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Life in Africa

Life in Africa can best be understood historically by understanding Africa from two dichotomous periods: the pre-Atlantic slave trade period, prior to the seventeenth century, and the post-Atlantic slave trade period, after the seventeenth century. The Atlantic slave trade is a useful marker for conceptualizing African life because it registers an important time in Africa that has all too often been neglected in popular narratives about the continent—the most important of which was that the regions and states within Africa all had longstanding and well-organized social systems that integrated with the lives of its citizens prior to European contact.

Their systems were in many ways differently organized than many western societies, but nonetheless, African social systems were alive and operating wonderfully long before white men landed upon their shores. This point needs to be strenuously emphasized because unfortunately many depictions of African peoples and their institutions have been, and to some extent still are, portrayed as being backward and inferior to the societies of the west and the east. Part of this difference can be explained by the Atlantic slave trade, and yet the Atlantic slave trade should by no means wholly encompass one's understanding of Africa and African peoples. On the contrary, the saliency of the Atlantic slave trade as a historical marker lies in the remarkable dexterity that it has for contextualizing the striking shifts in African life as a direct result of its influence. Therefore the notion of a pre- and post-slave trade Africa helps to illuminate the stability and strength of African societies prior to and after the trade, without over-determining its importance in African life. That said, in order to get at the uniqueness of African life, a grounding in the important social systems that influenced the lived experiences of African people prior to the disruption that occurred from the Atlantic slave trade helps us to conceptualize the beauty and complexity of African cultures. From this vantage point the wholeness of African life is given primacy over the slave trade, and thereby allowing for a more sophisticated critique of African life apart from this extremely complex social and political phenomenon.

In the ancient and medieval era African states operated as autonomous regions from each other. In fact, before the middle of the fifteenth century the primary contact between African regions were along the coastal waterways along East Africa, across the Red Sea, and the Sahara Desert (Lovejoy 2000, p. 12). The trade of natural resources was primary impetus for contact between coastal and inland regions during this period and beyond. Valuable natural resources such as gold, copper, and salt, as well as plant items such as the kola nut, was what facilitated movement between inland and coastal states in Africa. It was around the growth and the trade of plants and minerals that regional development ensued and where the isolation that previously marked the inland and coastal regions began to dissipate.

Social systems based on ethnicity and kinship developed as a result of the forage of regional contacts around the trading of plants and minerals across inland and coastal states. As such, much of African kinship systems were either matrilineal, group power and inheritance that was derived from one's mother's side, or patrilineal, group power and inheritance that was derived from one's father's side. Moreover, within this kinship form, lineage was a vital component that determined a variety of privileges, or not, within a society. For example, one's lineal relation within a group determined one's rank within the group. Consequently one was marginalized or exalted based on one's lineage lines to group leaders. As such, how one would come into the group, via marriage or birth for example, and to whom one married or had children with, had an important impact on one's lived conditions socially, politically, and materially within a clan group. And whereas freedom via individual autonomy and independence was acknowledged as the highest form of socialization in the West, in the lineage based social systems of Africa, it was conceptualized through notions of belonging and acceptance into a kinship network (Miers and Kopytoff 1977, p. 7). Thus it is through belonging to a group where one would derive his or her identity as a citizen and person, not by their individuality. As such, group membership could entail protection against maltreatment by other groups; it could determine one's marital partner or prospects, and even predict one's religious affiliation. In essence, many of a person's needs were met from within the group.

These examples of lineage group networks are of course more complex than what has been described here. Within lineal societies there were strict and complex rules that governed African societies. For example, women were key members of African societies organized around lineage. The fertility of a woman was vital to clan groups. Her reproductive capacities would mean increased power to a group because of the increase in population that her fecundity engendered. As such, fertility was a highly prized, praised, and sought-after asset because a clan's sustainability in many precolonial African societies hinged on a women's reproductive capacity. Because of this, male leaders within a clan sought to have multiple wives who possessed the gift of fertility. Likewise, women during this era recognized the value of this asset and would on occasion use it to move up in rank within a clan or sometimes even change clans to improve their living conditions.

Besides her reproductive labor, a woman's productive labor was important to African societies. Within lineal-based societies women were the primary agricultural workers and therefore their skill and acumen at planting, growing, and harvesting a variety of vegetation was crucial to the day-to-day survival of African peoples. A woman's skill for crop cultivation and management cannot be overestimated here as Africa's climate and landscape ranges from dry and drought conditions to moist and flooding conditions. Thus tremendous skill and dexterity to cope with a variety of landscape and climate conditions was required to coax the bounty of the land, and women were essential to this process.

Another aspect of African life that grew out of its reliance on lineage and kinship-based societies was the concept of dependent relations. These were relations that were necessitated within kinship societies for those who were detached or estranged from their natal clan for any number of reasons, and in order to survive these, men and women were forced into a low-ranking status within a clan. Again, unlike in the West where a person in this situation would simply strike out on his or her own and make it the best way they could, in a kinship-based society such as those in Africa, this simply was unimaginable. As was mentioned earlier, one's economic, social, and political survival, as well as one's identity was often bound up within a connection to and acceptance within a clan group. As such, when persons became detached from a clan they were in a very vulnerable position within African society. During these times, they often would look to incorporate themselves into a clan group in order to decrease their vulnerability to harm or exploitation. Protection against undue harm was mitigated by the successful integration into a new social group. Still, during the process of integration, group members could experience vulnerability and various levels of unfreedom based on the circumstances that predicated their entrance into the group. For example, women in certain precolonial African societies could be treated differently if they came to the group as a wife, as a concubine, or as a servant. Moreover, their degree of acceptance by group leaders often hinged on their perceived usefulness or the benefit that their presence added to the overall stability and substance of the group. Additionally, their treatment, as was mentioned earlier, in some cases could be assuaged depending in the woman's fecundity or the extent to which some women had male family members (fathers, brothers, or uncles) inside or even outside the group to rely on for protection against unreasonable treatment.


In her book Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas (2001), Judith Carney indicated that throughout the West African rice region, which included the Upper Guinea coast, women played a vital role in African rice production. According to Carney, in Senegambia women held the important job of pounding rice: "In Africa the standard device for preparing all cereals is the mortar, formed from a hollowed-out tree trunk. Grain is placed into the cavity of the mortar, where the hulls are removed by striking them with a wood pestle" (p. 27). The removal of rice hulls and the underlying bran was a skilled operation that women performed prior to the Atlantic slave trade.

SOURCE: Carney, Judith. Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.

This type of complex social organization that included various levels of kinship statuses worked well to order most African societies until the Atlantic slave trade changed the dynamics of belonging and incorporation within the kinship system. During the years between 1600 and 1800, the transatlantic slave trade altered the coherence of Africa's social organization that privileged kinship and lineage rights as the terms for belonging. As such, those newly incorporated into a lineal line or those detached from familial ties were the most vulnerable for sale to European slave traders. It is important here to underscore that the sale of some African peoples to Europeans for enslavement be viewed cautiously before jumping to conclusions that they were equally as culpable as European slave traders to the forced enslavement of blacks. The situation was much more nuanced and complex than simply inferring that comparable blame be bestowed onto Africans as to Europeans. This shortsightedness often happens through the conflation of the continent of Africa as a monolithic locale and identity. And although most of Africa's indigenous citizens had black skin and similar cultural traditions and social organizations, the many states in Africa still held many different religious orders, languages, and ways of knowing. That said, one can no more paint Africa with a monolithic brush as they can any other continent. Thus, the complexities surrounding the sale of an African person by other African persons remains even in the early twenty-first century a subject of much debate within the scholarly field for those who specialize in the subject. Therefore, one must undertake a more in-depth and detailed study of these debates before weighing in on this important topic.

After the transatlantic slave trade was abolished, the ravages of the slave trade made it difficult to readapt the old African cultural and productive qualities to a changing and ever-increasing industrialized world. Population losses, the underdevelopment of its natural resources, an atmosphere of war, and intense factional divisions among clan groups were but a sampling of the problems that engulfed Africa in the wake of the transatlantic slave trade and its abolition. Equally, colonialism proved to be no panacea for stabilizing Africa. In fact, it has shown to do more harm than good for African countries as they sought to move toward economic independence and social and political stability. Yet, to understand Africa fully one must consider African life at two poignant intervals, prior to and after the transatlantic slave trade.


Lovejoy, Paul E. Transformations in Slavery: A History of Slavery in Africa. 2nd ed. Cambridge, U.K. and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Miers, Suzanne, and Igor Kopytoff, eds. Slavery in Africa: Historical and Anthropological Perspectives. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1977.

                                Carmen P. Thompson

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Life in Africa

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