Thursday, 22 October 2015

The Dynamism of the History of Agriculture of Pre-Colonial West Africa

Without mincing words, some authors or writers have described the economy especially the history of agriculture of pre-colonial West Africa as traditional and un-changing. There was the overwhelming belief that the domestic agricultural sector was immobilised by the combination of primitive technology, communal land tenure system and the extended family structure. It was believed also that food stuff grew wide and in abundance and this enabled Africans to concentrate on luxuriant pursuits.

However, the earlier established view of the majority of archaeologists that agriculture evolved in the savannah around 2,000 BC following diffusion of ideas from Egypt has been discredited. Another school of thought led by G.P. Mudock, an ethnographer has argued that agriculture had evolved independently in Africa at about 5,000 BC, though; there was no doubt that connection with other parts of the globe remained strong.
Generally, agriculture in the pre-colonial West Africa centred on farming and also included activities such as pastoralism, gathering, hunting and fishing. Importantly, the history of pre-colonial West Africa right from the Stone-age up till the Neolithic era was highly characterised by developments, changes, inventions, revolutions, inventions and variations in terms of evolutions, types of tools used, methods of farming/agriculture, labour employed, the storage methods, the effects of vegetation, the exchange of farm produce, crops cultivated, etc.
 This discussion shall make an attempt to point out that the history or nature of agriculture of pre-colonial West Africa prior to 1900 was dynamic and complex rather than static. Agriculture in pre-colonial West Africa was attended by regional variations. In terms of evolution or level of developments, the period between the Stone-age and the Neolithic era witnessed different level of agricultural developments in West Africa. Man started from wandering and gathering to get food to eat. He began to use stone implements, later wood implements. Later man began to settle down, thereby planting some of his gathered foods around his place of abode, thus commencing farming. He later started inventing iron implements to do his farming activities. Significantly, the evolution and developments of agriculture was dynamic and developmental in nature, it was not static at all, and it was changing with/per time.
“Necessity is the mother of invention”, it would appeared that this diction was also adopted in the use of implements by the pre-colonial West African farmers. No doubt, the pre-colonial West African agriculture was highly characterised by low technological levels when compared with what was obtainable in Europe. Given the situation as it was, West African farmers relied on simple implements such as the digging stick, the hoe, cutlass and sickle. However, it is important to note that though these farming or agricultural implements remained largely crude, yet, they were products of indigenous inventions. Indeed, these implements were produced in different forms reflected the types of soil or vegetation of the areas of land such implements were to be used. Different hoes, for instance, were made for hard soil and the soft soil. In another instance, different hoes were made for making ‘beds’ and for ‘weeding’. Thus, dynamism was in place.
Geographically, the pre-colonial West Africa was made up of different vegetations namely the savannah and the rain forest, each with its own variations. Typically, the different vegetations accounted for different seasons of farm cultivation, different farm produce, etc. On the one hand, the savannah belt (northern Ghana, Timbuktu, Kano, Borno, etc), usually experienced low rainfall, thereby limiting farming activities. The chief crops cultivated in this region include cereals, legumes, etc. This region also was palatable for livestock farming and herding of animals like goats, cattle, horses, etc. On the other hand, the rain forest with its high rainfall was characterised with the planting of roots such as yam, cocoyam, cassava, etc. Significantly, these divisions reflected physical requirements of the crops within the regions. Also, there was a considerable overlap between the regions where combination of cereals and roots can be grown. From the above explanation, it is crystal clear that the history of agriculture in the pre-colonial West Africa due to different vegetation was characterised by adaptation, adoptions, changes and dynamism.
Because of the different farm produce available in different vegetation, the agriculture sector of pre-colonial West Africa produced and stimulated a degree of urbanisation, specialisation and encouraged increase in population. People of a particular region focussed more on the production of produce or crops they can best produce based on the soil types and vegetation, thus stimulating specialisation based on the concept of comparative advantage.
With this kind of specialisation, there was surplus of farm produce coupled with the need to acquire crops from other regions; hence, there emerged the need for economic exchange. Thus, produce from one region got to another region with the system of trade by barter and other means of exchange. For example, kolanuts produced chiefly in the forest region were largely consumed in the savannah region, likewise, meats from livestock from the Savannah region were largely consumed in the rain forest region, thereby promoting establishment of markets and regional/external trade.
Also, the pre-colonial West Africa agriculture witnessed different agriculture methods. Whenever farmers noticed that a particular land has started producing low yield such a farm land will be vacated and allowed to lay fallow, thus, practising ‘Bush fallowing’. Likewise, was the practice of mixed farming, such as the practice of planting cash crops like kolanuts with grains such as maize.
More also, though, agriculture was practiced majorly at a subsistence level, however, at a later stage before the colonial era, many Pre-colonial West African states practiced plantation farming. Examples of such states included the Dahomey kingdom, the Niger-Delta peoples of Nigeria, etc.
In addition, use of labour in agriculture was dynamic too. Generally speaking, the workforce of Pre-colonial West Africa is usually regarded as being based on un-specialised and subsequently on inefficient family labour. However, it is important to note that labour employed in agriculture in the Pre-colonial West Africa was quite capable of adopting its size and skills to meet changing circumstances. Large households could devide itself into smaller several units in agricultural productions – for example weeding, planting, harvesting, etc. It is also capable of expanding in terms of demands for extra labour. Labour can also be mobilised, in form of communal labour as used by the communal groups such as ‘aro’ or ‘owe’ in Yorubaland to prepare or weed farms. Additional labour was provided by domestic slaves, in fact, slave labour was present in Africa before the Atlantic Slave trade.
In conclusion, there is hardly any doubt that the history of agriculture of pre-colonial West Africa was not static but full of dynamism, changes, revolutions, innovation, inventions and adaptation.

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