Face Music - History of black Africa and East Africa
  • History of black Africa and East Africa -
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P & C December 1998
- Face Music / Albi

- last update 03-2016

© Albi - Face Music 2007

Around 1900 the part of Africa south of the Sahara was still a white spot on the map. In the mind of the European population there was the image of the African as cannibal and of Whites being cooked in large steaming pots.

The Africans, however, already had a rather developed form of music and handicraft. In fact, black Africa was already the home of powerful kingdoms, which were based on communities – with women being an integral part thereof. The most competent of the representatives was being elected. Dynasties like in Europe, however, had not been established so far. These god-kings reigned and ruled, as long as they were able to do so in respect of their health. Apart from the king, important in this communities were the people and not their property or the land. The system was kept going by means of spiritual and magical concepts rather than military power. In general the power was in the hands of communities (like the council of elders, secret societies or extended families – so-called "clans"), which goes back to prehistoric times. The persons in charge and the representatives of the communities as well as the mediators between the shepherds and farmers and also the contact persons to traders and the Whites excerted some influence on village life. They developed a system of hierarchy within the village communities and the tribes and thus created the basis for realms to be developed in later times. Their power stretched far beyond the tribal area itself. Women also played an important role in such communities. Black Africa continued to be sparsely populated for a long time on (in 1680 the population was estimated at around 5 millions). Also the Africans, in their effort to merely guarantee self-sufficiency, produced not enough surplus of goods in order to trade the produce.

The reason for the collapse of these kingdoms was the slave trade of the seafaring nations and their interference in black Africa, which lasted for more than four hundred years. There are estimations that from the 15th century on about 10 million slaves were shipped to America. The slave trade, which had before been common practice of the Arabs or the Africans themselves, had only been of little importance and had never been of economic advantage. The sovereigns of the coastal areas, who in the beginning had even co-operated with the slave traders, rather soon were stripped of their power. So there only remained the realms inland. These were only minimally affected by the trade and its associated colonisation. And also these later on fell victim to tyranny after the colonisation with the idea of progress, this being in great contrast to African tradition; these realms also disappeared. These facts contributed to the collapse of the autonomous realms in Uganda. Only the powerful realms of the Sultans of the Haussa and the Fulani at the upper bow of the river Niger in the Sahel zone survived these influence, excerted by the conquerors, without further damage.

In black Africa there are four language groups, in which the Central Sudanic language is of some importance. They make up the backbone of this language family.

- The Nilotic language group
The Luo and Western Nilotes live in the Sahara, the southern Sudan and in East Africa in those areas which have now become deserted and in earlier times had plenty of water and were very frutile. They were cattle, sheep and goat breeders. And also fishermen found enough food in this region, with the swamps and lakes being full of water.
- The Cushitic language group
The Afro-Asiatic language; this Cushitic language is still spoken in Ethiopia, Somalia and northern Kenia. The language is also called Nilo-Hamitic.
This language is still spoken by smaller groups in the Great Rift Valley in East Africa. These nomadic tribes are descendants of shepherds migrated thereto, who cultivated the Cushitic language and culture and probably introduced pastoralism in this internal plateau.
- The Bantu language group
Immigrated farmers who settled in the regions full of water and who already grew sorghum (corn) and millet ("Eleusine", finger millet).
- The Khoi language group
The Khoisan (bushmen) today still live in smaller groups of hunters in the fringe areas of the South African desert.
The Khoi are descendants of the upper paleolithic hunters and gatherers who have migrated to this area. In their language we find loanwords of a Central Sudanic language, which proves that they must have been in contact with peoples who belong to this Central Sudanic language group and already breeded cattle and grew cereals. They lived with their herds in higher, drier and open-spaced grasslands.

In black Africa kingdoms with monarchy-based principles only were established in the last hundred years. The creation of artefacts and prestige resulted in power. In those areas, in which there was a connection between mineral resources and trade, this led to the development of more complex forms of society. In the first millenium after Christ, for the very first time glass pearls and shells were introduced as they were imported by ways of trade with India. Also copper was traded for gold and ivory.

The bards (griots) keep such myths, heroic deeds and wars alive, which are hence still present in Africa. The history of the African continent has not been put down in written form. There have not been found any written documents in excavation sites. Myths and tales, however, keep such events alive for further generations. A lot of information may also be retrieved from Portuguese chronicles going back to the 15th to 19th centuries. There are also found written reports on such events, and further a lot was discovered through archeological excavations. The buildings reflect the history of a traditional Africa. The structures of the settlements show the relationship between these people and their land and its utilisation. The pagan rural population lived in thatched settlements (round huts) in groups. Burial sites of the Buganda kings manifested the new aspiring power and its continuity with the architecture of the 14th century. The Karimonjong shepherds in northern Uganda built rosewood hedges for their protection and arranged their huts in circles. Such inter-connected facts give an image of the history of black Africa.

The Khoisan – San peoples

Different ethnies in the South and Southwest of Africa are collectively called Khoisan; they belong to the groups of the Khoi (= people, disparagingly also Hottentots) and the San (people, bushmen). This allocation is based on a conspicuous linguistic relationship and also on features in their appearance (yellow-brownish, in higher age very wrinkled skin, little height, hair growth in small bundles, epicanthic fold), which make the Khoisan different from the rest of the negroid population in Africa.

Today the Khoisan primarily live in Namibia, South Africa, Botswana, and Angola. In earlier times they also lived farther up north, which is proved by the Hadtsa and Sandava who still live in Tanzania. Although they live more than 3,000 kilometres away from the core area of the Khoisan, their languages also belong to the language group of the Khoisan. Many of the more than 20,000 year-old rock drawings are seen in context of the history of these groups of people.

The linguistic as well as archeological findings prove that the Khoisan initially lived in vast areas south of the African equator. Only later they were displaced by the farming Bantu peoples. The expansion of the Bantu started already before the Christian era. The Bantu, who were equipped with plants and tools for the cultivation of the soil, within only some centuries succeeded in displacing the hunters and gatherers of the Khoisan peoples, who lived in scattered rather than organised settlements. The expansion of the Bantu came to a halt at the Fish River; this goes probably back to the fact that their plants – Yams roots, sorghum, and millet – could not grow in the mediterrean climate with wet winters. For this reason the Khoisan were able to withdraw into these areas. Only after the arrival of the Europeans in southern Africa in modern history, who brought with them mediterrean plants, the Bantu peoples migrated to the southern areas of Africa. As a consequence of the European invasion the Khoisan were again decimated.

According to the classification established by the linguist Joseph Greenberg, the languages spoken by the Khoisan are one of the various language families in Africa. The inner classification is, however, still contentious as the language of the Khoisan has not been studied thoroughly so far. Khoisan languages are best known for the five basic click consonants, which are not found in any other language family and which are expressed in Latin transcription by means of an exclamation mark (!), (see, for example, !Kung). Genetic research proved the special status of the Khoisan, and according to that the Khoisan quite early seceded from the other genetic groups of mankind. Hence, for long the hypothesis has been discussed that these click sounds, a main feature of the Khoisan languages, constitute a human relic from this time: these are sounds the Khoisan have kept alive in their language, while these have vanished in other peoples' languages. Critics, however, object that the Khoisan might have adopted these sounds after their ethnic secession, one reason being that these sounds were of advantage in the communication of the hunters and gatherers.
The Bakonzo, Bantu people of little height who have settled around the Rwzenon Mountains near the border to Congo in Uganda, also make use of a communication system by means of whistling signals.

The first kingdoms in Africa

Before the establishment of kingdoms, the power of the leaders or priests was united in one person. The basis of this belief was a land and rain cult (nature worship). The fertility of the soil and the well-being of the community determined everyday-life with its rites. People believed in animated nature, which is to be worshipped. Dance rites were performed in their honour; also altars were being erected.

- Nature worship – the "Mwari cult"
Mwari was the only high god devoid of any human concerns. The cult was very common practice and centrally organised. Holy shrines, priests and officials were all subject to a very hierarchic principle.

Leadership of such village communities was also incumbent on family groups (clans), and even today it is still deeply rooted in modern African states, with the concept of religious and spiritual power playing an essential role. Conflicts are still being solved by means of rites. Secular and ecclesiastical power are seen as being inter-related.

These African kingdoms were firmly rooted in village life. Institutions on the state-level developed, with structures regulating life in the villages. Intact village life serves as a basis for life in the community, which was based on the cultivation of useful plants (field cultivation) and thus guaranteed stabilised supply of food; this was in sharp contrast to the cumbersome style of living practised at this early period of mankind by the groups of hunters permanently migrating and searching for food. Structured village life also led to the development of artistic and craft skills; these, however, in the beginning were only performed as a sideline when there was no cultiviation of fields.

The population of the inner continent as well as the traders in coastal areas did not excert any form of mutual influence; they were rather put in a kind of interaction through this steadily growing economic system, namely trade. Markets were established along the coast. But also at the eastern coast, there was individual urban development. These were, however, more beholden to Islamic culture because of the trade with the Arab world, but at the same time they also showed African roots in their multicultural diversity. Western Kenia and Uganda were prepared for the trade at the coast only in the 19th century. At this time there was a lot of material and human labour involved to cross the semi-desert between this trading partners. For this reason, only insignificant inner trade towards the North with the neighbouring tribes was possible and hence important.

The shepherds (nomads)

Dry mountain areas and grass-covered steppes constituted an ideal grazing area for cattle. This rather infinite and open landscape covered with grass and trees created the ideal surrounding for the shepherds wandering through such savannas with their huge cattle herds. This East African grazing areas encouraged the shepherds to stay with their herds exactly there, which is the reason why they invaded this area. They brought with them Cushitic social structures and forms of leadership, the so-called "divine kingdom", thus establishing step by step the first kingdoms. Tribal kingdoms like those of the Banyoro, Nkole (Ankole), Toro (Batooro) and also kingdoms in Ruanda were being established. In the regions with plenty of water supply, there could be found plants as well as deciduous forests. Woodlands were situated at the shore of Lake Victoria and also in the East African mountains.

Due to the enormous game population in the savannas, the Africans were not much dependent on agriculture. They only cultivated the loose soil with hoes and initially grew sorghum (corn) or millet, which needed only a minimum of tending and watering. They did not use their animals for working the soil and did not know the practice of working the soil with a plough. These big cattle herds rather meant prestige for the shepherd families and also stood for wealth and power.

Tribes of shepherds already developed in the 4th millenium before Christ. At this time there were also known longhorn cattle. The shepherds were not black Africans but rather came from the mountain plateaus into these fertile areas in the East African Rift Valley, taking their herds with them. They were of Cushitic culture and language.

In the first millenium before Christ, cattle breeders settled in these inner mountain areas with their big lakes and the infinite grassland (northern Uganda). They displaced the farmers who had already settled there and cultivated the soil; or they assimilated with them. These immigrated shepherds even today speak a South-Nilotic language and rather early displaced the tribes, who had rather early migrated from the northern area thereto. In the Great Rift Valley in East Africa there are still some smaller groups of people speaking a South Cushitic dialect.

At the beginning of the 15th century again such shepherds migrated to the East African great lakes and were there met by field farmers, who had already settled there and breeded cattle, sheep and goats. Centuries later, also the Luo and Masaai invaded this area.

With the invasion of the Luo from the Sudan, the structures of the village communities were changed, thus favouring centrally organised forms of leadership (Luo – a people of shepherds, "nomads" of Nilotic origin). They assimilated with the peoples aready settled there and established the kingdom Bunyoro. In the moist lowlands at the western and northern shores of Lake Victoria there was established another kingdom, "the Buganda Kingdom", which was probably the most powerful of all. Due to climate and plenty of rain, a people, who primarily grew millet and bananas, was given the basis for a considerable living. This was also the only area in Africa where land now began to be privately assigned, which means it was generally accepted as private property. The people were able to live quite comfortably because of harvest surplus and the little trade they performed, which enabled them to acquire some sort of well-being. This kingdom "Buganda" existed until the end of the colonial age. The Baganda people remained autonomous during the time of British colonial rule and co-operated with their new leaders. But in the 1960ies, however, the kingdom fell victim to contemporary unitary tendencies and the progressive concept of dictatorship.

The farmers (the settlers)

Settlers, whose origin goes back to the first millenium before Christ, lived at the shores of Lake Victoria; they already lived on agriculture and fishing. They are ancestors of the Bantu tribes, who had migrated to this area and already were skilled in processing ceramics and metals. Discoveries of uniformly fabricated ceramics, "red coloured" earthenware, which were unearthed in today's Uganda, indicate that there lived communities in the lower Iron Age. Trade was, for the time being, restricted to the regional level and in relation with neighbouring partners, with whom there was performed vivid exchange.

The East African grassland is the home of a lot of well-known African grains (corn, millet). It stretched as a kind of belt from the West to the upper Nile and from there as far as Ethiopia. And it was proably in this lower Iron Age that the first people speaking a Bantu language appeared in and migrated to, respectively, East Africa. They presumably invaded from the area Nigeria - Cameroon via the Sudan, along the woodlands. The language is also classified into the Central Sudanic language family. Loan words show that there must have existed very early a group of people, who spoke a Central Sudanic language and taught the people speaking Bantu their knowledge about growing millet, planting sorghum and breeding cattle and sheep.

The sharing of work was organised according to family units; loyalty was only to be found on the village level. The people traded salt and processed ironore. Each village had its blacksmith, who committed himself to his handicraft when his share of field cultivation was at rest. It was general practice then for the whole village community to learn and perform a craft, to provide for and fabricate daily commodity, which later can be used when working at home or in the fields. Copper was traded for ivory and made into jewellery and decoration. Bartering only took place within the village community. These handicraft works and barters initially did not promote the development of trade. They merely served to satisfy the demands felt by the community. This did definitely not promote the specialisation or professionalisation of the handicraft. There were no roads, and for this reason contact with others, this is exchange in the sense of foreign trade, was rather difficult. Crafts remained to be work performed on the sideline. The social and economic development was, however, dependent on traffic and trade with the exterior. This mountain plateau in East Africa was at this time rather sparsely populated; it further was of too little importance to maintain roads. Goods were carried on the head. Trade was rather restricted, and markets were established at first only in coastal regions, which then led to intensive trade relations. Very early there were trading routes via the sea from East African coasts to the Arab and Indian trading partners. From the East African coast it was rather cumbersome to reach this inland area. Initially semi-deserts had to be crossed, which was always associated with great efforts. Only at the end of the 19th century the Nyamwezi paved the way for trade with the East African coast and transported goods to the Great Lakes.

Furthermore, at this time the growth in population in these areas with rich water reservoirs and swamps was restricted because of diseases raging like epidemics, such as malaria, sleeping sickness or others infections spread by flies. The problems associated with vegetation, climate and mineral resources that are hard to extract were an impediment to an upcoming economy. The tribes of the Ganda (a Bantu people) at the shore of Lake Victoria, who found very fertile soil due to permanent inundation, were the exception. Here very early structures of organised states with leaders and a kingdom were established.

This change took place in the upper paleolithicum. New forms of state were being developed, where up to this point only agriculture with a little bit of metal processing and the focus on village life had been cultivated. Military conquests and the invasion of peoples of shepherds resulted in organised structures, with the resident population being subjugated and a permanent aristocracy being established. The Bantu farmers used to live in hotter and wetter surroundings and at this time still cultivated yanus roots (vegetable) and pisang (banana). Only simple handicraft such as pottery and metal processing were of some importance.

In the middle of the 19th century, the first slave caravans reached the big lakes and connected them with the coast. In spite of the lack or insignificance of the trade with the shepherd tribes in the North, who belonged to the Central Sudanic language group (who spoke Nilotic or Cushitic languages), these territories of the Bantu farmers did exist and underwent certain changes due to vivid contacts. The cattle breeders in the north several times invaded this region and also did perform some kind of mutual trade with the field farmers settled there.

Huge earthwork with the respective settlements give evidence in their own way that already in the 14th and 15th centuries there did exist some kind of organised form (in the region of the river Kalonga, Masaka District). It is called "Bigo culture", and we nowadays know about the relationship with the Bachwezi and the Kitara Kingdom. But not all experts share this opinion. The reports on these dynasties are based on popular tales and legends. But in the end these all are creations and stories told by various tribes over years; and the truth in this fantasies remains blurred so far. Also some tales are presented differently. And so experts are of the opinion that these are god, devil or ancestor tales, in which there is given the explanation how such buildings of such importance are thought to have been developed. The people try to keep these tales alive and living.

- The Bantu language
Today we know about 350 to 400 different dialects. When they spread to East Africa, metal processing and agriculture with structured and organised village life were to follow soon.

The mining industry

Mixed growing of cereals, namely millet, sorghum, beans and pumpkins, constituted the basis of every community. Cattles were the property of individual families. They were the basis of power and prestige. Some wealth could be acquired on the sideline by means of winning iron and gold; these practices, however, were always performed when the cultivation of land was at rest and always as a collective. Land and mineral resources were collective property, too. Blacksmiths processed metal into tools, agricultural equipment and later on also arms only in their spare-time. The basis for trade with far away trading partners was at the beginning only the export of gold and ivory, later on also of slaves. But trade remained being performed only on the sideline for some time on. The trade with gold increased in importance, but the Africans themselves did not profit therefrom, it rather had negative effects on them. The communities initially lived without any form of centrally organised leadership – these were to be established in the upper Iron Age.

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Reviewed and translated by Hermelinde Steiner