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3 Early Adaptation: Climate Change and Pastoralism

Kathleen R. Smythe Indiana University Press ePub

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.

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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.

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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.

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1 Humanity’s African Origins

Kathleen R. Smythe Indiana University Press ePub

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.

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

Kathleen R. Smythe Indiana University Press ePub

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.

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