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African Anarchism

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I have a strong affinity for Africa and an equally strong connection to anarchism. Thus, a book on African anarchism held a natural draw for me. When I first saw this book on the list of possibilities for review I was eager to take the assignment. Why then did it take me over a year to write this review? In the process of answering this question I will explore this book and the many connections between Africa and anarchism.

Many years ago (30 to be exact) I first stepped foot in North Africa (Morocco and Algeria) and felt that I had stepped into another world entirely. North Africa was like no other place I had ever encountered. It was inexplicable to me and when I left I vowed to never return. It was not comfortable for a Jew and a woman traveling alone.

I did not feel that way about sub-Sahara Africa and when I went there ten years ago I had the odd feeling of coming home. Expecting to have that response in the Middle East, especially in Jerusalem, it was dismaying that it never occurred. In fact, I wondered what all the hoopla was all about. But I did feel it in Zimbabwe, Zambia, South Africa, Kenya and Tanzania. What was it, that something that made me feel like I belonged there? There was the realization that this is where it all began and that I could find people, cultures, communities here with whom I could relate. I felt it in the city streets, in the rural villages, in the homes where ancestor worship was common, in the market places and when talking with the many friends that I made in my travels. It was a feeling that I had experienced when I first read about anarchism; when I first encountered Emma Goldman's work and began to study the ideology seriously. Funny how the level of comfort and understanding were similar. In my heart of hearts I knew that they had something in common, although still unexplained to me. Why should I resonate so deeply with a place and with an ideology?

Now I understand why and Mbah and Igariwey helped me explain it to me. The beginnings of anarchism actually exist in the precolonial and traditional beliefs of many African societies. According to the authors there are "anarchistic elements" that exist to a greater or lesser extent in all of Africa, in the "anarchic" features of traditional societies. What is new to Africa is the idea of anarchism as an ideology or a social movement.

Many scholars are now arguing that the beginnings of humankind have been found, as we know, in the Sahel region of Africa. The first known societies began there and then, according to some, moved northward, up through Egypt and into the rest of the world (see Marin Bernal's The Black Athena). Although more traditional classists debate these views, as we know with western intellectual cultural imperialism, it is altogether possible that the racism of early scholars led to the distored view that there was no "culture" before that of Rome. Now Bernal argues that the Romans borrowed from the Egyptians, who in fact got much from sub-Sahara Africa. It all makes sense to me.

Traditional African societies are based on principles of communalism, both in production and as a way of life. As hunters and gatherers, and later as farmers, Africans worked together. As tribes and communities precolonial Africans did not interfere with each other. They managed their own affairs and expected each individual to take part in the community affairs of the group. African communalism had an absence of classes, lacked exploitative social relations and had strong family and kinship ties. Each household was expected to meet its own basic needs.

Because traditional Africa was subsistence based and utilized an exchange economy, individual groups coexisted to a mutual advantage. The political system, based on this, was horizontal in structure and decisions were made by common consensus or a mutually felt need. Since leadership was based on family and kinship connections, elders played an important part in the running of the community. Elders were particularly important, but not superior. There was a real sense of equality among all members of the community.

However, I should note that females were (and are still) not as valued as are males. Nonetheless the women play crucial roles in the economic and social conditions of all African societies. Age grades are actually often the basis for interaction. Cohorts of age mates would come together to perform mutual functions and activities (again a horizontal structure).

Religion and family are probably the two most important institutions in African society. Both are the bases of cohesion and serve the function of holding the groups together. There is a "dialectic between religious ideas and principles of social organization and social form." In other words, the gods are real and inform the way that social life is conducted. I saw a wonderful film years ago about a Shona man from Zimbabwe who had his ancestor spirit grandmother with him at all times, looking over his shoulder, talking with him, telling him how to act and live in culturally approved ways. The film was about his arguments with this spiritist vision, his desire to escape and yet his love and connection with her. Family, spirits and religion are one, integrally entwined.

This book explains well the anarchist roots in Africa and further illustrates the specifics of stateless societies in Africa like the Igbo in Nigeria. The authors also trace the effects of colonialism and the incorporation of Africa into the world capitalist economy, thus leading to the conquest and enslavement of Africans which destroyed the traditional pre-colonial social and economic forms. It also traces the rise of socialism in Africa and describes some of the socialist ideologies like those of Julius Nyerere as well as movements in Nigeria, South Africa and Ghana. These parts of the book were gripping and to the point. The writers were clear and concise in their presentation.

Why then did it take me a year to write this? It's because as much as I love Africa I did not love this book. The book, although interesting, is too cut and dried. It does not breathe the life that I know to be vibrant there. Rather than convey the essence of African anarchism they utilized a typical European approach to writing, leaving behind who and what the authors are: Africans. One of the last chapters, possibly interesting, about the possibility of anarchism developing as a movement and ideology in Africa, once again points to the factors that have worked against anarchism in Africa: colonial education, the legal system, the military class and the status quo. I appreciate those historical and economic deterrents but it seems to doom an entire continent. I was also dismayed that there was no discussion of the role that Africans played in the enslavement of other Africans during the slave trade. How does that fit? Yes it is capitalism, but there was slavery there before the Europeans arrived.

To their credit Mbah and Igariwey use a world systems approach to explain Africa's marginalized and exploited position in the transnational economy. By explaining the situation, seeing how peripheral Africa is from the centers of power, the authors make a good case for the obvious relevance for anarchism on that continent. They show that because Africa lacks a strong capitalist foundation, a well developed class formation and an entrenched state system, anarchism provides the most relevant and serious alternative to Africa. They end with the optimistic phrase that "Anarchism is Africa's way out." Nice thought, hard to believe.

Nonetheless this is a good book to have on your shelf. It is first of its kind: succinct and comprehensive. I wait for a more detailed and deeper presentation. But I am glad they wrote it and I am glad that those of us who care about African and anarchism now have some information on its connections.