Posts Tagged ‘history’

Ibn Battuta in Timbuktu

An ongoing project has me immersed in the history of West African trade, and of course, contemporary accounts of regional cross border trade. Rather than not blog, here’s a link heavy post on Ibn Battuta‘s travels in the region back in the 14th Century. Click on the image for a larger version of the map.

“Histories and biographies there are in quantity, but the historians for all their picturesque details, seldom show the ability to select the essential and to give their figures that touch of the intimate which makes them live again for the reader. It is in this faculty that Ibn Battuta excels.”

Thus begins the book, “Ibn Battuta, Travels in Asia and Africa 1325-1354” published by Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Abu Abdullah Muhammad Ibn Battuta, was a Moroccan Muslim scholar and traveler. He is known for his traveling and going on excursions called the Rihla. His journeys lasted for a period of almost thirty years. This covered nearly the whole of the known Islamic world and beyond, extending from North Africa, West Africa, Southern Europe and Eastern Europe in the West, to the Middle East, India, Central Asia, Southeast Asia and China in the East, a distance readily surpassing that of his predecessors. After his travel he returned to Morocco and gave his account of the experience to Ibn Juzay.

He wrote what was possibly the world’s first account of globalization.

His adventures reveal, as Dunn writes, “the formation of dense networks of communication and exchange.” These networks “linked in one way or another nearly everyone in the hemisphere with nearly everyone else.

“From Ibn Battuta,” Dunn continues, “we discover webs of interconnection that stretched from Spain to China, and from Kazakhstan to Tanzania.” Even in the 14th century, an event in one part of Eurasia or Africa might affect places thousands of miles away.

Battuta crossed over 40 modern countries and covered over 70,000 miles. He became one of the greatest travelers the world has ever seen. He left behind a travelogue of his life’s journeys filled with details on the places, people and politics of medieval Eurasia and North Africa.

Trained judge (qadi), scholar, and observer, he’s been called a true Renaissance man, surpassing his contemporary, that other, more famous traveler Marco Polo.

Trade in East Africa – A very short introduction to a very long history

800px-Indo-Roman_tradeWho were the pioneers who opened up the trade routes that criss cross the seas and deep into the interior from the ancient ports of Zanzibar and Mombasa? We don’t know who these intrepid sailors must have been, making their profit from rich Roman’s wives seeking Indian silks and spices, but the African continent’s eastern shores were known to traders at the very beginning of the Common Era (CE).

Azania is the name that has been applied to various parts of southeastern tropical Africa. In the Roman period and perhaps earlier, the toponym referred to a portion of the Southeast African coast extending from Kenya, to perhaps as far south as Tanzania. Azania was known to the Chinese as Zésàn (澤散) by the 3rd century. Even China’s most famous explorer, Zheng He only reached Malindi a few decades before Da Gama’s voyage in 1497.

IndianOceanMaritimeRoutesEast African coastal cities participated in a larger Afro-Asian trade network a thousand years before Vasco Da Gama peeked around the Cape of Good Hope to find the way to sail to India. Gujarati traders were already criss-crossing the ocean for biashara with the Swahili Coast of Eastern Africa. As far back as the 3rd c. CE, the banana, domesticated in India, came to Madagascar (and thence to the African continent) as part of the broad Afro-Asian/Indian Ocean trading community.(1) By the 13th Century, Africa was well integrated in the global trading pattern.

indianoceanroutesTrade flourished in the Indian Ocean as East Africa, India, Southeast Asia, China, the Spice Islands participated in a thriving commercial network that encompassed both overland and maritime routes. Asian and Arab sailors mastered the monsoon wind patterns of the Indian Ocean to capitalize on commercial opportunities.

History has finally found a name for one them, present at the dawn of the age of colonization – Kanji Malam – the merchant sailor from the ancient port of Mandvi on the coast of the Indian state of Gujarat who showed Da Gama how to cross the ocean to India from Malindi on the Kenyan coast. These hazy but deep links of trading history are captured here by the Friends of Mombasa.

00a7d3c793fbbd2e9f45e28b18dffb02East Africa was part and parcel of the trade and served as “cross cultural agents” in the global commercial networks of that era. The Swahili Coast is the best known of these multicultural trading societies.

The Coast of East Africa has had a long history of trade, involving constant exchanges of ideas, style and commodities for well over two thousand years. Marriage between women of Africa and men of the East created and cemented a rich Swahili culture, fusing urban and agricultural communities, rich in architecture, textiles, and food, as well as purchasing power.(2)

zanzibar map coast

Further inland, the Kamba, of what is now Kenya, and the Nyamwezi of erstwhile Tangayika, formed the trader’s networks that linked the ports of the Swahili Coast to the wealth of the heart of Africa.(Roberts, 1970; Cummings, 1975)  Copper from Katanga vied with ivory and gold to pay for the textiles and metals. Caravan routes laid down in centuries past are reflected in the roads and rails of today.

The pioneers of all the major routes were African traders. Nyamwezi caravans from central Tanzania, reaching the coast about 1800, developed the most important route from their homeland to Bagamoyo on the mainland directly opposite Zanzibar. Kamba ivory traders from central Kenya opened a route that ended at Mombasa. Eventually, this route crossed Kamba and Maasai country, branching east towards Uganda and north to Lake Turkana. The oldest route stretched from Yao country to Kilwa. (3)

With the Global North’s industrialization of the slave trade and colonization came the top down administration of the formal economy, as the need for manual labour spelt the beginning of the end of these ancient caravans of trade.

You may also enjoy The African Diaspora in the Indian Ocean World.

Book Review: Adventures in Stationery by James Ward


I read this book in one sitting yesterday. Now I’m here writing on it.

Any adult who’s furtively indulged in scented erasers, colourful gel pens or handmade paper, to be shoved secretly down the lowermost drawer in the desk will love this book.

Pens and pencils, paperclips and pushpins. James Ward lovingly describes them all, interspersing a well researched narrative with joke bombs dropped in with the straightest face.

My only issue with his writing is that it made me feel old. He writes as though he’s middle aged yet refers to the era when I sat for my O Levels as the dim mists of history. Other than that, go find this eminently readable book. Especially if you’re a designer. Ward knows what he’s writing about and does it engagingly well.

“This book is the Salt of office supplies”


China’s revival of ancient trading ties along the historic Silk Road

The South China Morning Post has a great infographic on a favourite topic of mine – the Great Silk Road.


Some related posts:

On the new Silk Route – Experiencing Africa’s informal trading network with China
The African Diaspora in the Indian Ocean World

The Letter writer: Yesterday’s social mediators

Letter writer Mr Thangaraju s/o Singaram, who is 85 years old and was from Tamil Nadu, India.

Click to enlarge and read the stories of those who were lucky enough to have been educated when they migrated looking for work. They made their living helping others… as the Tamil letter writer Mr Thangaraju says, we weren’t just letter writers but counsellors, mediators and therapists, helping illiterate migrant labour keep their connections alive across the miles.

Vignettes from Singapore’s past: Independent Women

Look up more on Samsui women , pioneering globe trotting. independent employment for women.

The Samsui women were a proud and independent lot. Prostitution, opium peddling and various vices were common with other women mired in poverty. However, Samsui women chose to be engaged in hard labour with little pay instead of being lured into vices even if they paid more. They found employment in tin mines, rubber estates, on construction sites and as amahs or “domestic servants”. They were hired extensively at construction sites in the 1950s. They carried rocks, dug holes and conducted menial work that defied their small physical stature.

They wore a red head dress which became their trademark feature. The red head dress was a square piece of blood-red cloth folded in a way that it sat like a fairly large rectangular roof on their heads. Their hair was combed into a bun or “pigtail” or towchang and tucked under the red cap. The towchang was a mark of their spinsterhood. They dressed in a stiffly starched black samfoo (sometimes spelt samfu), a tunic-and-trouser suit, protected by an apron. The sandals they wore were pieces of rubber cut out from used tyres and fashioned on their own with a strap. 

25 years of interacting with a computer

I’m still surprised that I’m the closing speaker at the 25th anniversary of the computer human interaction society’s conference in San Jose this year on May 3rd 2007. Personally, I don’t have a clue about how one goes about all this technical stuff, I’m just a user and probably classify as an internet addict. Though that’s an odd thing to say about those of us whose work day begins in front the screen and includes coordinating with and connecting to people all around the world who may just be waking up. Are you an iPod addict?

I entered the 12th grade in the Fall semester of 1982 and my choice of classes included Computer 1 and later in the Spring, Computer 2. Twenty five years ago, I first sat down in front of a computer monitor, a cpu and a keyboard. There were two 5 and a quarter inch disk drives – one to load DOS 1.0 with and the other to hold our homework. Oh yes, remember those vivid fuschia Verbatim floppy covers? Remember when leaving floppies in the back seat of the car was guaranteed to give you a gooey mess? I just bought a Pentium 4 a couple of years ago and paid extra for a 3.5″ drive. I was mocked and laughed at but at least I can access all my old data, sometimes.

On my 26th birthday, I asked for and received an incomparable birthday gift from my father [who complained to my mom about the price and mom said “well who asked you to say yes to her?”]. It was an IPC laptop – black & white, 486 DSX [that meant it didn’t need a math co-processor], 120 MB HDD and 20MB Ram. Wow! And it still WORKS! I have it at home right now, it runs Windows 3.1 and file manager and I don’t need to turn on Windows to run Pagemaker on it. My how times have changed!

At 29, I bought a grey market built to order 486 loaded games machine, I’d recently launched the Multimedia Kit from Creative Labs in India as their local distributor was my client at Result:McCann and through that hard work was able to purchase a kit at cost price for my machine. I bought it with my savings and paid cash Rupees 80,000 [my monthly salary at that time was Rs 6,000 and then doubled by McCann to Rs 12000 a month] for this machine – it was purely to play games on. I am to this day an inverterate gamer. After all, once you’ve played Galaxian, Frogger, Space Invaders, PacMan or even Prince of Persia, Doom, Castle Wolfenstien, graduating along with the evolution of the games themselves upto Age of Empires and Civilization, you can see the history of the games industry flash right before your eyes. Any one remember Chip? the 64 levels of chip picking torture using the four arrow keys driving you to distraction?

At 30, I was introduced to the internet – almost simultaneously dad got a Pine internet account – the entry level offered by VSNL with only text based browsing and I joined Hewlett Packard India where we had our own satellite broadband bandwidth to surf the tcp/ip universe. Talk about experiencing the evolution and growth of the internet. I still remind Stu Constantine at Core77 that I first stumbled onto Core77 in 1996 or 1997 from India. Core77 was launched in 1995. Stu and I recently came reluctantly to the conclusion that we may not be wholly in tune with was current in popular culture online amongst undergraduate students. Very reluctantly.

Next saturday I will be 41 – ideally while sampling suitable single malt scotch in Scotland – nice alliteration that! ;p and what is my experience as a human interacting with the computer?

And more importantly, when I look up from my screen, and my eyes lose focus and soften into that dreamy look that accompanies deep pondering thoughts, what do I see when I look ahead to the next 25 years?

Human interaction, I recently read on a blog somewhere. I wish I could find it. The concept was important, it said, it isn’t human computer interaction or computer human interaction. It was human interaction. Do we have phone human interaction? No, we assume the phone is tool to facilitate communication between two or more human beings. Yes?

So is not this blog post but one minute example of a tool that facilitates communication between two or more humans? Is not flickr? What about gmail and chat? Skype – phone, video, chat or files? What about all of them – then we begin to see the limitations. Perhaps that is why we yearn for the iPhone or Jeff Han’s intuitive powerful full handed movements that allow him to feel as though he is truly delving the depths of cybermedia and cyberspace?

I was saying to someone just yesterday that it won’t be any one single computer that will be the most powerful computer in the world but in fact this was already there – the cyberbrain. Here’s an example, call it a back cpu or massively parallel processing or whatever – but the combination of human beings interacting with each other using the tools of the connectivity that broadband gives us gave rise to the social web. the rise of the missing sense of community that we as social beings, as human animals need. And the more we connect and see and share the more we realize that people all over the world have the same hopes and dreams and aspirations as we do, they just look a bit funny. But so what, don’t we, in our own mirrors, each day?

Now I must reach beyond and see what lies yonder…

First published 17th March 2007 on a blog called Jugaad

Why South Africa should not be the entry point to reach Africa’s emerging consumer markets

This post is about something I’ve been musing upon for some months now, ever since my 2011 project which took me around rural and small town Kenya visiting with a variety of cyber cafes. Since then, many other well respected Kenyan professionals that I’ve spoken with, either in person or online, have confirmed my suspicions that my conjectures are valid.

South Africa is not the best place from which to enter the emerging consumer markets of Sub Saharan Africa.

This was the strategy touted for Wal-Mart when they bought into their foothold earlier last year. That once the “African consumer experience” was gained in South Africa, they could leverage that knowledge to expand northwards to other major urban metros. I beg to disagree, most strenuously.

While I’ve yet to gain first hand immersion experience in West Africa, I do have the exposure to both urban and rural markets, particularly lower down the income stream in South Africa as well as in East Africa, via Kenya. That first observation alone triggered the thinking behind this post today – the market days in rural Kenya are considered to be little different from those in rural Tanzania or Uganda, and market towns dotting the landscape are familiar to travelers across the region.

This does not exist in South Africa. There are no organic societies in rural South Africa, where farmers and pastoralists have lived their way of life for eons, nor do people point out their grandfather’s banana trees or his third wife’s kitchen on the sprawling family homestead.

South Africa, particularly rural South Africa, is an artificial construct. Homelands were created some 60 or 70 odd years ago and not simply the kind of land clearing that was done in the Settler Country of East Africa either but deliberately carving out the least fertile land with the scarcest amount of natural resources. A simple drive through the Eastern Cape will show you odd clusters of homes with no natural resources nearby to give rise to any reason for their existence unlike the naturally emerging population clusters near rivers and farmland as can be seen elsewhere. Few in rural South Africa can claim with the pride of the Swahili in the north Coast that the coral block home in Lamu has been in the family for over 500 years.

Education is another area where there is a huge difference. Adult black South Africans who were schooled for the most part prior to the fall of apartheid have experienced only the truncated ‘bantu education‘ crafted specifically for them, unlike the Kenyans for example, who have always had access to the same curriculum and programs as any other resident of their country. While there are many more such differences, society and education are the two most critical.

This matters. A lot.

This difference in history and reason for being influences so many consumer choices, buyer behaviour and mindset of the people that if a company bases their Sub Saharan market entry strategy on their South African experience, there is a danger that they will be taken by surprise when they expand to other regional markets.

Here are some snippets as food for thought extracted from recent news articles:

Historically South Africa was designed as an appendage of Europe , with Africans as cogs in the wheel. The other Africa was sold to local blacks as inferior and the countries best avoided. It is still not unusual to hear black South Africans refer to other African countries as “Up there””. Xenophobia has become synonymous to South Africa. But things are gradually changing as other Africans become better known with time and as other African countries join the success list, politically and economically.

South Africa, well steeped in racial history had always sought to identify with the first world, while the first world itself have re-discovered Africa’s massive potential. That outlook has seen the Zuma administration join the economic grouping Brics and the G20 to the neglect of a strong African economic union.

Black South Africa woke up belatedly to discover that the flights from Johannesburg flying North to the rest of africa was filled with white South africans freed from the shackles of apartheid , busy taking adavantage of massive opportunities that had opened up in a growing Africa. MTN South Africa, has made a fortune in Nigeria. Its shareholders are largely white.There are more than eighty South African companies registered in Ghana.

And more to the point, this comment “South African companies find it hard to rule Kenyan market” in an African forum puts the challenges forth a little more bluntly while another recent article clearly states:

Dapo Okubadejo, who is a partner and the head of financial advisory services at KPMG, said: “There is a huge problem with SA companies; they come with a huge big brother attitude. In Africa people see them as being not flexible and this creates a lot of sensitivity,” Okubadejo said. He added that it was a mentality that affected investments.

Okubadejo cited Telkom’s failure to establish itself in Nigeria as an example.

I am making this point clearly now because it is a matter of concern, particularly when there are enough barriers to understanding the emerging African market opportunity that exist for global multinationals as it is.

South Africa is an offical BRICS now and certainly considered the most sophisticated economy on the continent, but it is no longer the largest as Nigeria rapidly snaps at its heels nor representative of the consumer culture that may be prevalent across the rest of the region.