What Is Africa

In its narrowest sense East Africa includes the three modern republics of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. All three of them were heirs to the early British colonies and continue to show a deep British influence. English is one of the official languages of Uganda, together with Swahili and Luganda, while it is of general daily use in Kenya and Tanzania, where Swahili is the official language. Under colonial administration these three states were involved in an agreement for the common promotion of commercial exchange, a connection that has never entirely ceased even after the official termination of the agreement. In a wider and more comprehensive sense East Africa may also include the republics of Burundi, Rwanda, Malawi and Mozambique. However, the influence of the former Belgian administration, and the continuing use of French as an official language, have strengthened the cultural ties between Rwanda and Burundi and francophone Zaïre, rather than with anglophone Uganda and Tanzania, while the recent history of Malawi and Mozambique has favoured continuing cultural and ethnic relations with the neighbouring states of Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa rather than with their northern East African partners.

Our information on the coast of East Africa dates back to classical Greek and Arab sources and, from the sixteenth century, to the reports of Portuguese navigators. Occasional news on the interior of East Africa, merely of a geographical nature, began to reach Europe in the first decades of the nineteenth century; its second half brought in some reliable information of a crude ethnographic type, normally scattered in the daily records of voyagers and explorers, colonial administrators and missionaries. All of these were pioneers in their own ways, but very few had an academic training. When based on firsthand knowledge, their information is still priceless. Normally, however, their reports are uncritical, and even valueless when dependent on hearsay evidence or distorted by stereotyped prejudices. Only a few early twentieth-century sources are distinguished by their accuracy and thoroughness as classics of the anthropological literature, such as the monograph of Gerard Lindblom, a Swedish scholar, on the Kamba of Kenya, and the two volumes on the Thonga of Mozambique by †H.A.Junod, a Swiss evangelist. Both covered the entire spectrum of local culture, aiming at an encyclopedic survey as required by the ethnographic method of the day.

The two editors of African Political Systems were correct at the time in stressing the need for ‘a more detailed investigation of the nature of political values and of the symbols in which they are expressed’ (Fortes and Evans-Pritchard 1940:23). Though they had tried to clarify the political system of stateless and non-centralized societies in their introduction, they failed to explicitly include *age-systems as a discrete kind of political organization (Bernardi 1952). It was only a few years later that †Isaac Schapera drew attention to these systems, recommending them as a special item of enquiry in his survey of anthropological research in Kenya (Schapera 1949). The general category of agesystems included much local variation in sets, classes and generations. These systems had long baffled the early colonial administrators, and only intense research by professional anthropologists was to dispel this puzzling enigma, showing how age-systems formed the political backbone of stateless societies such as, among others, the Maasai (Spencer 1965) and the Borana (Baxter 1954; Bassi 1996). A remarkable contribution by †Monica Wilson brought to the fore a peculiar age-system related to the establishment of new villages by newly initiated age-mates among the Nyakyusa of Tanzania (Wilson 1951, 1959).

Leave a Comment