Africa is two countries

Rur roh. I’ve used the term “Sub-Saharan Africa” both in teaching and in my research many times.  However, I just learned that the phrase is neither politically or geographically correct.  Yikes!

A recent Quartz article makes the following points:

First, the term isn’t geographically correct in some cases. For instance,  “The UN Development Program lists 46 of Africa’s 54 countries as ‘sub-Saharan,’ [but] four countries included are on the Sahara, while Eritrea is deemed “sub-Saharan” but its southern neighbor Djibouti isn’t.”

Second, development agencies aren’t consistent in their labeling.  In its definition of Sub-Saharan Africa, the World Bank includes the 46 countries as the UN Development Program  but also includes Sudan and Somalia.

Third, instead of treating Africa as a single country (sadly still commonplace in the media), we tend to treat it as two (Sub-Saharan and Northern Africa).

The article also delves into the history of the term, noting that Sub-Saharan Africa replaced the more politically incorrect terms “Tropical Africa” and “Black Africa” that were prevalent in early research.  Some argue that the new term is equally problematic:
Tatenda Chinondidyachii Mashanda, a politics and international affairs scholar at Wake Forest University argues that “[it] is a way of saying ‘Black Africa’ and talking about black Africans without sounding overtly racist.”

Brian Larkin, a  Columbia University anthropologist, would agree, arguing that dividing Africa into Northern African and Sub-Saharan Africa reflects “‘racist’ colonial theories that thought northern Africa more culturally developed.” 

Time to re-think how I will describe my data the next time I write a paper with African countries!


2 thoughts on “Africa is two countries

  1. Its probably worth differentiating Africa even further, into three areas, considering that west Africa and southern Africa are also somewhat distinct in terms of regional geopolitics and culture. The countries around the Gulf of Guinea seem to be centered more around Nigerian politics and society, whereas all the countries in the southern areas are much more influenced by Rwanda, Uganda, and South Africa.

  2. I would disagree with the “racist colonial theories” to some extent. North Africa, being largely Arab and Muslim, shares more culturally with Western Asia (commonly “the Middle East” than with “Sub-Saharan” Africa. Of course, Arab influences extend far south of traditional “North Africa”, there are no clear dividing lines in real life

    I’d be more concerned with whether the term is accurate in the context you’re using it in. You’ll never win if you try to be politically correct. If you get past this one, the way things are going somebody will deny you the right to teach / comment at all about Africa because you’re white.

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