East Africa’s urban past is broken down into five historical periods. The first (c. 900–1500 ce) saw the emergence of an urban Swahili culture on the East African coast that flourished thanks to its role as economic and cultural arbiter between the African interior and the Indian Ocean world. Between 1500 and 1800, as in other parts of the world, the intrusion of Europeans (and other outsiders) appears to have had a detrimental impact on “classical” Swahili civilization, although several important urban centers continued to flourish. Inland there is negligible evidence of urbanization before 1800. From around this time, however, important settlements did arise in the interior, thanks largely to the region’s growing integration in an international economy that emerged in the course of the 19th century—with various coastal (Swahili) cities prospering once again through their intermediary role. The situation was transformed with the onset of European colonial rule (c. 1890–1960), which prompted historically unprecedented rates of urban growth and witnessed the emergence of what would become a number of important world cities. Toward the end of the colonial period, from the 1940s, East Africa’s urban centers experienced another upward jolt in their rates of growth; however, the full repercussions of this demographic revolution, which resulted in a substantial (and growing) proportion of the population claiming urban residence for the first time, did not become fully apparent until after independence; with rapid urbanization proving one of the most important features of postcolonial East Africa.
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.
Southern Nigeria is rich in copper alloy cast works, such as those of the 9th-century burial goods of Igbo-Ukwu, the busts from 13th-century Ife, and the heads and plaques from the early 16th century from Benin City. Much scholarship has been devoted to these centers and yet there are other, perhaps even more historically important, works which have barely been acknowledged. The label “Lower Niger Bronzes” was proposed in the 1960s by William Fagg to account for those few pieces which did not fit with the three well-known centers’ works. On closer examination, these bronzes are far more numerous and of greater antiquity than previously realized. The quality and composition of these works indicate that most were likely cast prior to the European coastal trade in Nigeria which dates from the late 15th century. Leopard skull replicas, humanoid bell heads, small hippos, scepter heads, and masks make up only a portion of the works now under study. Without their original cultural contexts, these artifacts are somewhat mysterious, yet with careful study of their compositions and forms, much is revealed of a period of southern Nigerian history which predates the current arrangement of ethnic groups.
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.