When studying African history, it is important to realize that the information produced by the analysis is dependent on the lens the scholar is viewing Africa through. When studying African societies through structural functionalists such as Evans Pritchard, we tend to see African societies as unchanged ethnic groups whose lives are controlled by the dominating social/ political institutions. Yet those theorists that succeed Pritchard, tend to show the power our bias has on the narrative of the societies within the continent.
Through a comparative analysis f gender relations and human exchange by Pritchard and later theorists, I will more clearly illustrate this idea. examination of gender relations, one can observe that women played a vital role in their communities. In Ester Boserup’s piece “The Economics of Polygamy”, she delves into how the institution of polygamy is not a practice without significant purpose. She explains that in rural communities, the divide on whether polygamy is practiced relies if women’s work aids economic development.
Polygamy is one of the more traditional ways people acquire laborers and women gain status in society Boserup 390). Where shifting cultivation dominates, women have higher status and seen as an asset to the men’s lives, this is supported by the usage of bride wealth in marriage. However, in areas that rely less on women (plough cultivation), women are seen as more of a financial burden and dowry is paid instead (Boserup 395-396). Boserup’s piece displays how marriage and In an economics intertwines. We can also understand more about why polygamy is practiced within Africa.
In my opinion, it also helps us move away from viewing Africa as backwards, patriarchal dominated society. As it reshapes women in our view to have more status and value within their marriages. Another theorist who explores gender relations is Judith Van Allen. In her excerpt ‘Sitting on a Man”, she more explicitly shows change in gender relations by explaining the political participation of Igbo women before the British and how this ends after their intrusion. In her piece, women gain political influence through collective action.
This action comes in the form of mikiri, female only meetings and the practice of “sitting on a man”- strikes. These mikiri mimic the male dominated illage meetings and allow the women to have an equal platform for expressing grievances. Through humiliation, destruction of property, refusal to cook and even threats of these actions, “women could take direct action to enforce their decision” (Van Allen 401-402). This created a stable balance between the power or man and women within the Igbo community.
However, we see a change in their society when the British introduce native administration and Victorian ideals. Van Allen states “It was a violation of Igbo concepts to have one man represent the village… nd more a violation that he should give orders to everyone else”(403). With the outlaw of the village assemblies the “self-help” practices of women to cease to exist and ends their “illegitimate use of force”(406). Victorianism adds to this transformation by forcing on women the ideal that politics is for men(407).
Van Allen’s investigation emphasizes processes of change by evaluating how institutions that were thought to be modernizing to Africa were quite the opposite. Her piece shows that politics and power have many different forms and when we place our own interpretation of what that ooks like onto another group, it can actually leave people worse However, if we look at gender relations through the eyes of Pritchard, we do not get such in-depth analysis of women in these areas of politics and the economy.
Pritchard mentions that women aid the economy by helping with cattle, creating tools and weaving baskets (90). But, there is no explanation of how much of a role they play or if their contribution is as significant as the males. It can only be assumed that women play an important role as he later on off. states “relations between sexes are equitable and give females or privilege than any other tribe” and “occasionally [women] gain reputation as prophets and magicians” (Pritchard 178). How do women gain an equal status in society if they do not have political power?
Gender relations in Pritchard’s eyes “belong rather to account on domestic relations” (178). He does not overly emphasize the divide between men and women or husband and wives. This is as a result of women and men being a part of the Nuer narrative in terms of kin and lineages. This holistic approach to looking at a society leaves us without ways to provide suggestions about how men and women elationships change or have changed over time. In Evans Pritchard’s analysis of the Nuer people, his studies focus on structural functionalism limits the way we understand gender relations.
But, focusing on kinship and lineage does give us a cultural framework of the Nuer people. African history is by understanding the way they have interacted with other groups of people. Through King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam’s Hochschild and “Houses in the Rain Forest” by Richard Grinker, we can see how European ideals really imprinted upon African societies. In King Leopold’s Ghost we see that European lite perpetuate this image of a primitive and backwards Africa to help further exploit its riches.
King Leopold’s creation of the “philanthropic” International African Association is created under the guise of “abolishing the slave trade, establishing peace among chiefs” and other needed developments (Hochschild 45). With Grinker’s piece we see this idea come to life as the Lese people of Central Africa seem to take on the role of the colonizer towards their neighboring people the Efe. This summary of the piece bolstered by words from the Lese themselves “We gained our independence from the Belgians in 960, but the Efe have not gained their independence from us. (Grinker 197)
The Lese believe themselves to be starkly Another way to view different from the Efe. With these two theorists we can observe how Africa’s image of savagery and darkness has come from European ideals of the time, but the impacts last centuries. These descriptions show how colonization affected Africa apart from slavery and exploitation of its resources. Pritchard does not really touch upon the effects of foreign forces, but instead to includes how they handle other sects of their own tribe.
Also his emphasis on their exchange tends to be focused on the impacts the tribes have on each other and relationship to each other. He states “territorial distribution and tribal… foreign relations are standardized modes of behavior (Pritchard 149). The tribal value is, therefore, relative and at any time is attached to… an expanding serious of cultural relations”. It is key to remember Pritchard’s focus is limited to how the Nuer “maintain order within their society” (Lubkemann). Hochschild and Grinker analyze the impact of events, and Pritchard focuses on the ocietal processes. arratives of its ethnic groups, institutions and traditions.
Pritchard’s analysis of the Nuer is an impressive in-depth study of the people and their social/political institutions during the late 1920’s, that allows us to better understand their way of life. Other theorist’s emphasis on change allows us to both understand African history and reevaluate our previously held misconceptions about the continent. These theorists together in different ways work to better the overall understanding of African history is often found in many Africa.