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Article

Sophie Blanchy

The inhabitants of the Comoros archipelago, situated between the East African coast and the island of Madagascar, are Muslim and at the same time follow a matrilocal residence rule and, in two of the four islands, a matrilineal descent rule. This has consequences for women’s place in society, though their status and power varies according to their age and place in the social hierarchy, and with the political context. This article draws on three examples taken from specific island contexts to illustrate forms of agency accessible to the Comorian women. It shows how, having previously been invisible in political life, women played a leading role in Maore Island to escape the domination of the other islands’ elite by choosing to remain a French territory. It analyzes the way ceremonial exchanges in Ngazidja Island give elder and younger sisters different opportunities and place different constraints upon them in terms of how they behave and lead their lives. Finally, it shows the unexpected impact of an international program addressing Ndzuwani women on their empowerment in a patriarchal social context.

Article

Selina Makana

As scholars of Africa continue to challenge the place and role of Africa in world history, shedding light on women as valid historical actors in postcolonial Africa within the last three decades remains an ongoing and much-needed endeavor. African women in the past and the present have used their position as breadwinners, mothers, and community leaders to influence their social, economic, and political worlds and to assert their power. In the 21st century, they have become known especially for their success as formidable politicians and peace activists. Even in the age of cyberactivism, women in postcolonial Africa have demonstrated their ability to mobilize across ethno-linguistic lines to effect change in their societies. It is important to move beyond the male-centric perspectives on Africa by highlighting not only the diverse experiences of women in the post-independence era but to also underscore the fundamental roles they continue to play in defining and redefining the postcolonial political economies, and their place in them.

Article

Meron Zeleke Eresso

There are number of Ethiopian women from different historical epochs known for their military prowess or diplomatic skills, renowned as religious figures, and more. Some played a significant role in fighting against the predominant patriarchal value system, including Ye Kake Yewerdewt in the early 19th century. Born in Gurage Zone, she advocated for women’s rights and condemned many of the common cultural values and practices in her community, such as polygamy, exclusive property inheritance rights for male children and male family members, and the practice of arranged and forced marriage. Among the Arsi Oromo, women have been actively engaged in sociojudicial decision-making processes, as the case of the Sinqee institution, a women-led customary institution for dispute resolution, shows. This reflects the leading role and status women enjoyed in traditional Arsi Oromo society, both within the family and in the wider community. In Harar, a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in eastern Ethiopia, female Muslim scholars have played a significant role in teaching and handing down Islamic learning. One such religious figure was the Harari scholar Ay Amatullāh (1851–1893). Another prominent female religious figure from Arsi area, Sittī Momina (d. 1929), was known for her spiritual practices and healing powers. A shrine in eastern Ethiopia dedicated to Sittī Momina is visited by Muslim and Christian pilgrims from across the country. Despite the significant and multifaceted role played by women in the Ethiopian community, however, there is a paucity of data illustrating the place women had and have in Ethiopia’s cultural and historical milieu.

Article

During the second half of the 20th century, South Africa was both literally and figuratively divided by the apartheid state’s “homeland” policy, which created ten ethnic reserves scattered across the country. These reserves, termed “homelands” by the state but renamed “Bantustans” by those critical of the racial balkanization of South Africa, were designed to segregate the country’s black population in rural areas. Reserves were founded on the basis of ethnonationalist ideals and in some cases were granted a form of quasi-independence, as a way to displace black South Africans’ claims to citizenship of the Republic of South Africa onto the Bantustans. Between the 1960s and 1990s these spaces played an integral role in South Africa’s own history; they were particularly influential for young people who came of age and were educated in Bantustan institutions. Circulation between cities and the Bantustans was a common feature of life in late-20th-century South Africa, and it was a key component of political mobilization. After the end of political apartheid and into the 21st century, Bantustans have continued to shape the lives of some young South Africans, even though they no longer formally exist.

Article

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

Catherine Porter

While the Republic of Congo has been frequently eclipsed by its neighbor with a similar name, women have been active participants in its history. Women’s experiences vary across Congo-Brazzaville, depending on their location and economic status; they create a diverse fabric of histories of multiple ethnicities, occupations, and encounters. The contemporary political boundaries of the Republic of Congo are European colonial constructs from the early 20th century, and today the majority of the population resides in the capital city of Brazzaville and in the other large urban areas in the southwest. Early contact with the Portuguese in the 15th and 16th centuries at the base of the Congo River destabilized the Kingdom of the Kongo, which was further accelerated by the proselytization of Catholic missionaries. The encroachment of Europeans and missionaries combined with the consequences of the trans-Atlantic slave trade deeply affected the traditional gender dynamics that women had in rural settings on farming plots. Women lost much of their social and political power that they held in precolonial settings, and this was further exacerbated by traditional roles that were impressed by Christian missionaries. The establishment of French Equatorial Africa in 1910 with Brazzaville as its capital shifted the importance of the area within French West Africa. The railroad industry and the completion of the Kinshasa-Matadi and the Brazzaville-Point Noire Railways changed the demographics of the southwest, most specifically Brazzaville, into not only an administrative city but also a hub for industrial activity. As men began to move the coast into railway labor camps, women followed suit, where they became predominant in tailoring, domestic labor, and, later, secretarial services. World War I and World War II brought profound changes to Congo-Brazzaville as men were conscripted into the French armed forces and women provided necessary services to the colonial French administration in the form of administrative and tailoring work. During the push for independence and decolonization, women joined political parties such as Union Révolutionnaire des Femmes du Congo, Union de la Jeunesse Congolaise, or Confédération Générale des Travailleurs Africaine, mainly as auxiliary members. Women focused their political, social, and economic concerns and pushed the emancipation of women to the center of the government in 1967. While women had a greater role in national life for the later part of the 20th century, women faced daily harassment and exploitation, especially with the 1993–1994 and 1997–1999 civil wars. Constitutional reforms in 2002 and 2015 guaranteed women the same rights as men within the country and a proportional representation within the upper and lower houses of the National Assembly. While this has increased the prominence of women on a national level, it has not proven consistent in daily interactions. Generally women are subjected to intimate violence, including domestic and sexual violence as well as street harassment. Organizations based in Congo-Brazzaville, such as Rencontre pour la Paix et les Droits de l’Homme (RPDH), are actively working for the stabilization of gender parity through law, education, and civic participation but face regular roadblocks on day-to-day activities.

Article

Popular politics have influenced the development of East Africa’s political institutions from roughly two millennia ago up to contemporary times. Among the discernible political dynamics over this time period were pressures to include or exclude peoples from key institutions of belonging, the decisive role of patron–client relationships across all political institutions, the role of generational conflict, the source of political authority based on command of the visible and invisible worlds, and the changing role of indigeneity and “first-comer” status claims. These dynamics can all be found at work in the development of conventional political structures that span this time frame—that is, from the small chieftaincies and kingdoms of the precolonial era; to cults of public healing and medicine making; to engagement with European colonial institutions and the 20th-century creation of “traditional” indigenous authorities; to the growth of associational life that led to political parties, one-party states, and their postliberalization successors. Yet there was also tremendous diversity of these experiences across East Africa, which goes some way toward explaining the differences not only among the region’s contemporary nation-states but even within those nation-states. Popular pressures for inclusion either resulted in the expansion of existing political institutions or created demands for new institutions that directly challenged the exclusionary and often brittle existing political structures.

Article

Jacob Wiebel

The Red Terror was a period of intense political and inter-communal violence in revolutionary Ethiopia during the late 1970s. This violence erupted two years after the revolution of 1974 and was concentrated in the cities and towns of Ethiopia, particularly in Addis Ababa, Gondar, Asmara, and Dessie. In the struggle over the direction and ownership of the revolution, opposition groups of the radical left violently opposed a military regime that itself came to embrace and promulgate Marxist-Leninist language and policies, and that relied heavily on the use of armed force to stifle dissent. While much of the violence was carried out by security personnel, the delegation of the state’s means and instruments of violence to newly formed militias and to armed citizens was a defining feature of the Red Terror. The number of casualties and victims of the Red Terror remains heavily contested and is subject to divergent counting criteria and to definitions of the Terror’s scope in relation to other concurrent conflicts in the region, such as the Eritrean and Tigrayan civil wars; plausible figures suggest more than 50,000 deaths, in addition to many more who were subjected to torture, exile, personal losses, and other forms of violence. To this day, the Red Terror constitutes a period that is remembered in Ethiopia as much for the forms of its violence as for the extent of its harm. Its ramifications, from the support it triggered for the ethno-nationalist insurgencies that overthrew the military regime in 1991, to its role in the emergence of a sizeable Ethiopian diaspora, make the Red Terror an episode of defining and lasting significance in the modern history of Ethiopia.

Article

Jennie Burnet

Agathe Uwilingiyimana was the first woman prime minister of Rwanda and only the second woman prime minister on the African continent. A Hutu from southern Rwanda, she was among the first Rwandans killed in the 1994 genocide of Tutsi. She was a political moderate from an opposition political party who rejected ethnic extremism. As the constitutional leader of the country in the wake of the president’s assassination, Hutu extremists killed her so that they could take control of the government. Born to uneducated parents, Uwilingiyimana was among the first women to obtain a bachelor’s degree from the National University of Rwanda in 1985. Before entering politics, she taught high-school science for over a decade. She dedicated her life to promoting women’s equality, removing obstacles to girls’ education, and speaking on behalf of the poor. As one of Rwanda’s first prominent women politicians, Uwilingiyimana faced intense misogyny, particularly from members of extremist Hutu political parties. The media frequently portrayed her naked or in sexual contexts. She was attacked in her own home on multiple occasions and menaced when she appeared in public. She was killed on April 7, 1994, along with her husband and an aide. The Belgian United Nations peacekeepers guarding her were also killed. Her death paved the way for Hutu extremists to take over the government and carry out a genocide targeting Tutsi, members of opposition political parties, human rights activists, and journalists.

Article

The activities of International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (together comprising the Bretton Woods Institutions) in Africa have continued to generate questions about the impact of economic reforms on democratization and economic growth. The Bretton Woods Institutions strongly believe that economic growth contributes significantly to poverty alleviation efforts and hence generates improvements in living standards, particularly in developing countries, including those in Africa. In the mid-1980s, as many African countries struggled to service their external debts and qualify for additional credit to provide services to their citizens and promote economic growth and development, the World Bank and the IMF offered to help them. However, the Bretton Woods Institutions conditioned their assistance on the willingness of each African country to undertake necessary structural reforms, which included a reduction in the public sector, devaluation of the national currency, deregulation of the foreign trade sector, and more reliance on markets for the allocation of resources. These aid programs, which came to be known as Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) consisted of conditional lending to African countries in economic crisis. At this time, the World Bank felt that the effectiveness of its development programs in Africa and other regions of the world was being undermined by bloated and dysfunctional bureaucratic structures and governmental systems that were hostile to the market generally and entrepreneurship in particular. The World Bank’s desire to condition the extension of credit to African countries on institutional reforms was supposedly to improve bureaucratic efficiency, as well as economic performance, and enhance the effectiveness of the World Bank’s projects in these countries. Thus, the IMF and the World Bank emerged in the 1990s as major players in efforts to improve economic growth and development in Africa. The SAPs were expected to improve macroeconomic performance, produce rapid economic growth, achieve economic diversification, and provide each African country with the resources that it needed to confront poverty and improve national living standards. In fact, in 1994, the World Bank expressed a lot of optimism about the impact of SAPs on African economies. However, many critics have argued that SAPs had virtually no positive impact on the macroeconomic performance of African economies and, instead, created a series of internal political and economic contradictions that have continued to haunt the continent to this day. As a result, critics say, many countries that implemented SAPs continue to suffer from high levels of poverty and became more dependent on external financial resources (such as loans, development aid, and food aid) than before they got involved with the Bretton Woods Institutions and their adjustment programs.

Article

Police and prisons played important roles in the operation of the colonial administration of French West Africa (Afrique Occidentale Française, AOF). As foreign institutions and tools of colonial power and domination, they aimed to support and defend imperial rule, not reform or respond to problems within society. The police in AOF aimed to keep order, repress crime, and monitor people and groups who were identified as potential security threats because they supposedly challenged the authority of the state. Police operated largely in urban areas, beginning in during the interwar era. Surveillance was a tool of policing that worked to identify potential threats to colonial rule. The law code known as the indigénat, which applied to Africans designated as subjects (as opposed to those who were citizens—a very small group of the overall population), was an important bridge between policing and prisons as it served to police behavior and frequently resulted in short prison sentences. Prisons were some of the earliest colonial institutions, accompanying military conquest and serving repressive political means and labor demands. Prisons and policing were institutions that relied on techniques (including surveillance) that colonial authorities transplanted from France to West Africa, and which had a profound social impact.

Article

Since the emergence of modern written African philosophy, African female and feminist philosophers have struggled for recognition. Writing from the margins in a field shaped by allegedly sexually neutral or universal philosophical concepts, they have argued that the lack of knowledge about women’s issues limits the development of African philosophy. Some female and feminist philosophers argue that the deprecation women philosophers experience in the field is connected to a much wider marginalization of women in African colonial and postcolonial societies. Conceptualizing a truly inclusive African feminist philosophy, these scholars call for further decolonization of African philosophy from Western philosophical canons. At the same time, they seek to reconnect philosophical questioning to various social, political, and economic issues, thereby reflecting on a wide spectrum of themes and often resorting to interdisciplinarity to give significance to their reasoning. African female and feminist philosophers explore women’s voices, ideas, and bodies not only to speak for and with women, but also to challenge the definition, purposes, and mission of African philosophy.

Article

Amina Mama

African feminist thought refers to the dynamic ideas, reflections, theories and other expressions of intellectual practices by politically radical African women concerned with liberating Africa by focusing women’s liberation, and as such cannot be easily defined or captured. However, the conditions out of which Africa’s feminist movements form, and the intellectual labor that they carry out in the pursuit of women’s rights and freedoms can be explored and discussed. African feminist thought is the potentially limitless product of movements that are themselves constantly in the making, succeeding in changing the conditions of their formation by their very existence. African feminist political thought can be traced to the world’s women’s movements that formed in the context of transnational liberal and emancipatory political discourses of the late 19th and 20th centuries of European empire. Out of these liberal emancipatory reformist, international labor, communist, socialist revolutionary, and Pan-African Diasporic and African nationalist movements were all formed. However, following the flag independence of over fifty nation-states, women who joined the anti-colonial freedom movements have had to pursue further struggles in independent nation-states, because Africa’s new states often hesitated or reverted to conservative patriarchal views when it came to extending freedom and equality to African women. It is as citizens of new nations that 20th century African women have formed independent feminist movements that continue to demand freedom, equality and rights, for example, by seeking freedom of movement, political representation, educational and economic equality, and perhaps most commonly of all, freedom from sex and gender-based violence. Contemporary publications and writings by African feminists are the primary sources consulted here, because of the need to correct the spurious mis-representation of African feminism as “un-African,” a position that hinges on the definition of feminism as exclusively Western. This view is advanced by conservative African men and women who seek the restoration of pre-colonial cultures, as well as in some of the early scholarly literature on the subject. African feminism is a radical proposition: it refers to the liberatory political philosophies, theories, writings, research and cultural production, as well as the organizing work of the transnational community of feminists from Africa. These respond to objective conditions of global systemic inequality that have led African women to resume the struggle for freedom and liberation. African feminists in 2019 identify with earlier generations of women freedom fighters but enunciate visions of a future in which the women of Africa will be afforded human rights and freedoms, on a continent liberated from a global neoliberal capitalist system that continues to marginalize the vast majority of the world’s peoples and exploits natural and human resources to a degree that now threatens planetary survival.

Article

Intellectual historians of Africa are principally concerned with how Africans have understood and contested the contexts that they inhabited in the past, and how ideas and vernacular discourses change over time. As a particular approach in historical methodology it is closely associated with cultural history, and its evolution followed the emergence of political history writing during the 1960s and social history during the 1980s. The first innovative works in African intellectual history were concerned with pan-Africanism and Négritude. These studies were followed by histories of religious ideas and social dissent. Historians have since offered varying descriptions of Africa’s “intellectuals.” For some, Africa’s colonial intellectuals were mostly missionary-educated literati, while others emphasize Africa’s rural intellectual histories and the importance of studying “homespun,” or vernacular historiographies. African epistemologies and knowledge production have also remained a central concern in the study of African intellectual history. To illuminate Africa’s intellectual registers, historians interrogate different topics, regions, and temporalities. Historians of precolonial Africa use historical linguistics to understand the intersection of ideas about public healing and social organization. Scholars of the colonial period challenge many of the earlier assumptions held by colonial researchers and policy makers, who had cast African communities as primordial, conquered peoples. Intellectual historians, by contrast, explore the constantly changing arenas of ideational disputation and political contestation within African societies. Intellectual historians of gender have shown how ideas about production, masculinity, and femininity have informed competing nodes of authority. By the early 21st century, global intellectual historians began demonstrating how Africans reworked European political ideas into local vernacular debates about the past, and how Africans have shaped the making of the modern world. To write Africa’s intellectuals histories, scholars draw from a range of sources, which are often maintained in institutional archives, public libraries, and private homes. These sources—textual, oral, and material—include letters, diaries, annotated libraries, vernacular newspapers, grammars, novels, oral histories, linguistic etymologies, sculptures, clothing, paintings, photography, film, and music.

Article

Crislayne Alfagali

Kafuxi Ambari was a key leader in the history of west central Africa, one who became a symbol of the political and military roles of African authorities under European occupation. Kafuxi Ambari refers to both a leadership position with spiritual connotations, used to describe individuals with a particular vocation, as well as the individuals who held that political title. The ruler (soba) had control over other authorities and dependents who honored him, paying tribute and fighting his battles. In return, he offered them spiritual and material protection. Kafuxi Ambari ruled the eastern part of Kisama, a region south of the Kwanza River, part of present-day Angola. He is remembered for the successive defeats he inflicted on Portuguese forces in the 16th and 17th centuries, especially his notable victory in the battle of 1594, which protected his lands and blocked the advance of Portuguese occupation and expansion of the slave trade in his territory. His efforts, along with those of other leaders, to host fugitives from slavery enshrined Kisama as a rebel territory, which remained autonomous and little known to colonial agents until the beginning of the 20th century. Over time, Kafuxi Ambari remained a respected and feared name and title, even as it weakened on account of colonial expansion. Kafuxi Ambari embodied resistance against colonialism and human trafficking that still reverberates in the local memories of Kisama residents. Although historians have paid attention to Kafuxi Ambari’s historical roles, there is still much to learn about the history of Kisama, its leaders, and its residents, all of which reveal the role of the slave trade and its link to power relations and political practices.

Article

Technical processes—or chaînes opératoires—are heterogeneous cultural aggregates articulating raw materials, tools, knowledge, representations, and agents. The nature and arrangement of these elements stem from a web of social, historical, and ecological relations that not only delineate a sociohistorical framework within which artisans operate, but also determine how individuals shape and give meaning to their daily engagement in the craft. Pottery chaînes opératoires have been the focus of a large body of ethnographical studies in Africa since the beginning of the 20th century, most of them developing within the subfield of ethnoarchaeology. Yet pottery chaînes opératoires may also provide crucial information to historians when analyzed through an approach inspired from historical linguistics and tentatively called “comparative technology.” Pioneered by Haudricourt, this approach combines two levels of comparison. The first consists in a minute comparison of different chaînes opératoires within a given field of activity and geographical area in order to identify similarities and differences in tools, materials, gestures, and the organization of operations. This allows for the identification of specific “technical traditions”; that is, shared ways of doing that stem from a shared set of knowledge. The second level of comparison implies a mapping of the technical traditions (be it whole chaînes opératoires or particular stages or components), with the aim of identifying and characterizing their respective spatial distributions: for example, the effects of aggregation or disintegration, possible boundaries, or interpenetrations. The relevance of spatial distributions in history-oriented analyses of technical processes is twofold. First, spatial distributions compel us to explore the sociohistorical processes from which they resulted; that is, the set of relations—social, economic, political, and ecological—that determine how artisans interact with each other, share knowledge, use tools and materials, cope with changing situations, or seize new opportunities. Second, spatial distributions may reveal strong and time-enduring connections with various kinds of social identities (e.g., languages, political factionalism, regional affiliation, gender, and ethnicity). When the underlying mechanisms of such connections are appropriately understood, they may be used to formulate hypotheses about past processes, including population movements, the development and evolution of political boundaries, identity negotiations, or socio-economical transformations. Here, chaînes opératoires may prove especially reliable for historians since they are less easily and deliberately manipulated than written or oral documents

Article

This examination of the history of women’s situation in Central Africa from the late colonial period of the 19th to the early 21st century sheds light on women’s experiences by highlighting their agency in confronting the changes they faced. The colonizers’ introduction of cash crop production and forced labor in the late 19th century to modernize the economy impacted the sexual division of labor, transforming the organization of the work within the family and community. In the post-independence period, traditional gender expectations continued to shape the lives of the majority of women, but a small number were able to take advantage of social mutations in the domains of education, politics, and work to become leaders. Transformations brought about by postcolonial armed conflict in three Central African countries profoundly affected women’s lives.