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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Petre Pan's Perspective on African Ingenuity

The computer light shines on a young eigth grader's face as he browses wikipedia, not for useful information, but out of pure curiosity.  Somewhere in the past, a young West African girl pushes sorghum into the earth just to see what happens.  Cultures aside, are people from the past so different?  Africans used their technical and social skills and strategies to adapt to changing or harsh terrain, to create hedges of "back-up" to protect themselves, and simply for the sake of developing and trying something else.  These strategies provided "progress" for some people, pushing them "forward" to lifestyles they found more fulfilling.  For others, these strategies created extra inconvenience and set them "back" in their life pursuits.

Every grown-up has, at some point in his or her life, adapted or changed to meet a new need.  The Aksumites SouthEast of Nubia had to adapt new strategies to fit their environment, or they would not survive.  Without pools of water and an efficient system of labor and control, crops would drown in the wet season and burn in cemented earth during the dry season.  For those at the bottom of the labor hierarchy--and for the slaves the Aksumites traded from the South up to the Hebrews in exchange for frankinsense--this hurt.  Trade brought food goods and workers to manage the environment.  It also robbed some people of a the opportunity to push forward to their own happiness.  For everyone who could eat and live and worship because of this strategy of trade, "progress" continued.

Similarly, the Nilotic farmers who created the Shaduf to irrigate their fields had to formulate some strategy to manage the changing height of the Nile.  Why did these hunter gatherers stay near the Nile, instead of moving on?  Living near the Nile kept them near the hub of the Middle East and Europe.  Given the "cultural environment," one can imagine reason almost forced Nilotic farmers to stay and adapt so they did not lose the wealth in trade and personal relationships they could gain by stabilizing their location in Egypt.  The hierarchies they developed to manage crowded access to the rivers benefitted a lot of farmers and traders, but again, slaves imported to help manage the work did not benefit.

South of the "Egyptian" region, in Nubia, the Nile splits and the fertile continent spreads out a little.  Nubians did not creat as aggressive hierarchies as the Egyptians did, although they did have pharoahs and taxation and religious organization.  They, too, imported slaves.  However, because the Nubians could spread out, they did not need to establish the intensive "big government" codified class stratification to manage crowded land.  Again, cultural, ecomonic, and physical environment led some Africans to turn to the solutions they adopted.

Other Africans did not grab a plow as a weapon to escape the rock-and-hard-place.  Instead, they lived in times of plenty, but, wary of fluctuations, created economic, social, and physical hedges for themselves.  The Akan-speakers may have invented the Akuabe fertility dolls as one such socio-religious hedge.  A woman may not have needed a fertility doll for pregnancy, and she could psychologically understand and prepare for her mothering without a doll to carry around and tend.  The doll reminded her of the work of a mother, and encouraged her to live in a way that would enhance her chance of having a baby.  It also reminded her ancestors to intercede for her before God because she hoped to become pregnant.  In short, the fertility doll hedges or safety-nets the mother's chance of having a baby.  Other groups from West Africa's warm forests invented the twin doll as a similar safety net.  The living twin may have survived even if his brother died, but having a twin doll with the living ("fleshy") twin reminded the ancestors and the dead twin that the parents cared for both children and would like to keep one.  Again, psychologically, the twin doll reminded the mother to tend her living child carefully, with vigilance, for she could lose this child, too.

These dolls, in providing a safety hedge psychologically and socially, helped the art of child-rearing and physical art in sculpture to flourish and progress.  They encouraged protection of children and enhance the place of the creative in society.  However, they may have limited the mother's social mobility.  A mother could become doubly responsible and psychologically haunted by a physical reminder of possible failure, especially if she carried a twin-doll reminding her of miscarriage.  As always, it depended on the individual--some people used these strategies to propel them forward to their individual happiness, while the same strategies held others back psychologically or physically.

The Zulu cattle herders may also have developed via this "safety-net" philosophy.  Before 5000 BC, hunter-gatherer-foragers may have led cows with them as an extra source of protein, through milk or the drinking of cattle blood.  Over time, someone who could "safety-net" a lot of people by having a lot of cows became much more powerful, even in times of plenty.  As having cows became a sign of status, people began to use them more exclusively as a source of food and trade.  As some "big men" accumulated more cows to compete with each other, other families wanted to ensure that they would not "miss out."  These families married their daughters to the "big men" in order to ensure relational debt and foster the passage of trade goods back and forth.  Through this "human capitalism," the big men would accumulate the most wives, and polygamy became an additional strategy for safeguarding the families of the women and of the big man.

Unfortunately, polygamy leaves some young men without wives because humans generally birth in almost 1:1 gender rations.  In many societies, the surplus of young energetic men without a hope of establishing family or economic success leads to higher crime and social unrest--but Africans used cattle as a "safety net" once again.  Both the eseZulu and the Maasai peoples found that sending young men out with cattle (and to battle for the cattle) kept them out of trouble at home.  Yet polygamy additionally created problems of power-separation (weakening via competition) of the women in the home.  The use of women as commodities to cement trade relationship and the removal of a woman's sexual monopoly over a man could create a society in which women became unhappy.  The eseZulu used sacrificial cattle to create ceremonies celebrating women's virginity, thereby praising and promoting the women who obey the system, pacifying them.  These ceremonies allowed the eseZulu to promote chastity for women, but allow men to have as many wives and as much control over them as they liked.  Thus the eseZulu used cattle to subvert a woman's sexual monopoly while maintaining that of the man.  Polygamy, as a social and economic safeguard, creates further difficulties that require the "safety net" of cattle used in more and more creative ways.  Clearly, the "progress" of these economic and social institutions furthered social rest and stability, and allowed for a relatively free form of government allowing capitalist accumulation of goods, but for women and unmarried men, the movement is backwards, not forwards.

Finally, sometimes Africans may simply have had intellectual curiosity.  The Khoi-san in Southern Africa took and interest in herding cattle, but needed no hedge from their successful foraging and hunting.  If anything, they could use the nearby Bantu farmers as a "safety hedge" through intermarried relationships that could provide food in difficult times.  The novelty of herding cattle they enjoyed probably just out of their desire to try something new.  People don't always have to be logical machines and boring old grown-ups.  Sometimes, like brilliant children, we simply want to flex our wings into the unknown--just for the heck of it.

All the information in this post can be garnered by reading and debating John Reader's book about Africa, Jan Vansina's article on the Bantu, Elphick's article on the Koi-San, watching (and debating) Skip Gates' film on the Nubians and the Egyptians, watching "Herds of Heaven" about the eseZulu, and taking James Le Fleur's African History class at UVA.  Check out some of this stuff--I disagree with most everyone on everything, but you can learn and synthesize a lot!