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Routes to Emancipation in East Africa  

Felicitas Becker and Michelle Liebst

Slaves, ex-slaves, and their descendants have taken multiple and complex routes toward emancipation in East Africa. Their experiences varied regionally, with status contests most clearly traceable in those areas where slavery had been most concentrated, especially on the coast. As scholars have established, the legal abolition of slavery did not lead directly to emancipation in East Africa, but it contributed to the quick erosion of slavery-based labor regimes around 1900. Ex-slaves pursued economic security and livelihoods through access to land and wage labor and sought to shed the stigma of slave origins by seeking religious affiliations, education, ethnic identities, and kinship ties. Routes to emancipation were highly gendered as female slaves within owners’ households lacked both political support and legal rights to their children. Moreover, male ex-slaves’ ambitions to assert their own patriarchal status by controlling women could be a major obstacle for ex-slave women’s search for emancipation. Although political independence in the 1960s encouraged the condemnation of slavery as an aberration from a different era, slavery-derived social differences linger, and people with a genealogy of slavery may face status implications in certain situations. Though East African societies, rural ones especially, are readily characterized as timelessly egalitarian, they struggle to this day with the legacy of slavery and incomplete emancipation.