Understanding Africa’s Vast Cultures

Every people is a treasure for humanity. The most vital societies that history has known have always been those characterized by great ethnic and cultural diversity. UNESCO defines cultural diversity as, "a defining characteristic of humanity and represents the common heritage of humanity and should be recognized and affirmed for the benefit of present and future generations."

“Most importantly, any attempts to define Africa as a group of one people becomes myopic. Therefore, it is important to understand that Africa is not a monolith, and neither is its vast cultures.”

Heritage and culture plays an important role in Africa. Each country has a unique culture that is rich and diverse and varies not only from one country to another, but in fact within each country itself. "Perhaps any attempt to unravel the double helix or to decode the DNA of "Africas Cultures" will be an experiment in futility when operating from such a narrow lens as a visit to only one of the continent’s 55 countries, to paraphrase Natasha Nyanin. Most importantly, any attempts to define Africa as a group of one people becomes myopic. Therefore, it is important to understand that Africa is not a monolith, and neither is its vast cultures.

For instance, if we explore the vast languages spoken in the continent and within each individual country, you will begin to understand the vast nature of this magnificent continent. Over 25 percent of all languages are spoken only in Africa with over 2,100 recognized languages spoken on the continent, and Nigeria alone has over 500 indigenous languages. The most common language spoken on the continent is Arabic (spoken by 170 million people), followed in popularity by English (130 million), Swahili (100), French (115), Berber (50), Hausa (50), Portuguese (20) and Spanish (10), according to an article by Action Institute. Read more about this topic on our blog post, The Digitalization of African Languages. Moreover, there are also over 3,000 different ethnic groups speaking more than 2,100 different languages with each ethnic group practicing specific traditions and culture unique to that ethnic group. It is important to note that some ethnic groups share similar traditions depending on the country. Hence, before moving forward, it's best to clarify what we mean by ethnicity.

The definition for ethnicity is defined by Webster as; "the fact or state of belonging to a social group that has a common national or cultural tradition." It is more accurate to describe people in terms of their ethnicity, which is based on their cultural heritage and customs. For example, the "Mande Group" in Africa. Mande, also called Mandingo, group of peoples of western Africa, whose various Mande languages such as Mandinka, Bambara, Malinke, Soninke etc. form a branch of the Niger-Congo language family. The Mande Group are all descendants of the Mali Empire (1240-1645 CE). In an article by The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, The Mali Empire was founded by Sundiata Keita (r. 1230-1255 CE) following his victory over the kingdom of Sosso (c. 1180-1235 CE). Sundiata’s centralized government, diplomacy and well-trained army permitted a massive military expansion which would pave the way for a flourishing of the Mali Empire, making it the largest ever seen in Africa. The reign of Mansa Musa I (1312-1337 CE) saw the empire reach new heights in terms of territory controlled, cultural fluorescence, and the staggering wealth brought through Mali’s control of regional trade routes.

In African culture, the “self” is not separate from the world, it is united and intermingled with the natural and social environment.

The culture of each ethnic group centers on family and can be found in each group’s artistic expressions and traditions such as, music, dance, contemporary and modern arts, fashion, lifestyle and oral literature. From storytelling through oral literature to traditions, dialects, arts and music, indigenous culture persists. Nevertheless, even with vast cultures, there is still a strong sense of community. We couldn't agree more when Victoria falls guide describe the unification of communities in Africa. In African culture, the “self” is not separate from the world, it is united and intermingled with the natural and social environment. Although, it is fair to say that tribalism and cast system does still exist as some tribes do still value these traditions in practicing and honoring ancestors who deemed these traditions immensely valuable to the identity of its group.

When you explore one sector of the artistic expressions for example, music and dance, as African music, dance and fashion are a few fast-growing areas in mainstream media. Open your Instagram and Facebook accounts and you will see African fashion or someone dancing to African music or trying to bust those Afrobeat moves. Turn on the radio and I bet within few minutes you will hear songs by global megastars and vocalists, Youssou N'dour, Wizkid, Davido etc... Better yet, watch the Black Panther movie and you are greeted with the riveting and powerful soundtrack by another mega star and vocalist Baaba Maal from Senegal. Each musician though from a different ethnicity and often sing in their dialect in addition to English and or French yet, their music is loved by people all over the world even if one may not speak or understand the dialect or language. Hence, to say music is a universal language is an understatement.

It is fair to say that, "in cultural arenas where Africans have often been cited (if even that) as inspiration but denied participation, it appears we are finally being globally welcomed for what we have always known we possessed: a wealth of cultural agency and influence," argued Natasha Nyanin in an article titled, Why African Fashion Is Impossible to Define. Although, one of the most pressing question becomes why are some of these megastars not being recognized on the Grammy stage? Perhaps we can explore this question another time.

Notwithstanding, Africas vast cultures have inspired many globally way before globalization become a popular term. We are just now seeing credit being given where it has long been overdue. However, with all the hype, let us raise our awareness in educating ourselves about how best to honor and respect Africas vast cultures. There is a fine line between learning, embracing, honoring and appreciating where a practice comes from, or else we risk appropriating it. More on the topic of Cultural Appropriation in our blog titled, Understanding Cultural Appropriation & what it means to be a Respectful Traveler.

In concluding, it is important to understand the vast and diverse nature of Africas cultures and using a single narrative as a representation of a collective culture is myopic.

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