Africa is a conglomeration of peoples and cultures. A friend, Lew Flagg, recently asked me:
"Africa" is commonly used in this country (United States of America), as if it were a country, with a monolithic culture. Certainly the culture along the Mediterranean coast is more Arabic than the rest of the continent, but to what degree are the cultures among the sub-Saharan countries common to them and to what extent do they differ?"
In the western world, specifically the United States of America, when the phrase "of African descent" is used, it typically means black African. I have not yet seen an “Arab” of African origin being referred to as “African-American”, even when their ancestral homeland is on the continent of Africa.
When I talk about North Africa, I am referring to the people of the Maghreb and the Sahara region. Historically, the indigenous people of North Africa, before the Arab/Muslim conquest, were the Berber people. Many of these people adopted whichever language was spoken by their conquerors or trade partners. Due to the transportation barrier caused by the Sahara Desert, they interacted more with the European and Arab traders who used the Mediterranean Sea as their trade routes, and picked up their culture.
However, there were also the trans-Saharan trade routes, and the Nile Valley migratory routes that led various groups of people from across the Sahara into Sub-Saharan Africa, and they settled there. As a result of the trans-Saharan trade, Berber merchants and nomads incorporated the lands of the Sudan and other lands in the sub-Saharan region into the Islamic world and culture.
Culture is language, and the general way of life or organization of a community.
The relationship in languages
North Africa is thought to be different from Sub-Saharan Africa, but many people do not realize that there is an Afro-Asiatic (also known as Hamito-Semitic) language family of North Africa that has languages spoken by many people in Sub-Saharan Africa. These are: Berber, Chadic, Cushitic, Egyptian-Coptic, Omotic, and Semitic.
I will add Arabic to this list. It is spoken in much of Africa, though there are different varieties of Arabic. The Sahara dialects are more conservative than the coastal dialects.
So, there is cultural influence from the north, especially in central Africa and much of coastal Africa. The cultures of the Maghreb and the Sahara combine the indigenous culture of the Berbers (who live in Libya, Algeria, Morocco, Niger, Mali, Mauritania, Tunisia, Burkina Faso and Egypt), Arabs and elements from neighboring parts of Africa. This is evident in the cuisine, religion, music, and other components of culture.
It is therefore not surprising that, for example, an Algerian would have more in common with someone from Burkina Faso or Tunisa than with someone from the Middle East.
I would like to point out that when I look at the ancient African kingdoms, and at modern settlements, I see a collection of people from various origins, either through migration in search of land for agriculture and cattle, or through conquest. I do not necessarily see people with a single line of ancestry or heritage. Today, the majority of the different countries and communities are a blend of ancestries, traditional customs and beliefs with modern societal practices.
North Africa has not always been a desert...
The region formerly enjoyed a tropical climate, and desertification was a geologically abrupt process sparked by the movement of tectonic plates that also created the Mediterranean Sea and the Alps.
The emergence of the Sahara affected the plants and animals and led the people in that region to migrate to the southern areas for their survival. Some settled along the Nile Valley which had been the primary migratory route for early modern humans out of Central Africa and into Western Asia, and the continuous inhabitation along the riverbanks eventually grew to a large, influential civilization.
Other cultural similarities between the cultures of North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa include the systems of tribes and clans, and agricultural and pastoralist economies.
So, what is the difference between the northern and Sub-Saharan cultures?
Most of North Africa has a bigger and more conservative Arab influence/culture, compared to Sub-Saharan Africa.
There are points of cultural convergence between Northern and Sub-Saharan Africa, despite their evident differences. The beauty of Africa is in the diversity of its culture.
Every country in has its unique languages, cultural and religious diversity, but together as a continent, they share similar values, ways of life, and for some, ancestry.
I hope this has shed some light on the relationship between the cultures in two distinctive regions of Africa.