Society And Culture Of Central Africa Research Paper

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Most authors define Central Africa as the vast area comprising speakers of the different western branches of Bantu. The great diversity of western Bantu populations and traditions have gradually extended, beginning 5,000 years ago, from southern Cameroon, into Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, People’s Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Angola. Side to side to Ubangi and Nilotic speakers, they have moreover spread across the Central African Republic, southern Sudan, Western Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi, to Eastern Congo, Tanzania, and Northwestern Zambia. Whereas the eastern Bantu have specialized in grain growing, the western Bantu adopted cassava and yams for staple foods. The region has been the scene of complex interactions between the local and outer worlds.

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1. AD 1000 To 1880

Probably due to its sparse population, Central Africa did not develop the type of domestic markets and specialized local industries as found in West Africa. Until the late fifteenth century, it stayed out of the lines of long-distance communication such as those that had developed from coastal East Africa or along the caravan routes of West Africa. The history of precolonial Central Africa from AD 1000 can be divided broadly into two main regional developments.

With regard to the northern half of Central Africa, comprising the great equatorial forest with its northern woodland fringe and the Congo basin, linguistic and ethnographic data—common ‘words and things’ (Vansina 1990)—bear witness to the interaction between the farming and pastoral peoples in the forest and savanna areas north and south of the equator. The most important hunter-gatherer groups of Northern Central Africa were the matrilineal Pygmies, interacting with their agricultural neighbours and longdistance trading groups (like the salt-making Vili of Loango, and the neighboring copper-trading Tio). The Zaire river and its tributaries have been an important corridor for the transmission of cultural influences and systems of government, as well as for the trading economies of the Atlantic zone. The farming in the thinly scattered patrilineal societies of the northern and eastern corner of the rain forest remained for long untouched by the food plants originating from South America and already imported into other parts of Central Africa.

In the central part of the equatorial forest, the Mongo patrilineal societies were strongly influenced by the neighboring agriculturalists to the northwest along the Ubangi and higher up in the Sudan. Mongo Big Men, often combining agriculture and trade, tended to privilege their patrilocal household and patriclan rather than the village community as an economic stronghold and political unit, also by way of matrimonial transactions and cultic and initiatory specializations. By the sixteenth century, long-distance exchange economies of textiles and fire-arms for ivory and local captives may have connected the equatorial forest even with Egypt.

The savanna regions in the southern and western half of Central Africa saw the emergence of important political leadership roles, including kingship. Depending on the rainfall, the wooded savanna was moderately suitable for agriculture and or pastoralism. Priests were the guardians of all reproductive resources. The extended family was the focus of physical and spiritual well-being of both living and deceased members of the patrilineage. Lineage chiefs gained control over the rain-making cults and the territorial custody of hunting traditions and the collection of tribute. From the fourteenth century, the chiefs gained regional control over iron and smithery, and particularly from the seventeenth century, over fire-arms and market-oriented commerce. This as well as their indirect involvement in the Atlantic slave trade made their power paramount over large areas in central Angola and western Congo.

2. Challenges From The Atlantic And Colonizing Europe

Unlike West and East Africa, Central Africa had not entered the maritime trade prior to the arrival of the Portuguese caravels seeking trading bases, from the 1480s onwards. Reports by Portuguese missionaries and merchants as well as occasional correspondence by western-educated Kongo, show how the foreign influence brought radical changes to Kongo kingdom and culture. The kingdom then comprised prosperous farming communities linked to a regional trade of fish and craft goods. From this period, the nzimbu shells in the hands of Europeans took on the functions of coinage for the previously unfamiliar purposes of wage-payment and marketing.

Portuguese traders carried Mediterranean manufactures to Kongo in exchange for raffia cloth, ivory, dye wood, and copper. The redistribution of these manufactures (such as North African textiles, iron knives, glass mirrors, glass schnapps bottles, glazed bowls, Venetian beads, and glazed china) was controlled carefully by the royal court. Moreover, Portuguese teachers, artisans, lawyers, and priests enhanced the authority of the king and his closest supporters. A number of Kongo were taken to Europe for further education. From the sixteenth century the history of the southern savanna became tragically bound up with the growth of Atlantic slave-trade. Manpower, rather than landed property as in early modern Europe, was the key to value in the Central African communities. Slave-trading of servile subjects and captives gained via long-distance marketing at the Malebo Pool (where Kinshasa would later develop) became the grim solution to local needs for foreign goods. Like any slave-trading society, the Kongo kingdoms and other neighboring equatorial kingdoms became oppresssive and fractious, and deemed to collapse.

The Atlantic trade gradually came under the control of the semi-colonial Luso–African community of the Loanda hinterland, Africa’s first White colony. The long-distance savanna trade-routes probably became avenues for the dissemination of European goods and influence, as well as of the South American crops: maize, cassava, tobacco, tomatoes. Soon, frontier states such as Matamba and Kasanje as well as a new class of trading entrepreneurs took control over trade relations with the European powers. Following the industrial revolution in Europe, new goods were being shipped to Southern Cameroon, Gabon, and the Lower Congo. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, with the involvement of French, English and Dutch merchants, the Atlantic slave trade reached its peak.

Swahili-Arab penetration in Northeastern Zambia and Southeastern Congo in the early nineteenth century started as trade of guns and powder for ivory and slaves. It would soon overthrow the local chiefs and gain independent political power for itself.

Following Livingstone’s and Stanley’s ‘explorations,’ the 1885 Berlin Conference legitimized Europe’s colonial scramble for Central Africa. The conquest of Equatorial Africa would last until the 1920s before military power, forced labor, harsh rubber exploitation, diseases, and hunger would have decimated half of the population and broken local resistance. Colonial rule gradually deprived local societies of the institutional ability to confront the exploitative forces and exogenous ‘civilizing programs’ imposed upon them. In the views of the colonizing masters, the bringing about of a philanthropic medical provision and wide-spread school education in the colonies was an essential feature in the international justification of political and economic colonialism. The colony’s extractive economy directed at the ‘so far unutilized resources’ and relying on mandatory labor in lieu of tax payment, as well as its transport and communication technology were to open up the remote areas to the larger world scene. They were to ‘uplift’ and integrate the local populations in the new era of ‘universal civilization and progress.’

Bantu traditional rule was deeply alien to the colony’s display of order. Colonial state power was imposed through regulations, enticements, and direct interference, as both a text and texture, absorbing and domesticating people and events by the very acts of writing and administrative ordering. The textual economy disassembled and inserted local realities into panoptical recording and regulation. The management of people’s civil identity and geographic confinement was achieved through the identity cards and mandatory ‘passbooks.’ Records of marriage, descent, settlement, and land use were meant to bind the populations geographically, and were authoritative for the succession to chiefly titles and for settling matrimonial and family disputes. On the other hand, such regulatory documents were intended to modernize society by freeing the so-called evolue from customary collectivism. Population censuses, together with geographic and linguistic-ethnographic mapping and recording of data, allowed for a compartmentalization of languages and ethnic groups.

Unlike the nineteenth century bureaucratic nation– state in the West, the Bantu political traditions of Central Africa do not draw their inspiration from orders of visual representation and architectonic spatial models. They are moulded by organic, hydraulic, and or animal-totemic metaphors informing political networks and strategies as an order of events, forces, sources, and relations. Membership of and alliances between particular social groups are not primarily tied to a geographic partitioning but to blood ties and to the mythical or primal space-time order in line with the constant cosmogenetic reenactment of the reproductive and hierarchical weave between the founding ancestors, their foundational and migratory exploits, and their multiple descendents.

The functions of traditional political title holders were, and are, being thought of as prior to, and the source of, all life forms as well as the guarantee of their order. A chief represents and surpasses his subordinates by his twofold function. First, like his totemic animals (leopard, eagle, crocodile), he is a conqueror. Through enthronement, the ruler embodies the founding ancestors and represents the primal space-time order initiated by the immigration of his ancestral people and their conquest of the land. Through his body, in particular his clairvoyance and the nightly forces which he shares with his totemic animals, the ruler impersonates the founding ancestor. He imposes the qualities of a perennial hierarchical social organization, territorial unity, and moral order on his society. Second, the chief acts as the androgynous life-giver or mediator of the (re)generative processes between the land, society, man, and the ‘the primal womb’ in the earth. His rule is thus one of cosmic and physical regeneration, guaranteeing human, agricultural and social reproduction, and instituting commensality and sharing in his territory. In this diurnal ordering role, the chief protects his people from the nocturnal anti-rule of envy, theft, sexual abuse and sorcery. The elders, through councils, ceremonial exchange, and authoritative speech, extend the regenerative capacity into the daily weave of events and relations uniting kin groups under common rule.

In the Christian mission stations or in the plantation, mining, and industrial enterprises, ever larger numbers of individuals and families joined the workers camps and ‘indigenous townships,’ set up outside customary rule, on the fringes of White settlements. They thus created new ideological and physical spaces of identity and collective imagination. Indeed, from the last decades of the nineteenth century, Christian congregations set out to work side by side with the concessionary companies and the colonial administration. Their aim was to ‘bring civilization and universal salvation to the Dark Continent,’ as well as to ‘save the individual’s soul’ through the removal of ‘pagan African customs.’ While the first decades of the missionary endeavor were directed at the adaptation of Christianity to local society and culture, from the 1930s on, missions became increasingly involved in the social engineering of the townships, echoing the dominant mood of the plantation or mining trusts and the colonial administration. From then on, church authorities designed paternalist programs to educate converts towards assimilating modern skills and dispositions. By the 1950s, the term modernization had become a new banner for the assimilationist option.

In the Belgian Congo, the colonial government had secured the agreement of the missions to manage the schools in exchange for land concessions. Nearly all mission stations developed boarding schools with enough fields, cattle, poultry, and workshops to be self-sufficient. The colonial school presented Western progress as the source of a more dignified identity on the world scene. Vinck (1995) convincingly shows the extent to which, from the 1920s in the Belgian Congo, the school books conveyed the primary symbols and values of the West. By encouraging the pupils to develop a new identity and self-image, these manuals influenced the entire political elite-to-be in postindependence Congo. The concept of State, a key notion in the school books, was the comprehensive and abstract, depersonalized expression of the new power and authority which came to dominate the various spheres of life. According to the manuals, all Whites shared in the power of the State and thus were to be considered as authorities. Colonial school books depicted traditional society and religion as dominated by sorcery and the machinations of the devil.

3. Endogenization

From the 1950s, among the second generation of those having assimilated the European civilizational capital, the frustration grew with the glaring contradiction between the promises which the colonial master had put before them and their second-rank position in the colonial institutions. A few Christian priests or pastors and elite got imbued with the Third World emancipation movement enhanced by the rapid decolonization in Asia, the 1955 Afro–Asian Conference in Bandung, the independence struggle in Algeria, the Negritude call for the rehabilitation of African cultures, and the Pan-Africanism radiating from Ghana and Guinea.

The militant elite used a triple banner in the battle for decolonization. First, in the terms of the Christian, humanist, and or socialist discourses of the colonizers, they claimed the right to dignity, social emancipation, and equality. Second, their political aspirations were largely drawing on European ideological discourse associating modern economic development with gradual political emancipation. They thereby became complicit with the modernizing and authoritarian endeavor of the White welfare—and nation– state, however alien to people at grassroots level. Third, in the terms of western Bantu traditions, they favored a palaver model of negotiation, ceaselessly coopting ‘brothers’ and ‘doing things with words.’

In the 1970s, authenticity movements in various states prompted a radical shift away from assimilation of the White civilizational models, now urging people to take possession in a militant way of their own history and a dignified self-representation on the world scene. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, artists and customers in the discos celebrated a liberation from paternalist and moralizing colonization. Today, the people in both the rural and urban milieux have become aware how much their lifestyles, modes of production, and environments are both in rupture with their parental models, and simultaneously excluded from the current economic and informational globalization of western consumerist lifestyles. The masses in the poverty-stricken suburbs have been haunted, through television and downtown scenes, by the imageries of ease and extravagance that the transcontinental mass media as well as the few very rich nationals exhibit in fine clothing, expensive cars, and luxury goods. Many are increasingly bitter about their exclusion. However, they do not fail to develop their own proud visions of society and the way things are. In the early 1990s, through the waves of demonstrations and Dead-Town protest manifestations or even uprisings, suburban people counteracted the govermental views on modernization and the neocolonial politics. Irony and parody allowed the populace to deconstruct imperialist twentieth century modernity.

Suburbanites straddle worlds through hybridity or the imaginary transgression of codes, in particular in the utopian fields of humor, daydream, and glottophagia. These are gradually furthering a cultural critique of the postcolonial situation: rather than fighting one another as ill-fortuned or discontented consumers of modern cash goods (increasingly brought in second-hand from the North), people in suburban neighborhoods and rural communities are re-exploring their genuine sense of communality, and their collective memory stored in body techniques and sensuous culture. Hybridity in many cultural expressions blurs the tradition modernity, Bantu western, precapitalist capitalist oppositions that have been created by the Europeanizing tropes. Songs on the radio today in vernacular languages and along old rhythms, recalling both the collective frenzy and euphoria in the bars of the 1970s and 1980s and village festivities or rituals, are now unsettling the Reformist voices of the (post) colony which had connected city life with French or English speech and etiquette, with school education, and the petty bourgeois life style, and with the well-equipped biomedical services. The pidgnization or creolization of French or English colloquial language, and of narrative styles in songs and newspapers, vitiate modernist master-tales about the literate African city dweller and the retrograde and illiterate villager. Thousands of independent prophetic healing churches of the holy spirit, through exorcizing materialist greed and westernization of public mores, or even State politics identified with the work of sataani (the local term for the Christian-imported notion of Satan, referring to those engaged in illegal practices and sorcery), develop a forceful critique of the catastrophic collusion between economic modernization and people’s sociocultural dispossession. At the same time, through collective trances and ‘Christian’ forms of telepathy and clairvoyance in the name of the holy spirit, the prophetic churches explore ways towards domesticating modernizing forces. During the ceremonial offering of money to the prophet and assistant assembly leaders, adepts may circle more than a full hour around the congregation, dancing and singing as if to re-enchant one of modernity’s most striking secularizations, anonymous cash trade. The offering aims to transform the subaltern’s poverty and needs into what is defined as divine grace or healing. The prophetical churches thereby speak back to global capitalism and celebrate their participation in a new economy. They subject the monetary economy to the utopian ideals of equality and solidarity proper to brotherhood and sisterhood.


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