If you have read or listened to any content about Africa, then you may have heard the term’ sub–Saharan Africa’. But what does it really mean, and why is it still in use?
Almost every pan-African writer, analyst, content creator, and activist are guilty of using this term. But it is one of the many colonial terms that have integrated so well into our communication, despite having no significant meaning.
When was Africa shared into sub-Saharan and ‘sur’ or ‘super’ Saharan? How did this meaningless term find its way into the lexicons with which Black Africa I being described today? Without a doubt, this is one of the meaningless colonial terms that should be dismissed immediately.
As a renowned columnist, Max de Haldevang rightly points out, “Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg began his first visit to Nigeria on Aug. 30—a country of 182 million people whose GDP quadrupled between 2005 and 2015. But many Western headlines, including one by CNN, highlighted not that he was visiting Nigeria but “sub-Saharan Africa.”
“But it’s not just CNN. A quick google shows the AP, Reuters, The New York Times and our good selves at Quartz regularly use ‘sub-Saharan Africa,’ a term as confusing as it is historically loaded”, he further adds.
The term sub-Saharan Africa is meaningless and baseless. According to the United Nations Development Program, 46 out of Africa’s 54 countries are listed as “sub-Saharan,” The countries not included are – Algeria, Djibouti, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Somalia, Sudan, and Tunisia.
Geographically, this is totally unreasonable, and there is no basis whatsoever to this classification—four countries included are on the Sahara, while Eritrea is deemed “sub-Saharan,” but its southern neighbor Djibouti isn’t.
In contrast and perhaps laughable, the World Bank adds Sudan and Somalia to a total of 48 countries which it officially classifies under the tag of ‘sub-Saharan Africa.’
There is no reference to sub-Saharan Africa in context under any existing charter of the African Union. Instead, countries are grouped under regional belts like the East African Community and the Economic Community of West African States. So, why are we still using the term?
“‘Sub-Saharan Africa’ is such an enormous catchphrase that it’s almost useless,” says Rosalind Morris, an African Studies professor at Columbia University. “Nigeria as a state doesn’t look anything like Kenya as a state doesn’t look anything like Botswana.”
How Did the Term – ‘sub-Saharan Africa’ Come into Existence?
In answering this question, Columbia University anthropologist Brian Larkin said the term spread as a replacement for the racially-tinged phrases “Tropical Africa” and “Black Africa” that were used until around the 1950s.
The dividing line itself also has some troubling origins in what Larkin calls “racist” colonial theories that thought northern Africa more culturally developed.
As our [African Exponent] writer, politics, and international affairs scholar, Tatenda Chinondidyachii Mashanda, puts it – the term “divides Africa according to white ideas of race, making North Africans white enough to be considered for their glories, but not really white enough. It is a way of saying ‘Black Africa’ and talking about black Africans without sounding overtly racist.”
One US diaspora group found the phrase so “disparaging and contemptuous” it launched a 2010 petition to abolish it—but found scant success.
African governments and even academics also have to fall into line since aid organizations use it to assign funds, says Morris.
“People are often forced into unhappy or at least sometimes awkward complicity with those systems of naming, in order to just get funding,” Morris said.
That’s not to say grouping nations by shared colonial history isn’t analytically helpful—their similar institutions, languages and close relations make for good comparisons. But “sub-Sahara” is too vast to shed light on those traits and can strengthen an often imagined divide between northern Arab countries and the rest of Africa, Larkin says.
So, maybe it’s time for some nuance around a subject where debate is so reductive that Yale anthropology professor Louisa Lombard says “academics are used to people speaking about Africa as one country.”
What’s wrong with more accurate geographic markers like East, West, Central, and Southern Africa? Or even just calling countries by their name? Why must it be grouped and referred to by a baseless term such as sub-Saharan Africa?
What are your thoughts?