In the popular mind, Africa exemplifies poverty. Media coverage focuses on destitution. Recent focus on a growing elite serves to emphasise the abject condition of the majority. This discourse depicts African poverty as timeless or as gripped in a worsening spiral. Africanist historians have long called for the historical study of the African poor with the argument that the most ‘useful’ or ‘usable’ aspect of African history could be to find solutions to poverty in Africa by developing historical understanding of the phenomenon.
The poor are difficult historical subjects: they leave behind them little evidence of their lives. This problem is compounded by orality, which endured longer among the poor. Nonetheless, historians have sought to write the history of the impoverished. This has resulted in work on topics from the importance of reciprocity in assistance to the particular ways people have responded to famines; from the gendered nature of poverty to the changes in poverty brought about by colonialism and neo-liberal reform.
But questions remain: how do we, how should we, approach the history of poverty? What definitions do we use to delimit the poor and how do those definitions shape our studies? How has ‘wealth-in-people’ shaped our understanding of economic inequality? How have ideas of poverty and wealth in Africa changed? To what extent is it meaningful to talk of ‘African poverty’?
Nearly four decades after Terence Ranger’s call for a ‘usable African past’ and over a quarter century since John Iliffe’s history of the very poor in Africa, this is an apt moment to step back and consider these questions in light of the work that has appeared in the intervening years. This conference seeks to achieve that by bringing together a wide range of senior and junior scholars working on the history of the poor and of poverty in Africa, from the first millennium to the late twentieth century.