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"Africa" – a great and problematic word

This site is shamelessly generalising when using the word "Africa" all over the place. Thought I better explain my feelings about this word :-)

Zebra stripesMost people (including myself) frequently use the word Africa, not only for the continent, but also as a common denominator for more than 50 countries, 720 million people and 1000 languages. We say "Africa" when we don't remember the names of the countries and many people wrongfully believe there is a common language called "African". We also use terms like "African culture", "African music" or "African religion" even though there is no single culture, music or religion for all of the countries/regions. A first step to understanding "Africa" is to acknowledge that it consists of a huge number of religions, tribes and groups of people each with a very different history.

Quite describing for our view on Africa and it is history, "Africa" is not even an African word. The origin of the word is still a little uncertain, but it is credible to see a connection from Latin (Africa = sunny) and Greek (Aphrike = not cold). The Romans were the first to use the name. For them it covered Tunisia and the most northern parts of Algeria and Libya. They could also have been inspired to the name from some of the first people they met on the continenent: The Afri, which were a berber tribe in the Carthage area. Egypt was already known territory, but further South was unknown land. Around 2,000 years ago "Aethiopia" seems to have been used to describe the land found south of Sahara, but Europeans later used "Africa" to describe the entire continent. This is why we began to see Africa one land with only one kind of people. Strangely enough it changed from the land of sunshine and warmth to "the dark continent". The story is much more complex than that: a more fulfilling explanation can be found in the excellent book "Wonders of the African World" by Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr, which is also my source (see "shop now" box elsewhere on this page).

Europeans on "safari" in South Africa, 1937It has always been comfortable and easy for Westerners to see Africa as a whole. Africa used to be somewhere far away with dark skinned people, having customs so different from our own: A land of fairytales or sometimes horror. Today we are a bit wiser, but it still seems like an impossible task to really understand the amounts and numbers we are dealing with in Africa... the cultural diversities – and the social disparities.

The African continent is so vast, varied and rich in every way. It is fantastic and completely incomprehensible. Nothing compares to all this and yet we try to make it all fit into a small word of 6 letters. It is almost an insult! It is Impossible! No word can hold so much ...but in some way it does.

When used to generalise and simplify the word can be harmful, but most people on the continent proudly describes themselves as Africans. Sometimes the African identity is even stronger than the actual nationality. Historically this could be due to the fact that most nations and borders in Africa are a European-colonial invention. Before colonialism there were around 10,000 kingdoms, but no countries called "Kenya", "Ghana", "South Africa" or "Ivory Coast". Independence gave birth to the nations we know today, but also to a pan-African feeling. Generalising again, I risk saying that Africans all over the world calls each other "brothers and sisters". Obviously the colonial exploitation had given the Africans some kind of a common history. But long before any white man sat foot in Africa the tribes and people had already been mixed together and switched homelands several times. Obviously there ARE similarities between tribes and people in Africa.

The word might have a shady history, but it seems we have agreed to use it anyway. I love the word "Africa" and everything it carries along. In some strange way the small word has come to fully describe my passion - something that has actually changed my life. I guess only people who shares this passion will understand the word in the same way. I know I am not the only "Africa aficionado". Is there any other place in the world that attracts and spellbinds people in the same way? Maybe it is the magic, juju, voodoo or whatever name we give it. For me it is probably the fantastic combination of the light, the heat, the brutal history, the rich nature, the rhythms of life and music, the strength and openness in people, the future possibilites - and not least the most beautiful and graceful women on earth.

I maybe closer attached to some African countries than others, but it is still about "Africa" and not a single nation. In spite of the differences I hold on to the word. But let's use it with caution, not to forget that Africa, it's countries, people and cultures all deserve proper attention for the details that makes each one unique.



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