It is often said that African children face a short, difficult, and brutish existence. Press coverage often stereotypes the sub-Saharan region as a repository of collapse and death. In news reports of civil conflict, plague, and starvation African children are portrayed simply as victims: forever abandoned, turned to fodder by warlords, or buried in endemic calamity. It is tempting to use these pervasive media descriptions to link past and present childhoods in Africa, as if nothing has changed over time. Yet the spotty records that exist from previous centuries do not support this narrow approach. Thus a comprehensive history of African childhood requires a broader analytical view and deeper appreciation of how the most biased sources illuminate the lives of children through the ages.

Rare Historical Perspectives of Childhood in Africa

Beginning in the fourteenth century, "outsider" accounts of sub-Saharan families started to reach wider audiences, offering snapshots that contradicted the images of children's static nightmare existence. In such narratives boys and girls exercised agency, defying notions that they were helpless in the grim tide of history. Even scornful European observers portrayed African children as showing assertiveness or human potential. These eclectic writings, generated by travelers, merchants, missionaries, and colonists, are encumbered by ethnocentrism or, even worse, racist ridicule. Yet on a continent steeped in oral tradition, they also provide rare details of how some adults in Africa perceived childhood, and of how African children influenced governing institutions, sexual mores, environmental sustainability, and religious and political debates.

For example, the trip diary of one fourteenth-century Arab trader, Ibn Batutta, lauded boys in the courts of Mali and Kilwa. They cleverly learned the Qur'an, Ibn Batutta remarked, before assuming posts in Islamic administrations. But he criticized noble girls for sauntering naked in the presence of Muslim suitors. Between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, Europeans buying slaves from central and southern Africa noted in shipping logs that drought had periodically ruined crops, compelling children orphaned by famine to sell infant SIBLINGS for grain. Nineteenth-century white missionaries wrote letters home that criticized "hea-then" girls on the "Dark Continent" for entering into polygamous marriages and obstructing the spread of Christianity.

In the early 1900s white supremacists justified their subordination of the African "heathen" by asserting they merely ruled over the black "tribal" child. Their ideas, popularized by eugenicists such as Dudley Kidd in Savage Childhood, depicted Africans as happy primitives whose development peaked at puberty. Kidd's thesis underpinned a central premise of European rule in Africa, expressed by a British colonial report published in South Africa in 1907: "The treatment of Natives in general must be of an autocratic nature [as the] masses are scarcely out of their childhood.…Natives are, in a sense, but children, and should not only be protected from the inherent weaknesses of undeveloped humanity, but guided through the shoals [of] the transition stage" (Colony of Natal Report, 11, 12).

The Rise of Scholarship on African Childhood

From the 1920s through the 1960s, anthropologists (and a few missionaries) rejected the pseudoscientific racism permeating colonial administration and instead fostered critical scholarly interest in African childhood. Contrary to Kidd, they recognized Africans as fully realized adults who arrived at maturity in customary ways. For example, the anthropologists Henry Junod, Daryll Forde, and Hilda Kuper conducted fieldwork on RITES OF PASSAGE, marriage, and childrearing in sub-Saharan communities, while Monica Wilson (among others) distinguished between adult attitudes towards children and the children's own viewpoints. Their findings demonstrated variations between childhoods in precolonial periods (pre–nineteenth century) and the colonial era (nineteenth and early to mid-twentieth centuries). From the 1970s onwards, more and more historians adopted anthropological methods and gender analyses to gauge how colonialism and capitalism affected African families, particularly mothers and their offspring.

In the 1980s, research on African childhood gathered momentum with the publication of Maidens, Meals, and Money, Claude Meillassoux's anthropological investigations into sub-Saharan relationships between elders and youths. Like Philippe Ariès's Centuries of Childhood, a milestone in historical explorations of family and childhood in the West, Meillaissoux's book developed a bold paradigm that outlined distinct age transitions in "precapitalist" domestic settings from agricultural villages to preindustrial states fused by world religion and international trade. Unlike Ariès, Meillassoux downplayed certain questions, such as: When did adults reckon that children succumbed to "original sin"? or When did parents turn childhood into a stage of indulging innocent individuals?

In sub-Saharan regions, rulers and commoners alike, from the Iron Ages through the Middle Ages and into the twentieth century, understood the role of a child differently from their European counterparts (especially the elite monogamous parents Ariès studied). Rather than being cosseted treasures, African children were valued foremost for their obedient work in families and larger communities shaped by polygyny. Meillassoux claimed that children were on the lowest rung of African society. They were part of a larger group of "juniors" that included subordinates with higher status than children, such as unmarried men and women and young wives. This age-based hierarchy rested on ideals of plural marriage–a social system of reproduction sanctioned by "seniors," consisting of both male elders (patriarchs) and older mothers, who controlled the passage of "bridewealth" (cattle or other prestige goods) and brides between households.

Gerontocracy in African Society

A patriarch, or "Big Man," as the historian John Iliffe recently dubbed this figure, was the custodian of an assortment of wives, children, siblings, relations, and dependents. The "Big Man" household originated in equatorial forests and spread south of the Sahara at the start of the first millennium. E. Big Men and their families used Iron Age tools to clear land for agricultural and pastoral production, instituting polygyny to enlarge their labor force in villages, chiefdoms and, later, states. This pattern of social organization had taken root throughout the continent by 1000 C.E. in West Africa among Yoruba, Hausa, and Ibo communities; in central Africa among Kongo and Gisu peoples; in southern Africa among Pondo, Zulu, and Sotho chiefdoms; and among eastern Africa's Somali, Kikuyu, and Chewa families.

The archetypal Big Man's family depended on unequal reciprocity and the work of juniors, principally his brood of children. Over a period of many years (determined by elders), children carried out tasks according to gender division and senior privilege. A father had rights to the labor of his wives and offspring; older wives had rights to the labor of younger wives and their daughters; young women had rights to the labor of their adolescent sisters; and so forth down the domestic pecking order.

Children understood that this generational hierarchy put older adults into positions of esteem. High-placed members of a household earned reverence for leading rites of passage, sealing marriages, and allocating resources. Unmarried sons and daughters were socialized to offer filial piety in return for the means–usually bridewealth for males and garden land for females–to start their own domestic arrangements. Older children could garner assets (a critical first step before rising in stature) only after they met their responsibilities to elders and their web of kin. Personal accumulation fulfilled certain ambitions, but group belonging superseded individual aims.

As children gained in status, not all could become senior wives and patriarchs–a situation that ignited generational struggles. When thwarted aspirations, natural catastrophe, or colonial rule burdened youths with additional heavy obligations, relationships of respect between the old and young could change dramatically. Indeed, examples from sub-Saharan folklore and archival evidence tell of juveniles avenging their exploitation by elders. One Chewa legend portrays children massacring adults–the young rebels reacted to "toiling endlessly while their elders dined and dozed." A somewhat similar struggle occurred in the modern era. In colonial South Africa in 1906, shortly after a rinderpest epidemic decimated the region's cattle (which was used as bridewealth) and colonialists imposed a tax on single males, Zulu youths attacked their patriarchs for failing to forestall the ensuing hardship.

From Birth to Infancy

Perhaps the first lesson of life learned by the very young was that communal acceptance and nurturance could mean the difference between life and death. Virulent diseases stalked children. Malaria, gastroenteritis, and respiratory infections, to name only a few, kept INFANT MORTALITY high until the middle of the twentieth century, when the advent of modern medical treatments improved the health and life expectancy of newborns. The withholding of clan approval because of severe birth defects, or the arrival of twins, could also prompt infanticide, as these occurrences were considered a harbinger from ancestors that further troubles loomed. Moreover, the mother of a seriously disabled infant might be seen as suffering needlessly if she had to raise an enfeebled child, while a mother of twins might gravely weaken her capacity to survive if she simultaneously nursed two newborns.

Babies less than three years old were typically breast-fed and carried by their mother on the hip or back, with skin-to-skin contact and access to breast milk vital to building immunities. To guard against unforeseen handicaps and illnesses, infants underwent elaborate ceremonies directed by a paternal elder who could administer magical and herbal charms. These special rites strengthened the bonds between young children and their protective network, which included parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, siblings, cousins, spiritual founders long since passed, diviners, and unrelated guardians. Indeed, a baby's name could be chosen to honor her lifelong defenders from revered ancestors to a saint of the Roman Catholic Church (in the fifteenth-century Christian Kongo kingdom).

From Weaning to Puberty

Weaning could come with unforgiving suddenness. For example, some mothers in southern Africa daubed the sap of hot chilies on their nipples when toddlers reached their second or third year. Newly weaned children were expected to contribute almost immediately to domestic upkeep. They could be assigned to teach infant siblings proper conduct, which barred defiance, jealousy, dishonesty, and unjust violence, or they could impart morals through the recitation of proverbs, such as the Sotho expression: kgotso ke nala, (peace is prosperity).

As members of a specially recognized group, some youngsters also taught one another about gender and generational expectations. For example, in Ibo communities boys of the same age and village enrolled in an "age-set" to train to be married men. In twentieth-century Kenya, mission teachers divided Kikuyu children into single-sex school grades and taught them to model themselves on monogamous Christian husbands and wives. Throughout sub-Saharan Africa, boys carrying out collective male tasks took their little brothers along to learn how to build huts and fences, forge metals, carve wood, weave fishnets, hunt game, drill for battle, and tend livestock. Similarly, girls instructed their younger sisters in female duties, such as fetching wood and water, making fires, preparing food, thatching huts, making pots, and cultivating crops. In addition, some African states utilized children to fulfill national obligations. Regents in the nineteenth-century Zulu kingdom enlisted regiments of boys to lug provisions during military campaigns and recruited girls to weed the gardens of the royal family.

Children's responsibilities, of course, became more onerous under coercive labor systems. Girls were taken into millenniums-old domestic slavery to serve an African master far from their natal kin. Males were kidnapped and shipped to New World plantations from the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries, leaving their younger brothers to fill the void. And twentieth-century European rulers compelled adolescents to travel to find colonial employment (as house servants and commercial farm hands, for example) that brought in money for their family's tax requirements.

Yet such adversity gives an unduly bleak and one-sided picture of African childhoods. Though slavery disfigured many African communities, it scarcely touched others. In parts of central and southern Africa, boys and girls generally lived without fear of raiders, enjoying unfettered PLAY that affirmed family security. Their recreation with peers celebrated the nurturer-mother and warrior-father. Pondo girls, for example, transformed corncobs into DOLLS that they toted on their backs, while boys practiced defensive combat skills by tossing sticks at a branch set upright in the ground.

Even strenuous sacrifices could lead to exploration and benefit. Labor migration, for example, emboldened boys and girls, acquainting them with new cultural possibilities and an economic conduit through which to accumulate their own resources and accelerate their own ascent to seniority. Younger, working sons who bought their own bridewealth did not have to rely on their father's contribution, eroding the generational constraints that prolonged their junior subordination.

Adolescence and Initiation

As children in Africa approached PUBERTY, their games and diversions revealed aspirations to come of age. Not surprisingly, sexual adventuring intensified during adolescence. Various conventions tightly regulated courting, and while romantic interludes could progress to intercourse, this act drew severe censure. The litany of fines and banishments for premarital pregnancy among Yoruba, Kongo, and Zulu people suggests that sexual transgressions occurred with disconcerting regularity. A girl accused of waywardness suffered particularly harsh and lasting punishments, while her male counterpart tended to receive only a firm slap on the wrist. Patriarchal prerogatives dictated this gender discrimination. In many polygynous sub-Saharan societies, a male elder's public pledge that a first-time bride retained her virginity often paved the way for her rites of passage and eventual wedding.

Rites of passage, honored enactments that brought childhood to a close, took place between the ages of twelve and eighteen. In precolonial and colonial times they could entail temporary seclusion from the community, removal of teeth and hair, tattooing, or body incisions. Some coming-of-age ceremonies for boys (that continue to this day) focused on the painful cutting of genitalia, imparting an essential message: achieving adulthood necessitated a sharp separation from childhood and a heightened awareness of the physical and emotional endurance underlying the ancestral commitment to procreate after marriage. At times, initiation practices atrophied, such as when colonial authorities in eastern Africa campaigned to make tribal CIRCUMCISION a crime; when Xhosa migrants living in congested townships of modern Johannesburg had little space to conduct their rituals; or when precolonial leaders such as Shaka Zulu forbade boys' circumcision and replaced it with two decades of military service to the king.

Girls also underwent circumcision (performed principally by their mothers and grandmothers), but this observance was not widespread in Africa and declined in the twentieth century after missionaries, colonialists, and modernizing African leaders urged its banning. However, toward the end of the twentieth century, female circumcision has apparently been revived in western and eastern Africa. Human rights campaigners have targeted the practice as cruel and unusual punishment, calling it "genital mutilation."

Other rites of passage for girls involved less invasive procedures, such as the cleansing of limbs with sacred liquid (i.e., the gall of livestock) and "coming out" feasts and dances that heralded the female initiates' ascent to a marriageable status. After initiation, boys and girls understood that they maneuvered in a society still dominated by elder authority, but one that was now open to their membership as potential seniors, with the enhanced privileges and responsibilities of young adults.


At the beginning of the twenty-first century, two intriguing questions are being explored: (1) Does childhood end at initiation or linger into young adulthood, a liminal stage before marriage and parenthood? and (2) Does childhood begin at birth, weaning, or some other phase before rites of passage? On a continent so vast, with few records (oral traditions far outweigh the keeping of documents), wide social diversity (myriad ethnic groups), and remarkable continuities (e.g., prevalence of "Big Man" families), the main concern is to devise a framework through which to examine variations in children's roles. To date, Meillassoux's model offers a crucial starting point, but like Ariès's ideas, it too will spark more debates than answers. The conceptual approaches that promise to emerge from these discussions will doubtless advance nascent scholarship on the history of childhood in Africa.

See also: ; Female Genital Mutiliation; ; Soldier Children.


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