Medieval Africa was a rural society predominantly. Most people supported themselves through agriculture, herding, or hunting and gathering. They did not trade extensively with one another. Because of this, African towns and villages were small, located near fields or pastures, and inhabited by people who were closely related, such as brothers and their wives and children. In many cases, people lived in settlements that could only barely be described as villages; they were very small and often temporary.
People who engaged in agriculture built the largest and most permanent towns and villages. There were a number of towns and villages in Ethiopia. These towns were home to a thriving Muslim and Christian population. Houses were built of stone, and neighborhoods were divided by paved roads. These towns were often surrounded by stone walls. Within the towns were cemeteries, mosques or churches, and courtyards. In 2006 archaeologists found traces of three Muslim towns that they believe date from the 10th through the 16th centuries. These towns seem to have been sparsely populated and surrounded by stone walls.
The Ibo people of present-day eastern Nigeria lived in villages that housed between 100 and 2,000 people. Each village was part of a larger group of villages that were connected by kinship, culture, and shared government. The villages within a group were typically less than a mile away from one another. The village was surrounded by farmland that was divided into several sections, most of which were allowed to lie fallow to regain their fertility. The village was surrounded by a band of palm trees grown for oil and raffia fibers. These palms also lined the paths between villages.
The houses of a village were built around a central area or two areas if the village was large. People used the open space for group meetings and ceremonies, placing logs around the perimeter of the square to serve as seating during festivities. The men of the village would also build and maintain a mud hut with a thatched roof in the square as a place for male social gatherings. Surrounding the square were several groups of houses. Family groups all lived in the same part of town, often in formally defined compounds. A family compound contained numerous mud-and-thatch houses that shared walls with one another. The houses opened onto narrow alleys, and the compounds themselves opened onto the central town squares. Families adorned the entrances to their compounds with decorated gateways.
The Hausa people of what is now northern Nigeria had numerous towns and villages in addition to a number of larger settlements that could be classified as cities. Towns and villages were made up of compounds, each of which housed a large number of people. A compound was surrounded by a high mud wall. At its entrance was a hut where visitors could announce themselves. Just inside the entrance to the compound was a courtyard where animals were stabled and young men slept. Beyond this was a wall leading to an inner courtyard. Inside it were a number of mud huts with thatched roofs, one hut for each wife of the compound's owner. These huts could be round or rectangular and might have porches and were separated from the compound's entrance by interior walls and courtyards. The women's quarters were arranged in such a way that it was difficult for someone standing outside to see into them. The inner courtyard contained a cooking area where the women prepared food for the family. It might also have a well. Off to the side were a latrine and bathing area.
The outer walls of the town's or village's compounds defined streets. Most towns and villages were surrounded by large walls designed to keep out invaders. Each town had a market area, often on its periphery. Here merchants and customers gathered every week or so. Towns and villages within the same area would coordinate their market days so that they would not overlap. Towns also contained mosques and palaces for chiefs. Villages formed the smallest unit of local administration. Villages themselves were divided into wards, each with its own head who would handle land distribution and other matters.
The Ganda people of present-day Uganda built villages that contained between 30 and 80 houses. These houses were circular beehive-shaped structures about 20 feet in diameter made entirely of thatched cane. Each house had a front and a back room. A family might inhabit several houses and small huts, all encircled by a fence to form a compound. Some of the family's farmland would be enclosed inside its compound. A chief's compound contained many houses and huts that accommodated all the chief's wives, children, and servants. The chief's compound served as the social center of the village, and the village people would congregate there to eat, drink, and talk with one another. Ganda territory was typically hilly or swampy. The villages were built on the sides of hills. The people used the rougher hilltops and swamps as pasture or marginal farmland. Although people tended to live near relatives, it was not uncommon for the Ganda to move from village to village to escape bad chiefs, unfriendly neighbors, or sorcery. The Ganda built their villages in clusters surrounding the homes of their chiefs. This semicentralized building structure made it easier for chiefs to collect tribute from their subjects.
The Swazi of what is now South Africa organized their dwellings into homesteads that housed the dependents of headmen or chiefs, and these homesteads, in turn, were grouped into villages. A Swazi homestead was built around a large enclosure where cattle were kept and grain was stored. The living quarters, which consisted of a number of huts made of reeds, stood at one end of the enclosure. The largest hut was the home of the most important woman, usually the chief's mother. The man's wives lived in the surrounding huts. Each woman had her own space in which to sleep, cook, and store her food. Boys and men lived in separate huts.
Kings and chiefs used this village structure to spread their power across large territories. A king had many wives, and he would try to distribute them in different villages. This allowed him to control a large amount of surrounding farmland and made it possible to separate wives or other relatives who could not get along with one another. People who sustained themselves by herding lived in clusters of dwellings but usually did not build permanent towns as farmers did. The herders of present-day Kenya, such as the Masai, lived in small, temporary villages that they could easily abandon when they moved their herds to new grazing areas. When a group decided to stay in one place to let the cattle graze, the women would build small, round houses out of sticks and cattle manure. They would build a fence around the cluster of houses out of thorny sticks. Women and children were the primary occupants of the village, while the men spent most of their time out with the cattle.
The nomadic pastoralists of modern-day Somalia built temporary settlements within the territory that their clans grazed. They abandoned their hamlets and moved to new locations whenever they needed to find better pastures or water sources. They did not think of settlements as permanent fixtures of the landscape. A Somali settlement consisted of several huts made of wood frames and animal skins. Each wife owned her own hut, which could be dismantled and moved on the back of a camel when necessary. The settlement was encircled by a fence made of thorn bushes that kept out animals and threatening humans. In the center of the settlement were pens for sheep and goats. The inhabitants of a hamlet might include several related families, such as the wives and children of several brothers, but more often they were just three or four nuclear families living together. Boys and men spent most of their time out in the pastures with the herds, leaving the settlements to their womenfolk.
The Jie, a seminomadic people of present-day Uganda, lived in small collections of houses called homesteads. A Jie homestead typically housed several extended families who all belonged to one clan; it might contain 100 to 200 people. The residents lived in round beehive-shaped thatched grass huts. Each hut was the home of one of the wives and her children. Each hut was inside its own fenced yard, where the woman who owned it cooked over an open fire and did her other work. Within the yard the woman would erect another grass hut to shelter her calves and serve as a kitchen during rainstorms. The fenced enclosures were arranged in a horseshoe shape. Cattle and goats spent their nights inside the horseshoe. Although the women owned the houses, the men of the homestead's family were the real owners of the settlement. The Jie would typically build several homesteads near one another, forming a settlement. The inhabitants of the settlement shared local resources, such as ponds. They also shared rituals and came to one another's defense.
The hunter-gatherers of the Kalahari desert did not build permanent settlements. They did, however, build temporary houses close to one another. Women occasionally built huts called scherms to provide shade for themselves and their children. Although they usually did not bother with this work, preferring to sleep in the bush, if they were staying in one place for a while and there was no good natural shelter, they would build several scherms that the group would live in for a time. The !Kung were particularly likely to build scherms for special occasions such as a wedding or a girl's first menstruation.
The small-statured hunter-gatherer peoples of the central African forests likewise did not build real towns or villages. They would build temporary settlements when they stopped at a particular place in a forest. A settlement would include huts inhabited by couples and their young children and huts occupied by bachelors.