10 Slices
Medium 9780253016478

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

Kathleen R. Smythe Indiana University Press ePub

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.

See All Chapters
Medium 9780253016478

10 An African Success Story: Somaliland

Kathleen R. Smythe Indiana University Press ePub

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.

See All Chapters
Medium 9780253016478

2 Early Subsistence: Gathering-Hunting and Agriculture

Kathleen R. Smythe Indiana University Press ePub

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.

See All Chapters
Medium 9780253016478

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

Kathleen R. Smythe Indiana University Press ePub

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.

See All Chapters
Medium 9780253016478

4 New Ideas and Tradition

Kathleen R. Smythe Indiana University Press ePub

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.

See All Chapters

See All Slices