Using Biography and Technology to Teach Global Africa

Skype call with Dr Ali
Screenshot of Skype call with Dr. Omar H. Ali, Dean of the Lloyd International Honors College at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and Georgian Court students.

For Spring 2019, I’m teaching a broad survey of African history, and I wanted to invite students to think about African diasporas across the world. As we have discussed African societies and African leaders in the increasingly connected world of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, we read Linda Heywood’s study of Queen Njinga (c. 1583 – 1663) alongside another new work by Omar H. Ali on Malik Ambar (c. 1548 – 1626). These two books drew the students into the lives of African leaders who were instrumental in shaping the worlds of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Queen Njinga ruled Ndongo-Matamba, in what is now Angola, negotiating with and resisting Portuguese demands as Atlantic slave trading and civil war continued to fuel instability in West Central Africa. Malik Ambar, originally from Ethiopia and once enslaved himself, prevented Mughal dominance in the Deccan while in power. Skilled military leaders, tacticians, and diplomats, Njinga Mbande and Malik Ambar have inspired wide-ranging discussions among my students about gender, race, leadership, movement, and slavery. Likewise, Njinga of Angola: Africa’s Warrior Queen and Malik Ambar: Power and Slavery across the Indian Ocean are solid guides in the undergraduate classroom.

malik ambar portrait
Portrait of an African courtier, possibly Malik Ambar. Early 17th cen. India, Ahmadnagar. Ink, opaque watercolor, gold on paper. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
malik ambar cover
Malik Ambar: Power and Slavery across the Indian Ocean, part of The World in a Life Series with Oxford University Press.

As a special opportunity, my class met via Skype with Omar H. Ali, PhD, Dean and Professor in the Lloyd International Honors College at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Students in an introductory survey read Malik Ambar: Power and Slavery across the Indian Ocean the week before and prepared questions ahead of time, with my guidance. I highly recommend this type of activity wherever possible! Not only did it bring new voices and spaces for discussion, it also brought out a renewed sense of initiative and confidence in the class. Students asked about methodology, sources, motivations, and purposes in the book. How did the author theorize Malik Ambar’s motivations? How does one write the history of a person who left few records behind, compared to some other world leaders? What kinds of legacies did Malik Ambar’s policies leave for future administrations in the Deccan? Dr. Ali’s answers were open and thoughtful, and I believe the students were able to get a better understanding of what it means to be a historian and a scholar. While Skype visits from authors are a rare privilege, they matter in particular for undergraduates at smaller institutions. I am very happy with how the lesson unfolded and with the investment of my students in an excellent conversation.

Jahangir Shooting the Head of Malik Ambar
Jahangir Shooting the Head of Malik Ambar. 19th century copy of work attributed to Abu’l Hasan, c. 1616. Opaque watercolor, ink, gold on paper. Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.