Who should tell the story of Africa? This crucial question frames the “Living History” section of what is, arguably, one of the most comprehensive websites in African history. The answer to this question, according to the site’s creator, seems to be anyone who wishes to study and embrace the African continent.
This innovative website was designed to accompany a popular BBC radio series called the “History of Africa.” Viewers can replay episodes from this series, listening to interviews with leading scholars and musical clips such as a sonorous mass recorded at Axum’s Ethiopian Orthodox Christian Church. Most importantly, this site covers a wide array of subjects about Africa. It is divided into 14 segments, including “Early History,” “African Kingdoms,” “Slavery,” and “Independence,” with a clear, short essay of a few hundred words introducing each segment. Students in high schools and colleges will find these essays particularly accessible.
Each segment also offers a timeline, a brief list of from five to 15 suggested readings, and about 10 links to additional websites that elaborate on topics of interest. Regarding the latter, viewers may encounter problems, as some links are no longer active. Finally, viewers hoping to find primary materials will have few pickings. The digitized documents from Fordham University’s Internet History Book comprise the main body of this type of information.
However, the strengths of this site far outweigh the weaknesses. Each segment provides a selection of quotes from primary sources that illuminate specific issues. There are many gems to mine. They range from original lyrical quotations that capture the imagination (for example, “People, like words, are enduring,” a saying of postcolonial Kenya’s first President, Jomo Kenyatta) to arresting images of initiation rituals and political power. The essays also raise provocative questions, such as “Did Malians beat Columbus to the New World?” and “Were Islam and Christianity actually indigenous African religions rather than religions introduced from outside the continent?”
This second question could lead a class to analyze the segments on African religions as well as Islam and Christianity. What students and teachers may find is that world religions, along with indigenous cosmologies, essentially coexisted on the African continent, challenging notions that where Islam and Christianity took root a “clash of civilizations” inevitably followed.
Most Africans are now either Muslim or Christian; conversions increased dramatically over the last 150 years. Yet as the segments on religion illuminate, Islam and Christianity expanded slowly before the 1800s. For instance, following the Prophet Muhammad’s death in 632 CE, Islam became one of several important religions of North Africa. Moreover, Islam spread south of the Sahara over a six-hundred-year period (900s to late 1500s CE), especially as Muslim traders, bringing the word of Allah, tapped into lucrative opportunities around the gold fields of Sudanic kingdoms like Ghana, Mali, and Songhay. During this time, while the majority of West Africans remained true to their ancestral religions, Muslim holy men converted royal elites, promoting some Sudanic leaders into “world” figures on par with Marco Polo and Ibn Batutta.
One of the compelling interpretations running through the religion segments focuses on the ways in which Africans in Muslim and Christian areas sustained their beliefs in ancestral worship. Some clerics saw this tendency as a threat to their strategies of conversion, which depended on literacy; they scorned ancestral worship for transmitting spiritual beliefs orally. At the same time, Muslim scholars embraced certain African rituals, with imams in West Africa encouraging Islamic men to have more than one wife, a practice that honored indigenous patriarchal arrangements.
By contrast, European Christian preachers pursuing a “civilizing mission” in the 19th century condemned African customs like polygamy, and insisted that churches consecrate marriages according to Biblical injunctions of monogamy. This strict oversight prompted some African Christians to break away from missionary control (which often reflected racially discriminatory attitudes) and establish their own independent houses of worship. They, in turn, embraced kinship rites crucial to increasing numbers of the faithful. One major way that African Christians attempted to “grow” congregations was to allow men of the Gospel to take more than one wife.
These largely “unarmed” struggles over faith reveal a long dynamic interplay between ancestral and world religions in Africa. On a broader level, the trajectories of Christianity and Islam will interest students who seek to explore African understandings of God, morality, and evil. These spiritual beliefs reached the New World, helping to create the diverse America that we celebrate today.