Sociocultural Aspects of East Africa Research Paper

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After more than a half century of modern scholarship, it is unnecessary to reconfirm the historical and cultural complexity of East African societies now encompassed by the independent nations of Kenya, Tanzania (including Zanzibar), and Uganda. From the maritime civilizations of the Indian Ocean islands and coast which have traded with the external world for at least two millennia, to the more archaic forms of economic adaptation, including the still extant gathering and hunting societies in the interior, this region displays an exceptional range of social and cultural forms. In addition to Swahili as a regional Bantu language, branches of all the other African linguistic families, Nilotic, Cushitic, and Khoisan, are also represented.

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1. Prehistory And History

Based on finds at Kobi Fora in Kenya and Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, generally it is now accepted that the earliest hominids emerged in East Africa some six to four million years ago. Although permanent agricultural settlements have existed for at least 10,000 years, historical records on the area extend back only to the first century of the Christian era. The original Greek manuscript, Periplus of the Erythrean Sea, describing the trade routes from Alexandria on the Red Sea in Egypt and then south along the East African coast, mentions Rhapta, a settlement assumed to have existed somewhere on the now Tanzanian shore line. Arabic documents from the eighth century onward are more prolific and exact, indicating the existence of the still occupied trading sites of Lamu in southern Kenya and Kilwa in southern Tanzania. This land of ‘Zinj’ is described as inhabited by a population engaged primarily in a maritime trade in animal skins and horns and some slaves, but particularly ivory, as well as subsisting on agriculture and domesticated herds. Subsequent Arab influence, including Islamization, comes to a halt for a time at least with the arrival of the Portuguese in the late fifteenth century and their partial conquest of the then more numerous city states dotting the littoral. However, these first Europeans were themselves expelled from the area by a resurgent Afro–Arab coalition directed from Oman on the Arabian peninsula which in turn failed to establish suzerainty over the entire area.

Subsequent European incursions, primarily British and German, which included penetration of the interior in the latter half of the nineteenth century hindered the now more extensive slave trade supporting the off-shore, particularly Zanzibari, plantation economies based upon the export of spices. This era culminates in 1885, with the Berlin Treaty that partitioned all of Africa, excluding Ethiopia, among the European powers, and in the case of East Africa between Britain and Germany. The results of World War I brought the entire area under British control until Independence in the early 1960s.

2. Social Forms

The existing subsocial formations in recent and contemporary East Africa can be classified in the usual manner as either mercantile or agricultural states, less politically complex agricultural chiefdoms of varying scale, noncentralized agricultural and pastoral societies, and the few remaining gathering-hunting groups. However, these categories are heuristic and ideal as most, if not all, the economies were mixed and interdependent prior to the colonial era. In addition, there was also fluidity in economic forms over time as the archaeological data indicate that some gathering hunting peoples may have resorted at times to agriculture and then reverted to their previous mode of adaptation on numerous occasions. The same flexibility characterized pastoral peoples. Such adaptive shifts in more recent times have involved simultaneous alterations in ethnic identities that are often labels based primarily upon livelihood. Thus, for example, indigent Maasai who no longer kept cattle were reclassified by others as il torrobo (Maasai for the poor or hunters) or Nderobo, while in another instance a whole segment of Maasai who took up agriculture as their primary occupation in the nineteenth century were redefined as Arusha. Thus, in addition to the complexity of social forms, the fluid basis of ethnic identities, often assumed to be fixed ‘tribal’ isolates, was a constant feature of the region’s social history. Although there were and are cultural differences, in some instances a matter of degree and in others of kind, a more rigid colonial mentality and policies often helped to bring into existence these so-called tribes.

2.1 City States And Kingdoms

Prior to the advent of European incursions, complex economic and political entities existed at both extremes of the East African region. The coast, as noted, was intermittently dotted with numerous city states while the western-most interior, some 800 miles away, featured a series of large-scale polities referred to as the Interlacustrine Bantu Kingdoms due to their clustering around the lakes, such as Victoria and Tanganyika, in the Great Rift Valley. Most notably these included Baganda, Banyoro, Basoga, and Batoro, in contemporary Uganda, as well as Rwanda and Burundi that eventually fell under Belgian colonial control and re-emerged as separate nations with independence. These two regional extremes were linked by a long-distance commerce, including, by the early nineteenth century, some managed by interior middle-men groups, allowing all concerned to expand and flourish with the exchange of valued trade goods. The Bantu kingdoms were early on the subject of academic scholarship. However, in part due perhaps to its less romantic and more complex ‘un-tribal’ or ‘detribalized’ condition the coastal region failed to receive serious scholarly attention until after the colonial era.

Although these ancient city states, extending 1,000 miles along the coast north to Somalia and south to Mozambique, never formed a single political unit, they were linked by a common civilization. In addition to a shared maritime mercantilism, marriage alliances, and patrilineal descent, other commonalities included by the eleventh century Islam and a related life-style, as well as Swahili as a lingua franca. This term ‘Swahili’ eventually emerged as a complicated and wide-spread ethnic category on and beyond the coast as the language and Islam spread throughout East Africa before and after the colonial period. The word Swahili itself is derived from the Arabic sahel for coast. The language has a modicum of loan words from this source but otherwise it is Bantu in all of its essential grammatical features. As it was adopted as a first or second language by others in the region, many also identified themselves as an mswahili or waswahili (a Swahili person or people respectively), which implied not only language usage but also a form of modernization involving the adoption of Islam or even Christianity, migration to other areas of the country for a livelihood, and a modified Arab or European lifestyle, including forms of dress and architecture. Among themselves in the towns and cities they inhabit, the Waswahili may also admit to another ethnic affiliation reaffirming the plasticity of this sort of identification.

The agricultural bases of the interior states situated in fertile highland areas with the banana (originally from Indonesia) as a staple may have been the historical outcome of an incursion of northern cattlekeeping peoples into an area inhabited for at least a thousand years by Bantu-speaking agriculturalists. The high population densities, in the case of Baganda close to two million people, and social complexity resulted in what has been described as semifeudal states involving unequal control over resources including land and cattle, concomitant social stratification (though no caste system) and in most instances, a series of patron-client relationships spanning economic and political divides. These kingdoms which shared a host of cultural similarities in addition to the economic and social ones, competed with each other for more extensive control over the region. At the apex of the highly centralized political systems stood a king advised by a prime minister and other councilors who appointed chiefs over large districts who in turn delegated authority to headmen in villages. Although often popularly viewed as a despot, it is unlikely that the king could have achieved this level of power and authority until the introduction of firearms in the early nineteenth century via trade from the coast. The stability of the entire political economic system was further solidified with colonialism and its application of indirect rule that permitted little if any challenges to established authority, or radical changes in the system. Although these were not the only centralized political systems in East Africa, as others of varying degrees in other highland areas existed beyond the coast (such as the Shambaai and Chagga of Tanzania), the vast majority of the population in the less watered lowland savanna and woodlands of the region, shared with pastoral peoples, were organized into smaller political units.

2.2 Agriculturalists And Pastoralists

Among the agriculturalists the principle traditional crops were millet, sorghum, and maize. In the more abundantly watered areas, relying in some instances on complex irrigation systems as among the Sonjo of Tanzania, rice and bananas were also cultivated. Cattle which play such a significant cultural role in the entire area, including among agriculturalists, and smaller livestock such as sheep and goats, were also maintained when and wherever possible. Politically this is the classic ‘Tribes Without Rulers’ region as termed by one of the classic anthropological volumes of the colonial period and the ‘golden age’ of East African ethnography. This vision of much of the social landscape was influenced in no small part by the prior researches of E. E. Evans-Pritchard among the acephalous pastoral Nuer of the neighboring Southern Sudan, an area now racked by a civil strife pitting the Islamic Northern and more traditional Southern peoples against each other. In light of the range of societies in East Africa proper and their variability they are best represented by a limited number of examples which also reflect the interests of the ethnographers at different points in the history of East African scholarship.

The quarter of a million Sudanic-speaking agricultural Lugbara who live along the Nile–Congo divide on both sides of the Uganda–Congo border are characteristic in that they had no political offices until chiefs and subchiefs were appointed by the colonial authorities. This lack of a formal political system was somewhat unusual in light of the relatively high population density which exceeded 100 people per square kilometer in some areas in the early twentieth century but explicable in light of the absence of nucleated settlements. The basic social unit was the homestead of various sizes composed of patrilineally related kin residing in their own dwellings surrounded by their fields. This family cluster recognized the authority of a senior male elder with ritual significance due to his control over shrines dedicated to the lineage ancestors. Thus, at its core this social group had both a descent and a related religious ideology.

The Lugbara themselves conceive of their social structure in terms of clans originally historically associated with specific territories despite the dispersal of their members over time. As such, principles of descent provided an ideological rather than actual form of social organization as is the case for many other East African peoples. These recognized territories or ‘tribes’ may have a ‘rain-maker’ with ritual authority in certain matters but as indicated no formal leader. Order was maintained by compromise and conciliation among the resident elders. Disputes among members of different territorial groups were difficult to mediate and as such could result in violence and a state of feud. On the other hand, since clan kin were dispersed among the various Lugbara tribal units and marriages were also effected across these lines resulting in affinal relationships, violence was not entered into easily, especially among contiguous territories. More distant Lugbara tribal sections presented less opportunity for conflict and if a state of feud did exist, it was difficult to act upon as the result of spatial separation. Thus, there was a political order, despite anarchy in the technical sense of the term, among these people who recognized a common moral code supported by the ritual authority of elders and ancestors.

The manner in which social order or stability was maintained among a people lacking a well-defined political system was one of the driving research concerns during the colonial era, while change became a principal interest of postcolonial scholarship. This shift in orientation is exemplified by the situation and description of the Iteso, Nilotic-speaking sedentary cultivators residing in this instance on both sides of the Kenya–Uganda border. By the time of their analysis the Iteso were almost all Christians, and their expansionist tendencies, as well as the former political system which had permitted this process, had been radically altered by the often violent imposition of colonialism. According to historical reconstruction, prior to European intervention the Iteso were organized into a number of territorial sections under the leadership of a single individual or ‘war leader.’ These units were broken down into a number of subsections that tended to correspond with the residence of patrilineally related males who also recognized a local leader for political as well as ritual purposes. These locations undertook common defense, the peaceful settlement of disputes, and collective religious activity. Typical of Nilotic speakers, the territories were crosscut by an age-grade system including a warrior class which had facilitated Iteso incursions into the land of other ethnic groups. During the colonial period appointed chiefs replaced the former leaders and the territorial units dissolved as neither expansion nor defense were relevant concerns. These aggregations were replaced by diffuse neighborhoods of a smaller social scale composed of cooperating but individual households now engaged in the cash economy. The resulting process generated a typical East African society brought into being by the colonial presence. Similar processes of ethnic consolidation and consciousness among the more numerous Kikuyu and Luo peoples of Kenya during the colonial era had a significant impact on postcolonial politics.

The primarily pastoral Nilotic-speaking peoples inhabiting a grassland expanse in both arms of the vast Rift Valley in eastern Uganda, western Kenya, and north-central Tanzania provide a striking alternative to agricultural societies in more than economic fashion as many of the representatives of this language family have preserved their traditional cultural system to this day. Included in this category are the Jie, Karimojong, and Turkana of Uganda, the Kipsigis, Nandi, and Samburu of Kenya, and the Barabaig of Tanzania. However, the quarter of a million Maa-speakers or Maasai who have occupied the central plains of both Kenya and Tanzania for the past 400 years are best known to travelers, tourists, and scholars of the region for the persistence of their traditional ways despite impositions placed on their life style by both the colonial and independence regimes during the twentieth century.

The enormous expanse of Maasailand is divided into numerous large and politically autonomous named territorial sections in some instances covering thousands of square kilometers including tens of thousands of individuals. Within these sections, social order is maintained at the local level by male elders with either ritual authority derived from membership in a particular clan, seniority in the age grade, or local community of kin. Although patrilineal in terms of descent principles, kinship ties of various types are a significant factor only at a settlement composed of a number of usually polygynous households that herd their animals together under the direction of a senior male. The most striking feature of the social system is the age grade system bisecting the entire expanse of Maasailand which includes the moran, formerly a warrior class of young men but now primarily responsible for cattle herding.

For the Maasai, cattle are not only the basic foodstuff in the form of milk, meat, and blood but also the most important cultural idiom. The animals are valued in and of themselves as esthetic items, the object of admiration, discussion, song, and dance, but they also mark both existing social relations through their exchange, and the passage of time through inheritance. They are circulated as bride-wealth and blood-wealth, in compensation for violence, and loaned out to establish herding partnerships over wide areas. Finally, these animals are the primary means for communicating with the supernatural world as sacrificial offerings to the creator in religious ceremonies. Thus, this single item in all its capacities links humans both to each other and to their deity in a manner unavailable to cultivators. In more practical economic terms the ability of the Masaai and other pastoralists to sell off some animals for cash to meet the demands of the state in the form of taxation has permitted them to avoid further integration with the wider society and in doing so conserve existing cultural patterns. However, the alienation of their former land by both the independent and colonial regimes for the sake of agriculture and agriculturalists, as well as for the creation of national parks for tourism, has had a severe impact on these people.

2.3 Foragers

Scattered among the pastoralists and agriculturalists in both forests and plains are pockets of hunters and gatherers, such as the well-known Mbuti Pygmies of western Uganda and the Congo. Other foraging groups, though physically distinct from the Mbuti, include the Okiek of Kenya, the Ik of Uganda, and the Sandawe and Hadza of Tanzania. The forest-dwelling Mbuti and related populations generally are considered to be descendants of the first residents of this and other parts of Africa who have adopted the languages of their later arriving and now Bantu neighbors, while the Okiek and Ik speak the related Nilotic languages of their pastoral neighbors. However, Sandawe and Hadza bear some phonetic similarities to the tongues of hunters and gatherers in Southern Africa. Despite the traditional academic classification on the basis of foraging, there are also variations among these peoples including the tendency to mix this adaptive strategy with agriculture and herding when feasible. Thus, a portion of the few hundred Hadza residing in a desolate region of Northern Tanzania unsuitable until recently for either agriculture or herding are interesting in that they maintained a foraging lifestyle in pure form, as well as a significant degree of economic independence, from surrounding groups and the state, even after Independence.

Although seemingly inhospitable to others, the Hadza territory of over a thousand square miles, open to any member of the group as their are no recognized territories, is replete with natural resources harvested on a nomadic and individualistic basis. Although the area is heavily populated with game, the Hadza rely mainly on wild vegetable matter for food in the form of roots, berries, and fruit gathered daily by both males and females, the latter with their small children. These nutrients usually are consumed immediately rather than being collected for later distribution. Traditional bow and arrow hunting, however, is exclusively a male activity. If the kill is small it is also eaten on the spot, while some of the remains of a larger animal may either be transported back to camp or simply abandoned. Thus, there is almost complete economic independence even among the Hadza themselves. As such, it would be misleading to characterize their local aggregations as bands in the sense of groups recognizing a common territory or cooperative bonds. Beyond the nuclear family, based on relatively unstable monogamous unions, the larger and only unit is a camp, occupied for no more than a few weeks, and on average by a dozen or more adults. This aggregation does not have a recognized leader nor form a stable unit, as some members will depart and others join it on a constant basis. At other times it may split off into independent units or merge with other camps for a period of time. This organizational fluidity of foraging societies is perhaps their characteristic feature in both East Africa and other parts of the world.

3. Cultural Concerns

This overview of East Africa in terms of economic, political, and social forms in no way suggests a paucity of equally, if not more, complex cultural systems including beliefs, values, myth, history, and literature both oral and written. These integrated systems of thought, often shared over a wide area, even in terms of particulars, defy simple categorization into a number of ideal types. In general, the peoples of this region, regardless of their form of economic adaptation must be considered highly spiritual, whether in terms of their adherence to the local religions or the world religions that have supplanted them. In turn, these cosmologies have been transformed by local beliefs and practices. As in other parts of the world, the traditional ideological systems took a great interest in notions of good and evil and thus acceptable standards of interpersonal morality guarded by the living as elders and or the deceased as concerned ancestors. The ‘problem of evil’ in society was often represented (by agriculturalists in particular) as a matter of witchcraft or sorcery responded to by recourse to diviners to identify the culprit in order to restore a harmonious social order through confession and reconciliation.

As indigenous philosophies these systems of thought also reflected on the meaning and passage of life and the significance of death, occasions usually marked by elaborate ritual gatherings and activity. Communication with their creator, most often viewed as a more distant and less knowable figure than in world religions, traditionally was maintained through prayer and sacrifice. Indeed as this review of primarily social forms suggests, it was and is often best to view many East African peoples at the local level and in the most meaningful sense as composed of ritual communities concerned with the spiritual and social welfare of their members.


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