Precolonial African Societies | History Form Five

Nyumba za nyasi
Before discussing on precolonial African societies, its important we understand the following terms:


Is the activity or effort directed at producing material substance.

Productive forces

This is the combination of: human labour, means of labour and objects of labour.

Human labour

This is power applied by man in the process of production. It include: muscular power, experience, innovations, inventions, discoveries.

Means of labor

This refers to the devices used by people to help them produce. Means of labor include tools like: hoes, axes, hammer, matches, infrastructures.

Objects of labor

This refer to things upon which man acts using the means of labor for production. Example, land, forest and water.

Relation of production

Its how the members of a given social formation relate to each other in relation to ownership of the major means of production and resources. There are two types of relation of production: non exploitative and exploitative relation.

Mode of production

Is the way a society is organized to produce goods and services. Man has passed through five modes of production which are: Communalism, Slavery, Feudalism, Capitalism, Socialism.

Mode of Production Which Developed in Africa

Before the introduction of colonialism, there were two modes of production, which existed in Africa. These modes of production are communalism and feudalism.

Characteristics of communalism

Communalism was the first mode of production through which all societies passed. The following are the characteristics of communalism:
1. Low level of development of productive forces
The only tools available were made of crude stones.
2. Subsistence economy
There were no surplus production as the tool used were poor.
3. No exploitation of man by man
All people worked and owned all major means of production together.
4. People lived in small kinship groups which were blood related
Each kinship was separated from the other by large tract of land. Each group had its own territory.
5. It practiced democracy
All decision had to be arrived at by all adult members of the group.
6. Hunting and gathering were the means of getting food for survival

Characteristics of feudalism

African feudalism it was the second mode of production in Africa which based on private piece of land for renting. Land was the major means of production. The following are the characteristics of African feudalism.
1. Land was the major means of production
For example: pastoral societies like Hutu and Tutsi used.
2. Agricultural activities dominated other economic activities
3. Improved instrument of labor
This was the result of the use of iron hoes, axes, etc.
4. Existence of classes
The society was divided into two classes that is of the landlords and serfs.
5. Private ownership
Land and cattle were privately owned by the lords.
6. Existence of exploitation
Exploitation was conducted through rent system where by serfs were supposed to pay rent in kind and rent in labor.

Why precolonial African societies did not develop the slave mode of production?

Africa did not go through the slavery mode of production as it did in Europe. There are reasons that prove this, amongst those reasons are:
A mode of production is expected to dominate the lives of people of a particular society over a time-span (say a century). This was the case with communalism, slavery, feudalism and capitalism in Europe.
In Africa, slavery did not exist as an independent and predominant system of life that prevailed before feudalism. Wherever it existed in Africa it did as subordinate to the predominant feudal system. It was practiced in some feudal societies to serve the interest of feudal mode. The slave owners were the rich merchant, army, kings and the loyal family members.

Examples of some slave owning feudal societies

- Egypt
Jews were used as slaves while being in Egypt. They were used to build: cities, Pharao’s tombs, mining and many other works.
- Zanzibar and Kilwa
Slaves were used to work in coconut plantation. Arab took slave from the interior of East Africa.
- Buganda, Rwanda and Burundi
Slaves were used to save the Kings and other rich merchants. In Buganda slaves were called badu.

Political organizations in precolonial Africa

Most African societies had well established settled communities with defined social political settings before colonialism. Political organizations emerged were:
Clan (Kinship), Age-set and state organization. Political organization can be classified into two groups, state political organization and stateless.

Factors for state formation in Africa

State is an organized political community in a defined territory controlled by one government. Factors which favored state formation were:
1. Favorable geographical advantages
This was a combination of good climate and fertile soil. Such climate favored permanent food crop production that developed permanently settled communities and population expansion. For example: Buganda, Bunyoro and Karagwe in the Interlacusrtrine region and Oyo, Dahomey and Benin in the Equatorial Region of West Africa.
2. Good leadership
Societies endowed with good leaders like Mansa Musa of Mali, Kabaka Katerega of Buganda and Mkwawa of the Hehe, rose to greatness. Such leaders put in place strong administration and armies, united their people and organized production and trade.
3. The role of trade
Communities which participated in trade benefited. They accumulated wealth through profit and tax. Remarkably, the Trans-Saharan trade with the development of states like Mali and Songhai and the East African long distance trade with states like Buganda and Nyamwezi.
4. Strong armies
The strong army was used for defense and conquest. For example, Samori Toure of the Mandika, Mansa Musa of Mali, Milambo of Nyamwezi and Mkwawa of the Hehe were having strong armies.

The role of Islam in the formation of states during the 19th century

In the 18th century and 19th century, Muslims invaded west Africa in order to spread Islam. Their invasion helped the emergence of various states as explained below:
1. Unification of the people
People became unified by Islam under a Muslim King. The religion unified people who now considered themselves one and their tribal state come to an end.
2. New administration by educated officials
Educated officers like tax collector, ended traditionalism in the demonstration.
3. Presence of strong leaders
Leaders like Usman Dan Fodio, Seku Ahmadu, Al-Hajji Umar and Samori Toure. The states were now under strong leaders whose administration ensured formation and growth of these states.
4. Economic prosperity in the states
Agricultural, industrial and commercial sectors developed. The result was more food available for the population development of industries in the Islamic state and the growth of trade.
5. Islam stimulated education
Muslim clerics and ruling classes of men like Uthman dan Fodio and Al-Hadj Umar were themselves scholars. They trained people on different field like: teachers, administrators and judges. They opened learning institutions and libraries at various areas like Sokoto and Segu and circulated written materials throughout Western Sudan.
6. Islam promoted trade
The Muslim Fulani and Bambara and the rulling classes controlled trade and production of major trading items like Kola-nuts, palm oil and iron tools.

Influence of Mfecane in the formation of states during the 19th century

Mfecane was the social-political havoc which resulted from the attempt to amalgamate small and fragmented political units into big and powerful kingdom under one leader. This process produced a violent upheaval known as Mfecane with unlimited warfare which spread not only over a great part of Southern Africa, but vast areas of central and East Africa as well.
The following are contribution of Mfecane war to the rise of state:
1. It unified weaker societies
Societies unified so as to be able to face the Ngoni who had moved from south Africa. For example, the Hehe under Munyigumba got unified and copied Ngoni’s weapons so as to be able to face the Ngoni after being attacked for the first time.
2. Some societies copied Ngoni fighting technique
They copied techniques like, bull horn method of engulfing their enemies. This enabled the other societies in Central and Eastern Africa that copied it to grow and defeat their enemies. For example the Milambo Rugaruga soldiers had copied Nguni techniques.
3. Emergence of new states of those Nguni people
Nguni people who escaped Shaka Zulu’s attacks formed new states. For example: the Ndebele Kingdom formed in the present Zimbabwe was a group of Shaka’s escapees led by one of Shaka’s Induna called Mzilikazi.
4. They led to addition of soldiers to some already existed kingdoms
Those who run away from Shaka’s wrath but having no strong leaders found themselves submitting in the host states. They introduced new skills there too.
5. Development of economic activities
The migrating Ngoni carried new productive and warlike skills to central and East Africa that aided societies like Yao, Hehe and Nyamwezi improve security, agriculture and trade. Such skills enabled them control the central and southern route of the Long distance trade availed societies with firearms and wealth that was used to consolidate states.
6. Formation of a powerful Zulu state by Shaka
Using his large strong standing army, Shaka unified all the Mfecane weakened societies in Natal to form a strong militaristic Zulu state.

Pre-Colonial Education and Culture

Pre-colonial education refers to the type of education transmitted to the Africans by the Africans themselves before the coming of the colonialists. For example: adults could teach the youths how to thatch a hut, hunt animals, or cultivate.
Pre-colonial African culture refer to the total ways of life by the Africans before the coming of the colonialists.

Types of pre-colonial education

1. Informal education
Informal education refer to unstructured type of education. In this education there is no guiding syllabus in the learning process.
2. Formal education
In this type of education there is a specific teacher, learner, syllabus and specific classes.
Literacy was connected with religion so that in Islamic countries it was Koranic education and in the Christian Ethiopia it was Christian education. A number of universities existed in Africa like: Al-Azhar university in Egypt, the university of Fez and the Timbuktu university of Mali.

Objectives of pre-colonial education

1. To install the custom, traditions and history of a particular society.
2. To promote peace and respect for the members of society.
3. To prepare the youths as the future well mannered leaders and knowledgeable citizens.
4. To teach the children the language of that society for proper communication to people of different age.
5. To enhance economic development in agricultural, industrial and commercial sectors (production).
6. To enhance the members of the society recognize their respective positions, roles and responsibilities.

Strength of precolonial education

1. Education was practical.
2. Education was non commercial.
3. Absense of discrimination. All members were given education regardless of their sex.
4. It was relevant education.
5. It encouraged hardworking.
6. It preserved culture.

Weakness of precolonial education

1. It was parochial. Education was limited to only few topics. People lacked knowledge beyond their environmental circumstances.
2. It was not uniform. For example, knowledge and skills passed in farming communities differed form that given in pastoral communities.
3. It largely based on memory. The absence of writing made people depend on the power of individuals memory for retention. Memory could fail and in the event of death, some useful information or skill, all was lost.
4. Lacked qualified teachers. Every elder in the community was considered a teacher. Others were not able to teach because of their understanding and experience.