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          A Supplemental Survey of African History and Performance
This guide will provide additional background information concerning Africa, in general, and West African history, as well as insights into the relationship between performance and culture in Africa. Also included are some sample exercises for the classroom and further references in the form of books, CDs, videos, and websites.

There are many reasons to include Africa as an area of study for people in North America. In one sense, we are all Africans who can trace our roots to the earliest human ancestors whose remains have been found there. For many Americans, the links are more recent, primarily as a result of the massive influx of people during the slave trade. Despite the brutal living conditions and cultural and social deprivation experienced by these unwilling immigrants, they have greatly influenced the language, music, religion, cuisine, and many other cultural and social practices in all the Americas.

As the world becomes more connected by technological advances in transportation and communication, many of the links between Africa and North America are being recovered, along with many appealing differences. Africa is the worlds second largest continent, occupying 11,667,159 square miles. This is about three and a half times the size of the continental United States. It measures roughly 5,000 miles from north to south and 4,600 miles from east to west at the widest points. It is not surprising, then, that there is a tremendous diversity in people, cultures, and environments in Africa. The continent contains more than fifty countries, including several island republics off the coast, and more than two thousand languages. The regions of Nigeria and Cameroon, known as the fragmentation belt, present an extreme example of this  there are several hundred languages spoken in these two countries alone.

There are also great differences in economic levels and activities in various parts of the continent. There are cities where investment and advanced technology are quite evident, while many rural areas lack both.

There is also a broad diversity of environments and climates in Africa. The equator cuts through the center of the continent, making Africa the most tropical of all the continents. However, there are significant climatic differences that can be attributed to proximity to the equator and altitude as well as many other factors, particularly the amount and seasonality of rain. The continent can be broadly divided into six large climatic or biophysical regions:

1. Mountain regions, including parts of Ethiopia, East Africa, South Africa, and the Northwest region along the Mediterranean coast;

2. Desert regions include the Sahara in the north, the Namib and Kalahari in the south, and the Horn of Africa in the east;

3. Temperate regions to the extreme north and south of the continent with a Mediterranean-type climate;

4. Humid and sub-humid regions close to the equator, at the center of the continent and along the southern part of the west coast include dense rainforests with well over fifty inches of annual rainfall;

5. Savanna areas, covering almost fifty percent of Africa, where most of the grains are grown and which also support herds of wild and domesticated animals;

6. The Sahel region entails the vast southern edge of the Sahara, with some rainfall; it is more populated than the desert, but due to climatic and human influences, it has experienced severe droughts and famine, notably in the past twenty-five years.

7. Major waterways, while not constituting a climatic zone, have a significant impact on occupational activities and settlement patterns in various regions.

Knowledge of these biophysical regions is important for several reasons. Most importantly, they dictate the primary occupational activitiy for the majority of societies throughout Africa, agriculture being the primary one. Herding, fishing, and hunting, along with artisans working with iron, wood, clay, or leather, provide important complements to farming. Many of these activities are carried out by social and cultural groups who are identified by their occupations. All of these activities, particularly agriculture, are dependent on the seasons, which in turn are dictated by regional rain patterns. These climatic differences also restrict the kinds of flora and fauna (including domestic varieties) found in a region and encourage the transportation of goods grown, manufactured, or found in one region to others. Root crops, such as yams and caffeine-rich kola nuts, are grown in the forest regions, while millet and sorghum, as well as rice, are grown in the river flood plains, and cattle, sheep, and goat herds are more common in the savanna. Other prized resources, such as gold, iron, or salt, are found in select regions. In West Africa, main trade routes move north and south, passing through the climatic zones that run east and west.

The history of Africa extends back to the emergence of the earliest humans and the subsequent migrations that populated the rest of the world. The first of many migrations moved not only people but their languages, technologies, ideas, religious beliefs, music, and other cultural forms to various parts of the continent due to changes in environment, population, and political or military considerations. For the most part, this history was unwritten except in areas where Arabic traders and Muslim clerics recorded the accounts of past events or travelers observations. In the last few decades, historians have begun to unravel the wealth of knowledge contained in the extensive oral traditions, many of which recount the exploits of key figures and crucial events that make up the history of certain states or ethnic groups. To understand these oral epic traditions or other kinds of performances, people have to stretch beyond the limits of their own cultural experiences and biases.

The early empires found in Egypt and Nubia are among the more well-known early complex states of ancient Africa. Large cities, trade, agriculture, and extensive political entities existed in many parts of Africa long before they were found in most of Europe. In West Africa, the long history of empires and prominent cities dates back as early as 400 B.C. to the early trade centers of the region such as Jenne, in the heart of modern-day Mali. These vast empires established control of the trade routes, providing security for the traders who moved prestige goods north and south across the climatic zones of forests, savannas, and deserts. These trans-Saharan trade routes linked these empires with the Mediterranean and the Middle East, thereby increasing the flow of goods which, in turn, translated into greater wealth and power for those empires controlling this region. The empires of Ghana (A.D. 400 -1240), Mali (1240-1500), and Songhai (1400-1600) in the savanna regions of central and western West Africa developed through control of these trade routes and provided access to the gold that flowed toward the Mediterranean and the Middle East as well as kola nuts, ivory, and slaves. Salt was mined in the desert and moved to the south along with metal goods, books, and silk cloth.

The presence of large cities along major trade routes, extensive farming and fishing communities, and the patterned movement of cattle, sheep, and goat herds define the complex occupational and social relations that contributed to the cultural diversity of that region and that continue to exist to this day. Long distance traders moved the luxury goods along the main arteries (overland, rivers, ocean) while artisans manufactured the iron and leather goods used by local residents. To this day, the weekly market day continues to be a major event throughout West Africa as people from the rural areas flock to nearby towns to buy and sell foods, textiles, iron, leather, wooden goods, and all types of imported products. There continues to be frequent movement between rural and urban communities and weekly contact in the marketplace. The seasonality of the life-sustaining rains determines the cycle of yearly activities, not only for the farmers but for herders, fishermen, artisans, and traders as well. For this reason, most of the cultural activities are clustered around the beginning and the end of the growing season. As traders from North Africa moved along the trade routes to the south, major trading centers sprang up along the edge of the desert in the region of the Sahel, a term derived from the Arabic word for coast, which in this instance refers to the broad expanse running between the Sahara and the savanna immediately to the south.

Following Mohammeds death in A.D. 632, Islam had rapidly moved across North Africa. The subsequent increase in long distance trade resulted in the establishment of Arabic Muslim quarters in the major cities along the trade routes. Although most of West Africa maintained local religions, particularly outside the main cities, Muslim clerics could be found in the courts of many West African rulers, whose power and prestige were dependent on long distance trade. In the case of the empire of Mali, which at its peak extended from the Atlantic coast of Senegal as far east as Gao along the eastern bend of the Niger, many of the rulers (or mansa) converted to Islam. During Mansa Musas well-documented hajj, or Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, in the early part of the 14th century, he carried along over 12 tons of gold in a caravan of camels. He spent so much gold on the way that the currency of Cairo was depressed for ten years after he passed through Egypt.

With the evolution of sea-faring technologies from the late 15th century on, the major trade routes shifted from large trading centers of the interior to coastal ports largely developed by Europeans. This trade was dramatically affected by the development of plantation farming systems in the New World by various European powers, particularly in the growing of sugar cane. The decimation of local Caribbean populations and the inability to coerce them to provide labor on these extensive estates resulted in the development of the transatlantic slave trade. This had a devastating affect on large portions of Africa, and, inparticular, West Africa. With the demise of the great empires that were built around the control of the trans-Saharan trade routes, new states emerged whose power base was built and maintained by providing slaves to European traders in exchange for guns. Over the course of three centuries, until the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade in the early part of the 19th century, some 10 million Africans were forcibly transported as captives to work on plantations in the Americas. Many people died in the course of the slave raids, in pre-voyage captivity, or during the voyage west. The loss in human life, labor, and skills was overwhelming and destabilized much of West Africa.

One result of the coerced diaspora brought about by slavery was the spread of African culture to the Americas. The slave holders did whatever they could to eliminate the cultural bond that brought meaning to the lives of the slaves, such as depriving them of their music (especially drums), language, religion, and other forms of communication and social solidarity that might be used as a means of resistance to the harsh conditions and authority imposed on them. Despite these repressive efforts, the slaves, through cunning and determination, tried to maintain or adapt their cultural expressions to these conditions. Africans from many different cultures and language groups found themselves together in unfamiliar places and circumstances. In the face of the immediate hardships, they developed new cultural forms that brought them together. The various rituals that were expressed in these New World settings were not all the same. Differences between them can be attributed to the specific situations in which they arose, including the affiliations of the settlers controlling them or the preponderance of one African ethnic or language group in a particular region.

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