Africa's Identity

People’s perception of Africa have been shaped by clich├ęs of the “dark continent.” It is no wonder that many people are scared of visiting the continent, afraid of the unknown darkness. It is a continent that has been often grossly misunderstood, based on the labels given to it by authors, colonialists, traders, missionaries, visitors and other foreign entities.

Kilembe- Uganda
photo by Andrew Anderson
It is important that one understands the pre-colonial social setup of African people. Historically, pre-colonial communities in Africa were communal, rooted in families and extended family systems.  They identified themselves by clan, tribal or ethnic homelands, also known as kingdoms. It is estimated that Africa had about 10,000 different states and autonomous groups with distinct languages and customs. These structures of human relationships in Africa were and still are critical to the survival of communities - culturally, socially and economically.

In future episodes, we will review how the pre-colonial set up was disrupted over time.

These thousands of ethnic groupings did not have room for a single political word that defined the continent. So, where did the continent of Africa get its name?

The history of the word “Africa” is disputed. There are some theories:

1. The Phoenician Theory: Phoenicians were some of the greatest traders of their time. Many North African cities and towns emerged as trading posts for the Phoenicians. Some believe that the name "Africa" was derived from two Phoenician words, "friqi" and "pharika," thought to translate as corn and fruit. The assumption is that the Phoenicians christened Africa as "the land of corn and fruit."
2. The Roman Theory:' Some believe the Romans used the name “Afri' to refer to a group of a group of people, presumably the Berbers of North Africa.
3. The Weather Theory: the Greek word aphrike, meaning "without horror" and the Latin word apricus, meaning "sunny";

None of these theories indicate that any indigenous Africans had anything to do with what the continent was called. The name is descriptive of what people who came back to Africa to trade or other, witnessed or experienced.

Ankole lady making out the share of a cow's horn- People in the Ankole Kingdom , in Uganda, have historically been pastoralists.
Photo by  Andrew Anderson

So, going back to the identify of the people from the continent of Africa, think of every descriptive word you have grown up hearing about Africa, and the image that has given you about the continent. It is sad that this identity has been distorted over a long period of time, post colonialism. It characterized by national disasters and calamities, in addition to being called the “dark continent.”

However, what characterizes an African is their distinguishing food, language, dance, dressing, and other cultural aspects. This includes African-Americans and Afro-Caribbeans who had to create a new culture, following the slave trade era that caused cultural dislocation.

Vivian Kobusingye Birchall

A man milking an indigenous Ankole long horned  cow