There is a link between the ugly trope of the current ‘Mediterranean refugee crisis’ as an authenticating stand-in for what African mobility is supposedly all about – despite the fact that we speak of this crisis without taking into account the subversive movement of illicit capital that refugee trajectories as a generality in reality inadvertently pursue – and our failure to regard African mobilities with the sophistication it deserves. This may in part also be because our analysis rarely takes the measure in Africa, or even considers things from Africa’s deep perspective.
Africans are well practised in matters of motion, both of bodies in space travelling over long distances and of how to make ideas that travel, are dispersed, reassembled and reformed across the continental vastness, especially given the minor role that writing as an archival technology played outside the Nile Valley. The procedures that made such circulations possible still escape our disciplinary scrutiny, or perhaps escape such a scrutiny’s ability to comprehend. It is thanks entirely to the inadequate manner in which we access the past that Africa’s way of producing knowledge has today come to privilege European ways of doing so. The proof of this history of knowledge-culture in motion – far more than nomadologist bodies in motion – lies in the intriguing objects it has bequeathed to us, including those whose topological connectivities we are only just beginning to sort and decipher. Vast areas of its workings remain closed to our understanding, so that we cannot help but see the enigma of a space we know is there, occupied by a mechanism, even though its secrets have yet to be revealed.
The still enigmatic mobilities of ideas, their circuits, flows, currents and eddies are almost dizzying, at least breathtaking, when we become aware of the great art traditions that produced its objects. Art-making traditions moved around, often ‘gathered’ over generations, certain kinds of spatial intensifications, whose pressures gave rise to new and emergent culture, such as might occur at river confluences, lakes and lesser or greater river bends, especially in the context of newly arrived peoples.
One such river bend, along the Niger River, on which I shall focus here, is topologically more a liquid bend than river bend, considering that a river’s course once appeared to defy riverine behaviour by driving upwards many hundreds of miles, before then turning back and flowing in the opposite direction, almost counter-intuitively. Indeed, although we would speak of this as a ‘bend’ in the river, thanks to our concepts derived from the aeriality of modern mapping, it is (or more accurately would once have been), experientially, not so much a bend as a deceleration of the river’s flow. Its liquid is percolated over lakes and marshlands stretching many hundreds of miles before being extruded to the east, where it recommences its life as a river, to continue its flow south-eastwards towards Niger and Nigeria. In short, the ‘bend’ is a delta, adjacent to a desert, birthing new ideas in paradisiacal terrain. This is why the earliest maps could not fathom it (fig. 1), showing a river running almost longitudinally from west to east. However, I will convert the idea of a liquid bend itself into a trope for reading the unusual nature of urbanism in this terrain, because there it dissolves the strict boundaries between the rather crystalline idea we have about what cityness is, and of cityness in relation to some prior social organisation before settlement as such – let us call it nomadism. This section of the Niger River liquefies and bends clear-cut notions of urbanism, forcing their revaluation.
The intersecting networks linking ancient cities at the Niger River’s inland lacustrine complex hints at the transport of things and people among them. Jenne-Jeno, or Old Djenne, is one of these networked cities. Its by now well-known sculptures appear to open a window into the transmissions of ideas and knowledge in this marsh district’s milieu of enigmatic mobilities, and I will suggest that the artwork points not only to the density of cities, of which Jenne is merely one, but to this terrain’s production of unfamiliar ideas about architecture and the city. In other words, I want to approach the issue of mobilities from another unusual place of a displacement: the movement not just of people and things, but of ideas, including those about architecture and settlement, and art in relation to them, as well as the spatial movement of the objects themselves that were the subject of various imaginations.
The Niger’s liquid bend and its cities seem to be an exemplary instance of a productivity that avoids being consumed by a natural world hostile to exhaustive exploitation. René Caillié’s 1828 drawing of Timbuktu (fig. 2) is the earliest known visual representation of what until then was a fabled city in European lore.1 Before evaluating its significance, we should note that – despite the probability that we read many of its structures as being rather impressive in relation to other nineteenth-century European characterisations of sub-Saharan Africa as a space without civilisation – Caillié in fact produced the image in order to support his own derogatory text. Its purpose was, therefore, to communicate the negative impression he had formed of a city he now regarded as essentially drab and uninteresting – a hovel in the middle of a desert – having originally travelled to Timbuktu anticipating a confirmation of the myths about it. In spite of itself, however, the drawing (which was originally produced in colour) at least suggests that this is a city probably very much in the mould of the pre-Islamic one that I will explore.
Initially a series of horizontal and almost vertically layered streets, the image presents an unexpected mixture of weighty, block-like structures, evidently grand houses, and larger institutional buildings with high walls and towers and elaborate, articulating architectural elements, as well as hemispherical structures dispersed with uncommon randomness in the spaces in between. The hemispherical structures, each with a single egress, appear ephemeral next to the high-walled rectilinear structures, and are most definitely examples of the lightweight mobile architecture of Peul/Fula nomads.2 The permanent buildings were likely built in the earthen brick tradition still used today.3 What we are presented with, then, is actually a different idea of the city, and of urbanism itself. Sahelian urbanism, as true for Timbuktu back then as it is for Agadez or Gao today, should be understood as an African merging of permanence and immobility with the temporary, ephemeral and mobile, within the same singular spaces of the urban landscape.
The Western idea of the city appears to have rejected such a notion of urbanism,4 as is clear from the difficulties presented by Roma in the twenty-first century to urban systems that seek to repress them today as they have been for hundreds of years. What Timbuktu suggests, by contrast, is that for Africa’s own centuries, African cities developed the means to organise and monitor their rules and systems, in such a way that the forms of urban land ownership, rights of access and temporary regular occupation within it were apparently worked out in relation to a productive regulation of the interfaces between the permanent and the temporary. Temporariness in Timbuktu is a legitimate part of the cityscape. The latter’s space clearly accommodated the unplanned appearance of the temporary. We can also imagine that these mixed cities enabled incredible efficiencies, since temporary occupation by a sector of society involved, for instance, in the transport, transmission and movement of goods, both their removal from and delivery to such cities, achieved forms of flexibility that would have been unthinkable in the absence of this mobile/immobile combination.
We should understand the mobilities implicit in Timbuktu as a kind of ideosphere tracked within the apparently stable physicality of even the permanent architecture of Sahelian cities (and art, and ‘settlement’ typologies, including those that are urban), and that these cities therefore offer unique possibilities for a broader understanding of the very meaning of mobilities. In relation to the transmission of concepts regarding this form of urbanism, the very idea of fixed structures within such a city, that is to say, of ‘architecture’ per se, may appear – certainly as regards the many types of urbanism of which this is but one – to run counter to the idea of mobility (in the sense that architecture seems fixed, hardly motile, difficult to change, relatively speaking). However, architecture is really a node for philosophical thinking, whose history has laid claim to being a source for explaining the city, just as it has claimed analogies to nature and, to the same extent, defined the pragmatics of how real things interact and join with each other in worlds of making, offering analogues for other kinds of joinings, junctures, joints and movements – for instance in biology.5
There is indeed an identifiable architecture and a visual vocabulary of buildings, not just in the Timbuktu region, not just from Segu through Gao, but spread over thousands of miles and extending southwards to cities on the Niger/Nigeria borderlands, such as Zinder, Maradi, Kano, Katsina and even Zaria. These, too, are centuries-old cities which, although situated more in the savannah than in the Sahel, were apparently also subject to the same mixtures of spectral occupancies. It is puzzling and difficult to comprehend how the architectural vocabulary was able to travel, often across vast unoccupied territory, especially if we bear in mind that it did so without the technologies of drawing. In this region, we find ourselves in something akin to an ideosphere. Ideospheres are created and emergent in the context of extending transmission, and in fact there is no doubt that within an architectural vocabulary and its sophisticated systems of transmission, we require the progressive development of guilds. Even though scholars inform us of their existence in recent history, it is challenging to imagine that they may have existed well before their medieval European counterparts, and perhaps as far back as the closing centuries two millennia ago.
The generational transmission that subtends such things could, of course, be approached through some understanding of African modes of ancestral memory. There is a reason why the thing that Europeans misunderstood as ‘ancestor worship’ had so much resilience for Africans. Although I can imagine a study of mobilities that explores transmissions of knowledge through ancestral procedures, I am more concerned here with spatial transmission. The shifting shapes and dynamic constructs of the transmission of ideas about and through space and motion that occur in architectural history writ large have been enacted very differently, and in all likelihood earlier, by African ideas on the move. These mobilities have been activated in all kinds of arenas, and have involved enigmatic procedures or concepts. African modes of transmissions are at least also founded on the ways in which the peoples of the continent, in all their diversity, travel and have travelled and transported themselves for millennia.
Liquid bend urban typology
Timbuktu was not alone in organising a city interspersed with temporary and permanent structures. Indeed, its particular iteration of the idea of spatial admixture lies at what, chronologically, resembles the modern cusp of an ancient history, although this millennia-old presence of temporary informality is often overlooked.6 The founding of Timbuktu in around the ninth century pales in comparison with older spatially mixed cities in the region and those that have since vanished or been built over. Thanks in large part to the archaeological work of Susan and Roderick McIntosh, we are now increasingly aware of non-Nile Valley African urbanism – the kind on which Timbuktu came to be modelled – which in their estimation has been around since about 2500 BCE.7 As an urban idea, as a form of urbanism, its logics have been played out in other cities in the Sahel that were coterminous with the better-known ancient urbanisms of the Near Eastern Fertile Crescent.8
One of these stands out today as the city whose archaeology has yielded a wide range of artefacts, including terracotta artwork from a terminal but nevertheless pre-Islamic period, namely Jenne-Jeno (Old Djenne), that is to say, pre-Islamic Djenne; given the dating of the artefacts to the eleventh to sixteenth centuries CE, this is already very late in the history of urbanism in the region. An equally important clue to the imaginative sphere is provided by the obvious but still not fully decipherable connections that art-historical analysis has struggled with, to various degrees of success,9 between works of art from Djenne and ancient oral-historical traditions that have circulated in the region for millennia.
My current favourite object, likely from Jenne-Jeno, is now in the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) Collection, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA (fig. 3). In terracotta, it features an almost square-shaped building, its roof gathered to a single pinnacle at the top. It has a single entrance, from which extend comparatively large serpentine bodies. Recent radiographic imaging reveals that the rope-like extensions spewing forth from the entrance represent serpents, and that there are dismembered heads on the inside of this model of a building, which in all likelihood represents an adobe construction for a temple house. One of the many oral traditions in this region speaks of the ancient city of Wagadu, its being held hostage by a gigantic serpent (and presumably its offspring), and of the bravery of the hero who slays it. Another narrative, about Sundiata, tells of his pagan nemesis, Sumanguru. Not surprisingly for Islam in the era of conversion, it speaks derogatorily of pre-Islamic religion and ridicules the sacred status of the serpent in this religion’s sacred oral texts. What is fascinating is how the idea of the sacred serpent travelled across the vast space of the inland delta, and that the visual arts, poetic oral traditions and indeed political founding mythologies of the post-Islamic period came to share the same motif.
Jenne-Jeno is one city among what seems to have been a group of city clusters surrounding both flanks of the Niger River bend from Segu on the western stretch to Gao on the eastern. What is truly unique about these towns and cities is, as the archaeological work of the McIntoshes have demonstrated, that they were very well-organised, populous city states with a highly developed and elaborate religious life, complete with what appears to be a cosmological understanding, therefore very likely incorporating a priesthood and yet showing little evidence of a monarchy or a priestly class as such. In other words, Jenne-Jeno, as with other cities in this network, operated on a structurally shallow social hierarchy. Even though Jenne-Jeno artwork evidences institutions such as an armed military on horseback (a cavalry) (fig. 4), there is no apparent indication of a territorial state organised around a single powerful individual, like a king, and based on what the city’s houses tell us, the populations that inhabited the cities were nowhere near as socially stratified as they later became in the Islamic period. These were cities closer to the merchant-governed cities of the Mediterranean than royal cities with deep and divided social hierarchies, which in a monarchical system would be signalled, for instance, by a highly differentiated architecture.
The city clusters of the Niger River’s inland lacustrine district also incorporated the relatively younger city of Timbuktu – a city which, though having no king, nonetheless clearly possessed a range of permanent buildings, from high-walled, crenellated enclosures that closely resemble fortresses or citadels, to mosques, to houses of varying sizes ranged in parallel layers. Many such cities, Gao for example, were later also co-opted to produce a Sahelian narrative of Islam,10 although we must reiterate that their existence predates Islam’s presence. One of the best-known such narratives, in which the territory is in the process of reinscription as Muslim, is the epic story of Sundiata (or Sunjara), later the first Muslim ruler of the state of Mali.11 The epic includes Sundiata’s extensive itineration and links the politics of new state formations to the tactics of a proto-leader’s personal evasion, which were related to fears of his own political extinction.12 The Muslim pioneer Sundiata’s evasive routes no doubt followed itineraries that must have been known before Sundiata’s own tracing of its paths. His movements are an indication of the fabulous mobilities in this pre-Islamic space of dense networks and routes.13
We should note that the complex of ideas that produced the ancient cluster of cities in the inland lake district is not necessarily unique or unprecedented on the African continent, even if we exclude Egyptian and Sudanese Nile valleys. The confluence of the Niger and Benue rivers just outside Lokoja, Nigeria, serves as an example. Lokoja lies hundreds of miles south-east of Djenne, but appears to be at the unremarkable centre of a striking and ancient art-making region spread in a roughly radial arc some 200 miles to Lokoja’s north. Located in this arc was the enigmatic artwork of Nok. Early Nok art, the large majority being terracotta, dates back to circa 1000 BCE, making some of its sculpture coterminous with New Kingdom Egypt. Significantly, if we think of the confluence as a Y-shape producing three sectors, then the confluence has Nok in its northern sector, and two impressive but later art assemblies in the two other sectors, which are also about 200 miles radial from Lokoja. Its south-eastern sector gave rise to the art known as Igbo Ukwu,14 which produced the most sophisticated art traditions in bronze and brass a few hundred years after terminal Nok (and later contributed to the royal art in brass of the imperial state of Benin). The third sector, Ile-Ife, also known as Ife,15 but in fact straddling both Ife and the town of Owo a good distance away in the direction of the city of Benin, was in some way a locally reinvented and perhaps technically perfected progression from the first two sectors (Nok and its terracottas, Igbo Ukwu and its bronzes), following the second in a more compressed historical cycle. In other words, here, too, we have in a relatively small space – certainly small when compared with the vastness of continental Africa – an unlikely cluster of technically sophisticated, aesthetically fully developed and iconographically stable art-making societies (in the case of Ile-Ife/Owo, both were urban society, while the other two remain of uncertain status regarding connections to still-to-be discovered urbanisms), even though our ability to think this involves a spatial river-crossing itineration of ideas as much as it does generational shifts. The very possibility of this hypothetical movement of a complex of ideas must – as in the case of the inland Niger River lake district – involve those forms of cultural transmission that are still inscrutable to us, enabling new mobilities whose fullness we scarcely grasp. The comparatively limited archaeological resources that have been deployed in the region does not help matters, although scholars, including the McIntoshes, have produced modest but significant information that supports the hypothesis.
Returning to the Djenne-Jenno focus, and with Caillié’s Timbuktu image in mind, we understand that the mixture of permanent and movable structures within the spaces of the city points to forms of mobility that are, in contrast to the Niger confluence region, well known. If, for instance, one were interested only in a more literal idea of movement or migration, then for inland Niger, there were the Fulbe peoples before Islam (that is, the Wodaabe and Bororo peoples, and Fulani of other clans) and their incredibly sophisticated cosmologies captured by Hampaté Bâ’s transcriptions of ancient oral texts16 – notwithstanding the temporary, spectral, circular-plan domical houses dispersed among the rectilinear permanent structures of a city like Timbuktu. Fula cosmologies and the delightfully poetic oral texts in which they were transmitted appear to have been derived from the once unique and progressively transcontinental nomadisms of the Fulani, and the invisibly spatio-architectural sense that such an existence required.17
These mobilities and forms of transmission were wonderfully complicated in the 1990s by Jean-Loup Amselle, who dissolved the idea that the Fula, and by implication any African ethnicity, had the kind of stability that we in our comparatively immobile thinking erroneously credit them with.18 Peul/Fulani motion, a kind that possibly undergirded the movements of ideas about sculptural representation and architectural style, at least across the vast spaces of Sahelian Africa, was, in effect, likely as much about the (now) unfamiliar perception and placement of orientated bodies travelling discretely in space (which Labelle Prussin and Jean-Paul Bourdier have struggled to represent)19 as it was about movement by converting bodies in an almost wave-like process in which becoming Fula, and the transfer of ideas that must have been entailed by this process, traces mobilities colonising discrete units rather than forcing their displacement in space. Does this not mean that becoming Fula – by which I mean in the absence of violence (which could sometimes seize the dynamic), as would once also have been the case in becoming Yoruba or Hausa or Zulu or Asante – involved the mobility of ideas by converting willing bodies into new subjects claiming new orientations? The trajectories, topologies and ancillary architectures of such enigmatic movement, the ones that in this way nevertheless supported long-distance trade, for instance, are hardly yet understood even by historians of Africa. This is especially true where the concern is for the eras before the Common Era that brought Europeans and/or Arabs to Africa.20
Conclusion: Knowledge-making as mobilities
In spite of the distorted descriptions of the continent that have emerged from the fixity of discipline and which have conceived of and represented Africa as stagnant and immobile,21 or at best had some regard for insufficiently understood mobilities such as transhumance or ‘nomadism’ stretched over wide spaces,22 we know that Africa has contributed, quietly, to significantly valuable knowledge about our world and potential ways to manipulate or work with it. I have suggested that we can see this in a phenomenon like knowledge transmission, both spatial and generational, and that we can claim that this subtended the variety of African settlement – urbanism, architecture, and art universes of Africa – in all its non-utopian diversity. So although mobilities as an intellectual strategy, an epistemological paradigm, tend to be deployed in relation to the contemporary world, we should be as interested in what I might describe as historical mobilities, the physical and conceptual generations of cultural energy that over time constructed the cultural and social universes of the vast continent of Africa, and which we are called to comprehend – for the simple reason that this universe is still among the least understood of all worlds.
Even within the supposedly neutral and objective, apparently homogenous universe of academic knowledge, Africa only began to get its measure as an object of non-exoticised knowledge in the somewhat compromised field of ‘African Studies’. The problem, however, is that the origins of such studies are in nothing more robust than eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European prejudice, as well as twentieth-century Cold War political economy.23 The ultimate implication of my interest here, the puzzle presented by Sahelian urbanism prior to Islam, addresses the whole edifice of disciplinary knowing, as well as of the form of knowing that we have come to describe as interdisciplinary. I contend that this latter form, too, does not resolve the injustice brought to knowing and representing Africa, and that although the issue that then follows as a result is not the main one pursued in this essay, its implication could be that we describe Africa in ways true to its reality and history only if the institutional edifices supporting both disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity are refashioned. I am, in other words, ultimately speaking about the possibility of knowledge production itself operating as a mobility – as a highly mobile, constantly shifting, node-swapping, dynamic system of agglomerations.
1. René Caillié, Travels through Central Africa to Timbuctoo: And across the Great Desert, to Morocco, Performed in the Years 1824–1828, London: Cass, 1968.
2. Various names are used to refer to these peoples. In Senegal and adjacent areas: Peul and Fula; in middle West Africa, including Nigeria: Fulbe, Fula and Fulani. All of them speak a common language: Fulfulde.
3. See Trevor Marchand, The Masons of Djenne, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009.
4. The Western idea of, and imagination for, the city is theorised in the notion of the ‘ideal city’, which can be parsed as being a formally organised, easily legible, visually articulated system in which, for instance, public space is clearly delineated from zones of privacy, as is the system of ownership bestowing certain rights not even merely of occupation, but also of presence.
5. See for instance Spyros Papapetros, On the Animation of the Inorganic: Art, Architecture, and the Extension of Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012; and Paul Dobraszczyk and Peter Sealy, Function and Fantasy: Iron Architecture in the Long Nineteenth Century. New York: Routledge and Taylor and Francis, 2016
6. Henry Louis Gates’ documentary Wonders of the African World, for instance, takes a camera crew to a different Sahelian city, Djenne. In his desire to foreground the ‘great architecture’ of the city, especially its ancient mosque, he (as the documentary’s narrative voice) literally races through and past what are temporary structures without comment. They are invisible to his metropolitan gaze. However, such structures have been no less a part of the city than have its monumental buildings. One wonders whether Gates assumes that they were insignificant to his narrative of ancientness, something more on the order of a temporary Occupy Wall St. protest camp than an integral part of such cities for hundreds of years.
7. S.K. McIntosh and R.J. McIntosh, Prehistoric Investigations in the Region of Jenne, Mali: A Study in the Development of Urbanism in the Sahel, Oxford: British Archaeological Reports International Series 89 (1980); Roderick J. McIntosh, Joseph A. Tainter and Susan Keech McIntosh (eds.), The Way the Wind Blows: Climate, History, and Human Action, New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.
8. Ancient Egyptian urbanism, and with the urban centre of the Tigris-Euphrates confluence with which that of Ancient Egypt is often juxtaposed.
9. Bernard De Grunne, Albert Maesen, Doreen Stoneham, Jacqueline Evrard and Claire W. Enders, Terres cuites anciennes de l’Ouest africain, Louvain-la-Neuve: Institut supérieur d’archéologie et d’histoire de l‘art, 1980.
10. Ousmane Kane, Beyond Timbuktu: An Intellectual History of Muslim West Africa, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2016.
11. Ralph Austen (ed.), In Search of Sunjata: The Mande Epic as History, Literature, and Performance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.
12. Sundiata, also known as Sunjara, around whom an epic oral tradition is still performed today, was supposedly a cripple from childhood. Constantly on the move to evade his political rivals, who sought to eliminate him, he also went into hiding with his allies, which is how, against all odds, he was able to survive until his fortunes turned.
13. Regarding post-conversions (to Islam), after Islam’s securitisation in the Sahel, there is Mansa Musa, Lord Musa, the intrepidly mobile prince who crossed infinities as one of the world’s richest men in order to pilgrimage to Mecca. But what route did he follow and, logistically speaking, how exactly? How was it possible to transmit this knowledge and yet make it safe enough for the king to leave his empire for so long and be relatively certain of return, while also guaranteeing the security of his throne during his years of absence?
14. Thurstan Shaw, Igbo-Ukwu; an account of archaeological discoveries in eastern Nigeria, Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University Press, 1970.
15. Frank Willett, Ife in the History of West African Sculpture, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967; Henry John Drewal and Enid Schildkrout, Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria, New York: Museum for African Art, 2009; Suzanne Preston Blier, Art and Risk in Ancient Yoruba: Ife History, Power, and Identity, c. 1300, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
16. Amadou Hampaté Bâ and Germaine Dieterlen, Koumen: texte initiatique des Pasteurs Peul, Paris: Mouton, 1961.
17. Labelle Prussin, African Nomadic Architecture: Space, Place, and Gender, Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press. 1995.
18. See Jean-Loup Amselle, ‘Fulani, Bambara, Malinke: A System of Transformations’, in Amselle, Mestizo Logics: Anthropology of Identity in Africa and Elsewhere, Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 1998.
19. See, for instance, Jean-Paul Bourdier and Trinh T. Minh-Ha, African spaces: designs for living in Upper Volta, New York: Africana Pub. Co., 1985. Also see Jean-Paul Bourdier, and Trinh T. Minh-Ha, Drawn from African Dwellings. Bloomington, Ind: Indiana University Press, 1996.
20. I write this as shorthand for both the slightly earlier period that saw the arrival of Arabs in Egypt in the 7th century CE and, later, of Omani-Arabs specifically on Africa’s Indian Ocean coast (travelling and trading as far down as the south of present-day Mozambique).
21. V.Y. Mudimbe, The invention of Africa: gnosis, philosophy, and the order of knowledge, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.
22. Andrew B. Smith, Pastoralism in Africa: Origins and Development Ecology, London: Hurst & Co., 1992.
23. A key point being the European Enlightenment’s ‘failure’ in the face of Blackness, as revolutionary Haiti discovered of revolutionary France.