Sociocultural Aspects in West Africa Research Paper

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This research paper offers an overview of social worlds, values, and material and nonmaterial cultures of the region south of the Sahara from Mauritania to Cameroon. Attention is paid, in particular, to modes of social solidarity and the cultural dynamics of community formation in West African settings.

1. The People

West Africa is mainly peopled by Black Africans. Some groups of Berber and Arab descent inhabit the Saharan extremes. A small Lebanese diaspora, distributed mainly along the coast, occupies a role in commerce not unlike the Indian traders of eastern and southern Africa. Malaria deterred European settlement.

2. Linguistic Diversity

A striking aspect of West Africa is its linguistic diversity (Dalby 1977). Nigeria, a country of c. 100–120 million people, covering only about a seventh of the region, is estimated to have between 250 and 400 languages. (The huge expanse of eastern and southern Africa, by contrast, is dominated by closely related Bantu languages.) Language diversity in West Africa mainly reflects in situ development of long-settled farming communities, rather than long-distance migration. European languages, especially English and French, became established as public languages during the colonial period.

3. The Agrarian Base

West Africa divides into three broad environmental and cultural zones—an agro-pastoral desert edge dotted by ancient towns involved in trans-Saharan trade, a coastal rain forest zone shaped by external (sea-borne) commerce (including the Atlantic Slave Trade), and an intermediate zone of drier forest margins and wetter savannas, with a history of endogenous agrarian development dating back several thousand years.

The intermediate zone is the heartland of West African civilization and culture. It is here that local crops, notably white yam (Dioscorea rotundata), African rice (Oryza glaberrima), and a range of millets (‘hungry rice,’ pearl millet, and one race of sorghum), were first domesticated. The intermediate zone also provided the oil palm (Elaeis guineensis)—the source of oil used in cooking, a mild alcoholic beverage (palm wine), raw material for soap and medication, and ribs, trunks and leaves from which bags, hammocks, roofs, building frames, and bridges are made.

In the eastern part of West Africa, along the forest–savanna transition and in the river valleys of the savanna, yam-oil palm farming systems prevail. Away from the riverine environments sorghum and pennisetum millet tend to replace yam as staples. The pattern repeats in the western half of West Africa, but with African rice taking the place of white yam (though today African rice is partly replaced by Asian rice, perhaps first introduced by the Portuguese in the era of the slave trade but spread widely only in the last century).

The early rise of a relatively intensive heartland agriculture went hand in hand with other sociotechnical changes, as evidenced by ancient iron working and terracotta art work, suggesting permanent settlement and complex division of labor in the intermediate zone at an early date.

The sacred importance and symbolic significance accorded intermediate-zone crops, even where they have been squeezed out of farming by commercially more productive introductions, is a notable aspect of West African material culture. Wild palms supply a rich red oil that remains an essential ingredient in many rituals, ceremonies, and remedies, greatly favored over the more common plantation substitute. The tasteless white rices of the coastal wetlands are considered no substitute for the nutritionally superior red rices of the interior. From Ghana to eastern Nigeria, yam survives as a preferred staple despite cheaper root crop substitutes. In the Arrow of God, Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe appropriately made the disruption of a new yam festival in eastern Nigeria a striking metaphor for the far-reaching disruption of West African social and cultural values caused by colonial conquest (Achebe 1964).

4. Lineage Society: ‘Wealth In People’

West African agriculture depends on the hoe. The soils of the wetter savannas and adjacent forests are not suited to plough cultivation. Due to fly-borne disease, pastoralism is well developed only along the desert margins. Elsewhere it is not easy to accumulate wealth in livestock. Successful hoe agriculture depends on abundance of human labor. A central social value in the West African heartland is ‘wealth in people.’ This has many manifestations. The importance of a chief, for example, is expressed in terms of wives, children, and domestic dependents, rather than through holdings of land and livestock.

But in hoe agriculture, timing and coordination of labor are as important as numbers of workers, especially in strongly seasonal savanna cultivation systems. Interhousehold labor cooperation, and the social values, crop types, and farming practices conducive to such cooperation figure strongly in West African agrarian social systems. In the old days the young people of an entire community might pool their labor for farm operations. Today it is more likely that they will form cooperative gangs to tackle backbreaking and time-constrained jobs on a rotational basis. Where agriculture is commercialized labor gangs ply for hire.

Labor cooperation is a practical manifestation of an egalitarianism among the young typical of West African heartland social organization. This egalitarianism is frequently fostered through initiation into so-called ‘secret’ societies, widespread and still powerful in parts of the region. Such societies typically tend to support social values among the young, strikingly in contrast with hierarchical values prevailing in the world of the elders. From Guinea to Cameroon the senior grades within secret societies form a ladder along which elders compete to advance.

French Marxist anthropologists in the 1960s and 1970s wrote about this typical opposition between youthful egalitarians and ranked elders, as ‘lineage’ society, or a ‘lineage mode of production,’ clearly differentiated from feudal relations found in medieval Europe and elsewhere (Seddon 1978). It was conceived that elderly elites, drawing on the language of kinship and descent for legitimation, reproduced themselves at the expense of the labor of cadets. According to some authors this amounted to a kind of class conflict. The explanation was controversial. An alternative explanation is that typical agrarian societies in the West African heartland are the complex outcome of a number of competing principles of social solidarity, none of which, by itself, can sustain a satisfactory community life over the longer term.

5. Agrarian Social Solidarity

As suggested, two principles of social solidarity often encountered in West African heartland social formations are egalitarianism and hierarchy. They offer quite distinct approaches to the problems of keeping social groups together (Douglas 1993). Neither, alone, can sustain a community except in the short term. Compromise is an essential prerequisite for survival.

In a land-abundant setting, hierarchs may be able to do little to prevent youthful egalitarians from forging their own breakaway communities. But breakaway youthful egalitarians quickly run into problems of leadership. Youth labor gangs often have their own ‘government,’ and spend large amounts of time in dispute settlement, to the detriment of the work in hand. Charismatic leadership sometimes helps the egalitarians to go-it-alone for a time, but as with sectarians everywhere, splits lie around the corner. The more settled authority of the elders offers clear advantages. The typical West African agrarian compromise seems to have allowed for the emergence of spheres of partial autonomy for women and youth within a more complex social totality presided over by elders (and ancestors). Achieving such coordination and compromise without recourse to strong centralized political institutions was often the work of the ‘secret societies’ (for both men and women) found particularly in the Upper Guinean section of the Atlantic Coast in the western half of West Africa, and more widely in the region. In communities welded by initiation and secrecy, a social contract renewed or reinforced typically manifests itself from time to time in dramaturgical terms (often as masquerade display). The arts of masking are among the greatest manifestations of West African material culture and societal values.

The test of any mode of social solidarity is the extent to which it permits humans to flourish. A central fact about many decentralized (‘stateless’) societies of the West African heartland is that they often sustained denser populations than adjacent territories with a history of strong (and often strongly oppressive) central institutions (Middleton and Tait 1958).

6. Society And Culture At The Margins: Coast And Desert Edge

International trade rather than agriculture was a mainstay of life at the coast and on the desert edge. It is in these regions that we first see most clearly the emergence of a trade-related West African urbanism, with its own distinctive institutions and cultural values. Along the desert edge, long-distance trade was associated with the early spread of Islam, and with Islam came literacy, science, and an enhancement of bureaucratic capacity. A process of modernization and reform took shape among desert-edge trade related towns and polities in the late eighteenth century, and by the mid-nineteenth century larger regional formations, such as the Sokoto Caliphate (Last 1969), covered a large part of what is today northern Nigeria. Two interior languages—Hausa and Maninka (Dioula)—developed some importance as media of regional communication, along with written Arabic for letter writing and record keeping.

At the coast, trade was stimulated by European contacts from the fifteenth century. Christianity gained several footholds, and small ports and polities oriented to the Atlantic trade developed, at times ruled by mercantile elites of Afro-European descent. Coastal trade pidgins, drawing first on Portuguese and later on English, developed into a distinctive family of mutually comprehensible English-oriented pidgins and creoles, today perhaps as widely spoken in coastal urban centers from The Gambia to Cameroon as Hausa or Dioula, the trade languages of the savanna, are spoken in interior West Africa. The Englishoriented pidgins and creoles have considerable importance in coastal West Africa as means of communication among the nonelite, and in popular music and entertainment (Todd 1984).

Globalization is no new phenomenon in desert-edge or coastal West African communities. From an early date children of trading elites might be sent to Cairo or Liverpool for their schooling. Nelson’s victory against Napoleon’s fleet at the Battle of the Nile in 1803 was known in Kumasi within weeks; that the news made sense at all implies a sophisticated world map in the West African interior. The typewriter was in use among Christian converts in the interior of Yorubaspeaking country (now western Nigeria) within decades of its invention. The colonial telegraph, and now the modern satellite phone, are among means through which globally dispersed West African families have maintained and developed their wide networks of social contacts in the modern period.

Conversion to the ‘world religions,’ Islam and Christianity, tells us about growing global awareness even at early dates. Coastal linguistic creolization was part of a larger process of cultural creolization that helps explain the international outlook and mobility of many West Africans today (Hannerz 1987). Diaspora communities of West Africans, often involved in trade, are found in most world cities today, and not just in the capitals of the former colonial powers. It is not uncommon to find street children or unemployed youth in Dakar, Douala, Freetown, or Lagos with a better grasp of politics and world issues than well-educated teenagers in Britain, America, or France.

7. The Impact Of External Trade On Social Values

Arguments and compromises over social values took different forms under the impact of long-distance trade from those already described for heartland agrarianism. We need to distinguish internal and legitimate trade from the slave trade. Vigorous internal trade, exchanging forest and savanna products (notably cattle, kola nuts, and salt) was a stimulus to social and cultural innovation in a number of communities located on major north–south internal trade routes.

Typical adaptations to long-distance trading (Cohen 1969) included the development of culturally distinct diasporas (Hausa cattle dealers in western Nigeria, or Fula kola dealers in Sierra Leone for example). At times agrarian elites maintained some control of diaspora trading groups through intermarriage. At other times diaspora communities have been confined to special settlements (Zongo, Sabon Gari) at the edge of villages or towns.

In other cases, women or youth have been free to exploit the potential of semi-autonomous social spheres to build up commercial activities. Igbo young men from eastern Nigeria have long adapted the gang-like structures of the labor company to itinerant trading (in for example second-hand clothing, cloth or motor spares). Agrarian labor cooperatives often double, or develop, as rotational savings and credit associations for the purposes of commerce.

Women traders are prominent throughout the West African costal and forest zone, but especially so in Ghana and southern Nigeria. Large-scale female traders, sometimes with little or no formal education, are to be encountered traveling the world, often in groups, perhaps as likely collecting car spares in Taiwan as exporting a consignment of red palm oil to London. West African women’s involvement in commerce typically began with local and regional foodstuffs trade neglected by the colonial commercial houses. The extensive yam trade from the Middle Belt interior to burgeoning colonial coastal cities of Ghana and Nigeria would be an example. In patrilineal communities women are life-long brokers between kin groups. Taken in conjunction with the gender solidarity fostered by initiation, this helps set up an extra household social space in which women’s commerce has tended to flourish.

But we need to be careful not to impute modern ideas about individualism and enterprise to the development of West African trading relationships with the wider world. Frequently overseas or trans-desert trade was the monopoly of rulers who kept a tight rein on contacts and commercial information. Those controlling the trade-based polities of coast and desertedge were more likely to be monopolists and autocrats than agents of an enterprise culture. In the nineteenth century the spread of firearms allowed trade-oriented rulers extensive use of socially unaccountable force. A not dissimilar militaristic adventurism has reasserted itself in some parts of West Africa (notably in Liberia and Sierra Leone) as the twentieth century ends, prompted by an international political vacuum and a surfeit of cheap weapons from the ending of the Cold War.

The mode of social solidarity that tends to predominate under war-lord autocracy is not individualism but fatalism, a fact illustrated in the 1997 elections in Liberia, where a war-weary population voted for the strongest of the faction leaders from a destructive seven-year civil war, reasoning the most powerful autocrat was the best guarantee of a kind of peace. Fatalism is little appreciated as a basis for social solidarity, but may be preferable to the mayhem of a bush civil war. Here we have an insight into why social life on the West African frontier so often seems to have been characterized by quietism, and a subsistenceoriented conservatism, rather than by the expansive individualism associated with the making of the American frontier (Kopytoff 1987). The attitude is ‘we make no demands other than to be left to get on with our lives.’ The old heartland agrarian social mix continues to have a certain basic appeal where the alternative is the postmodern violence of late twentieth century conflict in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

8. Social Consequences Of The Sla E Trade And Colonial Rule

Perhaps between 10 and 15 million West Africans were sold into Atlantic slavery from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, and 8–10 million into trans-Saharan slavery. In addition to the adverse demographic impact, in a region dependent on laborintensive hoe agriculture, the conversion of human beings into commodities dealt an enormous blow to the trust essential to the functioning of many social institutions (Inikori 1982). It is hard to overestimate the continuing consequences of the slave trade for the evolution of social values in West Africa. Fatalism, fear of entrepreneurial individualism, distrust of chiefs, and undue respect for autocrats in return for basic security are among the symptoms of the damage. Distrusts inherited from the era of the slave trade remain a factor in the nihilism of much of the current youth-led violence blighting the region. How ordinary West Africans continue to come to terms with the harsh social legacy of the slave trade is also very apparent in popular religion, in ideas about chiefs as shape-shifting witches, or through divination and possession as ways of addressing old betrayals and coming to terms with disastrous breakdowns in family or community solidarity (Shaw 1997).

Colonial protection in West Africa arose from initiatives to eliminate the slave trade, beginning with the assumption in 1807, by the British Crown, of administrative responsibility for Sierra Leone, an eighteenth century West Coast settlement for freed slaves founded by British Christian philanthropists. Ending the slave trade became the pretext for a series of moves by industrializing European powers to control resource extraction and guarantee markets for their own manufacturers. By the end of the nineteenth century West Africa had been carved up by the Germans, French, and British (Crowder 1968).

Colonial rule at the beginning of the twentieth century was militaristic, often formally racist, and based on a protectionist principle of imperial preference. Although colonial regimes built railways and some roads, and Christian missions under colonial protection introduced school education and Western medicine, colonial autocracy did nothing to repair the adverse social legacy of the slave trade.

9. Postcolonial Social Trends

Postcolonial leaders in the region have continued the path of colonial autocracy, paying more attention to external opportunities than local accountability. Aid donors and Western governments hope to see a flowering of individualism and rational choice to support a flourishing modern market society, but without taking full account of the extent to which the slave trade and colonialism prevented the development in West Africa of the informal checks and balances between state, market, and civil society upon which modern market society depends. West African people still retain the option of retreating towards heartland survivalism. But even this option is no longer as open to all comers as once it was.

The population is ever more youthful; more than 50 percent of all West Africans are under the age of 18. The colonial migratory labor options that once took teeming Sahelian youth to the coastal plantations and cities have begun to fail in modern times (Cooper 1996). Under recession conditions, migrants no longer gain enough wealth to return to intermediate zone homes to assume the status of rural elders. Not all have villages to which to return. Some are the landless descendants of former domestic slaves. Others have begun to succumb to HIV AIDS. Many are now permanently hustling the city streets, locked into a vicious circle of poverty, petty crime, and drugs. Despairing of the future, some of these younger elements have been willing recruits (from the streets of Monrovia, Abidjan, and other coastal cities) to militia groups fighting the 1990s wars for diamonds and timber in rural Liberia and Sierra Leone. Embittered by their lack of social recognition they hit out at everything in their path, including those who seek refuge in the old agrarian compromise. This is the new ‘masterless class,’ in awe only of its own charismatic and demagogic leaders. Human rights mean little, and atrocity multiplies.

There is a widening recognition that West African youth is in crisis, but as yet less recognition that the crisis is not only one of crime, drugs, and weapons but also one of basic social values (Richards 1996). Youthful egalitarianism has slipped free of the restraints of a wider and more complex set of social compromises. Enclaved within bush war zones by the ferocity of their own violence, and by civilian fear and hatred, but still able to accumulate forest and mineral resources readily saleable overseas, the masterless egalitarians have a capacity for prolonged survival. The fission that normally ends egalitarian adventures may not come into play if armed enclave groups, lacking other exit options, find themselves locked in place by the unremitting hostility of the wider society. Perhaps the violence can be tamed only by a search for new compromises between the distinct, and currently disengaged, modes of social solidarity of youth and elders, men and women.

But some would say that youthful egalitarianism is not the only challenge to established social compromise in contemporary West Africa. The disengaged individualism of newly enriched and internationally footloose commercial elites also poses urgent problems. Yet despite current difficulties, the vibrancy and inventiveness of West African society and culture continues to impress. Social renewal in West Africa must reach beyond old solutions, and turn away from ineffectual inducements to value change—the casually proffered carrot-and-stick of the international community. Perhaps some of the urgently required thinking about complex social values, and new forms of social solidarity, will emerge from debate, fostered by some West African and African-American scholars and activists, about moral accountability for the evils of the slave trade.


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