Farming peoples generally lived in tight-knit communities and helped one another in tasks such as clearing the land, planting, and harvesting. Both men and women planted, but usually were responsible for different crops. Political patterns varied, depending in part on the size of the community that the land could support.
In farming societies, power was usually shared among a number of people rather than centralized in the hands of a single leader. In some villages, a chief had a good deal of authority, but in many others, elders made the major decisions. Sometimes, older men supervised religious ceremonies linked to the government, while younger men made decisions about war. In some places, especially in parts of West Africa, women took the dominant role in the marketplace or acted as official peacemakers in the village.
Villages often made decisions by a process known as consensus, or general agreement. In open discussions, people whose opinions were valued voiced their views before a final agreement was reached. Because of the experience and wisdom of older men and women, their opinions usually carried the greatest weight.
King Alvaro II, ruler of Kongo, made alliances and trade agreements with Europeans, such as the Dutch depicted in this illustration.
In villages that were part of a large kingdom such as Songhai, decisions made at a distant court had to be obeyed. These villagers, therefore, had to pay taxes and provide soldiers to the central, and frequently distant, government.
Many different forms of government developed in Africa. An example of one kind of government organization was the kingdom of Kongo. It flourished about A.D. 1500 in the forest zone of west-central Africa. The kingdom consisted of many villages grouped into districts and provinces and governed by officials appointed by the king. Each village had its own chief, a man chosen on the basis of the descent of his mother's family.
In theory, the king of Kongo had absolute power. In fact, that power was limited. The king was chosen by a board of electors and had to govern according to traditional laws. Unlike rulers of West Africa states, who maintained strong standing armies, kings of Kongo depended on a system of military service that called upon men to fight only in times of need. The king ruled through local governors who collected taxes either in goods or in cowrie shells, a common currency in Africa.
The organization of Kongo was just one type of African government. In many regions, people belonged to small local societies without a centralized government.
How did power-sharing work in small African societies?
Across Africa, religious beliefs and practices were varied and complex. As elsewhere, religion helped to unite a society. Through religion, people learned about their origins. Oral traditions and myths taught important moral truths about right and wrong. Dancing, singing, and playing musical instruments were part of religious celebrations.
Like ancient Greeks and Romans, village Africans worshiped many gods and goddesses. Along with all ancient peoples, they identified the forces of nature with divine spirits and tried to influence those forces through rituals and ceremonies.
Many African peoples believed that a single, unknowable supreme being stood above all the other gods and goddesses. This supreme being was the creator and ruler of the universe and was helped by the lesser gods and spirits, who were closer to the people.