Introductory Seminars for First-Year Students

Power, Prestige, and Politics in African Societies


The aim of this seminar is to infuse a human dimension into the study of politics on the African continent. In particular, considering the 1800s to the present day, and drawing on case studies from across the continent, the seminar will prompt students to creatively connect the political with the personal. We will examine how gender, intimate and romantic relationships, arguments between parents and children, attempts to access and harness the power of the sacred, and fights for status and authority of all kinds, were pivotal forces shaping the form that politics and political activism assumed on the continent. Moving away from a tendency to view ‘politics’ in isolation from other aspects of daily life, this seminar emphasizes the multiple elements—personal, public and those elements awkwardly poised between the two—that propelled individuals and societies to act ‘politically’. In Africa, as elsewhere in the world, public and intimate spheres were, and are, close neighbors. This seminar encourages students to be attentive to the ways in which political mobilization is tied to very human struggles for self-expression and autonomy, in all realms of life.

Meet the Instructor(s)

Joel Cabrita

"My interest in the intersections between the political and the personal arose through my experience of growing up in the small Southern African Kingdom of Eswatini (also known as Swaziland). While politics were a tricky topic (Eswatini has been in a state of emergency since 1973 which means all political parties have been banned since then), I could not help but notice how much energy emaSwati (‘Swazi people’) put into their religious attendance and worship at various churches throughout the country; religion lay at the heart of peoples’ lives and considerable time was devoted to it. This early experience inspired me to research the importance of religion in the history of the Southern African region, and it became apparent to me that even though people may not be talking about politics in any explicit or recognizable way, political concerns were never far away, even in the midst of a church service."