How human societies and culture developed

What you need to know:

The book is an overview of the continent from the beginning of humanity to the modern era. She begins with what makes societies unique and how cultures have developed.

Title: An African History of Africa: From the Dawn of Humanity

Author: Zeinab Badawi

Availability: Amazon

Published: 2024

Pages: 532

Price: £18.69

A lot of the writings about Africa, suffer from a validation complex. That is because many Africanists seek to justify Africa’s reputation as being something of a Rip Van Winkle.

To the uninitiated, Rip Van Winkle is a tale about a farmer in the Catskill Mountains who falls asleep in the forest, one day and wakes up 20 years, after the American Revolution has already ended. Rip Van Winkle is the name of this napping character in the book.

Others will explain that when Africa was called Alkebulan or “mother of mankind,” it never developed a home-spun system of intensive agriculture.

Accordingly, the “dark continent” never enjoyed the food surpluses and sedentary populations that lead to large, concentrated demographics, which of necessity, turn to specialisation and invention.

Zeinab Badawi’s An African History of Africa: From the Dawn of Humanity to Independence takes a somewhat different tack, however.

“This book is an overview of the continent from the beginning of humanity to the modern era. We begin with the origins of humankind: what makes us unique, and how human societies and culture developed,” she writes.  Allied to that, the author reveals that until 8,000 to 12,000 years ago, all humans were dark-skinned. Pale complexions, fair hair and light-coloured irises became features of the human anatomy after humans migrated beyond Africa and adapted to other climes.

African religions

The author faults the terminological offering of the phrase “African religions”.  She argues that the word “religion” incorporates so much of the Abrahamic traditions, obscuring the spiritual ideas and beliefs of the African.  “For example, the English anthropologist E.B. Tylor, described African religious practices in his 1871 book Primitive Culture as ‘animism’, having invented the term from the Latin word anima, meaning breath or soul.

He wrote that ‘primitive people’ believe every object has its own soul, giving rise to countless spirits in the universe, who would be worshipped in a kind of polytheism, placing African spirituality at the bottom rung of religious evolution,” she writes.

Yet most African languages do not have a word for “religion” and there are no sacred scriptures.

Instead, African beliefs expressed themselves in the idea of a force that is transcendent and immanent. This force is omnipresent in creations animate and inanimate, hence the misnomer ‘animism’.

She also looks at ‘ancestor worship’ in Africa. This is predicated on the notion that ancestors exist in another world and can be invoked to intervene in this world.

There is deep connection between these separate, but shared worlds. Accordingly, there is no hell awaiting sinners, nor a paradise awaiting believers. What matters most is how we treat each other in this world, at present. This will secure us a happy existence in the here-and-now, alongside the hereafter.  The author notes how many Muslims in Egypt, particularly in the south, hold the Virgin Mary up as paragon of virtue.