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The Naming of Africa

Map of Africa
Steven Black, University of California, San Diego

This morning (Sept. 20, 2010) while drinking my coffee I did a perfunctory survey of the news on Africa, only to be jolted out of my pre-coffee stupor by an article on with the title, “Group: Use of ‘Sub-Saharan Africa’ Disparaging.” This immediately concerned me. While I prefer to describe ‘southern Africa’ generally or ‘South Africa’ specifically, I myself have unquestioningly used the term ‘sub-Saharan’ in past work in order to indicate the boundary of Arabic-dominant cultural practices. Some academics prefer the (inevitably more bulky) phrase, “Africa south of the Sahara,” but I wonder if this shift in terminology is really enough for the phrase to point to a different set of indexical meanings.

The article quotes Chika Onyeani, chairman of the Celebrate Africa Foundation, as saying, “Sub-Saharan Africa is a pejorative term. It is an euphemism for contemptuousness employed by the continent’s detractors to delineate between the five Arab countries that make up north Africa from the other 42 countries and islands that make up the rest of Africa… Who decided on the line of demarcation between ‘northern’ and ‘southern’ Africa?” (I think to myself, most likely anthropologists?)

Onyeani’s question speaks to the important issue in contemporary anthropology of the relationship between power and knowledge, specifically the power of knowledge-producers to create artificial ideologically charged distinctions that fuel inequity. The article continues, explaining Onyeani’s perspective that “no other continent in the world uses the word [sub] for a group of countries” (this is not quite true, people sometimes refer to India as the ‘sub-continent’). Onyeani is also quoted as stating, “Just because America is below Canada in North America, doesn’t make the United States a sub-America.”

While it is unclear to me that the indexical value of the term ‘sub’ really makes the phrase “sub-Saharan Africa” pejorative, Onyeani’s linguistic analysis does speak to issues of structural inequality and the presentation of Africa on the world stage. I laud Onyeani for finding a surface-segmentable linguistic form to which he can affix his own important ideological message about the politics of (mis)representation. In focusing on the term ‘sub’, though, it is possible to overlook the root problem here, which is the derogatory cultural construction of Africa–of Africans as being a homogenous, poor, and infirm group, among other faulty categorizations. There are several important contributions to this topic, and in particular I encourage interested individuals to read Arthur and Joan Kleinman’s book chapter, “The Appeal of Experience; The Dismay of Images: Cultural Appropriations of Suffering in Our Times,” in the edited volume, Social Suffering.

See for original article.

2 thoughts on “The Naming of Africa”

  1. Hi there! I most definitely feel the term “sub-Saharan” is pejorative because of the use of “sub”. I don’t see “Indian sub-continent” as truly comparable, as the latter is using a specifically **topological** *noun* (i.e. we are speaking of a subset of the term “continent”), whereas it is not at all clear from the adjective “sub-Saharan” in what sense that part of Africa is “sub”.
    The most unfortunate connotation is inevitably “sub-human”. But even if our interpretation is not taken to that extreme, why are we so apparently indifferent to use such “North-ist” perceptions as “the norm”. Africa south of the Sahara is “super-Saharan” if you draw the maps with the South Pole at the top.
    My feeling is that both “sub-Saharan” and “super-Saharan” are unnecessarily and unhelpfully redolent of past and present evils. Couldn’t we just use something neutrally geographical such as “Non-Mediterranean Africa”? Would also encompass the Berbers of southern Morocco, but I suspect they’d be cool about this…

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