Peasantry and Land Settlement

In Africa, despite increasing urbanization a majority of the population can still be classified as peasants. Peasants are people such as farmers and livestock herders who make their living off the land, generally using only manual labor and nonmechanized technology. Africa's climate and the poor quality of much of its soil have long presented challenges to peasants. These factors have shaped the livelihoods of peasants and the ways in which they interact with each other. Along with Africa's colonial history, they have also profoundly affected land settlement and land use patterns on the continent.

Peasantry and Land Settlement


Most African peasants fall into two broad groups: agriculturalists who make their living from farming and pastoralists who herd livestock. In many areas of Africa these two groups have traditionally lived in close contact with one another, sometimes sharing the same land during parts of the year. The groups also share common values and traditions. Agriculturalists generally have a strong sense of membership in a community, often with deep roots in a particular geographic location.

Peasant Livelihoods

In Africa, peasant farming communities traditionally have been concentrated in regions that have fertile soil and ample rainfall. Households in these communities produce a variety of crops for their own use, and perhaps grow a surplus for market. They often raise a few animals as well, particularly sheep, goats, and chickens. Although peasant farmers use manual labor and only simple technology, they have devised various agricultural practices—such as rotating crops and cultivating several crops in the same field—that have enabled them to take advantage of climatic conditions, variations in soil quality, landscape, and water availability. Men, women, and children all play important roles in farming activities, often with different responsibilities based on gender.

Bordering the more fertile areas of Africa are marginal lands that are drier and have less vegetation. Few crops can grow in such regions, but the shrubs and grasses can support the livestock grazing of pastoralists for much of the year. As grazing exhausts vegetation in one area, pastoralists move their herds to new pastures. When they reach areas cultivated by peasant farmers, the pastoralists often graze their herds on crop stubble left in the fields after harvesting. At the same time, the manure from the animals helps to fertilize the fields in which they graze. Sometimes the timing of the herders' migrations brings animals to areas where crops have not yet been harvested from fields. This can cause conflict between the peasant farmers, who must protect their crops from the animals, and the pastoralists, who need pasture for their livestock. In general, however, the interaction between the two groups benefits both of them.

Peasant Economics

While peasants are defined by their livelihood and their relationship to the land, relatively few earn a living solely from farming and herding. Many can provide for their basic needs, but they have to acquire certain goods—such as tools, utensils, shoes, and salt—from other sources. In addition, they need cash to pay tribute to local rulers or taxes to government officials. For this reason, African peasants have always been tied into economic systems beyond the village or pastoral group and have engaged in such activities as TRADE and CRAFTS to supplement their earnings.

In the past, the need to find alternate sources of income led to extensive migration among African peasants. When farming or herding failed to provide for a family's needs, male members often traveled long distances to find other work. Much of the migration for all Africans is seasonal. The peasants work their farms during the growing season, and then leave to look for other work after the crops have been harvested. This process accelerated during the colonial era as white settlers forced many Africans off the land. Landless peasants had little choice but to seek employment in towns or on white-owned farms, plantations, and mines. Labor migration continues to be an important part of the economy in Africa, and many peasant families rely heavily on money sent by relatives working far from home.


Traditional patterns of land settlement in Africa were based on the understanding that different groups needed to share lands. However, the Europeans who colonized Africa came from societies with very different ideas about land ownership and use. The introduction of European notions about land to Africa disrupted rural economies and peasant societies, and it has had a major impact on the continent's development.

Impact of Colonial Policies

During the colonial period, white settlers and colonial governments rejected African traditions of land use. They relied on their own ideas of private land ownership to justify taking land from Africans. The seizure of land produced a crisis for Africa's peasant farmers and pastoralists. Driven off the land, they were often forced to work as wage laborers on land they had once farmed. Others moved to towns to seek employment, finding only low-paying jobs. This led to the creation of large slums that remain a feature of urban life throughout Africa. Those who continued to farm on their own usually had to make do with the worst lands. Those farmers who were forcibly resettled by colonial governments often did not receive the money they were promised in exchange for their land, or, if the cash was received, it was never enough to provide a long-term living for the farmer who had lost his land.

European landowners and colonial governments also denied African pastoralists access to the seasonal pastures they needed. Many herders lost their livelihoods in this manner. Like peasant farmers, they had to work as wage laborers in rural or urban areas. Because of the devastating impact that Europeans had on their way of life, peasant farmers and pastoralists were often strong opponents of colonial rule.

Modern Land Settlement

After independence, African countries had to deal with the problems created by colonial land policies that drove so many Africans off the land. Different countries took different approaches. UGANDA gave small plots of land to thousands of landless peasants. KENYA consolidated many small plots of land into larger holdings. By doing this, the government hoped to make mechanized farming possible. Larger landholdings were also easier to tax.

Neither of these land reform policies proved very successful. In Uganda the division of land was unequal, with influential people receiving larger or better quality plots. Many farmers in Kenya resisted land consolidation because they could farm smaller plots more efficiently. Moreover, those who received larger holdings often did not report the transactions in order to avoid paying fees or taxes.

Some countries that adopted socialist land reforms, such as TANZANIA, outlawed private landholding altogether. They resettled peasants into cooperative farms and villages and promised to provide basic services such as water, health care, and schools. However, the villagers soon exhausted the surrounding land as well as nearby supplies of firewood and water. As a result, either they had to travel farther each day to tend crops and get supplies, or they had to split up their families to establish distant homesteads.

While some type of land reform could help African peasants, reform alone will not solve the problems they face today. For better or worse, African peasants are part of a global economy. To compete successfully they need modern tools and machinery, better roads to transport goods to market, and greater access to social services such as schooling and health care. Because governments provide many of these services, the future of African peasants is tied closely to the condition of their nation's economy. (See also Animals, Domestic; Colonialism in Africa; Land Ownership; Livestock Grazing; Plantation Systems.)