As politics and culture change, rarely has linguistics shifted to accommodate the new changes. Some words and expressions are backed up by agency and have the potential to change our perceptions. This is the case with the term “Sub- Saharan Africa” (herein referred to as SSA).
Western agency not only has unilateral access to international platforms, but additionally maintains the power to ensure meanings are normalized across diverse linguistic and geographical communities.
The power of Western agency means that they can construct words which speak exclusively to their perceived reality. The UN, EU, World Bank, IMF or any other big institution that you might think of has been leading in using the term SSA. It must be pointed out that even many governments and organizations in this region also use the term SSA without really interrogating the meaning or implied meaning of SSA. This has been useful in setting up a false dichotomy and systematic normalization of the term.
It is important to emphasize that these deeply embedded assumptions and stereotypes about Africa not only stand in the way of effectively learning about the continent, but also have been the basis of ill-conceived academic research and policies.
Six years ago the Nigerian born Chikia Onyeani of the Celebrate Africa Group argued that the term sub-Saharan Africa is demeaning to Africa and must be rejected. He rightfully argued that there is no other continent that has sub something, there is no Sub-Europe or Sub-America. We should be concerned that it’s only the people who were considered as sub human in history who are being referred to as sub-Saharan Africans. The concept of some invisible border, which divides the North of Africa from the South, is rooted in racist thought. A black and white view of African culture only serves racist generalizations. There are more serious issues to be concerned with, but we cannot exclude identity and terminology from conversations on race.
As Onyeani warned, to win these big wars we need to win or at least uphold a conversation on the small ones.
It baffles me how we never question the use of the term SSA. It is becoming clearer to me that SSA refers to the entire African continent, with the exception of the five predominantly Arab states of the North. The concept ‘sub-Sahara Africa’ is ludicrous and disingenuous, if not a meaningless classificatory representation. The use of the term defies geography and focuses more on racist labelling and stereotypes. It is undoubtedly a racist geopolitical signature in which the users (from the onset) aimed to depict the image of dilapidation, squalor and hopelessness. This is despite that majority of Africans do not live anywhere near the Sahara.
What does it really mean in practice to say “SSA?” It is a way of saying “Black Africa” and talk about black Africans without sounding overtly racist.
What should also be considered is the racist stereotypes that are associated with Black Africa. When one uses the suffix “sub” to refer to “below,” images of Africa as all poor, suffering from AIDS (not to demonize the victims) and in a state of disarray are reinforced. These problems and stereotypes are perceived as endemic to blacks.
If it was truly about the Sahara and not race, Mauritania would never be counted as sub-Saharan: Its capital, like most of the country, is hardly south of the Sahara.
If it wasn’t about race prior to the formal legitimate people’s rule in South Africa in 1994, then why was South Africa never considered as part of sub-Saharan Africa? It was either referred to as White South Africa or South Africa Sub-continent. After the legitimate people’s government which was largely a majority black government there was a sudden change in the representation. South Africa was now part of sub-Saharan Africa. Nothing happening to South African geography for it to be differently classified and rendered SSA.
My big criticism of the term SSA is that it divides Africa according to white ideas of race making North Africans white enough to be considered for their glories, but not really white enough.
There are four possible meanings of “sub-“, it can mean “under,” “beneath,” and “below,” subordinate to or really “inferior to”. Many have argued that Sub Saharan Africa has been used to refer to countries directionally below the Sahara. This application is very misleading. The influence and the extent to which the word has been used in the media, scholarship and non-governmental organizations makes it sound as if the term is perfectly fine.
When people talk of the SSA they do not include Egypt, Morocco, Libya and Tunisia. The argument against grouping them under the “sub-Saharan Africa” term is that these countries are not engaged with the African landmass, but rather the “Middle East” because of its Arab culture. This argument fails to account for non-Arab populations within these countries. Berber is an Afro-Asiatic language spoken by close to 40% of Moroccans, 30% in Algeria. It is also important to point that the “Middle East” is not only occupied by Arabs but Jews, Persians, Kurds, Turks and many others.
The use of ethnic groups in defining Africa along racial and ethnic lines is not only flawed but not representative of the reality in Africa.
To argue that many of the Berber converted to Islam (and hence associated with the Arab culture) does not account for Arabs who are Christians and Jews. Africa alone has thousands of non-Arab Muslims. Indonesia the largest Muslim country in the world has non-Arab Muslims but no one has ever suggested merging it with the Middle East. So why do so with North Africa? After all, not all people in the Middle East are Muslims. The use of religion and “culture” as an excuse to join North Africa and the Middle East is feeble-minded. Human geography is more than discourse on religion hence religion cannot be used to divide African regions.
If religion and language are used as yardsticks for attempted mergers of North Africa and Middle East it is important to note that Kiswahili in East Africa developed as a result of connections with the Arab traders. Where is the attempt to connect East Africa with Middle East because of the Arab connection and influence in Kiswahili? Of course not everyone in the Middle East speaks Arabic. If language is so important why hasn’t anyone suggested that Quebec be merged with Europe? Or that South Africa be merged with Europe because of shared Dutch influence?
Why just focus on North Africa whereas Muslim-Arab conquest still has remnants and influence in Southern Europe as well?
Even if the notion of ‘below the Sahara’ is accepted, it is important to note that there are people of Arab and European descent below the Sahara desert. Where do these people fit if we accept dividing Africa according to race, language or ethnicity? This is simply unacceptable. The fact that some people from SSA use the term doesn’t mean the term is correct.
We never had a chance to define who we are, but have always been defined by someone else.
This article first appeared in http://patoungana.com/2016/04/03/rethinking-the-term-sub-saharan-africa/
Header Image: Amber Africa