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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

Fire in African Landscapes  

Simon Pooley

Fires have burned in African landscapes for more than a hundred million years, long before vertebrate herbivores trod the earth and modified vegetation and fire regimes. Hominin use of lightning fires is apparent c.1.5 million years ago, becoming deliberate and habitual from c. 400 thousand years ago (kya). The emergence of modern humans c. 195 kya was marked by widespread and deliberate use of fire, for hunting and gathering through to agricultural and pastoral use, with farming and copper and iron smelting spreading across sub-Saharan Africa with the Bantu migrations from 4–2.5 kya. Europeans provided detailed reports of Africans’ fire use from 1652 in South Africa and the 1700s in West Africa. They regarded indigenous fire use as destructive, an agent of desiccation and destruction of forests, with ecological theories cementing this in the European imagination from the 1800s. The late 1800s and early 1900s were characterized by colonial authorities’ attempts to suppress fires, informed by mistaken scientific ideas and management principles imported from temperate Europe and colonial forestry management elsewhere. This was often ignored by African and settler farmers. In the 1900s, the concerns of colonial foresters and fears about desiccation and soil erosion fueled by the American Dust Bowl experience informed anti-fire views until mid-century. However, enough time had elapsed for colonial and settler scientists and managers to have observed fires and indigenous burning practices and their effects, and to begin to question received wisdom on their destructiveness. Following World War II, during a phase of colonial cooperation and expert-led attempts to develop African landscapes, a more nuanced understanding of fire in African landscapes emerged, alongside greater pragmatism about what was achievable in managing wildfires and fire use. Although colonial restrictions on burning fueled some independence struggles, postcolonial environmental managers appear on the whole to have adopted their former oppressors’ attitudes to fire and burning. Important breakthroughs in fire ecology were made in the 1970s and 1980s, influenced by a movement away from equilibrium-based ecosystems concepts where fires were damaging disturbances to ecosystems, to an understanding of fires as important drivers of biodiversity integral to the functioning of many African landscapes. Notably from the 1990s, anthropologists influenced by related developments in rangeland ecology combined ecological studies with studies of indigenous land use practices to assess their impacts over time, challenging existing narratives of degradation in West African forests and East African savannas. Attempts were made to integrate communities (and, to a lesser extent, indigenous knowledge) into fire management plans and approaches. In the 2000s, anthropologists, archeologists, geographers, historians, and political ecologists have contributed studies telling more complex stories about human fire use. Together with detailed histories of landscape change offered by remote sensing and analysis of charcoal and pollen deposits, these approaches to the intertwined human and ecological dimensions of fire in African landscapes offer the prospect of integrated histories that can inform our understanding of the past and guide our policies and management in the future.

Article

West African Manuscripts in Arabic and African Languages and Digital Preservation  

Fallou Ngom

West African manuscripts are numerous and varied in forms and contents. There are thousands of them across West Africa. A significant portion of them are documents written in Arabic and Ajami (African languages written in Arabic script). They deal with both religious and nonreligious subjects. The development of these manuscript traditions dates back to the early days of Islam in West Africa, in the 11th century. In addition to these Arabic and Ajami manuscripts, there have been others written in indigenous scripts. These include those in the Vai script invented in Liberia; Tifinagh, the traditional writing system of the Amazigh (Berber) people; and the N’KO script invented in Guinea for Mande languages. While the writings in indigenous scripts are rare less numerous and widespread, they nonetheless constitute an important component of West Africa’s written heritage. Though the efforts devoted to the preservation of West African manuscripts are limited compared to other world regions, interest in preserving them has increased. Some of the initial preservation efforts of West African manuscripts are the collections of colonial officers. Academics later supplemented these collections. These efforts resulted in important print and digital repositories of West African manuscripts in Africa, Europe, and America. Until recently, most of the cataloguing and digital preservation efforts of West African manuscripts have focused on those written in Arabic. However, there has been an increasing interest in West African manuscripts written in Ajami and indigenous scripts. Important West African manuscripts in Arabic, Ajami, and indigenous scripts have now been digitized and preserved, though the bulk remain uncatalogued and unknown beyond the communities of their owners.

Article

The History and Historiography of Science  

Helen Tilley

There is no escaping the fact that the history of science took European places and people, broadly construed, as its original object of study. There is also no escaping that in African history, scholars interested in science, technology, and to a lesser extent environmental knowledge have concentrated the bulk of their investigative energies on developments since European (and North African) conquest. This focus on the period since the 1870s has tended to foreground dynamics relating to colonial rule and state-building, extractive economies and development, and decolonization and geopolitics. A handful of Africanists in the history of science have explicitly worked to cross the colonial divide, often taking single topics deeper back in time. The field as a whole, however, still needs to debate more systematically what the overarching narratives and benchmark phenomena should be for the precolonial periods. It also needs to grapple more explicitly with methodological tensions that arise from a focus on human agency and specific places (and the languages this requires) versus a focus on ideas, tools, and phenomena that transcend local or state containers (and the trade-offs this produces). As historians of science extend their reach into Africa’s pasts and bridge the colonial and post-colonial divides, it raises thorny questions about different approaches. Among others this includes how we produce histories of science, why they matter, and what we ought to bear in mind as we do. To this end, four goals are advanced here simultaneously: First, is the aim to open a dialogue with historians of science working outside Africa about ways Africanist scholarship speaks to and could be incorporated into the field as a whole (encouraging non-Africanists to consider the blind spots of “global” histories). Second, is the objective to draw attention to the pitfalls and benefits of different research methods and theoretical assumptions, especially as they relate to expert knowledge (an analysis that may be most useful for students entering the field). Third, is the ambition to explore a set of topics that connect deeper time periods to more recent developments (topics that invite critical scrutiny from specialists and generalists alike). Finally, is the desire to foreground the many different ways people across sub-Saharan Africa have initiated, responded to, and been incorporated into the production of knowledge. Africa has been a site of rich and varied epistemological and material experiments for millennia—some deleterious, some beneficial, and all imbued with different kinds of power. Acknowledging this long-standing history can serve to correct stereotypes that suggest otherwise. It can also contribute to debates within the history of science as the field continues to move away from its original focus on Europe and Europeans.

Article

Women and the History of Religion in Africa  

Erin Nourse

In the history of religion in Africa, women have contributed richly to the diversity of indigenous, Christian, and Islamic spiritual practices prevalent within their communities. As mediums, healer-diviners, ministers, mystics, prophets, poets, priestesses, theologians, and spiritual advisors, they are integral to the creation and maintenance of possession cults and other indigenous religious societies, Islamic Sufi orders, mainline and African-initiated churches, as well as new and emerging Christian and Islamic movements. Often inhabiting pluralistic worlds, women weave together creative and dynamic spiritual tapestries that give their lives coherence. An investigation into the experiences of women reveals spaces of agency and constraint, portraits of women’s intimate encounters with the divine, accounts of women’s indigenization of Christianity and reform of Islam, stories of discrimination and of healing, struggles to create more liberating theologies, and stories of extraordinary women shaping religious life and practice on the African continent in irrepressible ways.