Female Enslavement, Marriage, and Muslim Trading Diaspora in West Africa: The Case of Hausa Settlement in Twentieth-Century Cameroon

Friday, January 3, 2014: 3:10 PM
Maryland Suite B (Marriott Wardman Park)
Harmony O'Rourke, Pitzer College
With the establishment and growth of the Trans-Saharan trading network from the seventh century, a new figure emerged in West Africa’s landscape: the male Muslim stranger, often a long-distance, peripatetic merchant or scholar-teacher by trade.  Such individuals and their caravans from North Africa and the Middle East prompted Sahelian merchant groups, like the Wangara and the Hausa, to take up a similar lifestyle—one of itinerancy and devotion to Islam.  These far-reaching commercial networks went on to influence political organization in West Africa, affecting state power by enhancing the status of African elites, so much so that a chief or king would endeavor to “bind a Muslim” to his court.  According to numerous oral traditions, chiefs’ or kings’ “generous gift” of a woman often served this purpose.  But this is a history in which women figure as props in a grander tale about the meeting of men from two different cultures.  This paper will offer a counter-narrative by addressing how relationships between Muslim strangers and local African women—enslaved and free—were integral to the ramification of the Muslim Hausa trading diaspora, in particular its southward movement at the turn of the twentieth century to the Cameroon highland region known as the Grassfields.  This lens offers a nuanced view of the roles women played in settling the frontier and illuminates the gendered principles upon which power, authority, and identity were constructed at household and community levels under colonial rule.  Using oral and archival evidence, this paper analyses the myriad ways women of diverse social statuses and cultural backgrounds negotiated power dynamics in both local and long-distance contexts in order to craft modes belonging within this Islamic diaspora.
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