Mancala is the oldest board game still widely played today. It is popular around the world but very much so in Africa. Mancala pieces have been found in Egyptian tombs, the Phoenicians played it in the sixth-century BCE, and so did the people of Axum in the first centuries CE. [Read more:The Ark of the Covenant“] The word itself comes from the Arabic naqala, meaning “to move.”

To be precise, there is not one game called “mancala.” Rather, it is a family of games which have been given different names in different places. Yet all mancala games consist of a board with indentations in which the players take turns placing – “planting” – small stones, beans or seeds. The object is to capture – “to harvest” – all or some of the opponents pieces. How this is done varies depending on local variations in the rules. There are several hundreds of different versions of the game. Ali guli mane is commonly played in Southern India, bao is played in East Africa and congkak in Indonesia, Malaysia and southern Thailand.

One may wonder why such similar games are played in such different places. One possibility is that they have originated independently of each other. This is not too difficult to imagine since the rules are pretty basic and related to a social practice – planting and harvesting – which is common to all of mankind. The other, more intriguing, possibility is that the game has spread from one society to the next. We can imagine that Bantu people played the game when they were not busy migrating. And we know that people on all sides of the Indian Ocean have traded with each other for over two thousand years. That the game is played in Central Asia can then be explained as a consequence of trade along the caravan routes. [Read more:Sogdian letters“] Even if people did not speak the same language they could still have had fun playing mancala together. If this is the case, a map showing us the popularity of the game today would show us a map of early human interaction. It is worth noting, perhaps, that the game has not been commonly played in Europe, except in parts of eastern Europe. Today mancala is popular as a computer game and it exists as apps both for Android and iPhones.

External links:

Makuria was a kingdom located along the Nile, in today’s northern Sudan and southern Egypt. It is sometimes known as “Dongola,” which was the name of its capital. The Makurians converted to Christianity in the sixth-century CE and followed the Coptic ritual. It was a literate society which wrote in the Nubian language by means of a modified version of the Greek script. Remarkably, some writings still survive. The Makurians grew barley, millet and dates in the well irrigated Nile valley; they made pottery, worked metals and leather, and made mats and sandals from palm fiber. They imported luxury goods from Egypt and exported slaves which they captured west and south of their kingdom. They had no currency and trade took place by means of barter.

When the Arabs conquered Egypt in the seventh-century CE, Makuria was cut off from the rest of the Christian world. [Read more:The Muslim caliphates“] The Rashidun caliphate launched an attack on Dongola in 651, but the Makurians successfully defended themselves. Unusually, the Arabs sued for peace and a treaty was concluded. The Makurians promised to trade with Arab merchants and to make sure that the southern border of the caliphate stayed peaceful. Each year 360 slaves were sent to Egypt as a tribute. In return, the caliphate promised to supply the Makurians with wheat and lentils and to respect its borders. Nowhere else did the Arabs voluntarily agree to restricts their expansion.

The agreement was honored by later caliphs too and in 835 CE, the king of Makuria sent his son to the Abbasid capital of Baghdad to renegotiate the terms. Makuria was gradually islamicized in the thirteenth-century and Bedouins from the desert began to invade. Eventually it was no longer possible for the Makurians to protected themselves and to serve as a buffer state for the caliphate. Moreover, the Mamluk rulers did not consider themselves bound by the previous agreements. In 1317, the cathedral in Dongola was turned into a mosque. In the sixteenth-century Makuria was incorporated into Egypt itself.

The Aswan Dam, a prestige project begun by the Egyptian government in 1964, threatened many Makurian archaeological sites. Teams of international experts were flown in to carry out emergency excavations. Today much of ancient Makuria is under water.

External links:

Beta Israel, the “House of Israel,” is the name of the community of Jews which existed in some 500 separate villages scattered throughout the former kingdom of Aksum, in today’s Ethiopia. This community, also known as “falashas,” are Africans yet they have been Jewish since biblical times. Today next to all of them have immigrated to Israel.

Before Christianity and Islam came to be established much of the Arabian peninsula was Jewish. There were, for example, a strong Jewish community in Yemen. They, in turn, traded with people on the other side of the Red Sea and this is how Jewish culture came to spread to Africa [Read more:Coffee and croissants“] The Jews of Ethiopia insist that they are the descendants of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. After the rise of Christianity and Islam, the Jews in Ethiopia were cut off culturally from other Jews, but they survived as an independent community, following their own religious rituals and celebrating their own holidays.

After the establishment of Israel in 1948, the Jews of Ethiopia obtained the right to immigrate there – a right which some took advantage of during the famines and wars of the 1980s. The Israeli government, with American support, organized two rescue operations – “Operation Moses” in 1984 and “Operation Solomon” in 1991 – in which tens of thousands of people clandestinely were airlifted to Israel. At the time, some Israelis questioned their Jewishness, and the very notion of a “black Jew,” while others identified them as one of the “lost tribes of Israel.” Today there are 120,000 thousand people in Israel who claim Ethiopian descent. Some complain that Israeli society is racist; many in the older generation have little education and find life in Israel difficult. A majority cannot read and write Hebrew and unemployment rates are high. But not many have decided to return to Ethiopia. It is estimated that there still are some 8,000 people of Jewish descent living in Ethiopia. They Israeli government is officially committed to bringing them to Israel.

External links:

The Berbers are an ethnic group indigenous to North Africa who lives in and around the Saharan desert. The Tuaregs, the “blue men of the desert” – named after the color of their headgear – are Berbers too. The Berbers are semi-nomadic, combining the tending of goats and sheep with farming and commerce. For hundreds of years the Tuaregs were in charge of the caravans that traded with Timbuktu in the kingdom of Mali and beyond. Two of the kingdoms that ruled Spain were run by Berbers; the last of the four original caliphates, the Fatimid caliphate, 909–1171 CE, was at least initially heavily dominated by Berbers. [Read more:The Muslim caliphates“]

Today there are between 25 and 30 million people who speak the Berber language, most are Muslims, but some are Christian and a small minority are Jews. For the past couple of decades, there has been a strong revival of Berber culture. Berber arts and crafts are taught to younger generations, the language is revived, and festivals such as equestrian horse shows attract large audiences. Berber music, with musicians such as Bombino and Tinariwen, has received world-wide attention.

There are also demands for political rights. Some Berber want independence for their homeland which they regard as occupied, and mismanaged, by Arabs in the north and by black Africans in the south. The political instability of countries such as Algeria and Libya has provided opportunities to realize these aims. The overthrow of the Gaddafi regime in Libya in the fall of 2011 allowed some Tuaregs to escape with their weapons to Mali where they began a guerrilla war against the government. In April 2012, once the president of Mali was overthrown in a military coup, the guerrilla movement, the MNLA, declared independence for a country they called “Azawad,” with Gao and Timbuktu as its main cities [Read more:The libraries of Timbuktu“]

In order to achieve its goal, the MNLA cooperated with Ansar Dine, a guerilla movements with links to Al-Qaeda. For about ninth months Ansar Dine established a fundamentalist dictatorship in Azawad, destroying religious monuments and ancient books. In 2013, Timbuktu was recaptured by the Malian government, supported by international troops. The dream of an independent Azawad is once again postponed.


External links:

In Our Time, “The Almoravid Empire”

Great Zimbabwe is called “great” in order to distinguish it from the many smaller zimbabwes, over two hundred of them, which are scattered in an area from today’s Zimbabwe to Mozambique. A “zimbabwe” is a fortress, built of stone, which served as protection against military attacks but also as a residence for the ruling class. The zimbabwes were connected to each other as nodes in a network and it was trade which tied the network together. But it was the Great Zimbabwe that was the greatest of them all. It was the center of an international trading system which connected the inner of Africa, from Congo in the west to Africa’s eastern coast, and then to trading communities all around the Indian Ocean. They even traded with China. The people of Great Zimbabwe were selling all kinds of things, but mainly ivory and gold. [Read more:The great mosque at Kilwa Kisiwani“]

What is most striking about Great Zimbabwe today are its stone walls. It was a strongly hierarchical society with a rigid separation between ordinary people and the ruling elite. The king lived in the fortress, and in the city at its feet there was an estimated 25,000 inhabitants. Yet we actually know quite little about the people who once lived here and how the buildings were used. It seems the construction began in the eleventh-century CE, but that it was abandoned at the end of the fourteenth-century. We do not know why. Perhaps the land could not sustain such a large population or perhaps the gold mines no longer yielded as much wealth.

When Europeans in the nineteenth-century first came across the Great Zimbabwe they failed to accept that it could have been constructed by Africans. The Phoenicians must have done it, they concluded, the Egyptians or perhaps the Arabs. Between 1965 and 1980, when Zimbabwe was run by a small group of renegade white farmers, they even commissioned archaeological research designed to prove that no Africans were involved in its construction. Not surprisingly, when Zimbabwe became democratic in 1980, the Great Zimbabwe quickly became a symbol of the achievements of its people. The country itself was named after the monument and it was depicted on stamps and banknotes. The Zimbabwean flag shows a so called “soapstone bird,” copied from a statuette discovered in an archaeological dig at the Great Zimbabwe.

External links:

The Golden Stool of the Asante is the throne of the ruler of the Asante kingdom and the ultimate symbol of power in Asante society. As legend has it, a high-priest late in the seventeenth-century CE made the stool to descend from the sky and land on the lap of Osei Tutu, the first Asante king. Thrones are symbols of rulership in many societies; they allow the ruler to sit while his subjects are forced to kneel or bow. Yet the Golden Stool of the Asante has particular powers. It embodies the spirit of the Asante – both the living, the dead and the yet to be born. As a sacred object it may never touch the ground and must always be placed on a blanket. It can only be handled by the ruler himself. On particularly solemn occasions the throne is itself seated on a throne.

As one would expect, the Golden Stool has been the cause of conflicts and wars. In the year 1900, when the English governor of the newly occupied colony of the Gold Coast insisted that he be allowed to sit on it, it suddenly mysteriously disappeared. It was later recovered and has been used in royal ceremonies after Ghana’s independence. The power of the Stool is intact and no one but the current Asante king and his closest advisers know its location. Copies of the stool are still used on ritual occasions. Tourist can buy cheap replicas of the stool in the market of Kumasi, the Asante capital.


External links:

History of the World in 100 Objects: “Akan drum”

Delta blues is one of the earliest-known styles of blues music. It originated in the Mississippi Delta, a region of the United States stretching from Memphis, Tennessee, in the north to Vicksburg, Mississippi, in the south and from Helena, Arkansas, in the west to the Yazoo River in the east. The Mississippi Delta is famous for its fertile soil and for its poverty. Delta blues is regarded as a regional variant of country blues. Guitar and harmonica are its dominant instruments; slide guitar (usually played on a steel guitar) is a hallmark of the style. Vocal styles in Delta blues range from introspective and soulful to passionate and fiery.

Although Delta blues certainly existed in some form or another at the turn of the 20th century, it was first recorded in the late 1920s, when record companies realized the potential African-American market for “race records“. The major labels produced the earliest recordings, consisting mostly of one person singing and playing an instrument. Live performances, however, more commonly involved a group of musicians. Current belief is that Freddie Spruell is the first Delta blues artist to have been recorded; his “Milk Cow Blues” was recorded in Chicago in June 1926.[1] Record company talent scouts made some of the early recordings on field trips to the South, and some performers were invited to travel to northern cities to record. According to Dixon and Godrich (1981), Tommy Johnson and Ishmon Bracey were recorded by Victor on that company’s second field trip to Memphis, in 1928. Robert Wilkins was first recorded by Victor in Memphis in 1928, and Big Joe Williams and Garfield Akers by Brunswick/Vocalion, also in Memphis, in 1929.

Son House first recorded in Grafton, Wisconsin, in 1930 for Paramount Records. Charley Patton also recorded for Paramount in Grafton, in June 1929 and May 1930. He also traveled to New York City for recording sessions in January and February 1934. Robert Johnson recorded his only sessions, for ARC, in San Antonio in 1936 and Dallas in 1937.

Subsequently, the early Delta blues (as well as other genres) were extensively recorded by John Lomax and his son Alan Lomax, who crisscrossed the southern United States recording music played and sung by ordinary people, helping establish the canon of genres we know today as American folk music. Their recordings, numbering in the thousands, now reside in the Smithsonian Institution. According to Dixon and Godrich (1981) and Leadbitter and Slaven (1968), Alan Lomax and the Library of Congress researchers did not record any Delta bluesmen or women prior to 1941, when he recorded Son House and Willie Brown near Lake Cormorant, Mississippi, and Muddy Waters at Stovall, Mississippi. However, this claim has been disputed, as John and Alan Lomax had recorded Bukka White in 1939, Lead Belly in 1933 and most likely others.

Scholars disagree as to whether there is a substantial musicological difference between blues that originated in the Mississippi Delta and blues from other parts of the country. The defining characteristics of Delta blues are instrumentation and an emphasis on rhythm and “bottleneck” slide guitar;[citation needed] the basic harmonic structure is not substantially different from that of blues performed elsewhere. Delta blues is a style as much as a geographical form: Skip James and Elmore James, who were not born in the Delta, are considered Delta blues musicians. Performers traveled throughout the Mississippi Delta, Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, and Tennessee. Eventually, Delta blues spread out across the country, giving rise to a host of regional variations, including Chicago blues and Detroit blues.

Delta blues songs are typically expressed in the first person and often concern love, sex, the traveling lifestyle and its tribulations, sin, salvation and death. Several blues musicians were imprisoned in the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman Farm, which is referred to in songs such as Bukka White‘s “Parchman Farm Blues” and the folk song “Midnight Special“.

In big-city blues, women singers such as Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Mamie Smith dominated the recordings of the 1920s.[2] However, women rarely recorded Delta blues and other rural or folk-style blues. In Delta blues female performers often had some romantic connection to more notable male performers: Geeshie Wiley was reportedly linked with Papa Charlie McCoy, whose brother Kansas Joe McCoy was married to Memphis Minnie, and the seminal Charlie Patton sometimes played and recorded with his wife, Bertha Lee. It was not until late in the 1960s that women began to be heard in recorded performances at the level they had previously enjoyed. It was then that Janis Joplin arrived as the first female performer to achieve both accolades from her peers as a blues performer and crossover commercial success, reaching diverse audiences with a powerful and emotive vocal delivery. Other women influenced by Delta blues, who learned from some of the most notable of the original artists still living, include Bonnie Raitt, Rory Block, and Susan Tedeschi.

External links:


Bunyoro and Buganda are two ancient kingdom in the region of the Great Lakes in eastern Africa. The two were rivals from the thirteenth- well into the nineteenth-century. Bunyoro’s present ruler is Rukirabasaija Agutamba Solomon Gafagusa Igure I. The kingdom has 800,000 inhabitants, some three-fourth of whom are subsistence farmers. Yet only about half of the population in literate. The traditional economy in this part of Africa revolved around the hunting of big game – elephants, lions, rhinos and crocodiles – the various parts of which were exported, first to the East African coast and then across the Indian Ocean. Salt was another key commodity, produced at Kibiro, on the banks of Lake Albert, controlled by Bunyoro. Today a majority of the land is still virgin forest and there are plenty of large animals to hunt.

As for the people of Buganda, they were mainly farmers, but they also had blacksmiths who were famous for producing high-quality tools and lethal weapons. Buganda eclipsed Bunyoro in the eighteenth-century when it gained control of the salt trade. Nineteenth-century visitors to Buganda were amazed at the wealth of the country and the elaborate ceremonies conducted at its court where both foreign ambassadors and royal officials mingled in large assembly halls. The present king of Buganda is Kabaka Muwenda Mutebi II. During the period of dictatorship in Uganda – prior to 1993 – he lived in exile in England where he went to university and worked as a double-glazing salesman. The king of Bunyoro maintains an active Facebook account and you can follow the kingdom of Buganda on Twitter.

Today Bunyoro and Buganda are constituent parts of Uganda. However, since the country is a republic, neither monarch has formal powers. Their mandate, according to the country’s constitution, is restricted to “cultural and development advocacy matters.” Yet they also engage in various projects aimed at promoting information technology and sustainable development. Both royal houses are still greatly admired by the descendants of their former subjects.

External links:

Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization is the name of a book, in three volumes, by the historian Martin Bernal, which gave rise to a major controversy when it first appeared in 1987. Bernal’s thesis was that much of Greek culture had been imported from Greece’s African and Asian neighbors, especially from the Phoenicians and Pharaonic Egypt. His interpretation was controversial since ancient Greece often has been identified as the origin of everything we think of as “European.” If it turns out that the Greeks had borrowed most, or much, of their culture from Africa and the Middle East, Europeans would no longer be who they think they are.

Bernal himself was a scholar of contemporary China, not Greece, and it was easy for specialists to point to mistakes in his analysis. For that reason, the Black Athena thesis has often been rejected. However, there is no disputing the fact that Greece borrowed heavily from its neighbors, from Egypt in particular. The ancient Greeks themselves readily admitted as much. More generally, it might be a mistake to think of “Greece” as a discrete civilization which easily can be distinguished from the societies that surrounded it. For one thing, the people we think of as Greeks were seafarers who interacted closely with everyone else around the eastern Mediterranean. Greek and non-Greek societies were not as distinct as we often believe.

It was only in the nineteenth-century that German scholars in particular started thinking of Greece as the origin of their own society. And the choice of Greece was, at least in part, a consequence of the fact that the French – Germany’s enemies in a series of wars – often retraced their own history to the Romans. In fact, the Black Athena debate may say more about us than it does about the ancients. The 1980s and 90s was a time when various “culture wars” were fought at American universities in particular. Members of minority groups often complained that the academic cannon contained too many “dead, white, males.” Calling Athena “black” was a way to turn the tables on the academic establishment.

External links: