in the Eastern Provinces of the British colony of Nigeria intended to reverse colonial policies that intruded on their political, economic, and social participation in local communities. Women participants included predominantly Igbo and Ibibio women; however, Ogoni and Andoni women, among others, participated. Whereas the British system of indirect rule on paper intended to institute political control with minimal intrusion on African societies, colonial rule in Eastern Nigeria significantly contributed to redefining women’s position in society, which meant colonialism’s political changes led to a range of consequences for women’s work and daily lives that extended well beyond politics. In addition, the British colonial government imposed an almost completely alien political system of autocratic warrant chiefs on societies that in the past practiced a political system with diffused political authority shared across several positions, organizations, and gender. Shortly after World War I, the British colonial army in eastern Nigeria defeated the last major resistance to colonial rule, the Ekumeku rebellion. In the ensuing decade, resistance to colonial rule continued, but Africans altered their tactics and women featured prominently in anticolonial resistance when cultural changes tended to disadvantage women. The Women’s War of 1929 marked an apex in women’s resistance in Eastern Nigeria to colonial rule. The War began in the rural town of Oloko when Igbo women suspected the colonial government intended to use warrant chiefs and the native court system to implement a new tax on women, which they believed the colonial government planned to add to an existing tax on African men. From the initial outbreak of resistance in Oloko, the women’s resistance extended across eastern Nigeria as women joined the movement and demanded either significant changes in or the removal of the colonial government. Thousands of women participated in the resistance and they employed a variety of tactics, which included removing the cap of office from warrant chiefs, looting factories, burning down native court buildings, blocking train tracks, cutting telegraph wires, releasing prisoners from colonial jails, and destroying or confiscating colonial property. The British colonial government resorted to lethal force and in the process colonial soldiers shot women at Abak, Utu Etim Ekpo, and Opobo. The most significant loss of life occurred at Opobo and it marked the end of the Women’s War except for a few minor instances of resistance. The tactics and scope of the Women’s War confounded colonial authorities because, even though they extensively assured women they would not be taxed, participation in the resistance increased and spread across the region. Eventually, the Women’s War caused the British to abandon the warrant chief system and establish village councils; however, generally women were excluded from political participation. More importantly, the Women’s War of 1929 marks the beginning of a transition in eastern Nigeria from predominantly localized ethnic-based opposition to British imperialism to resistance movements that transcended ethnicity and class.