A Few Images of Precolonial West African Women

Below are some images Sugabelly put up on FB a while ago that I’m reposting here with her graceful permission. While writing about Nigerian historical dramas, I thought the point I was trying to make there would go down better if everyone saw actual images of African women from the precolonial days. Not everyone (Africans included) has seen images of those who were here before us depicted in a positive manner. After seeing this, you’ll understand why I was upset that the women in Apaadi did not have the kind of badass hairstyles shown in the images below.

I also had to include the inevitable images of women doing their hair,

Which reminds me I was debating with my fellow youth corpers yesterday and got into an argument with a man who claimed to know his African history but still opened his mouth to say that the first multi-storey house in Nigeria was built by the Europeans in Badagry. I vehemently disagreed with him and argued that Nigerians, West Africans and Africans had been building multi-storey houses before the Europeans even dreamt of building one here. The argument then changed to ‘yeah our ancestors may have built tall houses but they didn’t build stairs to lead up to higher floors’. How does that even make sense? How can someone build a tall two storey building and then forget to build a way to reach higher floors? *Shaking my head* I’ve concluded that there are different versions of history, everyone knows that but for the African, there is colonised history and uncolonised history. Learn your uncolonised histories please! Yes, Africans slept on beds before they were colonised. Yes, Africans wore clothes before they were colonised. Yes, Africans built multi-storey buildings before they were colonised. Yes, Africans had complex belief systems and religions before Islam and Christianity reached the continent, they were NOT worshipping any devils. And yes, Africans did crazy things when they fell in love before they were colonised.

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62 responses

  1. Awesome post. I really really hate that most Africans have no idea what their precolonial lives were like.

    We had stairs people!! And shelves! And cupboards!! And curtains! And trays!! And tobacco pipes! And slippers!! And shoes!! And makeup!!! And paved streets!! And streetlights!! And indoor toilets!! And beds!! And bathtubs!! And fountains!! And gardens!! And door locks and keys!!! And treasure/jewelry chests!! And secret passageways!!! And armour!! And boots!!! And high platform shoes!!! And tea!! And hairpins!!! And underwear!! And perfume!! And dildos!!! And paintings!! And lanterns!! And lamps!!! And fans!! And umbrellas!! And litters!!! And job agencies!! And police!!! And spies!!! And gangs!! And prostitutes!! And courtesans!!! And concubines!!! And lords and ladies (well the equivalent in rank and power until their power was taken away by the Europeans)!!! And emperors and empresses!! And kings!! And queens!! And wells!! And irrigation!! And pipes (bamboo irrigation pipes and household gutters)!! And wardrobes!!! And fridges (underground clay storage kept food and water cold)!! And parties!! And alcohol!!! And condoms!!!! And birth control!!! And abortions!!! And half a million other things that I can’t think of right now but that stupid people all over the world constantly and incorrectly claim that Europeans blessed Africans with.

    Why can’t people understand that in general all humans have the same basic needs and problems and our ancient societies all solved those problems uniquely?

    Why? why? why is it so hard?

  2. I LOVE the magnific hair styles!!! Do you know the exact year these photos were taken??? I concur with everything Sugabelly said, sometime, it is so easy to forget that we existed before the Europeans came. We existed and we invented our own materials to meet our needs… discourse makes it seem like we began with the dawn of colonisation.

  3. Ok, maybe I’m a little colonised in my mindset, but I was surprised to see that the women in those pictures had plucked eyebrows. And those hairstyles were magnificent!
    Next time someone tells me something silly about not being able to “deal with” her hair, I’m sending her this site. Your ansestors were doing it just fine, why can’t you?
    Thanks man!

    • it’s okay to recognise the possibility of a colonised mindset as long as you’re fighting to correct that. in some of the pics on facebook (there are a few hundred!), i remarked that the women in the pictures who showed their breasts all had perky breasts regardless of age. Sugabelly was the person who educated me telling me not only about bindings but also about African corsets!

      i never noticed the plucked eyebrows tbh. however, there have always been different methods of hair removal and one method of removing hair that is indigenously Nigerian is sugaring which people tend to label as Middle Eastern and North African. some Nigerian ethnic groups have been sugaring for a while now so they had the means to take off hair from their eyebrows if they wanted to.

      you know anytime i ask some haters how they think our ancestors coped before the advent of relaxers they tend to clam up.

  4. Hey everyone, I just wanted to mention this since Eccentric didn’t.

    All the photos from my facebook album (which is where the photos come from) are of only Nigerian, Ghanaian, or Cameroonian women.

  5. Nice pictures!

    I guess the crux of the problems lies in this fact, if Africa had civilisations similar or more advanced than Western civilisations, why is it now that Africa as continent is the poorest?

    We have a huge amount of resources and yet instead of sharing them out, we squabble and fight.

    We choose to have war when we could choose peace and prosperity.

    I say we because really as a whole continent we have failed.

    I think it is easy to bask in the glory of statements like ‘Africans built multi storey buildings long before colonisation.’ So why is it today we have slums?

    So yes Africa is great but it certainly could be greater. Just another point of view.

    • *sigh* this is going to be long.

      simply put civilisations rise and fall. while Europe was in the dark ages, most African civilisations were at their peak and did actually put to use the resources that were available to them such as gold, copper, salt etc. obviously now the situations have changed as Europe is no longer in the dark ages.

      there are several reasons why Africa as a continent now is the poorest, we can go into military dictatorship, the long-lasting effects of colonialism and slavery, the mass corruption that continues to go on unfettered. we can also bring in those conspiracy theories that like to blame other countries on Africa’s current state. to be really honest i am not interested in figuring out why Africa is the poorest and most vulnerable continent right now because it is all too depressing to me. my interest in African history really comes from a childhood in a culture that basically tells me that my ancestors were nothing before Europeans and/or Arabs came to ‘civilise’ us. i find this sort of mentality problematic and i’m doing my part to destroy it. if you’re made to believe that your ancestors were nothing but wild unkempt cannibals it really does affect your self-esteem and psyche. just the fact that most of us were so excited when we discovered through photographic evidence that our African ancestors slept on beds and had multi-storey buildings before the advent of colonialism is problematic enough. why should we be so surprised when other nationalities including the Europeans, Indians and the Chinese take things like these as a given? what’s so different (or wrong) about being African? this is nothing if not colonial mentality and i believe that by learning more about how we were in the pre-colonial past then we’ll shed the mentality that Africans seem to have which states that nothing good can ever happen or come from Africa because we are not like the Europeans and (white) Americans who are so rich while we are living in slums.

      indeed the whole continent may be failing right now but that does not mean we have always been failing or that we will never succeed. another reason i prefer to focus on African history is because it is not only neglected but it is proof that we were great. looking at how things were back then it is obvious that we have fallen really low. i see no reason why knowledge and value of African history won’t inspire Africans to restore their respective African countries to their previous glory. the fact that Africa is not so great or glorious right now is no reason to separate us as the odd ones out and say things like ‘look at how backward those Africans are! if it were not for colonialism they’d still be living in mud huts and dancing around fires naked.’

      i don’t think you understand the sort of frustration i feel when people do not criticise the many problems we have now constructively but insist on saying that colonialism did us a favour when it really didn’t. i don’t know if this made any sense but i’ll conclude by saying that learning more about African history is my form of closure from having to live in the African reality of today. is this wrong?

      personally i wish we could have a conversation about Africa in which nothing negative is mentioned.

    • Erm… China also once had a glorious civilization… yet today it is a horrible poverty ridden country (although growing fast).

      I haven’t read Eccentric’s reply to you but my answer is going to be a short one:

      There is one general reason (and answer to your question):

      It is a simple fact of life that empires rise and fall. Ages reach their peak and then decline, and the whole process starts all over again.

      A bustling city filled with amazing monuments and successful people could be a ghost town in fifty years. It all depends on random events in the future.

      Afterall, Egypt was once a glorious civilization too, yet look at it today, dirty, noisy, overpopulated, poor, and overrun by Arabs.

      There are many peoples, countries, civilizations, races, and whatever whose names and histories have been forever lost to mankind because of lack of DSLR cameras and Internet in those days.

      The present of a country does not necessarily reflect its past. Poor countries have become rich. Countries that were once rich are now poor.

      Peoples who were once prospering are now struggling to survive, and those who were nobodies have risen to become prominent.

      So, yes, we did all those things and I don’t think Eccentric nor I are “basking” in the glory of days past. All we are saying is that the rest of the world MUST recognize the humanity and equality of Africans and stop treating us and our civilizations as if we have never been able to achieve anything because these attitudes are based wholly on our present circumstances.

      Afterall, if a person who had never heard about the history of China went there today and saw one of the poorer parts of China, they would insist that the Chinese are and have always been primitive, backward, filthy, idiots with no ability to think for themselves.

      Of course this is not an accurate picture of the Chinese, yet it is what the rest of the world constantly does to us when they say things like “Africans could never have built multi storey buildings” just because very few of those buildings survived to the present era.

      And what is even more infuriating is that most African civilizations are ten times older than those of everyone else. So, if China is beating its chest over its 5000 year old culture, well the golden age of most African cultures probably happened at least 10,000 years ago so it is completely unsurprising how few tangible artefacts of our past have survived to the present day.

      At the end of the day, only the more recent African civilizations (e.g. Egypt) have artefacts that are still standing. I’m willing to wager that most of the stuff from other older parts have long since turned to dust.

      People need to stop talking as if Africans and our civilizations are only a couple of hundred years old and I’ve noticed that this is what everybody does. And then based on this people make racist and classist assumptions about Africans simply because things have been on a downturn for the last 500 years or so.

  6. I think it is perfectly fine to say there have been previously notable civilisations but frankly the great usually fall on their own swords.

    I would love to see a piece on how Africans actively took part in slavery, selling our own people for economic profit. I would love to see some statistics on how much slavery was due to captivity and how much was ‘legal trade’.

    I could do the research myself but I think Eccentric you would do it better….if that is in your interest :)

    • this is a case of us looking at the same picture but seeing things differently (which is absolutely fine). i choose not to focus on the negative so i am not i interested in how civilisations fell or fall, i’m only interested in civilisations at their peaks. i know this may seem, i don’t know, not serious or dedicated enough of me but it’s how i move right now. which reminds me i was planning on writing a blog discussing my tendency to only read histories up until the point of denouement.

      that is not to say that i do not consider or know about the negative. in most cases i do know quite a lot about the bad stuff that may have happened in so-and-so civilisation, like i said i just choose to focus on the positive. that being said, i am yet to find a book or a journal article that accurately gives statistics on what percentage of slavery was due to captivity and/or legal trade. the only books on African slavery i have come across talked about Arab and European slavery in Africa. i did read an academic article that talked about Africans taking African slaves but the focus was on religion (the slave masters were Muslim and they took non-Muslim Africans as slaves because they believed it was their right). i have written about slavery in Africa previously, i don’t know if you ever read my series of blog posts on slavery but i sort of made a promise not to write about slavery anymore after those posts. i don’t mind making an exception for you :D if i come across texts that mention what you’ve suggested i’d definitely blog about it. trust me! till then you can find my previous posts on slavery in Africa, here and here. i must add that the focus is not specifically on Africa but on Africans. i started reading on slavery in Africa because someone suggested that Africans were not dealing in slaves till the Arabs came and taught us slavery. after reading several books i blogged about it and though my posts may not answer your initial inquiry, you may find them interesting…

  7. beautiful images. it is definitely refreshing to see pre-colonial Africans depicted in a positive fashion. pre-colonial or post-colonial. i don’t think many Americans know Africans don’t permanently have flies attached to their face =/

    • i feel the need to find and share pictures of pre-colonial Africans in order to break stereotypes. the truth is that quite a lot of Africans tend to look down on themselves and their histories as well. i don’t know if i can call this self-hate but it’s definitely colonial mentality

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  9. glad to see our nigerian women being informed about our collective history. Why do we even use the word pre”colonial” like colonialism is our default marker of actualization?! we exist, we existed, and we will continue to exist despite the onslaught of the colonial invasions.

    • lol some people can only understand ‘pre-colonial’ and you know these days there is a need to clearly differentiate before someone comes out and says that these women learnt how to make their hair from Europeans. but you’ve brought up a great point!

  10. This is very beautiful and I appreciate these
    images. But as an African woman from Sudan, I
    would also like to say something else.

    “Nude images” of African people are not negative
    images. And I think the person posting these photos needs to be very careful to not become
    “embarrassed/ashamed” of that which our ancestors
    did that is not done by Europeans. It seems as
    though what you consider to be “positive images”
    is anything that mimics White European culture.
    African people BEFORE COLONIZATION had massive
    glorious civilizations…but we also had our own
    style and our own special way of doing things.
    I take offense when you suggest that our nudity,
    our ROUND buildings, our Non-European social mores are somehow primitive and something to be
    ashamed of. I CLAIM IT ALL.

    tima usrah
    (through fire comes the family)

    Kola Boof

    • First of, I’m so thrilled that you’ve left a comment on my blog! I’m a fan of yours Kola and I appreciate you leaving a comment here.

      Now to focus on the issues your comment addresses, I don’t remember saying anywhere that nude pictures of Africans were negative. If I insinuated this anywhere in this post or elsewhere on this blog, I’m coming to say that it was not my intention at all. I’d be a hypocrite if I thought that, after all I’ve used such ‘negative’ images on this blog in my post on African female initiation rites.

      I’m not ashamed or embarrassed of anything my ancestors did that Europeans didn’t do. I accept everything really, good and bad. I accept it as part of my destiny and that which has made me who I am today. I never disrespect my ancestors, never, rather I accord them the respect they deserve as those who came before me.

      African people BEFORE COLONIZATION had massive glorious civilizations…but we also had our own style and our own special way of doing things.

      This! I totally agree with this but I realise that some people, including lot of us Africans do not want to accept or believe that we had glorious civilisations and that our history began way before the Europeans even knew of Africa. I’m trying to fight this and that’s why I put up these pictures and also why I have written and will keep on writing on African history. I hope I’ve made my intentions clear with this.

  11. Nice try. Colonization of Africa began much earlier than photography reached common usage. These photographs are most definitely taken in the 20th century, by which time much of Africa had already been colonized.
    Not to piss on your chips, but wilfully distorting history just to raise your own self esteem is pretty disingenuous.

    • I’m going to try to be really polite considering how rude your comment is. I am not ‘wilfully distorting history’ for whatever personal gains as you’ve suggested so let’s put that aside first. I’ve got a pretty high self-esteem myself and I know enough African history that I don’t have to rely on these images if I needed them to boost my self-confidence. I really wonder if you read the post at all as you would know the reason I put up the images in the first place.

      I got them from Sugabelly on facebook and I had reason to believe they were taken before colonisation which is why there is ‘pre-colonial’ in the title. Sorry I don’t know much on the history of photography and what not. Either way you have no right to come up here and accuse me trying to distort history. The source from which I got these images called them ‘pre-colonial’ and they are set in pre-colonial Nigeria and Ghana. I reflected that here and if I had made a mistake in assuming they were pre-colonial because the source I got them from told me this then there are really other ways to say this rather than coming up here as a first-time commenter and telling me that I’m wilfully distorting history.

      • actually even though some of these photos of the kingdom of bamun were taken in the early 20th and late 19th century while it was a protectorate of germany. They held much control over their own political affairs and retained a way of life and government that dates at least to the 14th century. Their architecture, art and dress ( at least in the case of these royal women in the top photos) showed little to no german influence and their clothing was a synthesis of local and Hausa-Fulani aesthetics. These images only further prove the writers point because they can be contrasted by the dress and aesthetics of women living in german missions at the time allowing the viewer to see first hand the effect on european aesthetics and ideology encroaching on the aesthetics on a kingdom which has existed since the late 1300s!

    • I hate when stupid random people just appear from nowhere. NUMBER ONE you IDIOT. Nigeria was colonised around 1880-1900. Good photography arose in the 1820s which was at least 60 FUCKING YEARS before the British war with the Benin Empire that led to Nigeria’s colonisation.

      You are SO FUCKING STUPID. You are not even from my country and you want to come here and quote my history to me. Go jump in a fucking fire you dumbass.

      Missionaries and explorers had been taking pictures of Nigerians while we were still trading with England as different empires on equal terms long before war broke out between our empires and the British that led to the British victory and subsequent colonisation.

      If you don’t know what the fuck you are saying, shut the fuck up and unplug your fucking computer you dimwitted fucktard.

      And that’s what you get for letting me wake up to shit on a Sunday morning.

  12. Fantastic..I think Janelle Monae spots one of these hair dos…

    Its great to have to look back and see where we are coming from and remind ourselves that we were not primitive (monkeys on trees ‘rme & smh’)as we are made out to be..

  13. sugabelly October 31, 2010 @ 7:31 pm

    You did not have to be so brawling!!!

    You know the sad thing about this is that when you’re suppose to get upset with your colonizer you skin your teeth with them. They are the ones you should be swearing at for colonizing and continuing to oppress your people.

    No one wants to disort your history it acutally our history too so don’t pat yourself on your should for being so rude-take just take a deep breath and count to ten!!!!!!!!!!

    A suh it guh

  14. Evidently, you blogers have learnt little about your past…History of the precolonial period, whether of Nigeria or West Africa is well documented. Go to library and read… We don’t need to claim relevance what is not…Please tell me of any site in nigeria before the storey building in badagry where storey building were found.Is it in yorubaland or among the Igbo or the Kanuri, the ibibio, hausa, dankerikeri, gunghawa, zuru, fulani, itsekiri, urhobo…please update my knowledge of history. As a Historian I have learnt that you don’t debunk a claim when you have no fact to back you up. It is wrong to look at the past from the viewpoint of the present to think that what happen now, happened then..that is a parody not the real thing.

    • And it is pretty clear that though you call yourself a historian, you also have learnt little about your past! We bloggers go to the library, we read and we learn a lot. We don’t sit down and absorb history that wants to paint Africans as backwards, we think critically. From your comment, I can tell that you have not read this blog thoroughly. This particular post is about * pictures*! When I write essays, I always leave references.

      You want fact? How about that most of the historical sites in Nigeria are not being taken care of. They are left to crumble and lie in waste, we are not doing anything to preserve our historical artefacts and you’re actually talking about facts to debunk claims? Most of our historical ‘facts’ have turned to dust, however a few remain. You should visit Sugabelly’s blog and see the picture she had up of an ancient watchtower in Igboland. If Igbos could build towers how could they not build two-storey houses? ::facepalm:: Historian, have you heard of Sungbo Eredo? Have you visited it? How can ancient Yoruba build walls that stretch for 70 feet and forget to add stairs and build multiple storey buildings? ::headdesk:: This is not creating a parody, it is simple common sense!

      I know all too well about not looking at the past with today’s lens on. I may not have studied history at university but history is my hobby and I am a history nerd. I can hold my ground against someone who spent years studying African history and I’m not ashamed to say that. I read a lot on history and I use my common sense to know that some things are just given. Multi-storey buildings have always been a part of African history, in fact I don’t know why I’m still talking about something so obvious. You may be interested in visiting When We Ruled , in particular check out their pages on ’100 things that you did not know about Africa’.

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  16. Hi there, I am doing a slide on hair of back women of Africa, was hoping to use some of the images from her. Purely for interest purposes.
    thanks.

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  18. i love this. sometimes i wish i could get myself into a time machine and go way back to see these people for myself…i feel like i’m missing out on something huge from that era. does anyone know anything about any women possibly from that era or in that neighborhood who played remarkable roles in history…in any way? regionally or locally recognized for her deeds? my email address is peridore89@yahoo.ie in case anyone has anything for me. Thanky Thanky

    • I’ve always thought about the time machine too, I believe if our ancestors saw us today they’d either be extremely horrified, or laugh at some of the notions we’ve bought up thanks to colonial mentality. There is a whole lot of information out there available on women who played remarkable roles in African history, I suggest you try first with a Google search. I’ll email anything new I come across to you.

  19. Can you give a link to where you found these pictures?I’m an anime artist and I just love these photos of African civilizations before Europeans destroyed it. I’m fighting this colonial mentallity as well. Just from a different front.

    • Hello Tracy, the first sentence in this post is this “Below are some images Sugabelly put up on FB a while ago that I’m reposting here with her graceful permission.”

      I found the photos on Facebook thanks to Sugabelly and that is all the reference I have. I suggest you contact Sugabelly personally if you want links and such.

      Good luck with your art and fighting colonial mentality!

  20. Really appreciate these beautiful images of Afrikan women back in the day before the devils got into Afrika and distorted the people and the land!

    Thanks much…

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