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An Introduction

Eustace Palmer

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An Introduction

Eustace Palmer

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Africa: An Introduction invites you into Africa: a continent rich with culture and history, with diverse populations stretching from the dense tropical rain forest of the Congo basin, right up to the Sahara Desert in the north, and down to the Mediterranean climates of the far south.

Containing fifty-five countries, and covering over 20 percent of the world's landmass, Africa is the birthplace of humanity, yet the image of Africa in the West is often negative, that of a continent riddled with endemic problems. This accessible and engaging guide to the African continent guides the reader through the history, geography, and politics of Africa. It ranges from the impact of slavery and imperialism through to the rise of African nationalism and the achievement of independence, and up to the present moment. Key topics covered include literature, art, technology, religion, the condition of African women, health, education, and the mounting environmental concerns faced by African people.

As Africa moves beyond the painful legacies of slavery and imperialism, this book provides an engaging, uplifting, and accessible introduction to a rapidly modernizing and diverse continent. Suitable for high school and undergraduate students studying Africa, this book will also serve as the perfect introduction for anyone looking to understand the history of Africa and the Africa of today.

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1 The geography of Africa and topics in African history

The first point to make is that Africa is a continent, not a country. Africa is, in fact, the second largest of the continents, second only to Asia, and it has more countries than any other continent—55, in fact. Some of these countries, like the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Algeria, are among the largest in the world. Others, like Nigeria, are among the most populous. The entire United States can fit into the continent of Africa three times, with something left over. The population of Africa has exceeded the one billion mark.
There is some justification in claiming that Africa is the most central of the continents. It is almost surrounded by three of the world’s greatest waterways: the Atlantic Ocean to the west, the Indian Ocean to the east, and the Mediterranean Sea to the north. The Red Sea which joins the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea, the northern parts of the Indian Ocean, borders Africa to the north-east, and it is only the existence of the tiny Isthmus of Suez that prevents it from being completely surrounded by water. Africa is the only one of the continents that is traversed by those three important latitudes: the Tropic of Cancer to the north, the Tropic of Capricorn to the south, and the Equator which cuts Africa almost in half. It passes through Gabon, Congo Brazzaville, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, Kenya, and Somalia. The fact that Africa is traversed by both the Tropics of Capricorn and Cancer means that most of the continent is within the Tropics. This is why Africa is often referred to as “tropical Africa.” One consequence of this is that most of Africa has very high temperatures throughout the year, with all kinds of further consequences for agriculture, the environment, and economic development in general. The only parts of the continent that can experience very low temperatures are the extreme north, the extreme south, and the high-altitude areas in the east in places like Kenya, where it can actually snow at certain times of the year.
High temperature can lead to air rising and then to condensation and rainfall. This is true of Africa as it is of other places. Because of the high temperatures in most of Africa, a curious phenomenon has occurred called the Intertropical Convergence Zone or ITCZ. It is the primary rain-making mechanism in tropical areas, particularly in Africa, where most countries are tropical or have tropical zones. Because of the high temperatures on the surface, the air is heated and it rises. But having risen it cools rapidly, and if water vapor is present it condenses and there is then precipitation, which is rain. This rain-making activity shifts, depending on the time of the year and the position of the sun, and it roughly correlates with the time the sun is overhead in any particular area. Thus, in Sierra Leone which is six and a half degrees north of the equator, the rain-making activity occurs when the sun is overhead in the northern hemisphere, and the rainy season lasts from about May to October. November to about the end of April are dry months. In many parts of tropical Africa there are two main seasons, the rainy season and the dry season, and the time of the seasons is normally dependent on when and where the sun is overhead. The amount of rainfall is not evenly distributed. Some areas in the center of Africa have very heavy rainfall, while in others the rainfall is sparse. There are also variations from year to year. All this has serious consequences for agriculture and the rearing of animals and therefore for economic development.
Figure 1.1 Map of Africa.
Source: Based on UN map 4045
The vastness of the continent, the fact that it is traversed by the equator, and also that some of it lies even beyond the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, mean that there is a wide variety of climatic zones in Africa. Indeed, almost every climatic zone that exists in the north is replicated in the south, and, since there is a correlation between climate and natural vegetation, every natural vegetation pattern that exists in the north is also replicated in the south. Right in the heart of the continent is the dense tropical rain forest associated with the basin of the Congo River and comparable to the Amazon rain forest. To the north of this is tropical woodland savannah and this is paralleled to the south by tropical woodland savannah. The tropical grassland savannah which is found to the north of the woodland savannah in the north is balanced in the south by tropical grassland savannah. Then there is semi-arid scrubland, or semi-desert, called the Sahel in the north, balanced by similar semi-desert in the south. The Sahara Desert, the largest desert in the world, follows, and this is replicated somewhat by the Namib Desert and the Kalahari Desert in the south. Finally, Mediterranean forest vegetation in the north is balanced by the same thing in the south. The only exception to this pattern is the mountain and temperate grassland area found in the highlands of Kenya and Ethiopia.
Many of the world’s most remarkable physical features exist in Africa. Africa has the world’s longest river, the Nile, which is over four thousand miles long and has played a remarkable role in the history of the world. It is the source of the fertility of Egypt and many other parts of the north and north-east and largely accounts for the fact that this area is regarded as one of the cradles of civilization. The Congo River in the heart of Africa is also one of the world’s great rivers, helping to provide sustenance for the second largest rain forest in the world, a rain forest second only to the Amazon’s. The Niger in West Africa has also nurtured formidable civilizations. So have the Zambesi and other rivers in Southern Africa. Africa also has some of the world’s largest lakes; indeed, the continent can be said to have its own Great Lakes system. Some of the world’s highest mountains are in Africa, namely Mount Kenya and Mount Kilimanjaro, in Kenya and Tanzania respectively. The world’s largest desert, the Sahara Desert, is in Africa, as is arguably the world’s most spectacular waterfall, the Victoria Falls in Southern Africa.

The peoples of Africa

The peoples of Africa speak thousands of languages and belong to three main groups. First, there are the so-called Caucasoid peoples. These are people of Arab ancestry who live mainly in the north and north-east. They are the descendants of Arab traders, merchants, and military adventurers who swept across North Africa from the seventh-century ce. But included in the ranks of the Caucasoid are the Berbers who also live in the north and are the original inhabitants of Northern Africa. All these people live north of the Sahara. Then there are the Negroid people who constitute over 70 percent of the African population and live largely in sub-Saharan Africa. In the extreme south are the Khoisan people who are distinguished by the clicks that occur in their languages. In the past, some scholars used to apply the derogatory names of Bushmen and Hottentots to these people, a practice which is largely discontinued. There are only a few hundred thousand of them left and they are mainly hunters and gatherers. There are also Europeans descended from European imperialist nations who settled in certain parts of Africa largely because the climate was conducive to European settlement. Some scholars include these among the Caucasoid peoples, because they are really descended from people who today are regarded as Caucasians, but because of their history and the areas they inhabit in Africa today, they are best treated separately. They inhabit Southern Africa in countries like Zimbabwe and South Africa, and the cooler highland regions such as Kenya in East Africa. There are peoples of Indian descent whose ancestors were brought to East Africa by the British colonialists to work on the railways, and finally there are peoples of mixed racial origin.

Tectonic shift and its consequences

One of the most interesting theories about world geography relates to the great tectonic shift involving the movement of large masses of the earth’s surface. The theory suggests that in the distant prehistoric past, about one hundred million years ago, all the world’s continents formed just one enormous land mass called Pangea. The landmasses in the south were called Gondwana, with Africa being the centerpiece. Because of the great continental or tectonic shift, however, North and South America, Antarctica, Australia, and India moved away from Africa and were supposedly replaced by great masses of water. That the theory is plausible becomes apparent if one looks at the present shape of both South America and Africa. The north, north-eastern and eastern coasts of South America fit almost perfectly into Africa’s western and south-western coasts. This theory also explains the nature of the African coast in general. When masses break away from each other the remaining edges are bound to be sharp and almost vertical. This is the nature of most of the African coast, which is characterized by steep, almost vertical edges, generally called the Great Escarpment. In many parts of Africa, the land rises steeply from the comparatively narrow coast until it reaches a broad plateau. Of course, the steepness varies from area to area. One major consequence of this is that in order to reach the ocean, rivers have to tumble over numerous waterfalls and rapids. This is the case with most of Africa’s rivers, and it has other consequences for transportation and development in general. It means that African rivers are difficult to navigate from the ocean right up to the interior, because the rapids and waterfalls must be overcome. Once they are overcome, however, the rivers are navigable to their sources and transportation is much easier. This partly explains why the early European explorers of Africa, and even slavers, were unable to penetrate to the interior and confined their activities to the coast. The phenomenon also has interesting implications for the construction of roads and railways from the interior to the coast. These were only constructed where they were absolutely essential for the movement of produce and other resources. Harbors in Africa have to be constructed at great cost because there are few natural harbors. The phenomenon can also be said to have delayed colonialism, because it delayed entry into the interior by the explorers, merchants, and imperial administrators. It is also not surprising, some scholars claim, that the most influential and powerful of the early states, kingdoms, and empires in Africa were formed in the interior and not in the coastal areas.

Aspects of African history

Let us begin the discussion of aspects of African history with a look at some of the most misleading and derogatory statements of some Western scholars and historians about Africa and African history. Professor Hugh Trevor-Roper, one-time Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford University, made the appalling statement that Africa has no history and that the African past was nothing but the unrewarding gyrations of barbarous tribes. In a BBC lecture he said, “Perhaps in the future there will be some African history to teach. But at present there is none. There is only the history of the Europeans in Africa” (“The Rise of Christian Europe,” The Listener, November 28, 1963, p. 871). Another famous British historian, Arnold Toynbee, and the German philosopher Georg Hegel made similar statements. If we assume that by history we mean the past of any people, a past that includes various aspects like actions, culture, lifestyle, and so on, then it must inevitably follow that every people must have a history, that they must have a past, whether attractive or unattractive. As a noted historian, Trevor-Roper must have been aware of this. His statement, therefore, can only be regarded as a racist attempt to denigrate Africa and Africans and has no connection with history as we know it. The second part of his statement, that the African past was nothing but the unrewarding gyrations of barbarous tribes, reinforces this, as does Toynbee’s assertion that Africa had not contributed anything positive to any civilization. These evaluations are, of course, completely false, as this work will show. It is partly the intention of this work to showcase African ingenuity in the past and the present.
If one wanted to be generous to people like Trevor-Roper, one might say that their views stemmed, not merely from a jaundiced view of history, but from the limitations of the tools that were in use at the time to construct history; they stemmed, that is, from inadequate historical methodology. Up to the start of the twentieth century European historians believed that history could only be reconstructed from written records, largely official records, and that without official records there could be no history. I call this inadequate historical methodology because there could be lots of other sources of historical information. For instance, in Africa there is the oral tradition which is the source of historical information of many societies, because some of these societies were not literate. The people’s historical record has therefore been kept in the collective consciousness through the generations. Even in the Western world there has been a reliance on oral information to reconstruct history.
Apart from the oral tradition, other sources could be used for historical information. We know that archaeology could give and has given lots of information about societies all over the world, and this now applies even to Africa. Even linguistics is being used in this regard. The presence of certain linguistic features in various places could tell us quite a lot about the movements of people or about societies influencing each other. All this means that attitudes towards African history and the nature of African historical methodology have changed drastically since the days of Trevor-Roper, Arnold Toynbee, and Georg Hegel. The change was partly motivated by the achievement of independence by African countries. Independence gave Africans a sense of pride and therefore a heightened desire to find out more about their past and set the record straight. African nationalism and the drive towards independence coincided, more or less, with the rise of African universities and therefore with the appearance on the scene of trained African historians dedicated to doing historical research in order to reconstruct their countries’ histories. Quite often, they did this in collaboration with Western historians interested in Africa and scholars in the mushrooming Centers of African Studies in Britain, the USA, and Europe.
Historians like Trevor-Roper and Toynbee derived their judgments not just from official written records, but Western written records. They did not bother to investigate the existence of non-Western written records. However, as Kevin Shillington and others have shown, the kingdoms of Nubia and Meroe kept literate records from the sixth century bce and the Ethiopians kept written records from at least the ninth century ce. Most interesting, perhaps, are the records kept by Arab travelers in Africa. After the establishment of Islam by Muhammad in the seventh century ce, the Arabs traveled extensively in Africa as traders, merchants, and warriors conducting jihads in the attempt to spread the Moslem religion. Some of them wrote detailed accounts of their experiences. Two noted names are Al Bakri, who lived in the eleventh century, and Al Idriss, who lived in the twelfth. In their accounts, which are written in Arabic, they tell us of splendid West African cities and empires like Mali, Songhay, and Ghana, centers of learning, and properly administered kingdoms. Archaeology has also contributed immensely in giving us information of the Nubians of Kush, and of Great Zimbabwe and a great African civilization in the south. In refutation, therefore, of those who claimed that Africa has no history, the reconstruction of African history is proceeding apace, led by the work of African scholars themselves. With new historical methodology such as the use of the oral tradition, linguistics, archaeology, and non-Western written records, they have been able to assemble compelling accounts of Africa’s past.

Africa: the home of humankind

In refutation of those who hold derogatory views about Africa it is essential to stress that Africa is the home of humankind. According to Darwinian theory of evolution, the human species evolved over millions of years from our primate relatives, the apes. The assertion that Africa is the home of humankind is based not just on theory, but on demonstrable scientific fact, and is the result of scientific examination and dating of fossils discovered in Africa and other parts of the world. The evolution of the human species started between ten and fifteen million years ago when certain apes began to develop humanlike characteristics such as larger brains and the ability to walk upright on two legs. This phenomenon is thought to have occurred in Africa because of the favorable nature of the African environment. These apelike creatures with human characteristics are called hominins or “hominids,” from the Latin word homo, which means “man.” The researches of archaeologists, anthropologists, and paleoanthropologists revealed that these early hominins existed in the grasslands and woodlands of Eastern and Southern Africa and perfected the technique of walking on their hind legs because of the need to spot predators. It was these hominins that gradually evolved into human beings in several stages.
The next stage in the story of the evolution of the hominins into human beings was an apelike creature with human characteristics that was about 2.5 million years’ old and named “Australopithecus.” This creature could use tools such as sticks and stones. Next came a new species of hominins, discovered in 1964 by Mary and Louis Leakey in the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, that had the ability to make its own tools. The creature was therefore called Homo habilis, and the fossilized skull estimated to be 2.5 million years’ old. The next stage in the process was the appearance of Homo erectus or upright man. This was a creature that could both walk and stand erect on two legs and not merely cut or chop off simple tools from rocks, like Homo habilis, but could also shape them to a predetermined plan. Most importantly, it was Homo erectus that started the movement of the hominins out of Africa. The reason for the movement out of Africa to the other continents might have been the environmental and climatic instability that obtained on the earth between 1 million and 500,000 years ago, but also to the fact that Homo erectus was better able to adapt to changing conditions, and conditions in other areas, than previous species of hominins. The next stage was the emergence in Africa, about 600,000 years ago, of another species, Homo heidelbergensis, with a brain the size of a modern human brain. While those members of Homo heidelbergensis who crossed over to Europe gave rise to species like Homo neanderthalis, Homo heidelbergensis in Africa gave way to Homo sapiens, the modern human being in other words, about 200,000 years ago. Homo sapiens, which was very much like modern humans, continued the move to other continents and spread throughout the world. Scientists have concluded, through the use of DNA, that all human beings everywhere in the world can be traced to a common woman ancestor, called “Eve,” who lived in Africa, and whose descendants began to emigrate from Africa to other parts of the world between 180,000 and 90,000 years ago. They displaced other groups such as the Neanderthals, and eventually came to populate the whole world. As these descendants migrated, they adapted themselves to the climatic conditions they encountered. While those in Africa remained dark to protect them from the harmful effects of the direct sun, those in...

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