Africa's Past, Our Future

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Africa's Past, Our Future engages the history of the African continent through the perspective of global issues such as political instability, economic development, and climate change. Since the past may offer alternative models for thinking about our collective future, this book promotes an appreciation for African social, economic, and political systems that have endured over the long-term and that offer different ways of thinking about a sustainable future. Introducing readers to the wide variety of sources from which African history is constructed, the book's ten chapters cover human evolution, the domestication of plants and animals, climate change, social organization, the slave trade and colonization, development, and contemporary economics and politics.

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1 Humanity’s African Origins

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THIS CHAPTER STARTS our journey into African history from the most basic starting point of all human history: human evolution, or the beginning of us. The questions of who we are, how we behave, and how we might face our uncertain future are illuminated by a study of humanity’s earliest origins. In contrast, most people take our current state for granted without giving much thought to the millennia of changes and experiences that have accumulated to create the species we belong to today.

There might seem to be little connection between people in the twenty-first century and our earliest ancestors. And certainly, most of our popular descriptions and images of early humans emphasize their differences from us: they are usually drawn as short and hunched over, with primitive weapons in their hands, emphasizing their limited technology. Popular images portray them as cavemen savagely devouring wild animals and don’t convey much about their culture, languages, or dreams. Such images and ideas are the products of particular threads in our intellectual past, including classical Greek and Roman scholars who thought our ancestors were more like animals. More recently, the combination of a misreading of Darwin, exposure to people who looked and lived differently than many Europeans, and a developing Western historical sense of progress and hierarchy inspired the belief that people with primitive shelters and technology (such as Africans), including those who lived a very, very long time ago, were not completely human.

 

2 Early Subsistence: Gathering-Hunting and Agriculture

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AFRICA IS NOT only the home of human evolution, but it is also one place where humans have practiced the full continuum of economic subsistence, first developing a gathering-hunting lifestyle and then different forms of agriculture. How societies obtain food is one of the most important aspects of history, but historians give it scant attention. One of the reasons is that in industrialized countries, like the United States, there is easy access to a great variety of food and usually little contact with the farmers who produce it, so it is easy to take this characteristic of societies for granted. But disconnection from the source of one’s food is relatively new and not universal. Throughout history, most civilizations relied on either gathering and hunting or farming to feed themselves.

Gathering and hunting was the longest-lasting lifestyle in human history. Since the dawn of Homo sapiens, about 200,000 years ago, humans were gatherer-hunters for all but the last 10,000 years. To put this in perspective, if the 200,000 years after modern humans first came into existence were condensed into one hour, then humans began to farm only in the last four minutes. And only within the last minute or so did farming become their primary means of subsistence.

 

3 Early Adaptation: Climate Change and Pastoralism

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ALTHOUGH GLOBAL CLIMATE CHANGE is much in the news recently, rarely is mention made of the significant ways the changing climate impacted human history in the past. Early African history demonstrates how peoples of the past have responded to drastic climate changes and, particularly, drying environments. Many of the major developments in early African history, such as important advancements in early human evolution, and the creation of a variety of domesticated food sources, were likely driven by climatic shifts. Even more recent dramatic examples of climatic change have longer histories than commonly thought, such as the shrinking of Lake Chad. Peoples of the Sahel and Sudan region of Africa have been responding to dramatic climate changes for millennia due in part to their geographic location.

In the United States, discussion of climate change tends to focus on changes in temperature, because that is what differentiates our seasons. Yet, in Africa, it is the presence or absence of rain that determines seasons and climates. As primarily farmers and livestock keepers, rainfall is the most relevant climatic variable of food production and the growth of pasture.

 

4 New Ideas and Tradition

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THE BLENDING of new ideas with old ones is an important theme in early African history. Such a declaration might contrast with what many readers have heard about Africa: that it is a continent full of peoples who hold fast to tradition and are not interested in new, modern ways. And, in some coverage, such traditions are one reason for Africans’ lack of modernity and poverty. Often, for example, ethnic identities or long-standing cultural loyalties are blamed for conflict on the continent.

African historian Jan Vansina wrote about traditions in Central Africa among Bantu speakers (who belonged to the Niger-Congo language family) that had not changed for millennia. In this interpretation, a constellation of ideas is associated with a word or term. Which terms are important or what they relate to changes with time. It is this more flexible notion of tradition that is explored here. Most societies, African or otherwise, are constituted of traditions that, although rooted in the distant past, have been influenced by ideas and changes from both within and outside the society. Particularly, many contemporary African cultural norms are syntheses derived from long-standing interactions with peoples of different economic and cultural backgrounds.

 

5 Forms of Political Authority: Heterarchy

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DEMOCRACY IS one of the most common forms of political systems in the world today, largely because it enables mass participation in political decisions. Yet, there is often some distance between the concept and its practice, as power tends to accumulate in the hands of few. One of the complaints about our current political system is that it does not adequately serve the interests of the majority of U.S. citizens, partly because wealth and political power are tightly connected. Sociologist Robert Putnam has clearly demonstrated our decreasing civic engagement. Both criticisms suggest a desire for a more active and accessible system of political and economic power. These concerns are not surprising given our hierarchical political system, where power and authority increase with status. It is this kind of vertical organization with concentrated power that has been at the heart of the study of history: economic and political authority as wielded by kings, states, churches, and landowners. Yet, as social and intellectual historians have amply demonstrated, there are often various sources of authority at any given time, acting with varying degrees of success, to check monolithic power. In the United States, for example, the religious right is a response to a perceived narrow political agenda and view. Similarly, groups of citizens have mobilized in recent years for various causes, including saving endangered species, prohibiting pollution, and maintaining trade unions. In each case, groups of people from cross sections of society come together for a particular purpose that is at odds, or in tension with, prevailing institutions.

 

6 Forms of Social Organization: Matriliny

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THROUGHOUT HISTORY, individuals have had specific ideas about their families, marriage, and property. Societies typically define these relationships as a form of kinship. The most basic human relationships of kinship shape work roles, children’s identities and caretaking, and political and economic institutions. How and why people in the past changed the way they thought about kinship is one aspect of African history. Matriliny is one specific way African people in the past and present have thought about their families, their work, and their economies.

Matriliny is deeply misunderstood by the general North American population. It is often mistaken for matriarchy or is seen as an ideal institution for female freedom or contrasted with some other, more familiar system, like patriliny, rather than being understood on its own terms. But it is true that the implications of matrilineal reckoning can be profound in terms of the way societies thought (and still think) about economic accumulation and distribution, obligations children had (and have) to their parents, spouses and other family members’ relations to one another, and men’s and women’s political and economic rights in society. Patrilineal systems also have significant implications for those who live within them.

 

7 Forms of Economic Thought: Wealth in People and the Entrustment Economy

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AS HISTORIAN John Iliffe wrote, among the Africans’ chief contributions to world history is their ability to survive and thrive in a very challenging landscape. As in all preindustrial societies, Africans had to use their bodies to work for a living and to ensure the health of the next generation. Until the twentieth century, Africa’s history was primarily shaped by a combination of its vast landscape and sparse population. Therefore, the resource Africans lacked was people, not land, as it was for Europeans. One product of this situation is an African value system that is largely derived from the importance of human relationships for survival and success and particularly the availability of people for labor, reproduction, and security. Such “rights in people” have been at the heart of African economic and social history, as historian Jane Guyer has noted.

The related term “wealth-in-people” captures the value of relationships (and their collective knowledge and skills) in African accumulation and wealth reckoning. The term was first used in the 1970s to express the ways in which elders controlled the labor of others, such as children, in their societies. The term is now used much more broadly to note characteristics that are common throughout Africa, such as interpersonal dependency and network building that require investing in relationships at the expense of accumulating material personal wealth. The network of people, particularly dependents, upon whom one could rely for production and reproduction brought security in numbers and energy, as well as a variety of ideas, skills, and talents that would make for stronger families and societies.

 

8 African Views on Colonialism and Development Assistance (with Heidi Frontani)

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THE GROSS DOMESTIC PRODUCT (GDP), a measure of a country’s goods and services, in Tanzania is again growing rapidly. Between 2000 and 2008, growth was 7 percent per year, and between 2009 and 2011, it was 6 percent per year. At the same time, Tanzania is ranked as one of the poorest countries in the world in terms of per capita income, according to the CIA World Factbook. The first statement indicates that “things” are going well in Tanzania; the second that they are not. How can both be true at the same time? Both are measures of purported progress or development as determined by a Western-dominated economic and intellectual system. Both statistics mark the ways ideas and institutions that have developed out of a deeply contingent Western historical process have come to determine African countries’ trajectories and to be largely accepted by African leaders, if not Africans themselves.

One way to resolve the seeming contradiction between these economic facts is to ask: How are the fruits of economic growth distributed? Anthropologist Arturo Escobar notes that economists took some time to realize that the “Brazilian miracle” of growth rates of more than 10 percent per year masked increasingly unequal distribution of income and left low-income groups worse off than before. In 2006, physician and researcher Hans Rosling, using visualization software to animate statistical data, showed, among other things, how country-level statistics can hide wealth disparities in a country with a robust economy. In early-twenty-first-century China, people in the most well-to-do province had wealth and a life expectancy on par with that of the United States, but those in China’s least-well-to-do province experienced wealth and a life expectancy on par with Ghana. Likewise, Tanzania’s GDP numbers above are country-level statistics that mask great inequality among its citizens.

 

9 African Contributions: Economics, Politics, and Society (with Heidi Frontani)

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AS GLOBALIZING FORCES encourage homogenization and integration into limited and powerful institutions, societies are losing myriad ways of thinking about economics, politics, and society. This chapter highlights the ways Africans have constructed and thought about their societies, particularly in response to oppressive colonization and accompanying economic ideas. Africans have made substantial contributions to the ways human societies have sought to solve economic and political problems. Many solutions build on their own cultural ideas and practices but result in institutions and responses that are emulated elsewhere and recognized internationally. When the focus is only on why Africa needs our help, these kinds of ideas and institutions do not receive as much attention as they deserve.

This chapter examines three kinds of responses to challenging problems. The first is a series of political and judicial organizations aimed at changing the racist policies of South Africa in the twentieth century. The second contribution is the powerful role that women have played in African politics in many places, with particular focus on the role of Liberian women in ending the civil war in Liberia. The final contribution is the development of a huge informal economy as a response to a weak formal economy that does not have the capacity to absorb the numbers of people who desire gainful employment. These responses illuminate Africans as actors in their own history, diagnosing problems and working to fix them by using a variety of tactics. Their solutions might not always look like solutions North Americans would employ, but this wider range of possibilities suggests that problems can be solved in a variety of ways. Their solutions also suggest that culture can play a role, although not an exclusive one, in the kinds of solutions that are considered and in their effectiveness. Thus, it is not always the case that outsiders can help mobilize opposition or organizations that will be as effective as those that grow organically.

 

10 An African Success Story: Somaliland

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TO MANY both in the academy and outside of it, one of the challenges people face globally is achieving meaningful participation in the political process. African peoples can play an important role in helping to question dominant ways of thinking about political institutions and imagining different forms of organization. Such forms might be, first, better suited to African realities and, second, better able to respond to the environmental and economic challenges that many predict will profoundly shape our future. Somaliland in eastern Africa points the way to some effective means of addressing basic human needs in a rapidly changing world. What the media covers about Somalia—piracy and lack of governance, for example—bears little resemblance to the experience of half the Somali population in what is now Somaliland. Somalilanders have built effective systems based on local political and economic institutions; such institutions are one of the keys to creating more resilient and sustainable societies in Africa and elsewhere in the face of increasing global uncertainty.

 

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