Module Nineteen, Activity Three

Culture, Society and Production in East Africa

We have now looked at some of the history, international relations, and geography of East Africa in Activities One and Two. But what is daily life like for East Africans? What are some of their cultural practices, ways they organize themselves socially, and how do their economies work? These are some of the questions that we will get at in Activity Three.

This activity on culture, society and production in East Africa is divided into three main sections. First, we will discuss culture. Because East Africa is such a richly diverse place culturally, it is impossible to talk about East African culture in a general way. So instead we will look at two specific aspects of culture in East Africa in two different regions—music and dance in Seychelles, and religion in Ethiopia.

Secondly, we will talk about some of the forces at work shaping the economies of East African nations. This section will focus on one factor that all East African (as well as other African nations) share in common—the impact of programs implemented by two global financial institutions called the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. How have these affected people’s daily lives?

The third section of this activity addresses the marginal position of certain members of a society due to gender or ethnicity. These are issues that are relevant in every society in the world. However, here, we will give an example of the situation in two East African societies—Eritrea and Rwanda.

Tribal Bug


What is a culture? You may remember dealing with this question in Module 8: Culture and Society in Africa. The word culture can be used in many different ways. Sometimes people use it to only refer to expressive arts (music, dance, and visual arts). Sometimes people use it to generally describe the way of life of a group of people. The latter is the way that we will use the word culture in this activity.

While it is true that groups of people do have a way of life that they pass down from generation to generation (a culture), it is also important to keep in mind that this changes and is experienced differently by different people. Just think about life in the United States as an example. Some people may talk about American culture. Other people prefer to talk about ethnic cultures—European-Americans, African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, and so on. These groups can have very different ways of life. But even within these groups, we all know that not every family or even individual is the same. People’s experiences vary according to age, gender, personality, and so on.

Just as cultures in America are very diverse, so are cultures in East Africa. East Africans have many different cultural traditions that they practice, even within the same country. For this reason, we have chosen two specific cultural traditions out of many that have developed in East Africa for you to learn about.


Seychelles Map

Seychelles is a melting pot of various African, European, and Asian cultures. The islands were settled by Europeans who brought African slaves to work on their plantations during the 18th century. Later in the 19th century, Indian and Chinese traders arrived as well. Most people in Seychelles today are of mixed descent from these backgrounds.

The music and dance that evolved in Seychelles reflects this melting pot of cultures. There are three types of music with a dance that are commonly associated with Seychelles—the moutia, sega, and contredanse.

Tribal Frog Moutia is a song and dance style originating with the slaves on Seychelles. It is a group dance done by fireside with the men and women lining up facing each other. The dance is often accompanied by a tambourine-like percussion instrument and two types of stringed instruments—a zez and bow.


Sega is another song and dance with strong African influences that is popular in Seychelles. It uses similar instruments to the moutia, although it is only about 20 years old. There are many new sega songs being produced and played on the radio and in concerts in Seychelles as well as internationally.
Tribal Circle


Tribal Lizard
Contredans is a style of country song and dance with its roots in France and England. It is a combination of waltz, polka, and berliner played by a fiddle, banjo, accordion, drums, and triangle.

To hear a sampling from the Seychelles, go to Youtube and search for music from the Seychelles.



Ethiopia is a country with about 40% Christians, 45% Muslims, and some various other religious traditions. The history of Christianity is particularly interesting in Ethiopia because the Ethiopian Orthodox Church developed relatively independently from other Christian churches in Asia and Europe.


Ethiopia Map

Some people believe that Christianity reached Ethiopia as early as the 1st century CE by some of Jesus’ disciples. Others believe that Frumentius from Syria brought Christianity to Ethiopia in the 4th century CE. Either way, we know that Christianity in this region of the world has a deep and rich history.

The Christian church in Ethiopia, called the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, gained a great deal of power and prestige as it became closely aligned with political leaders throughout most of its history. As such, it was granted large amounts of land and other resources, which enabled it to build beautiful churches—some of which are still standing today. The photos below show two churches cut out of the rock in an Ethiopian town called Lalibela. This town is well known for 11 such ancient churches, believed by most to be built around the 12th and 13th centuries CE. They are considered one of the wonders of the world.

Church Carved out of Rock Ancient Church Hewn from Rock in Lalibela (used with permission of Africa Focus website - University of Wisconsin)

Roof of Rock Church Rooftop of Rock Church in Lalibela (used with permission of Africa Focus website - University of Wisconsin)

The Ethiopian Orthodox church has remained an integral part of the lives of many people in Ethiopia even up to the present. Members of the church practice fasting, prayer, circumcision, baptism, penance, Eucharist (communion), marriage, anointing of the sick and holy orders. They attend weekly services as well as special services for religious holidays. The church has saints who are able to intercede on behalf of the living. There are also a variety of leadership positions in the church—archbishop, bishops, priests, deacons, monks, nuns, and debteras (lay people who perform various services in the church).

You can read more about the Ethiopian Orthodox church in Module 14: Religion in Africa.

Ethiopian Orthodox Priests Ethiopian Orthodox Priests at Festival of Timket, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (used with permission of the Africa Focus website - University of Wisconsin)
Feast Day at Orthodox Church A Feast Day at an Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Addis Ababa (used with permission of the Africa Focus website - University of Wisconsin)

Your Turn…

Choose one of the following topics to write a paragraph about.

  1. Imagine that you are able to make a trip to Ethiopia as part of a team of journalists doing a story on the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The team has a meeting when you arrive and decides that each reporter should choose one of the following persons in the church to interview—priest, deacon, archbishop, bishop, monk, nun, debteras (lay people who perform various services in the church), or a member at large. Write a paragraph explaining which person you would like to interview, why you have chosen that person, and what kind of questions you will ask in the interview.

  2. Imagine that you have just won a trip to spend 2 weeks in Seychelles and take dance lessons. Since the time is short, you have to choose which type of dance you want to study—moutia, sega, or contredans. Write a paragraph saying which dance you will study, why you chose it, and what you hope to learn about the history and culture of Seychelles from this experience.


East African countries gained their independence from European colonial powers between 1956 (Sudan) and 1977 (Djibouti). Yet this did not mean that they became disconnected from international power relationships when they became independent. As was discussed in Module 9: African Economies, African nations have remained somewhat subjected to European (and also American) economic interests during the post-colonial period. For example, trade has remained directed towards supplying raw materials from Africa to industrial centers in the US and Europe. Also, many African nations have struggled to manage the very difficult situation of replacing a colonial government with a new independent one. By the 1980s most African nations found themselves facing possible bankruptcy, and two financial institutions were willing to give them financial assistance in the form of loans—the World Bank and the IMF.

Some people see the intervention of the World Bank and IMF as helping countries in difficult financial situations. Others see it as one more way of subjugating African countries to US and European interests, since people from these nations are the principle funders and administrators of these institutions. And along with the loans that the IMF and World Bank gave to African nations, they required that African nations restructure their governments and economies. These changes were intended to help the African governments, but did they really work? This remains a hotly debated question.

East Africa is no exception to this story. But what are some more specific ways that the World Bank and IMF have influenced the economy in East African nations? Although every East African nation has a story to tell of its relationship with the World Bank and IMF, we have chosen Sudan’s story as one example.

The country of Sudan was facing serious financial crises during the 1970s and 1980s when the IMF and World Bank stepped in to offer loans and plans for restructuring the government so as to improve the economic conditions. The changes implemented in Sudan as well as many other developing countries at this time are commonly referred to as Structural Adjustment Programs (SAP’s). In Sudan, this program focused on recovery and expansion of the cotton market, which the World Bank and IMF thought was as a major factor in Sudan’s financial problems. Cotton is a major cash crop and export of Sudan, and during this time period the industry had been declining. The new policies of the World Banks and IMF were, however, not successful. So the IMF declared Sudan ineligible for loans in 1985 and suspended Sudan’s membership in 1993.
Young Girl Cotton Field
Young girl in field of Long Staple Cotton in Blue Nile Province, Sudan (used with permission of the Africa Focus website - University of Wisconsin)

Over the years, cotton has become a less and less important export in Sudan. Although IMF policies sought to increase cotton exports around 1979-80, cotton sales as a percentage of total exports have continued to decline from that time until the present.

Overseas Cotton Sales as a Percentage of Total Exports (1979) 65% Overseas Cotton Sales as a Percentage of Total Exports (1980) 45% Overseas Cotton Sales as a Percentage of Total Exports (1993-4) 20% Overseas Cotton Sales as a Percentage of Total Exports (1997) 17.8% Overseas Cotton Sales as a Percentage of Total Exports (2000) 2.9% Overseas Cotton Sales as a Percentage of Total Exports (2001) 2.6% (Data taken from Africa South of the Sahara 1996 and 2003)

Bank and IMF, but were independent of them. These programs were called SSAP (Sudan Structural Adjustment Program). This program sought to enhance agricultural production, encourage privatization, balance the budget, and deregulate price controls. But this program ended up having a negative effect on the economy overall as the cost of living rose, workers failed to gain ownership over private enterprises, and government spending was cut back.

Despite these financial problems that continue, Sudan was allowed to become an IMF member again in 2000. What will the future hold now? Are Sudan and the IMF/World Bank able to come up with another plan to get Sudan out of its financial crisis? What makes us think it will be successful this time? Many people have doubts about the ability of the IMF and World Bank to solve Sudan’s financial problems, but Sudan seems to be caught between a rock and a hard place. It is deeply in debt and in need of financial assistance.


Societies are organized in different ways throughout the world. This statement comes as no surprise to any of us. We all know that our life is often quite different from someone else in another city, state, or neighborhood in the US—let alone someone in another country. Societies can be all different shapes and sizes too. Sometimes societies incorporate large numbers of people, like the entire United States of America. Sometimes societies are a smaller group of people like a town or a group of professionals. Any group of people who are organized together and interacting socially could be considered a society. One of the great things about human beings is that they come up with endless ways to organize themselves and be social.

Take a moment to list four different societies that you are a part of personally:

Power always becomes a factor when groups of people share their lives together. However, how power is distributed varies quite a bit from society to society. Sometimes people are organized so that most members of society have a fairly equal amount of power. But often societies have certain groups of people who hold considerably more power than others. The power they hold can be in the form of money, political influence, family decision-making, or being able to speak opinions publicly.

In most regions of the world today, one finds that gender and ethnicity are two important factors that divide up who holds more power in a society. Women as a general rule tend to hold less power than men in any given society. And some ethnic or racial groups tend to hold more power than others. Just think about your own country for a moment, the USA. Although people have made efforts in recent years to improve the situation of women and non-whites in America, when you look at both of these groups overall, they still hold less power in economics, politics, and public speech in their nation. For example, just look at how many more men are in politics than women, or how many more whites than racial/ethnic minorities (see chart below). And what percentage of non-whites do you see on TV versus whites? How do these percentages compare with the population at large? They are not a fair representation of the American population.

US Congress percentage Table

Information based on the 2000 US Census,, and (2001, 107th congress) These are just a few examples of some of the ways that power inequalities manifest themselves in a society. Keeping these thoughts in mind, let’s take a look at two East African societies to see what power inequalities exist as far as gender and ethnicity.


Eritrea Map

I. The Fight for the Power to Control Eritrea The country of Eritrea has been a much-disputed territory throughout its recent history. The Ottoman Turks, Ethiopians, Egyptians, Italians, and British have all sought to control it. Most recently Eritrea was incorporated into the country of Ethiopia before claiming its independence in 1993. The fight for independence from Ethiopia involved a long military struggle lasting from the 1960’s to the early 1990’s. Women were an important part of this fight for liberation, and have seen their roles in society change as a result.

II. The Fight for Women to Gain Power in Eritrea Eritrean society is a patriarchal one—men dominate national, community, and family decision-making and management of resources. In general, boys are preferred to girls in families, and women are less likely to have access to education and employment that pays well. Before the liberation struggle, women did not have the opportunity to vote or be elected to political positions in their communities.

While Eritrean women today still struggle to obtain equal opportunities and participation with men, they have been able to make great strides since the 1970’s to improve their status in Eritrea.

The liberation struggle in Eritrea was spearheaded by a group named the Ethiopian Liberation Front (ELF), which was later replaced by the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) as the chief liberation group. ELF and EPLF admitted women into their organizations and advocated full gender equality in their policies. In 1979, EPLF founded an organization for women called the National Union of Eritrean Women. Its mission was to work towards gender equality and the development of women as an essential part of Eritrean politics, society, and culture.

You can look up more information on the National Union of Eritrean Women at

Also during the liberation struggle, a large number of women fought in the EPLF army. Some estimates say that as much as 40% of the army was women, and a third of the fighters who were killed in the war with Ethiopia were women. Those women who did not fight at this time often took over positions in their homes and communities that men had formerly held since many of the men were off fighting. These new roles for women in society allowed women new opportunities and freedoms—they gained power in a new way that they had not experienced before. But there has also been a conservative backlash as a result of this. Some Eritreans are not happy with the new roles and greater equality with men that women have been able to have. They believe that it is better for their society if women resume their subordinate positions and certain traditions (like female genital mutilation and early marriage) that have been shown to be harmful to women.

So gender equality remains a challenge for Eritreans. Even though the government and laws of the country have made important steps toward gender equality, much of the population is not in agreement with them. Women still maintain a less powerful position in Eritrean society today, but there is reason to hope that their status will improve as they continue to build on an impressive tradition of struggling for gender equality in their country.


Rwanda Map Rwanda gained international attention in 1994 when word reached the rest of the world that a civil war and genocide had devastated the country. Millions of Rwandans fled the country as refugees, the international community did little to help other than offering some basic humanitarian assistance to refugees, and war crimes trials began the next year. But what really happened in Rwanda? How did this country come to experience such immense tragedy and violence? What follows is a brief history of ethnic relations in Rwanda that will help us see more clearly how this horrible situation arose.

I. A History of Power Imbalances

Before Rwanda was made a colony of first Germany and later Belgium, much of that territory was already organized into a highly centralized state. This state was populated by three groups of people—the Twa, Hutu, and Tutsi. The Tutsi were a cattle-herding people who held considerably more political and economic power in society than the Twa and Hutu. Twa and Hutu came to be subjects to the ruling Tutsi during this period of history.

Pre-colonial Rwandan State (15th-19th centuries)

Pre Colonial Rwandan State

German and Belgian colonizers in the early 20th century saw the hierarchy that had developed in the region and decided to base their colonial government on it. Their interpretation of Rwandan society was not completely accurate, however. It was based on racial theories from Europe that saw the Tutsi as a superior people to Hutu and Twa, and natural leaders due to their supposed different racial origins. (The exact origins of Hutus, Twas, and Tutsi is not completely known even today; however, it is recognized today that there is no basis for believing that one of these groups is inherently superior than another). The Belgians, therefore, made several changes in Rwanda. They replaced any Hutus who had positions of political authority with Tutsis, instituted a forced labor system that required service from all Hutu men, and made Rwandans carry identity passes that showed their ethnicity (Hutu/Twa or Tutsi). These changes of the colonial government created even deeper divisions between Tutsis and Hutus/Twa. Tutsi were a group with a lot of power, and Hutu/Twas did not have much power in Rwanda. This power imbalance set the scene for a series of violent episodes from the 1950’s to the 1990’s.

So what exactly happened as the Belgians made all of these changes to enhance Tutsi leadership in Rwanda? Well, as you might expect, some of the Hutus fought back in a movement called Hutu Power. In 1959, Hutus led a revolt against Tutsis. The Belgians, still officially the colonial power in Rwanda, then reversed their former policies to put Hutus in national leadership positions held by Tutsis. By the time Rwanda gained independence from Belgium in 1962, Hutus had gained political power, and a government was implemented in which Hutus held a large amount of power. But then some Tutsis came back who had fled the revolt of 1959, and they killed large numbers of the Tutsis who had tried to implement this new government with the Hutus. Hutus in turn killed large numbers of Tutsis in the country as scapegoats in an act of retaliation. Violence continued, and a Hutu leader—Habyarimana—seized power in 1973 to form the Second Republic.

In 1990, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (a group of Tutsi soldiers who had been living in exile in Uganda) entered Rwanda. This episode and growing criticism in and outside of Rwanda of Habyarimana’s government led him to end his one-party state and allow opposition parties. Also in the early 1990’s news propaganda was encouraging the extermination of Tutsis in Rwanda, who were depicted as the enemy and a threat to Rwandan prosperity. When a plane carrying President Habyarimana and the president of Burundi was shot down in 1994, it triggered killings of large numbers of Tutsis, but also Hutus who held a moderate political position or were suspected of sympathizing with Tutsis. This was part of an effort to completely cleanse the nation of Tutsis. This is what a genocide is—an attempt to completely exterminate a group of people. By July 1994, it is estimated that 500,000 people had died in the genocide. Another 2 million had fled to neighboring countries as refugees.

Not many countries in the international community responded to the genocide, except to send some humanitarian aid. Only France sent in some troops to act as peacekeepers. In July 1994, the Rwandan Patriotic Front took control of the capital Kigali and began a new multiparty government. They attempted to deal with war criminals behind the genocide, but the justice system was not functioning swiftly. Many awaiting trial died in jail. An International Criminal Tribunal was also established by the United Nations in 1994 for the Rwandan genocide.

Rwanda Today

Rwanda Today Map

II. What is the difference between Hutu and Tutsi, really?

One interesting thing about Rwandan society is that although there are clear distinctions between Hutus/Twas and Tutsis in political and media discussions, there are not clear distinctions in everyday Rwandan life. Hutus, Twas, and Tutsis all speak the same language—Kinyarwanda. They live side by side as neighbors and frequently intermarry. On what basis then are we able to call Tutsis, Hutus, and Twas distinct ethnic groups? Usually we tend to think of ethnic groups as having their own language and cultural traditions. But even if these three separate groups came to live in Rwanda a long time ago with separate gene pools, cultures, and languages, they do not have these distinctions anymore today. They have become quite blended together.

Yet nevertheless, the violence that Rwanda has experienced is largely based on the ethnic divisions that were made rigid through years of pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial government policies that recognized ethnicity as central to Rwandan society. Even if there is little reason for differentiating Tutsis, Hutus, or Twas on the basis of genes, culture, or language, the story of Rwanda is a good example of how political rhetoric or media images can create inaccurate pictures of reality. In the case of Rwanda, ethnic identity was used as a force to divide. It became mixed up in struggles for political and economic power, causing much hatred between and suffering of Rwandans.


Think about the information that you have just read on Sudan, Eritrea, and Rwanda. All of them are stories largely about struggles over power. Use the graphic organizer below to help you think about the power relationships in these three stories. Who is trying to control or influence who? Which group holds more political or economic power? What have the consequences been? How has the distribution of power changed between these groups over time? For each letter (A to G) that appears in the graphic organizers, write one or two sentences explaining the power relationship between those two groups.

Printable Resource for A.

Printable Resource for B-D.

Printable Resource for E-G.

Go on to Activity Four or choose from one of the other activities of the module