Unit 7 Using Written Sources to Study African History and Culture Essay

Unit 7 Essay: Using Written Sources to Study African History


Historians who study the continent of Africa often run into problems acquiring and interpreting primary sources when they study Ancient and Medieval Africa. Considering these issues, this assignment asks you try your hand at interpretation and articulate some potential challenges with using the available written historical record to discuss African pasts.

One reason that historians of Africa struggle is the dearth of historical accounts written by Medieval Africans themselves. From about 800 to 1500 CE, many African cultures relied primarily on oral traditions (for example, see: griots), and did not emphasize written recorded histories. Therefore many of the written accounts we have regarding African societies during this time frame were recorded by visitors to the continent. Relying on accounts written by outsiders means that there aren’t necessarily, but there can be misunderstandings of African practices, glaring silences, and even overt judgment casting African societies in a negative light.

This paper assignment intends to have you engage with some of the available written sources so you can assess the available information, explaining what conclusions you can draw about the relevant African society and also recognizing the limitations of using the provided primary sources. Most historians who study Africa combine their interpretation of these sorts of primary sources with in-depth knowledge of the region and the use of archaeology, linguistic evidence, and oral testimonies.


Choose the Swahili Coast OR the Western Sudanic Empires. Then, write an approximately 3-paged paper (750 words) to answer the following questions using one of the primary source documents listed for your chosen region. Even though you are answering the question prompts provided, organize your answers into an essay with an introduction, several body paragraphs, and a conclusion. Please limit yourself to our textbook, the information available in this section’s supplementary materials, and the linked primary sources as you work on your paper. Don’t forget to cite these sources in your paper’s internal citations/footnotes and bibliography! Refer to the Guidelines for Writing Essaysfound in your syllabus.

Questions to address in your paper:

  • What does the primary source tell historians about the described society in terms of political organization, lifestyles/values, religious practices, the economy and/or its connections with the rest of the world?
  • What potential silences or misinterpretations are present in the primary source?
  • Overall, is the primary source a useful tool for historians hoping to learn about this society? Explain.

Option 1: The Swahili City-states

Primary source Options (choose one to analyze in your paper):


Option 2: The Western Sudanic Empires

Primary Source Options (choose one to analyze in your paper):