What if my 27 intro-level college students wrote articles for Amjambo Africa?

When I first pitched the idea of my students writing for Amjambo Africa, I didn’t know what reaction to expect from the University of Southern Maine History Department, the Service Learning Coordinator, the Amjambo Africa editor, and the students themselves. I just knew that there were big stories about African history that deserved to be broadcast beyond the (Zoom) walls of my classroom, and I knew that I wanted to partner with local institutions to share those stories with the community. I wanted my medieval African history course to demonstrate that medieval African history isn’t just about the far away and long ago, but also applies to life in the here and now. So when the editor of Amjambo Africa told me that they were interested in articles about African history, it felt like a match, and the university and my students gave me the go-ahead.

Dr. Lacey Sparks is an Assistant Professor of Modern European History at USM. She specializes in the history of Britain and the Empire, with a focus on Africa.

I’ve had the privilege of working with this extraordinary group of students all semester, and I can’t wait for you to read what they’ve written. Since Day One, they proved themselves to be passionate, creative, hardworking, adaptable, and good humored. My 27 students worked in four teams, over Google Docs, Zoom, email, text, and Discord, all semester on these articles. I gave them autonomy and choice. In their groups, they came up with their own article topics and sources and divided up responsibilities amongst themselves, signing contracts agreeing on who would be responsible for the tasks of researching, writing, editing, fact-checking, and selecting images. In their groups, they submitted outlines, rough drafts, and eventually polished finished projects.
These articles speak to lesser-known chapters of African history, when powerful queens and kings of empires dominated international trade. My students are excited and proud to share with you the stories they’ve learned about medieval African history, in all its depth and richness.
As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie encourages in her TED Talk, The Danger of A Single Story, it’s vital to see people, their stories, and their histories in all their complexity; that’s what it means to be fully human and fully seen as such. — Dr. Lacey Sparks

Legacy of a female pharaoh

Cleopatra is usually the first name that comes to mind when people think of the female pharaohs of ancient Egypt. Yet 70 years before Cleopatra’s ascension to power, other women ruled as pharaohs in Egypt, challenging gender norms, including those preventing women from assuming leadership positions.
One of the first women pharaohs was Hatshepsut, who led Egypt from 1478 to 1458 BCE during the Eighteenth Dynasty and had the longest reign of any female pharaoh. As the daughter of Thutmose I, she was fourth in line to become pharaoh. Two of her brothers died before her father’s death, so when her father died, she married her half-brother Thutmose II. Prior to Hatshepsut, few women held power, so she did not expect to rule. But because the royal bloodline went through the woman’s side instead of the man’s, the marriage served to solidify Thutmose II’s right to rule. Eight years after he married Hatshepsut, Thutmose II died, leaving Thutmose III, his son by a second wife.

Hatshepsut ruled until Thutmose III came of age, and then she co-ruled alongside him, eventually ruling Egypt on her own again. She died in 1458 BCE and was buried in the Valley of the Kings, a burial center for rulers, on the Nile River near Thebes. The cause of her death is unknown. After her death, Thutmose III defaced her monuments and erased almost every record of her rule.
In ancient Egypt, women could own property, buy and sell goods, go to court, and divorce and remarry. But one thing they could not do was serve as pharaoh, a political and militaristic position. And although Hatshepsut was great at negotiations, she was not a warrior and couldn’t lead battles, unlike the previous two rulers of Egypt, who were warrior kings.
Both her father and husband had expanded Egypt’s power and wealth in the New Kingdom era by conquering nearby Nubia and gaining access to resources such as gold and lumber. This gave Hatshepsut control of one of the most powerful civilizations in the ancient world. Suzanne Ratié, a scholar of ancient Egypt, believes that Hatshepsut dressed up as a man to fit her role as pharaoh. She was already a known member of the royal family, so her male attire was more of an act and not an attempt to fool the public. Since Hatshepsut was not a warrior, she used less aggressive means to grow the state’s power, and brought stability to Egypt through trade and agriculture. She created trade networks from the Red Sea in the east to the southern Land of Punt near modern-day Somalia.

Punt was well known for its abundance of valuable incense and perfume, which Egyptians used for personal adornment and for worshipping the gods. Hatshepsut also constructed temples and chapels to the Egyptian gods, including an addition to one of ancient Egypt’s most famous mortuary temple complexes, Deir el-Bahri. The columns of Hatshepsut’s Deir el-Bahri temple were dedicated to Hathor, the goddess of love, fertility, beauty, and dance.
Despite her work in the construction of temples and the expansion of trade, she was not popular with all her subjects. This may have been because she created statutes that gave women many of the rights men had. She also did not lead her army. Scholars suggest she cared about the common people and what they had to say about her rule. She used the hieroglyph “rekhyt” more than previous pharaohs when speaking to the question of legitimacy. Rehkyt is a bird common to the Nile area and is used mostly to reference the common people. Due to her political actions, some outer provinces in Egypt began to split off from the center.
After Hatshepsut’s death, Thutmose III nearly erased memory of her rule. Many scholars now believe he did this to prove to rival family members that his claim to the throne was legitimate, and not in retaliation of some sort against Hatshepsut. In any case, despite the attempt to erase the record of her rule, Hatshepsut’s legacy as a powerful female ruler has lived on to this day. iners keep a connection with their roots.

Abbi Allen | Asher Close | Brandon Dineen Hannah Lovejoy | Madelyn McLeish
Muna Mohamed | Cara Worthing

The roles of women in medieval Africa

T he life experiences of women in medieval Africa (500 to 1500 CE) varied depending on what region and religion they were born into. Ibn Battuta, a famous 14th-century Moroccan traveler known for his extensive experience in West and East Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, wrote that women in Iwalatan, Mali, between 1325-1354 CE were treated differently than he had seen in other countries, for example. Women were free to have friends of another gender and did not clothe themselves in a veil or hijab, he wrote in Travels in Asia and Africa. This shocked Ibn Battuta, who was Muslim. Elsewhere, in his native Morocco for example, women were veiled, and their exposure to men was limited.

Modern western and Islamic surnames are rooted in the male or father’s legacy, known as patriliny, and in medieval Africa, many tribes were patrilineal – but not all. Matrilineal societies gave power to women in a number of cultures in medieval Africa, including the Iwalatan people, the Mbundu people, and the Fulani/Jelgobe people. It was the women who provided their children with opportunities and raised them to be powerful political leaders, carried power and influence through their bloodlines – and also did most of the farm work. Women were the backbones of their villages, and nothing prospered without them. The Mbundu people lived in Angola as early as the mid-1500s, and the tribe was matrilineal, primarily focused on motherhood and maintaining the female legacy.

For the Mbundu people, matrilineal lineage was both practical and respectful, with women seen as the creators of the home. There is evidence that this group assigned certain members, or “sons,” to a particular woman, or “mother,” for political advantage. Women did not need to have birthed these men in order for them to become a descendant of that “mother.”
bundu villages typically centered around a core group of male elders from one ngundu, or matrilineal descent. Although men had the political power, women determined the name of the descendants, which carried a power of its own. In Mbundu culture, a lineage symbol known as lunga was an object commonly made of wood in the shape of a human. This object was a representation of lineage and was said to bring about good weather and harvests. Those who were in possession of the lunga held authoritative roles over other members of the tribe. The lunga was particularly connected to the women of the Mbundu because they “perceive(d) their descent groups as feminine in contradistinction to most extra-lineage institutions which they see as ‘masculine.’

” The tie of women to the ancestors showed the importance of their names and the matrilineal lineage to the group.

The Fulani people, who are still around today, are an example of matriarchy influencing gender roles, and how matriliny acts to calibrate power between men and women. The Jelgobe are a Fulani people who reside between Mali and Upper Volta.

Similar to the Mbundu, the Jelgobe view women as the creators who typically focus on making textiles and raising children. Women build the huts, own the wuros (places where women work and care for children), and process the food. Jelgobe men spend their time working in trade and gathering raw materials for women to turn into textiles.
In equatorial Africa, around the 10th century CE, societies were organized according to district, village, and house structures, with each village having around 100 inhabitants, and houses containing anywhere from 10 to 40 inhabitants. These societies were matrilineal, although the men of the villages did hold political power. The tribes of ancestral equatorial Africa considered marriage to be of great importance not only for producing children, but to attract youthful, strong men who would add value to the clans. Although women were not always treated equally, their contribution to the success of the villages and homes cannot be overstated, and women were acknowledged to be crucial to the survival of the tribes, given their central roles in raising children as well as in farming.
Respect for women decreased as these African societies were exposed to European influence, eventually leading to a switch in lineage power in many regions and the imposition of patrilineal beliefs. However, the medieval African period remains an example of when women in certain societies commanded great respect for the roles they played in their communities.

Muna Abdi | Makayla Burke | Susannah Curtis
Joseph Inabanza | Isis Johnson Shabazz | Colleen McAlister | Nicole Merosola

Historical African crops: the Maine perspective

In June 2021, Amjambo Africa ran a story about the Little Jubba Agrarian Commons in Wales, Maine. On this farm, local members of Maine’s Somali Bantu community have applied agricultural experiences from Somalia to the land of their new home. The story of Little Jubba is just a small representation of the way crops and farming techniques have survived relatively unchanged for centuries, making it all the way from ancient Africa to the U.S. in an unlikely and fascinating journey.
Africa is a big continent. The distance from Cairo to Cape Town is just over 10,000 km (about 6,200 miles), more than double the width of the United States. This vastness allows for Africa to play host to a number of different growing regions, each with different strengths and weaknesses. When we compare the parched land of the Sahara to the West African rainforest, where farmers’ concern is too much precipitation, rather than not enough, it proves that there is no “typical” African environment. These conditions also allow for the abundance of crops that had their origins in Africa. This cornucopia of food products follows an incredibly rich agricultural history: Africa’s environments have gone through massive changes over the millennia. Unsurprisingly then, Africa is home to all kinds of crops, from coffee to yams.

Africa’s patchwork of environments boasts a wide range of soil types, from very fertile to rocky and arid. In the west and central regions, the soil has presented more challenge than opportunity. The geological inactivity of the continent means the soil has been weathered and stripped of nutrients. The geological inactivity of the continent means the soil has been weathered and stripped of nutrients.

The hot sun to which Africa is exposed all year round breaks down organic plant material quickly, meaning that African farmers have had to develop ways of maximizing productivity despite these challenges. These regions, with their rocky and dry soil, have similar issues to those found in the soil across southern Maine. In both regions, the presence of bedrock (particularly ledge) makes growing crops year after year difficult without a certain amount of environmental manipulation and care. The traditional, labor-intensive method was to clear the brush and trees, and then burn them. The soil left behind in this process is more fertile, with the ash functioning as a nitrogen producer as well as killing any weeds that were still in the area.

Thanks to the similar soil composition on our side of the Atlantic, the skills honed by working rocky African soils are in many cases applicable to farms in Maine. African farmers figured out how best to tame the land they were dealt, using innovations that became more advanced as new resources were discovered and put to use. Centuries ago, the rocky soil was traditionally worked with a hoe as opposed to a plow. Comparable to the hoe in design, the kayendo is a shovel-like tool that was used in West African rice paddies. Historically, this tool was used by men, while women planted, fertilized, and harvested the rice.

The style of farming supported by these types of tools involved a great many people working on the farm. The all-inclusive labor dynamic of traditional African farms is a contrast to contemporary American farming. Rather than leaving fieldwork to men until the harvest, where everyone was expected to work (the traditional model in the United States), women in West Africa were just as active as their male counterparts when it came to tending the farms. Usable land was scarce, and communities needed as many hands as possible to get the maximum yield. A glance at the farms cropping up around Maine (for which African women act as board members and farmers) shows that this tradition, born out of necessity, still survives.

Many grains thrive in Africa. Rice, millet, and sorghum are a few that have been staples in people’s diets on the continent for centuries. These three have their origins in the West African Sahel, the region between the Sahara desert and the savannas of Southern Africa, and are the result of the domestication of wild grasses into grains.

Many grains thrive in Africa. Rice, millet, and sorghum are a few that have been staples in people’s diets on the continent for centuries. These three have their origins in the West African Sahel, the region between the Sahara desert and the savannas of Southern Africa, and are the result of the domestication of wild grasses into grains. Some types of African rice thrive in parts of the U.S., notably the West African rice called Carolina Gold (oryza glaberrima), which has a lower labor cost than the more common Asian rice (oryza sativa). Rice was one of the primary crops grown by enslaved Africans in the United States, long before the Somali Bantu community’s immigration to Maine, and many historians believe that techniques brought from Africa shaped the U.S. southern rice trade.

The crops grown on farms like Little Jubba give community members the ability to make recipes they brought from Africa more authentically than was possible before, including family recipes with traditional ingredients. The Somali Bantu Community Association suggests using the cornmeal grown at farms like Little Jubba to make traditional African muufo, or flatbread, for example. Longtime Mainers and New Mainers can form friendships through the sharing of recipes and crops.
The emergence of African farms in Maine is a defining event for the state, in that it melds the conditions here with the crops and techniques learned over thousands of years of farming in Africa. Agricultural techniques are just one more way that Maine’s burgeoning African community has helped to enrich the greater community, while helping New Mainers keep a connection with their roots.

Alice Bonnevie-Rothrock | Austin Hollifield
Eric Manley | Matt Murphy | Elliot Needham | Rabeaa Uddin

Lasting impact of ancient trade routes

One thousand years ago, an interconnected system of trade routes crossed the largest desert in the world, the Sahara. These routes connected trading ports in northern Africa and the Persian Gulf with West Africa. Most of these routes were used to transport gold, iron, and enslaved peoples. The item most desired along the trade route was salt because no large salt deposits existed in western Africa. Some of the earliest records of these routes can be found dating back to Arabic sources from the ninth century CE.
Several large states in the region, including Ghana, Mali, and Songhai, used the trade routes to expand their wealth and political influence in the region. According to Erik T. Gilbert and Jonathan T. Reynolds in Africa in World History, Mansa Musa, ruler of the Mali Empire, set out on a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324. His massive wealth, built from the Mali Empire’s taxation of the flow of goods from the trans-Saharan trade, allowed him to bring 100 camel loads of gold with him. When he stopped in Alexandria, he spent so much gold that he caused inflation. Ghana was also able to prosper because of the trade routes, serving as a sort of “middleman” between other city-states.

The area covered by the trade routes was often broken up into two sections, the dynamic trade ports of the Mediterranean area, and the barren Saharan region. The routes that crossed the desert were bordered by Mediterranean coastal towns to the north, the fertile Nile River Valley and Red Sea coast to the east, and the vast savannahs of Sudan to the south. Each of these areas was highly populated and produced goods that they traded with the others. Food grown by local communities in the Niger River delta could easily be traded for goods such as salt and copper, for example, and sent north across the desert.
The caravans that crossed through the desert to move and sell their wares traveled mainly by horse and camel, since wheeled vehicles were not suitable for the varied terrain. Over time, oxen and donkeys became domesticated, and were used for the transportation of goods along the routes as well.
According to the Encyclopedia of World Trade: From Ancient Times to the Present, “Both the volume and value of long distance trade within the African continent stayed above that of Euro-American exchanges until the colonial period” in the late 1800s. These routes were extremely lucrative, not only for those residing in the north and south, but also for the middlemen who prospered along the route. The Tuwat Oasis, located in the Algerian Sahara, was situated along the routes, and to this day is still one of the largest complexes in the central Sahara.

Gold was one of the most important commodities traded along the trans-Saharan routes. The Akan gold mines in West Africa became highly active during the mid-to-late 15th century, which led to the establishment of routes that went across West Africa and connected the region of the trans-Saharan routes.

The trans-Saharan slave trade was different both in nature and scale from the trans-Atlantic trade. While the trans-Atlantic trade enslaved roughly 12 million people over the course of four centuries, the trans-Saharan slave trade captured 10 million people over 11 centuries. The enslaved people brought across the Sahara were sold to wealthy Mediterranean and Arabian merchants in the north, to act as servants or concubines for elite families. The trans-Atlantic route forcibly took people to the Americas, where they were sold and used for grueling labor.
Several unintended byproducts of the trans-Saharan trade route were the spread of literacy and the spread of Islam. According to Ghislaine Lydon’s On Trans-Saharan Trails: Islamic Law, Trade Networks and Cross-Cultural Exchange in Nineteenth-Century Western Africa, “the majority of trans-Saharan merchants were literate, paper was widely available, and contracts, transactions, and correspondence were commonly written down.” Gilbert and Jonathan wrote that books became “one of the most valuable products to trade.” Many buildings in East Africa from the time include built-in shelves for displaying books. Many of the merchants who traveled the routes were Muslim, and as the Islamic state grew, the demand for goods grew, too, causing a steady rise in production and distribution. Political systems in states like Ghana and Mali flourished after converting to Islam by establishing links between other city-states that also followed Islam.
Overall, the trans-Saharan trade routes lead to the spread of knowledge, ideas, people, and goods, and many of the regions that flourished along its routes continue to do so today.

Jeremy Bessette | Liam Childs | John Emery | Rachael Martelle | Conan Mills | Emily Newton