Archive for the ‘africa’ Category


The Lord’s Prayer in Swahili:

Baba yetu uliye mbinguni,
jina lako litukuzwe.
Ufalme wako ufike.
Utakalo lifanyike duniani mbinguni.
Utupe leo mkate wetu wa kila siku.
Utusamehe makosa yetu,
kama tunavyowasamehe na sisi waliotukosea.
Usitutie katika kishawishi,
lakini utuopoe maovuni.

Swahili (900- ), also called Kiswahili, is a common second language in East Africa. Only 5 million speak it as their first language, but probably over 100 million speak it as a second language, in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and eastern D.R. Congo.

The top languages of Africa as a first or second language:

  1. Arabic: 170 million speakers
  2. English: 130m
  3. French: 115m
  4. Swahili: 100m, with estimates ranging from 55m to 140m.
  5. Berber: 50m
  6. Hausa: 50m

Worldwide, Swahili is #12. By 2100, it will probably be #4.

East Africa is divided into hundreds of languages. The governments of Kenya and Tanzania, like the British before them, push Swahili as a common language of instruction and lower-level government. Because it is a Bantu language like most languages in the region, it is way easier for most East Africans to learn than English. English is still used at universities and, in Kenya, in the media and at the top levels of government.

History: Bantu languages, starting somewhere near Nigeria 2,000 years ago, spread east and south across much of Africa. They reached the east coast by 500 AD. The Bantu language of those who traded with Arabs along the coast became Swahili. The name comes from the Arabic word for coast: sahel. While the grammar and most everyday words in Swahili are Bantu, a third of all words come from Arabic. Like Latin words in English, the Arabic words are often the high-sounding ones.

From 1000 to 1500 Swahili-speaking Muslim city-states sprang up, like Mombasa, Mogadishu and Kilwa. After 1500, the Portuguese and later other Europeans took over the sea trade: East Africa became a poor backwaters. After 1800, Swahili began to spread inland.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s European empires and their missionaries pushed Swahili as a common language. They wrote it with Roman letters instead of Arabic ones. Words for Western things were taken mainly from English, like mashine (machine), keki (cake) and penseli (pencil).

Swahili also has words from other languages, like German (shule, school), Persian (chai, tea) and Portuguese (pesa, money).

Standard Swahili, the kind taught at school, is based on the Swahili of Zanzibar.

A dialect hated by schoolteachers, one that uses more English words than most, is Sheng. The “eng” in Sheng is for English. It started in the slums of Nairobi and is used by rappers, the young and the fashionable.

If you watched the Disney film “The Lion King” (1994) you already know some Swahili words:

  • hakuna matata – no problem
  • simba – lion
  • rafiki – friend
  • nala – gift
  • pumbaa – careless
  • shenzi – barbarous

Some names from Swahili (some come from Arabic):

  • Aaliyah – the very highest
  • Aisha – hope
  • Akila – wise
  • Baraka – blessing
  • Imani – faith
  • Jahleel – noble
  • Jamela – beautiful
  • Latifah – kind
  • Nbushe – godly one
  • Nia – will
  • Rashida – rightly guided
  • Sanaa – art
  • Taraji – expectations
  • Uhura – freedom

– Abagond, 2010.

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gaGabon (1960- ) is a Colorado-sized country on the west coast of Africa right on the equator, not far north of the Congo River. Compared to most of black Africa it is stable and well-to-do. The reason: oil and French power.

In the cities the people are about as well-off as those in Iran, though most who live in the countryside are poor. Those at the top may be on the take (the president was worth at least $130 million), but it seems that enough of it spreads down to ordinary people.

It is also very stable: it had the same president, Omar Bongo, for 42 years. Only a handful of countries anywhere in the world can beat that.

Gabon was a colony of the French Empire from the middle 1880s to 1960. In 1960 it became independent, on paper at least. In practice it is a banana republic, a vassal state of the French. The French will overthrow the government when necessary and put in power who they please. In 1967 it was Bongo.

The French have a military base there with about 1,000 soldiers. A big French oil company is there too, Total, which pumps out the oil and sells it to China. A billion tonnes of Gabon’s iron ore is also being sent to China. So is the hardwood from its ancient forests. Think the Lorax.

Bongo put Gabon’s relationship with France this way:

Gabon without France is like a car with no driver.
France without Gabon is a like a car with no fuel.

Bongo had 1,500 soldiers in his personal guard. But he mainly sweetened his enemies with money rather than frighten them with guns.

Bongo died in June 2009. For days a long line led to his $800-million marble palace where people walked up a red carpet strewn with white rose petals to kneel before his coffin to pay their last respects. A dozen African leaders came to his funeral. So did the French president. He was booed.

Until the early 1990s, when France started to push for democracy in Africa, only one party could stand for office: Bongo’s. Even after he allowed other parties, his always managed to win the elections somehow. In 2005 Bongo won 80% of the vote. Hard to believe, but outside observers said the election was free and fair. It has a free press too, though the state-run press, backed by oil money, speaks with the loudest voice.

Most people live near the coast where the land is flat and open. To the east are mountains and huge forests. A third of the country lives in the capital, Libreville, right on the sea.

There are 10,000 French people living in Gabon but most of the country’s 1.5 million people are Bantus. They speak dozens of different languages but 80% know French. In fact, Libreville is one of the places in Africa where French has taken root as a native language: at least 200,000 speak French as their first language.

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Mali Empire

mali1350The Mali Empire (1230-1400s) was an empire in West Africa. It stood roughly where Senegal and Mali are today. At its height in the 1300s it was one of the richest in the world and had one of the greatest seats of learning of its time, Timbuktu.

Mali came after the Ghana Empire, on whose remains it was built, but before the Songhay Empire, which took it over bit by bit.

The empire stretched across the grasslands south of the Sahara along the Niger  and Senegal rivers. In those days the land was not so dry and trade went by land not by sea, so twice as many people lived there back then. The main sign that times used to be different are the huge mosques that the empire left behind.


Size: In the early 1400s the Mali Empire had about as much land and as many people as America did east of the Mississippi River in 1880. Timbuktu in those days was bigger than London, and it was not even the capital!

Making a living: Most people were farmers. They grew rice, beans, sorghum, millet, peanuts, papaya and cotton. Some people were slaves. Herdsmen raised cows, goats and sheep. Its smiths worked copper, iron and gold. To the north were salt mines and to the south, gold. Mali got rich mainly from its gold and from trade between the Muslim world to the north and Africa to the south and south-east. It stood along important caravan routes.

At its height Mali produced more gold than anywhere else in the world. When its greatest ruler, Mansa Musa, passed through Egypt on his way to Mecca in 1324, the value of gold dropped by a fourth. He had that much gold.

Religion: unlike the old Ghana empire before it, the top people in Mali were mostly Muslim. They helped to spread Islam to that part of the world.

Language: Arabic, the language of the holy book, the Koran, was the language of its scholars and poets. Mali’s gold and its use of Arabic  is what helped to make Timbuktu a great seat of learning. Students came from as far away as the Middle East.

The people: The empire ruled the Mandingo, Fulani, Tuareg, Wolof and Soninke. The Wolof  lived in the west, the Soninke in the north, the Tuareg beyond them in the sands of the far north and the Mandingo lived throughout the empire. The Fulani and Tuareg were herdsmen, the rest were mainly farmers.

The main cities were along the Niger River and had on the order of 100,000 people each. Going from west to east they were: Niani (the capital), Jenne (or Djenne), Timbuktu (the seat of learning) and Gao.

The empire started to weaken in the early 1400s. The city of Gao in the east rose up against it, then the Tuaregs in the north and the Wolof in the west. Gao became the seat of a new empire, the Songhay.

– Abagond, 2009. 


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BHF magazine has a beautiful online picture gallery of  about 400 Africans from all over the continent (most of them now living in Britain and America). It is called “I am African”. It gives you a much different picture of Africa than you see on American television.Check it out.

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The blackness of Africa

Are there black people in Africa? Not so fast! Read this from Tiffany B. Brown’s blog:

tiffanyI remember a conversation from years ago that I had with a Malian woman named Fanta about blackness. She said “In Mali, there is no such thing as ‘black.’” In places where everyone has the same skin color, notions of ‘black’ or ‘white’ are unnecessary and non-existent (though, as with the Roma in Europe, ethnic markers still hold sway). Fanta said that when she came to the U.S., she found herself wrestling with a new set of expectations, assumptions, unspoken rules, and judgements — ‘blackness’ —that were applied to her as a dark skinned African woman in the United States.

Our conversation taught me that concepts of race, color, and ethnic identity are often fluid, culturally-dependent, and self-determined.

There are black people in Morocco, mind you: the Gnawa. The Gnawa are an oft-marginalized group descended from sub-Saharan African peoples, some of whom were slaves, some of whom were merchants along cross-dessert routes. They even have their own distinctive form of music. Y’all know that’s about as black as black gets.

But race is a culturally-specific concept, isn’t it? And I got the sense that in Morocco, race and color is almost wholly replaced by ethnic identity. The Gnawa aren’t “black” per se. They’re “Gnawa.” Arabs and Berbers aren’t “white,” they’re Arabs and Berbers.

So when you say “black” in Morocco, what does the listener hear and understand?

Does she/he have a concept of what “black” means in the States? Does she/he know that any African ancestor in your known family tree makes you legally black no matter what your phenotype says? Does she/he understand that blackness in the U.S.. often comes sans ethnicity? Does she/he realize that you, your parents, your grandparents, and probably your great- and great-great-grandparents grandparents come from United States and/or parts unknown?

Or does she/he view it through African eyes — eyes that think of “black” as “from the south side of the desert and a few shades darker than you?”

This is part of a longer post where she talks about a visit to Morocco. When people there asked her what she was, the answers “American” and “black”, as it turned out, did not help much.

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Kilwa (900s to 1700s), also called Quiloa or Kilwa Kisiwani, was the richest city in eastern Africa from 1000 to 1500. Today no one lives there. It is just some broken down buildings in a nearly forgotten corner of Africa.

Kilwa stood on an island on the coast of what is now south-eastern Tanzania. Then it was in the land of the Zanj. Only the old buildings remain. Even the book that once told its story, the Kilwa Chronicle, is lost (though parts of it appear elsewhere). But the society of Kilwa has lived on, becoming the pattern for Swahili-speaking Africa.

Kilwa was the first city in eastern Africa to have a domed building, the city’s great mosque. It also had its largest stone building, the palace of Husuni Kubwa with a hundred rooms.

Kilwa grew rich by trading the gold, iron and men of Africa for the riches of the east: the cloth and jewels of India, the porcelain of China and the spices of the Indies.

It was a beautiful city built of stone and coral. Ibn Battuta, the Marco Polo of the Arab world, arrived there in 1331. He was amazed by its beauty.

The people were black Muslims who spoke Swahili. But by the time the Portuguese arrived in 1500 half the people were Christians from India and Abyssinia.

The city was founded by Ali bin al Hasan. He came in the 900s on a ship from Shiraz (south-western Persia).

Kilwa was as far south as Arab traders would go. Like Timbuktu, Kilwa got rich by controlling the trade between the Arabs and its part of Africa.

Its glory days came to an end in 1500 when the Portuguese arrived. It was Cabral who first came, on the same voyage in which he discovered Brazil. Two years later Vasco da Gama arrived and asked for tribute. In 1505 Francisco de Almeida came and destroyed the city, taking it outright. He built Gereza, a fort that later became a prison.

Some years later the Portuguese lost Kilwa to the Arabs. Later it was ruled by Zanzibar. But the city never recovered: the Portuguese had taken control of trade with the east.

In the 1700s Kilwa did see something of its old wealth return by selling slaves to Brazil. But then in the early 1800s the British brought an end to even that. Kilwa died. There was no reason to go there any more.

You can still see the remains of the mosque, the Kubwa palace, the old Portuguese fort and some other buildings. They are falling apart with the wind and the rain and the years.

It is not a tourist attraction, though the curious do show up from time to time.

In 1981 UNESCO made it a World Heritage Site, one of the several hundred places in the world worth preserving – not that UNESCO has any money to save what is left of Kilwa.

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Guinea coast

The Guinea coast is the part of west Africa that lies south of the Sahara and north of the sea. It is the part of Africa where most black people in North America, the Caribbbbean and Bahia in Brazil come from. In fact, “Guinea” comes from the Berber word for black.

The guinea coin was originally made out of gold from this area.

It lies between 0 and 15 degrees north and goes from 20 west to 15 east. It includes all the countries from Guinea-Bissau to Equatorial Guinea: Guinea, Sierra Leone, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, Cameroon, Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso.

With 250 million people most of black Africa lives here.

The Guinea coast was made up of yet smaller coasts: the slave coast, the gold coast, the ivory coast and so on, each named according what it had.

Along the sea are jungles and cities. It always seems like summer and it rains a lot. As you go north inland it rains less often. The trees give way to open grassland. Farther north the rain gives out altogether and the grass gives way to the endless sand of the Sahara.

Religion: Islam came across the Sahara so most who live in the north are Muslims. Christianity came by sea, so most in the south are Christians. Some still worship the old African spirits.

Language: Those with education know French, English or Portuguese. In the north are Hausa and the Songhai tongues. Most other Guinea languages belong to the Niger-Congo family. It was from here from this family that the Bantu languages swept across most of the rest of black Africa.

A bit of history:

From about 1300 to 1600 there were Muslim empires in the north, along the Niger river, like those of Mali and Songhay. These were the glory days of the city of Timbuktu.

In the 1400s Europeans began to establish trading posts along the sea.

From 1600 to 1800 these trading posts were part of the triangular trade:

  1. Guinea provided slaves, which were sold in Brazil and the Caribbean.
  2. The slaves cut sugar cane, which was turned into molasses and sent to Europe.
  3. Europe sold rum and sugar which it made out of the molasses. It also sold finished goods, like cloth, guns, windows and ships.

The whole point was to make Europe rich.

The trading posts grew into colonies in the 1800s. In the late 1900s they all became free countries.

Yet these countries were just lines on a map drawn by men in Europe. They did not follows lines of religion, language or history. So the region has been troubled by civil war ever since.

The governments are weak and corrupt. While they are no longer colonies, most are now banana republics in the orbit of France or America.

There is little industry. Even though it has almost as many people as America, it makes less money than New York City. And much of what little it makes gets wasted by corruption and civil war.

– Abagond, 2006.

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