Some Facts About Africa

Africa’s foundational value for human interaction is “Ubuntu,” characterized by compassion, and restoration of human relations.

 Before I explain why, here are some facts about the continent of Africa:

World Meters reports that the continent of Africa has a population of almost 1.3 billion people, based on the latest United Nations estimates.  If this is broken down into sub regions, the areas and their populations are:
Eastern Africa, 434 million
Western Africa, 382 million
Northern Africa, 238 million
Central Africa, 169 million
Southern Africa, 66 million

* Africa is home to one-sixth of the total world population.
* Among regions of the world - roughly equivalent to continents - Africa is the second most populous.
 * Africa has a land area of 11.44 million square miles, and a population density of only * 113 people per square mile.
* 40.6% of the population is urban
* The median age in Africa is only 19.4

With these statistics, we can see why Africa is a force to reckon with in the global economy, but this is a conversation for another day.

So, going back to attributes that define Africa,

Even with migration within and out of the continent, Africa’s image has been influenced by crosscutting cultural practices that have been carried on by various ethnic groups. These practices include “Ubuntu,” which has historically guided the way of life of the African People in conflict resolution, business negotiations, and trade. It is through Ubuntu that communities have historically managed good relations.

Other cross-cutting practices include sharing household roles, community farming, initiation ceremonies, dances, spirituality, oral education, and crafts, to mention but a few.

Transformations within the continent of Africa have historically been influenced by the changes in the environment, soil fertility and climate. In the past, these changes influenced the community setup, including economic activities.

Pastoralism was carried out in the rift valley region of East Africa.  Agriculture was common in the interlacustrine region, better known as the Great Lakes region, in East and Central Africa. This region is gifted with many lakes, including Victoria, Albert, Kyoga, Kivu, Tanganyika, Edward, and George, which endow the region with fresh water and fertile soils.

Records show that during the great African migration over 3,000 years ago, the Bantu are believed to have migrated from the Cameroon/Nigeria Border to the east and south.  Many settled in Congo and the Great Lakes region, and intermarried with the hunters and gatherers who occupied that area.  They created structured settlements, and elaborate administrative, governance  and economic systems that made them stand out in the region.

Along with other ethnic groupings, this region was home to many kingdoms, including the kingdoms of Buganda, Bunyoro, Burundi, Busoga, Buvinza, Buyungu, Buzinza, Gisaka, Heru, Igara, Ihangiro, Karagwe, Kimwani, Kiziba, Kyamutwara, Kyania, Mpororo, Mubari, Muhambwe, Nkore, Rwanda, Ruguru, Rusubi, andToro

In future episodes, we will learn about how these kingdoms/states were disintegrated at the hands of foreign entities.

Just as a reminder, Africa is home to various ethnic groups speaking over 3,000 languages.  Uganda alone is home to people speaking more than 50 languages.

African history and culture are broad and every aspect of them enables us to understand the continent and its people at home and in the diaspora.

Vivian Birchall

Africa's Identity

People’s perception of Africa have been shaped by clichés of the “dark continent.” It is no wonder that many people are scared of visiting the continent, afraid of the unknown darkness. It is a continent that has been often grossly misunderstood, based on the labels given to it by authors, colonialists, traders, missionaries, visitors and other foreign entities.

Kilembe- Uganda
photo by Andrew Anderson
It is important that one understands the pre-colonial social setup of African people. Historically, pre-colonial communities in Africa were communal, rooted in families and extended family systems.  They identified themselves by clan, tribal or ethnic homelands, also known as kingdoms. It is estimated that Africa had about 10,000 different states and autonomous groups with distinct languages and customs. These structures of human relationships in Africa were and still are critical to the survival of communities - culturally, socially and economically.

In future episodes, we will review how the pre-colonial set up was disrupted over time.

These thousands of ethnic groupings did not have room for a single political word that defined the continent. So, where did the continent of Africa get its name?

The history of the word “Africa” is disputed. There are some theories:

1. The Phoenician Theory: Phoenicians were some of the greatest traders of their time. Many North African cities and towns emerged as trading posts for the Phoenicians. Some believe that the name "Africa" was derived from two Phoenician words, "friqi" and "pharika," thought to translate as corn and fruit. The assumption is that the Phoenicians christened Africa as "the land of corn and fruit."
2. The Roman Theory:' Some believe the Romans used the name “Afri' to refer to a group of a group of people, presumably the Berbers of North Africa.
3. The Weather Theory: the Greek word aphrike, meaning "without horror" and the Latin word apricus, meaning "sunny";

None of these theories indicate that any indigenous Africans had anything to do with what the continent was called. The name is descriptive of what people who came back to Africa to trade or other, witnessed or experienced.

Ankole lady making out the share of a cow's horn- People in the Ankole Kingdom , in Uganda, have historically been pastoralists.
Photo by  Andrew Anderson

So, going back to the identify of the people from the continent of Africa, think of every descriptive word you have grown up hearing about Africa, and the image that has given you about the continent. It is sad that this identity has been distorted over a long period of time, post colonialism. It characterized by national disasters and calamities, in addition to being called the “dark continent.”

However, what characterizes an African is their distinguishing food, language, dance, dressing, and other cultural aspects. This includes African-Americans and Afro-Caribbeans who had to create a new culture, following the slave trade era that caused cultural dislocation.

Vivian Kobusingye Birchall

A man milking an indigenous Ankole long horned  cow 


The African Peer Review Mechanism

The African Peer Review Mechanism is an important process for the transformation of Africa. The climax of it is that countries benefit from the gains of the Peer Review process when they implement the Programme of Action.

One of the strengths of the process is mutual accountability and responsibility to each other as participating countries. A country does this with support of her neighbors and other countries. This contributes to improved collaborations amongst states.

The process helps countries and states to come up with emerging issues, selecting issues of concern that should be given adequate and immediate attention, determining salient challenges facing a nation or state under review, identifying ideas for the solutions of the challenges. These ideas are subject to validation by the community and all stake holders before they are adopted to form the National Programme of Action. It is also a process for finding solutions for specific needs.

The APRM enables citizens to participate in the evaluation of how they are governed. Public involvement during the self-assessment and implementation phase of APRM process enables community engagement and participation in remediation. It also comes up with ways of developing models of community collaboration to improve the ability of community groups to hold their political and community leaders and themselves accountable.

Public involvement facilitates a positive change in the culture and values of people, businesses and organizations in the four thematic areas of Corporate Governance, Economic Governance Management, Socio-Economic Development and Democracy and Political Governance. It is a long-range change toward better awareness and improved stewardship at the community level. By changing the culture and values of those living in the community, a new set of sustainable behaviours can emerge. This can be one of the most subtle but powerful effects of broad public participation.

The process follows African and international standards and codes; deepens African solidarity; builds capacity in monitoring governance; show cases Africa’s innovative thinking in governance and contributes to facilitating greater advocacy.

A message from the African Union Ambassador to the USA, Dr. Arikana Chihombori-Quao

Diaspora Support for Free Trade and Economic Growth in Africa

Image by African Union
Many have pointed out that Africa is positioned as the last economic frontier. Africans in the diaspora have been recognized as critical players in this economy and are urged to actively participate in changing the economic trajectory of the continent, through, among other things, creating financial institutions to support the continent’s development initiatives. 

During a meeting held on Thursday September 6th2018, the African Union Ambassador to the United States, H.E. Dr. Arikana Chihombori-Quao, called on Africans in the diaspora to unite, create social and business partnerships and investments that would position Africa strategically in the global economy, and provide a basis for fair  trade negotiations.

As Ambassador, she is fulfilling the African Union Mission’s mandate to undertake, develop and maintain constructive and productive institutional relationships between the African Union and Africans in the Diaspora. 

But there are many unanswered questions about the socio-economic status of different countries that make up Africa.That is why it is critical that we in the diaspora understand the trade terms and treaties signed by different countries in Africa, and how they impact the success rate of economic activities in those countries. 

It is worth celebrating that recently, African Union member states recognized the need to break down trade barriers within the continent, with 49 of 55 signing an agreement to create the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). Once the agreement enters into force, it will result in the largest free-trade area in terms of participating countries since the formation of the World Trade Organization.

As an action plan, the diaspora needs to rally around the countries that have already ratified or are planning to ratify, and remind them that there is strength in numbers.

Vivian Kobusingye Birchall

Transnational Migration Practices of Africans

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Migration has been a consistent part of human civilization. History reveals that mankind originated in Africa and through migration, spread to the other parts of the world. Historically, there have been different social, economic, and political reasons for migration.

Immigrants from Africa do not come from one homogenous group, but they do have similar practices when they move to their new home countries. In the United States, these are some practices of transnational migrants from Africa.
Vivian Kobusingye Birchall and H.E. Dr. Arikana Chihombori-Quao, African Union Ambassador to the USA

In Africa, families are still deeply dependent on each other socially, economically and in other ways.  Because of this, migrants maintain connections to their home countries, and send remittances to their home countries to improve the lives of their families back home.

These remittances make up a large percentage of their home countries’ income – according to the World Bank, the second-largest source of foreign inflows into Africa after Foreign Direct Investment.  Averaged across all of Africa, remittances account for a few percent of domestic GDP, but the percentage is higher in some countries.  In 2017, Africa registered almost $40 billion in “formal” remittances, and, more than 25% of Liberia’s GDP came from remittances.

African immigrants also maintain their cultural lifestyles, introducing cuisine, fashion, music and other aspects of their culture into the communities where they live.  In doing so, they increase the cultural diversity of those communities.

Africans are very interactive people, and even with migration, they gradually create transnational identities that they maintain through social groups, networks and associations.  They also use these platforms to address issues that affect them collectively and share experiences for self-improvement.

It is important to increase visibility of these vibrant groups of young people who are committed to finding solutions to inefficiencies both on the continent of Africa and in their new homes, especially in the technology industry.

Reports indicate that immigrants from the continent of Africa to the United States are highly educated and contribute significantly to academic research, though many are under-employed.  These immigrants can easily be engaged for consultation, strategic planning and networking by the African Union Mission to the United States.

Early this month, the AU Mission hosted its inaugural African Diaspora Youth Leadership Summit, in partnership with the US State Department. I was among the participants selected from the African Diaspora in the United States, to meet with participants from countries within Africa and discuss issues including business leadership, technology, sports and entertainment.

The summit reinforced the key role that the diaspora plays in the development processes of the continent, through its networking and remittances practices. Transnational African Migrants also have strategic knowledge of both the African continent and the United States, which they sometimes apply to trade, innovation and developing technology that is applicable to the African ecosystem. 

I hope you have learnt something new about practices of transnational African migrants

Planning for Economic Development in Africa.

Photo by my friends Kerry and Susan, taken while on Safari in South Africa

The 54 countries that make up the continent of Africa are individually rich in natural resources that support their main economic activities.  In addition, the continent has the second largest and youngest population in the world, which positions it as a major world market in the coming years. 

The sad reality, however, is that in the post-colonial era, development planning at the macro-economic level has failed to create opportunities for high economic growth and is often influenced by donor needs and commitments to compliance with international goals, at the expense of sustainable exploitation of natural resources.

For a long time after Uganda’s current president came to power, the planning was based on a 10-point program he had developed during the guerilla war.  This was followed by the Poverty Eradication Action Plan, which was less a plan than a framework focused on privatizing government institutions, through structural adjustment programs. It was not a blueprint for sector activities, but rather an instrument to appease the donor community.  It was later realized that the PEAP had flaws that came with not being an actual plan, and the National Planning Authority was created to revive the national development planning process. 

My previous work with Uganda’s National Planning Authority gave me insight into how complex it can be to create a National Development Plan, given that it requires integrating plans for different sectors with Plans of Action derived from African Union programs and other internationally agreed goals such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the African Union’s Agenda 2063. It takes effort to integrate all these goals into a country’s Development Plan, but the good news is many of the goals are overlapping.

Trying to catch up with these rapid changes in plans and programs has, in a way, enticed governments to borrow from international financial institutions such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and from specific developed countries. The inability of many African countries to meet all their budget requirements internally stems from a narrow domestic tax base; high expenditure on public administration; unsatisfactory returns on exports; low foreign direct investment, which could have increased the tax base; and high levels of corruption, especially in tax administration.

As a result, the capacity of many countries in sub-Saharan Africa to develop self-reliant and self-sustaining economies is constrained by challenges of unsustainable debt, energy crises, low human capital development, corruption and lack of accountability.

There have been attempts to improve revenue performance and increase the share of internally generated funds for funding projected expenditures. It is, however, rather difficult to generate revenue from largely informal sectors and small family owned businesses which do not necessarily embrace corporate governance principles.  

One of the ways some countries have tried to become players in the global economy is by becoming members of different regional economic blocs to improve trade. This has also not worked so well for small economies that have failed to position themselves well in the economic bloc. These countries need to identify their main resources, exploit them sustainably and position themselves competitively in the regional and global economy.

It is going to take the young generation to adopt planning processes that support the sustainable growth of African economies, while preserving their ecosystems and tapping into the local markets, as part of strategically positioning the continent for economic growth.

Vivian Birchall

Bridging Africa’s Healthcare Gaps with Ethnomedicine

A photo of mother and child from the
indigenous Himba Community in Namibia

Photo:William Matews 2011 

African ways of life are highly characterized by communities’ relationship with nature. Their mostly agricultural economies are also dependent on their natural environment for primary health care, in the form of Ethnomedicine.

Although healthcare is modernizing on a global scale, a significant number of African economies have limited resources to carry out decentralized responsibilities such as revenue collection, leading to limited funds for delivery of social services such as healthcare, particularly in rural areas.  Lack of resources also results in poor enforcement of health standards and codes, leading to limited compliance.

Statistics show that approximately 60-80% of people in Africa still rely on traditional remedies for primary health care, to treat themselves for various conditions. This is because of limited access to modern health care facilities due to distance and high costs.

As a Development Studies student at Makerere University, I researched how indigenous knowledge has contributed to socio-economic development in Uganda, and wrote a paper on a case study in Masaka District. I interviewed traditional herbalists who use indigenous medicine to treat people, as well as farm owners, who use it to treat animals, and also use indigenous knowledge to control pests using animal urine, among other things.
My maternal grandmother, with a herbal tea spice "omujaaja",
aka "African Basil," that helps with flatulence and constipation
"Omujaaja" Plant
Photo: Africa2U
Of course, we know that medicinal plants date back to the Stone Age, making them the oldest form of primary health care, and various ancient cultures discovered medicinal plant usage through a process we could now call “botanical research.”

It is important to note that 30%-40% of allopathic drugs used to treat or suppress symptoms are derived from plant-based compounds, and many are synthetic analogues built on prototype compounds similar to those from plant species.  Also, 11% of the World Health Organization’s essential medicines, 340 or more drugs considered as basic and essential to "satisfy the priority health care needs of the population," originate from flowering plants.

Unfortunately, indigenous remedies have been inconsistently documented, and this knowledge is transferred orally, thus creating a large possibility of error. Due to the nature of medicinal plants and herbal medicine, doses vary depending on the person administering them, and are usually given until symptoms disappear. However, that does not make a treatment itself ineffective unless it is wrongly administered, just as with any modern medicine.

Indeed, indigenous medicines contain more medicine and less packaging.  Wikipedia reports that only 5 to 10 percent of a tablet or pill is the active substance, with another 10 percent being compounds for easy digestion and 80 percent being inactive fillers, binders, et cetera.  So 90% of a pill is not even medicine, but packaging.

This takes me back to the primary health care practices of communities in Africa. 

Regardless of modern challenges of cost and access, one cannot ignore that African communities had specialists in various medical procedures and health care in general.  The question is, why have Africans lost these specialized indigenous skills?

One might argue the promotion of formal education and employment has drawn young people to urban areas, where they are less likely to perpetuate indigenous practices. Another factor is that many poor people are losing their land to commercial investors or government.  

These factors disrupt the socio-economic and political stability of African communities, and threaten the livelihood of practitioners in indigenous medicine.

In addition, human activity threatens the habitat of medicinal plants.  To produce indigenous medicine and offer treatment to the large populations that need it but cannot access or afford modern medicine, we must maintain ecosystems to sustain renewable natural resources for herbal medicine.

At a regional level, I know the African Union’s NEPAD Declaration is closely linked to the attainment of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), including human rights, combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases.  

It should be reiterated, though, that these Health-related goals are only feasible when attention is given to key socio-economic indicators such as improving health outcomes and sustainable management of the environment. And these are not tenable without affected communities meaningfully participating in decision-making at all levels.

The state of healthcare and health financing in many African countries is lacking. Healthcare budgets are often donor-funded, which makes them unreliable for creating and sustaining affordable modern healthcare systems.  There are also very long periods between censuses and other demographic or health surveys, which impacts the timeliness of information that could be used to improve healthcare.

Finally, in addition to high domestic birth rates and growing populations, some African Union member countries in sub-Saharan Africa have fulfilled their international obligations and taken in refugees from areas of conflict, who have few resources and require care from health care systems that are already spread thin.  

So, what should African countries do to bridge the health care gaps? This takes me back to our theme, “Preserving Ethnomedicine.” I recognize that there are challenges that come with the undocumented herbal medicines used in the past, but African leaders can and should place emphasis on anthropological and agro-research in the health sector, and include the indigenous communities who are already heavily relying on this type of health care.  This could help serve more people in a timely and cost-effective manner.

I will leave you with a thought exercise, to try to get a feel for the scope of accessibility and affordability of modern health care in sub-Saharan Africa.

1. Think of the average income of an individual in a rural African community.
2. How many people are in their household?
3. How many of these people are employed?
4. What is the number of children in this average household? 
5. What is the approximate household income?
6. How many suffer from at least one condition requiring medicine in a month?
7. How much does it cost for a single treatment with an essential drug?
8. What are the percentage odds this household can afford modern medicine?
9. How many will die without access to modern health care?
10. How will that affect the productivity of the community?
11. How will this affect the general human development index of the country?
12. How does this affect the future of the country?
13. After healthcare, what percentage of income is left for other necessities?
14. Can you propose points for health care intervention in this scenario, to avoid the loss of life?

This presents us with the reality of the state of health care in Africa, and why it is necessary to bridge the health care gap by recognizing existing indigenous ethnomedicine and promoting its incorporation into healthcare.

Watch the Episode:

Vernonia Amygdalina
Photo: Dailymotion. com

Local  East and West African names 
Source: www.doktorsea. com

“mululuza”  –  Luganda (Uganda)
 “ewuro”  – Yoruba (Nigeria)
“onugbu” – Igbo (Nigeria)
 “shiwaka”  or  Chusar-doki – Hausa (across central and west Africa)bitter leaf 2
“ndole” –  Douala (Cameroon)
“figatil” or “necroton”  – Brazil
“grawa” – Amharic (Ethiopia)
“etidot” –  Ibibios (Nigeria)
“ityuna” –  Tiv  (Cameroon and Nigeria)
“oriwo” –  Edo (Nigeria)
“labwori”  – Acholi (North Uganda and South Sudan)
“olusia”  – Luo (Kenya and Tanzania)

The herb/plant is popular in these African communities. It has, historically been used to treat fevers related to Malaria, and as an anti-inflammation home remedy, among other things.

Vivian Birchall

African rhythm has no color

This video debunks the stereotype that caucasians cannot dance to the African rhythm.

The old Bakiga Tale of "Ruhondeza Mwene Busaasi"

African storytelling in New England

Ruhondeza Mwene Busasi is an old tale among the Bakiga of South Western Uganda.

According to the tale, Ruhondeza, was a mature man who loved to sleep a lot. He could use any opportunity to sleep, even if there was work to do, *Ruhondeza* would look for a hidden place and sleep.

One time Ruhondeza found a hidden place and slept, just like he had done many times. However, nobody woke him up.

The hills of Kigezi, the land of the Bakiga People
The sun set, rose and set again, the rains (Katumba) came and went, the dry season (ekyanda) came  and went, the grasshopper season came and went  and so many moons (months)  passed and Ruhondeza still slept. At the  place where he slept, the grass grew between his fingers and around him.

Apparently, Ruhondeza slept for 2 over years.

When he finally woke up, he could not see, because sleepy seeds were so large that they had sealed off his entire eyes. In Rukiga, sleepy seeds are called ebihonzi. His beard and hair had grown so long that his beard was touching his chest. The finger nails were too long. In short, Ruhondeza looked like a wild animal. Remember,  he could not see.

Due to his absence, his wife had gotten inherited by another man as was the culture among the bakiga. If a man died, his immediate brother or whoever the family of the man chose, would inherit the wife of the man who had passed on. So Ruhondeza's wife was inherited too.

So here was "Ruhondeza," homeless, blind, and helpless all because he preferred sleeping to working. It was from his name Ruhondeza that the word Okuhondeza meaning "to sleep soundly without the ability to know what is happening around you, was derived."

When you Kuhondeeza, You can be carried off your bed, put in water, and you still would not wake up*. A person who can Kuhondeza sleeps soundly and for long hours,  waking up normally to eat, due to hunger , and return to sleep.

                                                                                                      Watch the Episode
Ruhondeza, however, had managed to survive in his sleep mode without food for many years. (In science, this type of sleeping is called hibernation)
People from many villages heard  about a blind, homeless man, and how his life was full of pain. (Obusasi). Many came to see for themselves and behold, there he was , Ruhondeza looking and smelling like a wild beast. Stories about him spread far and wide among the Bakiga and beyond into Bufumbira and Ankole. The stories were about a man, Ruhondeza, who was living a life of suffering, (Obusasi), simply because he loved to sleep too much. People referred to him as Ruhondeza Mwene Busasi which means "Ruhondeza was an offspring of suffering".

This basically meant that the offspring of sleeping too much (as was the case with Ruhondeza), is pain and suffering, and this was the story that was passed on from generation to generation. Parents advised their children to learn to wake up early, start work early and avoid sleeping during working hours or hiding in the granary or anywhere else to sleep, lest they end up *blind, homeless and in pain like Ruhondeza Mwene Busasi

And that is the long story that my people (the Bakiga) used to tell, about a man, we now know as Ruhondeza Mwene Busasi

Note: This tale was originally compiled by:  Kazooba Ka' Nyamuhanga, Omukiga omuruganda rwa Basigyi,  omuzooba omu Bazooba  ba Mparo, abatanywa maizi kandi aba tanyata,  edited and adapted by Vivian Birchall for an Africa2U episode, on Acton TV

Acknowledgment:- Scovia Kyarisiima                        

Dancing Kizino with Anne Kansiime, a Ugandan Comedian  


Africa- The Oldest Economy

Africa has the oldest economic activity in the world, logically so because it is where mankind originated. This economic activity includes crop production, domesticated animals, tool making, hunting, fishing, traditional markets, and creating specialized economic activity communities such as fishing villages, to mention but a few. 

The continent boasts of some of the greatest civilizations in the world and the spread of civilization on the continent led to the rise of cities and empires which boosted trade with each other, evidenced by the trade routes that in some cases were also migratory routes. 
Looking back at pre-colonial Africa, agriculture is believed to have been practiced mostly along rivers, because there were not many advanced tools for clearing forests to make room for agriculture. Both simple and advanced ideas and technologies were continuously implemented and spread through the continent, and eventually immigrants from Africa spread some practices and skills to the other parts of the world. Of course as humankind migrated within and out of the continent, they introduced different products to their new settlements.
Image: Wikipedia
During the era of industrialization, western empires and countries sought to find cheap raw materials and labor, which led to the colonization of Africa. At the time, many African communities were practicing subsistence agriculture, and had little need for modern currency. Barter trade was the most common form currency. With time, “money” was introduced in the shape of cowry shells, gold and other currencies.  To integrate colonies into imperial trade networks and the world economy, colonial governments needed local citizens to engage in market activity.

One way to force participation in the large economy was the levying of taxes, with the requirement that they be paid in official colonial or imperial currency.  Producers were thus forced to sell at least some of any surplus in the market, to obtain the currency needed for payment of taxes. This led to wage employment and dependence on cash crops. 

In my recent episode on African women warriors, I mentioned some notable African female leaders. Some were very popular for their negotiation skills, and for securing favorable economic terms for their communities. Others out-right rebelled against unfair taxation by colonialists.

This could be attributed to the nature of African economies, which have historically been embedded in society and are not very separate from social organization. Labor on farms was - and in some places still is - considered a social family role or a community activity. In turn, the proceeds took care of everyone in the household or community. Work was also festive, and that is why there are tribal or cultural dances that imitate harvests or other productive activities.  Economists often ignore the role of such institutions in traditional African economies.
Image:Anoushka Mehrotra

Today, much of Africa still has an economy of subsistence agriculture.  At the same time, the continent’s reserves of rare or valuable raw materials and minerals are key to the global digital economy.  African countries with such natural resources are often disadvantaged because they lack the bargaining power that can only be achieved through negotiations by regional economic blocs or by strong leaders.

When it comes to technology and innovation, Africa is often branded as a background continent. However, specialists in the technology sector know that this is far from the truth. The difference is that technology in Africa is relevant to the social and economic setup of the communities in Africa. This is also known as local contextualization of technology.

Traditional banking systems had long excluded millions of Africans who work in the informal sector. By the turn of the century, people in Uganda, Ghana and Botswana started exchanging mobile airtime as a proxy for money transfers.

The Gamos consultancy and the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organization, undertook a study funded by the UK Department for International Development, which led to the creation of mobile applications for transferring money and conducting transactions, such as “M-Pesa” in Kenya and “Mobile Money” in Uganda. Launched about a decade ago, these services were widely adopted, years before mobile payment apps became common in America.

REGRETTABLY, Africa faces a paradox of critical thinkers who are not doers and doers who are not critical thinkers. These two need to merge to play a significant role in the inclusive digitization of the continent, to compete favorably in the world economic market.

Overall, Africa’s economy has always taken a different form than western economies. Historically, it has been characterized by efficient use of resources, and economic activities structured in smaller units, which do not directly correlate to concepts used by modern economists. Production is almost invisible because a significant amount is gifted to relatives and friends, as part of social obligations. Because these traditional economic systems still drive Africa’s economy, much of it remains informal and difficult to measure.  But it is important to note that this simplistic economy has survived for a very long time. 

Image: Bryan Crite
Vivian Birchall- Author

Africans in Boston AD Net Series- April 2018

Africans in Boston- AD Net Series

Part of Africans in Boston's Management Team
Africans in Boston hosted its first AD Net series event of the year on  April 4, 2018, at the Cambridge Innovation Center, under the theme “The Diaspora and the Digital Economy.” The guest speakers were African Diaspora innovators who shared applications – Oja Express (Easing e-commerce between African grocers and clients), and OWO- Pazima (A block based digital economy aimed at removing limitations of border, high cost transactions and sub optimal contracts, among others).

Participants at the AD Net series
The event engaged over 60 participants, including caterers,  in conversations about the application of digital technologies to make the business, financial and family life of the diaspora, simpler, more convenient an competitive  in this digital economy. 

African Women Warriors

African culture and history is unique in many different ways. One way is the traditional roles and responsibilities of women in different pre- and post-colonial communities on the continent.

In many cultures around the world, women have long had domestic and nurturing responsibilities. Except for Queens in monarchies, political and military power was usually given to men.  Only in the last few decades have women in western countries gradually been allowed to serve in a greater number of political and military roles. Even today, only a small number of women serve as Generals and Admirals, and in the United States, women hold only a small fraction of elected offices.

African women also have domestic and nurturing responsibilities, and served as Queens in monarchies.  In the Old Testament, the Queen of Sheba - a kingdom in the coastal regions of modern-day Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia and Yemen - visited King Solomon of Israel.  The Ethiopian national saga, Kebra Nagast, names the queen Makeda, and says that her son by Solomon was Menelik I, founder of a dynasty that ruled Ethiopia for over 2,900 years.

But throughout the history of Africa’s tribes and kingdoms there is also a common and recurring theme of female warriors, who exhibited a sense of collectiveness and intense militarism. In the thick vegetation, rugged terrain and mountains of sub-Saharan Africa, and the deserts and mountains of North Africa, these women fought fearlessly and often successfully to protect their people from other kingdoms, slave traders, and colonialists.  Even the legends of ancient Greece included the Amazons, a brutal and aggressive army of women who lived for war – and multiple historians  said the Amazons had originated in Africa.

As we reflect upon the role and contribution of women in the world today on International Women’s Day, I would like to introduce some of the women warriors and leaders of Africa, from ancient times to the present day.  To begin, here are a few scattered across the centuries before the time of the Atlantic slave trade and European colonialism.

Queen Amanirenas
Several years after the Romans expelled the Greeks from Egypt in 33 BC, they began trying to conquer the neighboring kingdom of Kush and its capital city of Meroë, in what is now Sudan.  The Empress of Kush, Amaniremas, led her army into Egypt to counterattack, and despite losing an eye, defeated the Romans in three battles.  After five years of war, a treaty was negotiated on terms favorable to Kush – Caesar received no tribute from Kush, and the Roman border was withdrawn some thirty  miles.
Queen Dihya
In 690 AD, Dihya became Queen and war leader of the Berber tribes in the Aures mountains of modern-day Algeria and Tunisia.  The Arab Islamic armies of the Umayyad Caliphate were pushing west across North Africa at the time, and soon defeated the Byzantine Greeks at Carthage in Tunisia. When they reached Algeria, Dihya and her army defeated them so soundly that nicknamed her al-Kahina or “the soothsayer,” believing that she had supernatural advance knowledge of their attack. They retreated to eastern Libya for five years to regroup and await reinforcements before returning to kill her.

Princess Yennenga
Yennenga was a 12th-century princess of the Dagomba Kingdom, in what is now northern Ghana.  She joined the army at the age of 14, and led her own battalion against the neighboring Malinké of the Mali Empire. King Nedega, refused to let her marry, preferring to keep his daughter as a warrior.  Yennenga eventually fled the kingdom, found a husband and bore a son who founded the Mossi Kingdom, now Burkina Faso.

In the 1400s, the Portuguese began exploring the Atlantic coast of West Africa, and the historical tribal practice of keeping prisoners-of-war as slaves began giving way to a much larger trans-oceanic slave trade. Warriors and leaders now faced the challenge of ensuring that their armies weren’t the ones being captured in battle and sold into slavery.

Amina of Zazzau
In what is now central Nigeria, the Isadshi-Koseshi, women warriors of the Nupe tribe, are said to have repeatedly repelled parties of men from the Fula tribe, who would raid the Nupe in hopes of acquiring cattle or slaves, especially women.  But their success against men, didn’t prepare them for another woman, Amina of Zazzau, who some accounts say conquered them in the 1500s.  Amina was a Muslim warrior queen from the Hausa who was said to lead an army of 20,000.  She also conquered trading cities in the northern Kano and Katsina regions and collected tribute from them.

By 1580, explorers had described standing armies of women in the Congo.  One warrior queen, Llinga, fought the Portuguese in 1640. She was said to be capable of beheading a man with one swing of her sword, and also carried a bow, arrows and an axe.

Ana Nzinga Mbande was queen of the Ndongo and Matamba kingdoms in modern-day Angola.  A skilled politician and diplomat, she negotiated treaties first with the Portuguese, then with the Dutch.  She was also an excellent military tactician, who launched repeated skirmishes against the Portuguese between 1644 and 1657, until they requested a new peace treaty.
Nandi- Mother of Shaka Zulu

Nandi of the Zulu, was the mother of the great chief Shaka Zulu.  She raised him as a single mother, protecting him from enemies, assassination attempts, and the great famine of 1802.  When Shaka became ruler of the Zulu kingdom, he made Nandi clan Queen and his advisor.  The military settlements of the Zulu kingdom included regiments of youth of both genders, and if you see the Zulu warrior dance performed, you will notice that both men and women have similar warrior moves.
A woman from the Herero Tribe
Kaipkire was a warrior chiefess of the Herero tribe of modern-day Namibia, who led her people in battles against British slave traders in the 1700s.  As territory changed hands, the Herero later found themselves under German colonial rule in 1884.  After the Herero and Nama tribes rebelled in 1904, they were driven into the Namib desert to die of starvation or dehydration. Those who survived were imprisoned in concentration camps where they worked as slaves for private companies or were used in medical experiments. There are reports of Herero women warriors attacking German soldiers as late as 1919.
Priestess Nehanda

Priestess Nehanda
As the slave trade declined in the mid-1800s, European empires increasingly invaded, divided and colonized the continent of Africa to exploit its natural resources and workforce in place.  As always, Africa’s women warriors fought to the death to protect their kingdoms, communities and people.

Priestess Nehanda Nyakasikana was a spirit medium of the Shona people of present-day Zimbabwe. When British colonizers imposed taxes in 1894, the Shona and Ndebele peoples revolted. Nehanda and other mediums preached that white colonists were the cause of all the troubles that had come upon the land.  The British eventually captured her, convicted her of ordering an associate to chop off a Commissioner’s head, and hanged her – but it took them three tries.

 Tayta Betul
Tayta Betul

Taytu Betul was the wife of Ethiopia’s Emperor Menelik II. Italy had already colonized neighboring Eritrea and most of Somalia, but when it attempted to colonize Ethiopia in 1896, she persuaded the Emperor to declare war.  At the Siege of Mek’ele, the Empress had her men cut off the water supply to a fortress full of Italians, who surrendered ten days later.  A month later at the Battle of Adwa, she and her husband each led their own battalion on the front lines and the Italian forces were decisively defeated.  She is also remembered for persuading her husband to move Ethiopia’s capital to its present site of Addis Ababa, financing the first hotel in that city.  It is said that Empress Taytu’s battalion included female warriors – each escorted by men bearing red parasols to shield them from the sun.
Portrayal of Sarraounia Mangou, in a movie
Sarraounia Mangou was a chiefess of the Azna subgroup of the Hausa kingdom, in present-day Niger.  In 1899, the French Voulet-Chanoine Mission came to her area, attempting to conquer terrorities for French control.  It is said that Mangou wrote Voulet a letter full of insults and provocation.  The French marched to the village of Lougou, finding some of the Azna standing in ranks, while others hid in thick bush.  When the French fired grapeshot at the Azna, they scattered into the bush as well. Attempts to attack the bush were less than fruitful, and several French riflemen were killed or wounded.
An artist's portrayal of Yaa Asanteewa
Yaa Asanteewa
Yaa Asantewaa was Queen Mother of Ejisu in the Asante Confederacy of present-day Ghana, in the late 1800s.  After her ruling brother died in 1894, she nominated her grandson to become king, but British colonial authorities exiled him to the Seychelles and demanded that the Asante surrender the symbol of their nation, a golden stool.  In a meeting of remaining Asante leaders, there was disagreement on how to secure the return of their king.  Yaa Asantewaa declared, “I must say this: if you, the men of Asante, will not go forward, then we will. I shall call upon my fellow women. We will fight the white men. We will fight till the last of us falls on the battlefield.” Regional kings agreed to make her war leader, and she led the Asante army to besiege the British fort at Kumasi for most of 1900, until 1,400 troops were sent to end the siege. She and 15 of her supporters were captured and exiled to the Seychelles

Dahomey Amazons
Dahomey Amazons
Dahomey Amazons- Benin
Perhaps Africa’s best-known women warriors were the Mino of the small Kingdom of Dahomey, now known as Benin.  Their name means “our mothers,” and from their beginnings in the 1700s as an all-female palace guard, they grew by the mid-1800s into a military force of 6,000 dubbed the “Dahomey Amazons” by Europeans. Some carried guns, others machetes. They trained intensely and did battle with larger neighboring kingdoms, under the motto “If soldiers go to war they should conquer or die.” In 1889, Dahomey attacked a village under French protection, and when the village chief showed them the French flag, the Mino beheaded him and carried his head home wrapped in the flag. France declared war, and with the help of the French Foreign Legion conquered Dahomey in 1894, but the ferocity of the Mino impressed French soldiers.  One wrote home about seeing his best friend decapitated by a single swing of an Amazon’s machete. Another soldier knocked the machete away, and she threw him on the ground and tore out his throat – with her teeth.  A rumor common in the French occupying army said that captured Mino allowed French officers to lure them into bed, then slit their throats with their own bayonets once they fell asleep.

Muhumusa/ Muhumuza

Muhumuza was one of the wives of Kigeli IV Rwabugiri, the first king of Rwanda to encounter Europeans.  Rwabugiri selected his adopted son Rutarindwa as his successor and appointed another of his wives, Kanjogera, as his surrogate mother. When Rwabugiri died in 1895, Kanjogera led a coup that put her own son, Musinga, on the throne. Muhumuza became active in a rebellion that tried to make northern Rwanda independent, but German colonizers arrived and backed Musinga, who was a young teen and easily manipulated. Muhumuza moved north to join the Bakiga, the people of the mountainous Kigezi region of present-day Uganda, and adopted Naybihingi, an anti-establishment religion popular there, named after an 18th-century queen of the Mpororo kingdom whose husband had her killed. She rarely attacked European colonizers directly, but went after chiefs and leaders who were their puppets.  In 1908, she was captured by the Germans and imprisoned for two years. After she and her supporters ambushed the Anglo-Belgian-German Boundary Commission in 1911, the British launched a surprise attack in 1913. About 40 Bakiga were killed, and Muhumuza was wounded in the foot and arrested. The region had not come under British rule, so no one had the authority to subject her to a trial. Instead, she was deported with her servants and cattle to Kampala, where she could be kept under the watchful eye of the British and not pose a danger to chiefs who cooperated with the colonizers.
 Mekatilitili Wa Menza- CNN
Mekatilili Wa Menza was a charismatic and respected woman in the tradition of woman prophets among the Giriama people of coastal Kenya.  She defended traditional ways of life, speaking out against forced low-paying labor on British plantations, colonial hut taxes, seizures of fertile land, and restrictions on the consumption of palm wine.  A widow, she drew attention to her cause by traveling from town to town performing a funereal dance, then encouraged people to take oaths vowing to never cooperate with the British.  In 1914, after British troops destroyed a ritual center and a Giriama woman was raped by a soldier, the uprising turned violent. Giriama archers shot at British forces, and the British responded by shooting Giriama on sight even if they were not hostile, confiscating livestock and burning dwellings.  Mekatilili was twice arrested, imprisoned in exile, escaped and walked back.
Mekatilitili Wa Menza

In 1929, the colonial government in Nigeria announced a plan to tax women.  Angry at the idea of being taxed by a government they couldn’t participate in, thousands of women dressed ceremonially and marched on a district office, singing protest songs, dancing and demanding change. More than two million people were inspired to protest across three provinces. In one region, women looted European shops and Barclay’s Bank, broke into a prison and released the prisoners.  By the end of the “Igbo Women’s War,” sixteen courts were burned down and numerous officials were forced to resign.

Libyan Female Guard
Even in the late 20th Century, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi surrounded himself by an all-female private guard unit, just as the kings of Dahomey had done. These women rarely if ever saw combat before the Libyan Civil War that led to Gaddafi’s ouster and death, but they still inspired popular culture, if only in the form of Sacha Baron Cohen’s comedy The Dictator.

This list is by no means exhaustive, but shows that it is nothing new or unusual for African women to organize and even take up arms against injustice or threats to their communities.  Today, women in Africa may not go to battle, but they still lead. Several African countries have had female heads of state or heads of government in recent decades.  Many women, encouraged by the Millennium Development Goals, have joined government. Today, 55.6% of Rwanda’s legislators are women – the highest percentage of any country in the world – and dozens of other African countries have higher rates of female parliamentarians than the United States.

Some of the stories I have just told you may sound like they belong in an action movie or comic book. Sadly many people, even among those of African descent, do not know the real historical truth of Africa’s women warriors and leaders, and how they influenced the political, economic and social lives of present-day Africa and the rest of the world.

In his book “Something Torn and New,” the Kenyan writer Ngugi Wa Thiongo wrote, “The unity of the dead, the living and the unborn is broken… There is no healing, no wholeness; only a dislocation of the national psyche, for in not remembering the past, there are no inherited ideals by which to measure the excesses of the present.”

This quote is relevant today, when we are only shown make-believe female African warriors in movies, and most of the world thinks the word “Amazon” means an e-commerce company or a river in Brazil. But as you have just seen, when it comes to women warriors, the futuristic fiction of Black Panther looks much like Africa’s very real recent past.

I hope you have been inspired by the stories of these historic, heroic African women warriors.

Vivian Kobusingye Birchall