The urban history of Africa is as ancient, varied, and complex as that of other continents, and the study of this history shares many of the theoretical, conceptual, and methodological challenges of urban history generally. Knowledge of Africa’s historic cities is based on archaeological investigation, analysis of historic documents, linguistics, and ethnographic field methods. The historiography of cities in Africa has debated what constitutes a city, how urbanization can be apprehended in the archaeological record and in documentary sources, why cities emerged, and how historic cities have related to states. The great impact colonization had on African urbanization is a major topic of research, including in the study of postcolonial cities. The “informality” of much contemporary urbanization, both in terms of economic activities and architecture, has been a major topic of research since the 1970s. With few exceptions, prior to the 20th century cities were relatively small, with no more than 20,000–30,000 inhabitants. Religion, trade, and the concentration of power were major factors in the rise of cities across the continent. The largest and most well-studied cities were often the capitals of important states. At times networks of city-states flourished, as in Hausaland, Yorubaland, and along the Swahili coast. The cities of northern Africa shared many morphological characteristics with other cities of the Mediterranean Basin and the Middle East, being characterized by a high density of population, masonry architecture, and encircling city walls. South of the Sahara, cities tended to be multinucleated, with low densities of population and built-over surfaces, and they tended to merge with surrounding agricultural landscapes in an urban–rural continuum. Perishable construction materials such as earth, wattle, and thatch were widely used for both domestic and public architecture.
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.
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.
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.