African Experience: From "Lucy" to Mandela

Course No. 8678
Professor Kenneth P. Vickery, Ph.D.
North Carolina State University
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Course No. 8678
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Course Overview

The story of Africa is the oldest and most event-filled chronicle of human activity on the planet. These 36 half-hour lectures cover this great historical drama, tracing the story of the sub-Saharan region of the continent from the earliest evidence of human habitation to the latest challenges facing African nations in the 21 st century.

For many, Africa is a confusing fog of names, words, and places: Mandela, Biko, Mobutu, Lumumba, Lucy, Selassie, Rhodes, Livingstone, Swahili, Bantu, Boer, Zulu, Mau Mau, Tutsi/Hutu, Lesotho, and Timbuktu, to name just a few.

These lectures are designed to lift the fog and sharpen your understanding of these terms, revealing Africa in all its complexity, grandeur, tragedy, and resilience. As the chronological narrative of this course unfolds, Africa's people, places, languages, and customs will come vividly to life, and you will be able to follow events in present-day Africa in their deep historical context.

Dispelling Myths about the "Lost" Continent

Sub-Saharan Africa—the primary focus of this course—is the region separated from North Africa by the harsh climate of the Sahara Desert, and it is traditionally the part of the continent that has been the most mysterious and most misunderstood by Westerners.

This huge expanse is also the academic specialty of award-winning teacher Kenneth Vickery of North Carolina State University. A Yale-trained historian, Professor Vickery has devoted his career to travel and research in sub-Saharan Africa with the goal of understanding this multifaceted region and teaching others about it—an objective that he brings with charm and a spirit of adventure to this course.

Part of his educational mission is to dispel the myths that still cling to Africa—for instance, that it is a landscape of dense jungle relieved only by stretches of wildlife-teeming savanna. Africa is three times the size of the United States and has impressive geographic variety, including some of the most stunning features on the planet—from spectacular Victoria Falls on the Zambezi River to the largest freestanding mountain in the world, Mount Kilimanjaro, which rises massively from the plains of Tanzania.

Professor Vickery corrects many other potential misunderstandings about Africa. For example:

  • The word "tribe" has no fixed meaning. By Western definition, it often conjures up images of primitivism and savagery. But in Africa it is used in a neutral way to connote ethnic identity and is usually, but not always, connected with language differences and the site of ancestral origin.
  • There is no single language called Bantu. There are instead 400 to 500 related languages that extend from Cameroon, the Congo, Kenya, and Uganda in the north to Nelson Mandela's Xhosa people, who are the southernmost Bantu speakers in today's South Africa.
  • Historically, sub-Saharan Africa was not as isolated as is often suggested by references to the "lost" continent. An ancient Greek sailing guide from 2,000 years ago clearly shows that the East African coast—called Azania by the Greeks—was already connected commercially with areas to the north.
  • The present borders of African states are surprisingly stable, considering that they were drawn up largely by colonial powers. The single instance of a legal, formal border change is the separation of Eritrea from Ethiopia in 1993.
  • Contrary to widespread popular impressions, there is scarcely an official one-party state or military government left in Africa. In places like Zambia, people and parties compete for power with a pluralistic and participatory spirit that was unthinkable in the recent past.

Africa and the World

The story of Africa is not just that of indigenous Africans dealing with home-grown problems. Many influences from the rest of the world have come to bear on the continent:

  • Most notoriously, roughly 10 million to 15 million Africans were transported to the New World as slaves, and many millions more either died in passage or were killed in the process of capture, with an incalculable effect on African demographics. Ironically, African states remained largely sovereign during the entire period of the slave trade, and some actively participated in it.
  • European settlers played a significant role in African history, initially founding posts for provisioning ships plying the Asia trade. Largely in southern Africa, these communities became beachheads for the gradual expansion of a permanent European presence that has many parallels to the European settlement of the Americas.
  • The seizure of Ethiopia in 1935 by Italian Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini led to a dramatic plea for help by Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie before the League of Nations. His rebuff by international leaders is considered a seminal moment leading to World War II.
  • During the Cold War, Africa served as a proxy battleground between Western and Soviet blocs, with tragic results foretold in the proverb: "When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers." A prime example is the Congo, where the newly independent state's radical leader, Patrice Lumumba, was assassinated in 1961 at the instigation of Western powers, plunging the nation into anarchy and eventual takeover by the brutal strongman Joseph Mobutu.
  • For thousands of years, Africa has been a linchpin in the world economy with much-desired commodities such as ivory, gold, diamonds, palm oil, petroleum, uranium, and, most recently, coltan, a crucial alloy used in cell phones and other electronics.

The arrival of newcomers in Africa has also been the occasion for mythmaking. Dr. Vickery notes that during the apartheid era in South Africa, the government's official history held that large areas of the country were an "empty land" before the arrival of European settlers in the 17th century. This tradition has been decisively refuted by archaeological evidence showing that indigenous farmers and herders spread across the region by the 11th century.

A more sophisticated misinterpretation of history is that the segregation practiced in South Africa and the American South was a throwback to a rustic, frontier past. One of Professor Vickery's mentors, the late John W. Cell, has made a persuasive case that segregation was an innovative, if brutal, response to urbanization and industrialization and that it represented the modernization of white supremacy.

A Personal Journey

"Over 30 years ago, I first visited Africa," recalls Professor Vickery in Lecture 1. "I took planes, trains, and automobiles; I hitchhiked and rode on the back of trucks carrying tons of fruit through parts of Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, and Zambia.

"I got my first looks at Kilimanjaro and Victoria Falls," he continues. "The places I saw were a revelation. But even more of a revelation were the people I met, who seemed so different from the stereotypes I'd grown up with—people of generosity and humor, but also people living through and intertwined with dramas—family dramas, national dramas, and historical dramas. The stories I heard from old men and women convinced me that here was a place the history of which could become a life's work."

Though he himself is not African American, Professor Vickery has absorbed Africa into his very being; and he is earnest, insistent, and persuasive in conveying his love of the continent and his conviction that Africa repays endless study.

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36 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    Finding the "Lost Continent"
    To many in the Western world, Africa is the "Lost Continent"—lost from view and lost because of its human and natural disasters. This lecture lays out a road map for "finding" Africa by examining its uniquely long history of human activity. The basic themes of the course are also presented. x
  • 2
    Africa's Many Natural Environments
    Africa's varied geography includes savanna, desert, and rain forest, which are produced by the interaction of latitude, temperature, rainfall, elevation, and topography. This Lecture characterizes these zones by specific flora and fauna and by the potential to support human societies or harm them through disease. x
  • 3
    A Virtual Tour of the Great Land
    Embarking on an imaginary tour of the continent, this lecture starts at the Cape of Good Hope, travels through southern Africa, leaps northward to Mt. Kilimanjaro, the Great Rift Valley, the Sahara, and the great rain forests of West Africa and the Congo Basin, and ends with Victoria Falls. x
  • 4
    The Cradle of Humankind
    Humankind emerged first in Africa, as shown by fossils found by Raymond Dart, the Leakeys, Donald Johanson, and others—evidence recently bolstered by DNA studies. What were the first human societies in Africa like? What tools did they use? Are there still people in Africa living in this style? x
  • 5
    Crops, Cattle, Iron—Taming a Continent
    A few thousand years ago, life in Africa was revolutionized by the cultivation of crops and the domestication of livestock. The change was reinforced by the spread of a new and incredibly useful metal: iron. This "Iron Age Package" of innovations led to settled kingdoms and extensive trading networks. x
  • 6
    Kinship and Community—Societies Take Shape
    Family and descent groups in Africa have assumed particular forms. This lecture focuses on monogamy versus polygamy and on the importance of unilineal descent groups, lineages, and clans. The nature of ethnicity in Africa is discussed, as well as the roles enjoyed by—or imposed on—women. x
  • 7
    Like Nothing Else—The Ancient Nile Valley
    Although Egypt lies outside the course's focus on sub-Saharan Africa, its importance cannot be ignored in understanding the history of Africa. This lecture looks at ancient Egypt in the context of the Nile, linking it to centers of culture and power further south, such as Nubia, Kush, and Meroe. x
  • 8
    Soul and Spirit—Religion in Africa
    Religion has always held a central place in African cultures. What are the common characteristics of the hundreds of indigenous religions across the continent, with their multiplicity of deities and spirits? And what has been the long-run impact on Africa of two great world religions—Christianity and Islam? x
  • 9
    Ethiopia—Outpost of Christianity
    For well over 1,000 years there was only one place in Africa where Christianity could be called the dominant religion: Ethiopia. This lecture examines the long and unique history of Ethiopia, including its monastic traditions and astonishing churches carved out of solid rock. x
  • 10
    West Africa's "Golden Age"
    Between about 400 and 1600, the West African savanna was dominated by a succession of major kingdoms and empires. This lecture explores the rise, development, and eventual decline of three legendary states: Ghana, Mali, and Songhai. Also examined is the once-thriving trade center of Timbuktu. x
  • 11
    The Swahili Commercial World
    Just as major trading states arose in West Africa along the southern shore of a "sea of sand," so in East Africa there emerged a distinctive commercial culture on the shore of a real sea—the Indian Ocean. Between 1000 and 1500, the East African coast entered its own golden age. The Swahili world had arrived. x
  • 12
    Great Zimbabwe and the Cities of the South
    This lecture investigates a series of Later Iron Age sites in the southern African interior that were commercially linked with the Swahili ports in East Africa. Included are the remarkable stone ruins of Great Zimbabwe, the most extensive stone construction in Africa south of the Nile Valley. x
  • 13
    The Atlantic Slave Trade—The Scope
    The most profound connection between America and Africa is, without doubt, the forced migration of large numbers of African slaves for permanent settlement in the New World. This lecture examines West Africa's place in the immense "Atlantic System" that emerged in the three centuries following Columbus's voyage. x
  • 14
    The Atlantic Slave Trade—The Impact
    How did slave ships obtain their human cargo? Who gained and who lost? How many people were affected, including those who landed in the New World, those who died on the way, and those who perished while resisting capture? How did the Atlantic slave trade influence African populations in the long term? x
  • 15
    South Africa—The Dutch Cape Colony
    With the Atlantic slave trade picking up steam in the 1600s, the Dutch established a post at the Cape of Good Hope to reprovision ships going to and from their commercial interests in Asia. But Cape Town became something else: a beachhead for the gradual expansion of permanent European settlement. x
  • 16
    South Africa—The Zulu Kingdom
    In the decades around 1800, the southern Bantu world underwent dramatic change as centralized kingdoms replaced smaller chiefdoms. This process led to the modern Zulu kingdom under its great founder Shaka Zulu—later demonized as a bloodthirsty destroyer, but equally a builder and creator. x
  • 17
    South Africa—The Frontier and Unification
    In a migration reminiscent of the settlement of the American West—right down to the use of covered wagons—thousands of Dutch Afrikaners left the British Cape Colony and established themselves in the far interior. Unification of South Africa came after the British victory over Afrikaners in the Boer War. x
  • 18
    South Africa—Diamonds and Gold
    In 1867 huge diamond deposits were discovered in the interior of what would become South Africa, followed 20 years later by even more valuable gold deposits. Such enormous wealth set South Africa on the path to what it remains today: a first-world and third-world country wrapped into one. x
  • 19
    Prelude to the "Scramble for Africa"
    This lecture examines developments in the 1800s, between the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade and the onset of full-blown European colonization. Some remarkable West African entrepreneurs arose to take advantage of the new market realities, including the palm oil merchant-king, Ja Ja of Opobo. x
  • 20
    European Conquest and African Resistance
    In 1884 representatives of several Western powers met in Berlin to discuss the ground rules in the "scramble for Africa." The partition of the continent by European empires was motivated by the search for raw materials and markets, the missionary impulse, and pseudoscientific notions of racial superiority. x
  • 21
    Colonial Africa—New Realities
    By the early 1900s, most of Africa was under European colonial rule. This lecture looks at the characteristics shared by the colonies. All were involved in economic exploitation, infrastructure improvements, and authoritarian rule aided by local leaders. Furthermore, all professed a "civilizing mission." x
  • 22
    Colonial Africa—Comparisons and Change
    Commonalities aside, the experiences of Africans under colonialism were hardly identical. The biggest difference depended on a simple question: How many European white settlers intended to stay? This affected African citizens in countless ways but most directly in whether they retained or lost their land. x
  • 23
    The Lion Awakens—The Rise of Nationalism
    There were two forms of protest against colonial rule: One sought to reestablish the independence that Africans had previously enjoyed; the other looked forward to a new Africa, different from both the precolonial and colonial models. The two types overlapped and coexisted for many Africans. x
  • 24
    The Peaceful Paths to Independence
    The decolonization of most of Africa, like its colonization, occurred rapidly. In 1950 almost no one would have predicted that within roughly a decade, the majority of African countries would celebrate independence. African nationalists were elated to gain power. But how would they use it? x
  • 25
    The Congo—Promise and Pain
    The tragedy of the Congo throws into sharp relief the processes of conquest, colonization, and decolonization. Belgian King Leopold brutally exploited the country as his personal possession. After independence, the Congo fell under the iron hand of Mobutu Sese Seko for 32 years. Today the country wallows in civil war. x
  • 26
    Segregation to Apartheid in South Africa
    As the sun began to set on European colonial rule in much of Africa and on America's own version of segregation, South Africa moved in the opposite direction. When the Afrikaner National Party came to power in 1948, it took several bold steps to entrench and intensify white supremacy forever—or so it was hoped. x
  • 27
    The Armed Struggles for Independence
    In countries where white settlers had something substantial to defend, they were prepared to fight for it. That in turn impelled African nationalists to take up arms themselves, notably in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Angola, and Mozambique. The scars from these conflicts have been slow to heal. x
  • 28
    The First Taste of Freedom
    While wars of liberation ravaged the southern African settler states, most countries in the rest of Africa were enjoying the first years of independence. The visionary new leaders announced great plans for bringing the fruits of independence home to ordinary citizens, and in many cases, they delivered. x
  • 29
    The Taste Turns Sour
    The promise of postcolonial freedom soon began to falter. The new leaders presided over severely hampered economies, and many of the elite were quite happy to settle for enriching themselves. When popular anger threatened stability, rulers turned to one-party states, and armies turned to military coups. x
  • 30
    The World Turns Down—The "Permanent Crisis"
    The mid-1970s were a grim turning point for Africa, marked by international oil shocks and falling prices for exported African commodities. One response was to borrow ever more furiously—and Africa's debt crisis was born. By the 1980s in places like Zambia, development was a bitterly forgotten dream. x
  • 31
    A New Dawn? The Democratic Revival
    As the Soviet bloc collapsed, authoritarian regimes in many parts of Africa faced unprecedented challenges to permit free speech and to loosen the state's grip on economic life. In country after country, civilian rule replaced military regimes, and one-party states gave way to multiparty competition. x
  • 32
    The South African Miracle
    South Africa's democratic breakthrough rivals that of the former Soviet bloc states of Eastern Europe. This lecture recounts the role played by the martyred Steve Biko, the Soweto schoolchildren's revolt of 1976, and growing international boycotts, followed by Nelson Mandela's miraculous negotiated transition to majority rule. x
  • 33
    The Unthinkable—The Rwanda Genocide
    In April 1994, the President of Rwanda was killed when a plane carrying him was shot down. Within hours began the systematic murder of 500,000 members of the minority Tutsi ethnic group. This lecture reviews Rwanda's precolonial and colonial history in an attempt to explain an event that remains, essentially, inexplicable. x
  • 34
    The New Plague—HIV/AIDS in Africa
    AIDS was first identified in the United States in the early 1980s but almost certainly originated decades earlier in Central Africa. Now a global threat, AIDS has had an incomparable impact on southern Africa, where in certain regions 30 percent of the population is infected with HIV—the virus that causes AIDS. x
  • 35
    Zimbabwe—Background to Contemporary Crisis
    This lecture explores the recent sharp decline in the fortunes of Zimbabwe, "the jewel of Africa." In the past quarter-century, the rule of President Robert Mugabe has become increasingly corrupt and authoritarian, culminating in a land-grab of white-owned farms that caused the collapse of the agricultural economy. x
  • 36
    Africa Found
    The course concludes with a brief overview of some major themes: struggles with the environment, ethnic identity, statebuilding, and Africa's evolving relationship with the outside world. Professor Vickery then offers examples of contemporary Africans who give reason to see a brighter future for the continent. x

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Your professor

Kenneth P. Vickery

About Your Professor

Kenneth P. Vickery, Ph.D.
North Carolina State University
Dr. Kenneth P. Vickery is Associate Professor and Director of Undergraduate Advising in the History Department at North Carolina State. University, where he has taught for almost 30 years. He received his B.A. degree with Phi Beta Kappa honors at Duke University and went on to study sub-Saharan African history at Yale University, where he earned his Ph.D. During his tenure at NC State, he has been a visiting professor at...
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African Experience: From "Lucy" to Mandela is rated 3.8 out of 5 by 104.
Rated 3 out of 5 by from A little dry The lecturer has good information, however the presentation is dry. He also uses 'etc.' and 'so forth' often. This leaves much wondering what I am missing. More graphics would be helpful.
Date published: 2020-07-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very informative I am only on lecture four but this course is very interesting and encompasses the geography and cultural features of this large continent.
Date published: 2020-06-11
Rated 3 out of 5 by from African Experience from "Lucy" to Mandala I am a profesor with 40 years experience at a major university. I find this professor to be passionate and knowledgeable. He presents in orderly fashion and sequentially which is a plus. However, he belabors many simple points with excess description and repeats many words that are synonyms. I found myself drifting many times because of the lag in getting to the point. If he corrects this issue, it would be a first rate course that I would recommend.
Date published: 2020-05-05
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good, but adjust the video playback speed This course covers a lot of history and a large continent so it misses some details. There are other resources if you want to go into more depth. He talks rather slowly so I sped up the video playback to 1.25 or and 1.5 and voila; an eminently enjoyable lecture.
Date published: 2020-04-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Jumping Off Point(s) I finished this course about two years ago. Much criticism has been directed at the course being too broad, much like Africa itself. I needed the general overview to help focus where I wanted to go with African studies. I have since finished quite a number of books on African history inspired by these lectures, drilling down on the stories I found most interesting. I am sure that many specific courses could be provided for regions or peoples within Africa that would fill 36 lectures each.If such courses were provided by the Great Courses, I would be interested in much of them. Prof. Vickery's choice of subjects, and his delivery of the subject matter was entertaining. It would be impossible to specialize in other than a small region in such an immense and varied place as Africa. He succeded in lighting a fire in my search for more on this amazing continent.
Date published: 2020-04-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Lucy to Mandella Im still absorbing the course. However, Ive been very pleased with the additional information; it fills in a lot of blanks and Im looking forward to the remainder of the course
Date published: 2020-02-25
Rated 2 out of 5 by from African Experience We traveled to Africa a couple of months ago and were interested in learning more about this amazing country. We were disappointed as the lectures were very unsophisticated, as if they were aimed a 3rd graders. We also had trouble with the app downloading and playing it in the car where we like to listen while driving
Date published: 2020-01-05
Rated 3 out of 5 by from necessary nightmare I bought this course abuot 4 years ago,when dvds were still shipped to europe-no longer possible,sadly,perhaps this can be reversed some day? but-back to the course,now after 4 years I have taken all lectures (while in the meantime having heard well over 300 great courses) indeed,this course was my first,I am sill a bit astonished,that I afterwards became an GC addict this course is a catastrophy (delivery,lack of visuals,stammering and the incredibly slow manner of speaking of the professor,confusing placement of historical facts in different time periods), the professor is obviously a very nice guy,but he is as overwhelmed by the magnitude of this course as are the listeners my heartfelt wish to the teaching company..its impossible for a single professor to cover the whole material as suggested by the- rather grotesque- title "from Lucy to Mandela" : please split that up amongst various experts...until then,the course is a neccesary and be it painful must...because the stuff presented here ist nowhere else to be the way,dear prof.,enjoy the course "india" the scope is at least partially compatible-that one is a fine course indeed...
Date published: 2019-12-30
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