Tag Archives: Kenya

The West and East African Slave Trades, Compared

For those with an interest in colonial history, the West versus East African slave trade is a compelling comparison. I had the opportunity to visit the 16th century Fort Jesus in Mombasa, Kenya. Fort Jesus stands as probably the best-preserved site at which to understand the difference between the two different slave trades on the opposite coasts of Africa. Here is what I considered during my visit, and some thoughts I had on the differences between West and East African slave history. All of these facts are taken from written citations, signs, or conversations with local experts, and not confirmed in publications, so they should be considered carefully.

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1. Routes: In the West, slaves were sent to the Americas as part of a triangle of trade. Men and women were kidnapped from West Africa and sent to North America, South America and the Caribbean. Then, the raw goods they produced, such as cotton and tobacco, were shipped to Europe. In turn, refined goods, such as lace, liquor, weapons, etc. were used to buy further slaves in West Africa. This sustained the triangle of exploitation.

However, slaves in East Africa were sent primarily to Middle East, and to Asia to a lesser extent, in more linear routes. Fort Jesus is important because it fortified the first Western domination over the Indian Ocean slave trade, by Portugal over Oman.

2. Mortality Rates: In East Africa, 4 out of 5 slaves died just during the journey from the interior to the coast, not including shipping. During the West African trade, 2 of 3 captives died during the entire passages across the Atlantic, including shipping. This means that the East African trek across land had a higher mortality rate than the entire transcontinental passage.

I would guess that the Portuguese and the Arabs had to venture farther into the eastern interior to get their captives, perhaps due to less densely populated coastlines in East Africa. Populations tend to congregate and grow around port and coastal areas. Or, because countries like Nigeria have an ample network of connecting creeks, using the creeks as transport routes would have facilitated kidnapping coastal peoples via boat from the deep interior. The East African trek was simply longer due to population spread over more challenging land routes. Having to travel further inland would also require Middle Eastern and Portuguese slave traders to expend more resources per slave, decreasing the overall quantity they could take from the east. This would just be my hypothesis.

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3. Duration and Intensity: The West African trade was shorter in duration and more intense in terms of number of slaves shipped per year than the East Africa one. The West African trade lasted about 300 years, with Portugal being the first trader in the 1400s, finally ending right around the time it lost control of Kenya in 1700. Perhaps the West African slave trade was more “professionalized” and thus able to export more slaves per year because each European power had its own territory and business venture clearly defined.

In comparison, the East African trade was lower impact, but sustained for longer.  Arab settlements in places like Kenya and Tanzania, the latter of which was the largest source of slaves for Arabs, created the Swahili culture and language. Arabs established an African slave trade to the Middle East long before the Europeans did, as early as the 7th century. Trade reached its peak in the 18th century, but there is even a story of the Sultan of Oman bringing slaves to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953, long after the trade had ended.

It is important to note the difference in the nature of the two slave trades.  The transatlantic trade was chattel-based and slaves were worked to death with hard labor in the Americas. Those slaves, owned by Christians, were rarely able to keep their families together or buy their own freedom.  Slaves in the Arab world often had families and were able to possibly buy their own freedom over time, based on Quranic principles. East African slaves had a small degree of rights, and much of the female labor came in the form of domestic servitude rather than agricultural.

4. From Slavery to Independence: While exploring Fort Jesus, I wondered why West African countries seemed to gain independence just slightly before East African ones.  Ghana, Guinea, and Nigeria gained independence in 1957, 1958, and 1960 respectively, while Tanzania didn’t become independent until 1961, and Kenya until 1963. A possible explanation for this is pan-Africanism and the effects of the American Civil Rights Movement. The exchange of ideas, ala Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X, was geographically easier between West Africa and the U.S. than it would have been between East Africa and the U.S. simply because of proximity. Conversely, East Africa has much stronger ties to the Arab world, where slavery was still even practiced into the 1950s, e.g. Yemen, Oman. In other words, the Arab influence slowed down the independence movement in East Africa.

One of the true pleasures of being in the field is the freedom to consider history as it lies in front of you.  There seems to be less pressure to make sure your ideas are always “right,” and there is greater space to allow your thoughts to meander through the centuries.

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Gender Essentialism (Part II)

Mother protesting in Jos, Nigeria

Mothers protesting in Jos, Nigeria

Women across sub-Saharan Africa, not just the Niger Delta, have used the motherhood trope in both formal and informal mobilizations, engaging in what Molyneux (1985) has termed “combative motherhood” to justify and frame their resistance. Formerly apolitical mamas from rural Kenya marched through Nairobi and then disrobed to demand the release of their sons from political imprisonment, acting on principles of care and justice and strategically employed motherhood. Ivorian women marched through Abidjan to speak out against the violence of the Gbagbo regime and, later, to force peace talks in order to end the civil war there in 2011. Aya Virginie Toure, the leader of the “One Thousand Women March” in 2011, remarked that they were just marching as their mothers had done when their fathers had been imprisoned under colonial rule, and that mothers make the best last resort in resistance (Bannister, 2011). In Nigeria, Maryam Babangida’s Better Life for Rural Women and Maryam Abacha’s Family Economic Advancement Program placed women within the role of wife and mother, thus arguing that government policies aimed at helping women should focus on their ability to financially provide for their families. In the Niger Delta protests, women’s main grievance was that companies had not offered enough employment to the women’s sons. During my observations of protests, women also regularly chanted that they couldn’t afford to provide “chop,” i.e. food, to their children and that their babies were sick because of environmental damage.

Aya Virginia Toure, leader of the Thousand Women March

Aya Virginia Toure, Ivorian leader of the “One Thousand Women March”

This essentialization of female identity (see previous post) can be a benefit for protesting women in that it draws upon the one ability that men can never have—bearing children. Discursive exploitation of motherhood can give women an edge as they attempt to enter male-dominated political space. It can reify their collective identity as they attempt to come together in resistance and can help bridge cross-ethnic or cross-religious boundaries. It can place a burden on power holders to respect protesting women enough to listen. For example, Congolese women convened inattentive male negotiators to see a play depicting the suffering the civil war had caused the country’s children, “humbling” the men into returning to the negotiating table. Essentialization of motherhood may also be embraced because it appears to be an indigenous frame of resistance in a way that the contemporary human rights paradigm, often viewed as Western, is not.

Additionally, embracing this gender construct protects female protesters from the repressive violence that men experience. The maternal frame adopted by groups demanding information on the disappearances of loved ones in El Salvador, Argentina, and Guatemala protected them from the extreme violent repression that was prevalent against dissidents in those countries in the 1970s and 1980s. Likewise, the Federation of South African Women used their motherhood as a shield from violence during their work with the anti-pass campaigns of the 1950s.

Nigerian women have voiced the belief that soldiers are less likely to fire upon or use violence against women, especially mamas.  An interviewee said that in the Niger Delta, “Army and police will start beating and shooting people. It is only the women that they will not do that to, but the men they will beat and some will die”. They have demonstrated that by bringing children to sit-ins, holding green leaves, wearing their wrappers upside-down, and baring their breasts, they use their motherhood as both a conduit for their demonstrations and as a shield through which they may protect themselves from violence. This protection then extends to men who are engaged in gender-mixed demonstrations, which is a significant reason that elite men in the Niger Delta have encouraged women’s participation in resistance. Celestine Akpobari, a local NGO Director, described how, during Saro-Wiwa’s movement, “[FOWA] women began to stay at the front of demonstrations because of the belief that the military wouldn’t shoot women” (2/9/2012).

Although the motherhood identity may seem to empower women towards greater political engagement, it can also be a constricting force as well, as described in Gender Essentialism (Part III).

Demonstrators protest in Warri, Nigeria in 2005. The protesters demonstrated against what they claim to be the shooting death of activists and demanded that ChevronTexaco implement the July 17, 2002 Memorandum of Understanding and threatened to carry out more protest on ChevronTexaco oil facilities if their demands are not met.

Demonstrators protest in Warri, Nigeria in 2005. The protesters demonstrated against what they claim to be the shooting death of activists and demanded that ChevronTexaco implement the July 17, 2002 Memorandum of Understanding and threatened to carry out more protest on ChevronTexaco oil facilities if their demands are not met.

Can Kenya make the “youth bulge” a source of strength, not a threat?

Africa Health Dialogue

Population momentum: Fertility rates fall, but global population explosion goes on

The reality of falling fertility rates while global ‘population explosion’ goes on is depicted in the Figure above. The relentless growth in population might seem paradoxical given that the world’s average birth-rate has been slowly falling for decades. Humanity’s numbers continue to climb because of what scientists call population momentum. As a result of unchecked fertility in decades past, coupled with reduced child mortality, many people are now in their prime reproductive years, making even modest rates of fertility yield huge population increases. This according to John Bongaarts of Population Council in New York translates to adding more than 70 million people to the planet every year, which has been happening since the 1970s. The African continent is expected to double in population by the middle of this century, adding 1 billion people despite the ravages of AIDS and…

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