Rethinking the Term Sub-Sahara

The phrase that stuck out at me ahead of, during and after the stopover of the American president; Barack Obama, in Ghana was “sub-Saharan Africa”. I’m not aware of the date of coinage of this term but I am sure that it is relatively new on the historical timeline. For when in 1324, Keïta Kankou Moussa [the Mansa of Mali [1312-1337], made his pilgrimage to Mecca, traversing nations with his massive camel caravan of 60,000, there was no sub-Saharan Africa. In 1353, the Amazigh traveller; Ibn Battuta, left his native Morocco to explore the great empire to the south. He crossed the Sahara, and after many weeks, he arrived at the Malian capital; Niani, where he spent 51 days and wrote his observations. His writings say nothing about sub-Saharan Africa. 

Scottish explorer; Mungo Park, left for Africa in 1794 on a mission to discover the source of the great river Dioliba. He arrived on the river Gambia in 1795 and travelled on to Kaarta and Ségou; Bamana kingdoms on the Dioliba. He wrote extensively about his journeys, never once mentioning sub-Saharan Africa. In 1885, white people proposed a conference in Berlin to divide Africa among themselves. They did not talk about dividing sub-Saharan Africa amongst themselves. I suspect the idea of sub-Saharan Africa must have been born and solidified sometime after this period.

It is interesting to look at this coinage in terms of its opposite meaning which is never used. The Latin prefix sub means below, under, beneath, subordinate, secondary, nearly, almost, less than completely. The opposite of the prefix sub is super. I have never heard the term super-Saharan Africa used.

The Sahara itself is a vast land mass. The United States of America could fit in the Sahara. If there are sub-Saharan countries and by extension, super-Saharan countries, why are there no Saharan countries? The idea of sub-Saharan Africa suggests an impassable barrier where there is no free movement of goods and people on either side. Nothing is further from the truth.

The term is also intentionally divisive. Along with the term “black Africa”, it suggests a racial and ethnic divide between super and sub Saharan populations. This is simply ignorant and will come as a surprise to all the Africans living among Arabs and Imazighen in countries like Libya and Morocco. Sub-Saharan Africa also suggests that Africans never inhabited the Sahara and North Africa up to the Mediterranean. 

Extensive archaeological and historical records prove otherwise. If we attach the other meanings to the prefix in the term, we can see that sub-Saharan means a geographical area that is subordinate and secondary to another area. By extension, sub-Saharan Africans are subordinate, secondary, almost, nearly and less than completely human. In other words, sub-human.

It is not a surprise that whites continue the colonialist legacy in the usage of this term and all that implies. I don’t care about that. My concern is African usage. It is sad and stunning to see how easily Africans have so thoughtlessly appropriated the term. In thinking about it, I wondered if a counter for Europe could be coined, such as sub-Scandinavian Europe. Africans can use it to imply that all people in these territories are inferior in genes and intellect to the pure and fair Nordics. Actually, this kind of idea already exists in Europe. Just ask the southern Italians. If they are honest, they will admit that this is how many other Europeans think about them, as impure, sub-Pyrenean Europeans.

In any event, in the case of the presidential stopover, Ghanaians have enthusiastically embraced the idea of the sub-division in order to take pride of place as first. If the president visits Botswana next, the headlines will proclaim Botswana to be the first southern African country he visited. If he goes to Maidougouri, the headlines will blare a first for the Nigerian state of Borno. People find these small, fractured firsts more important than the biggest first, which is that Egypt is the first African country visited by President Obama.

“Africa is the future” is a legend emblazoned on a tee shirts popular in certain circles these days. Do the wearers think that this will happen by fiat? It will not. A bright, prosperous, united African future must first be conceptualised. Africans must first think differently in order for this future to be made manifest by action based on our essential truth, reason, science and ruthlessly singular self-interest. We must examine our lives and reconsider everything we do. We must think of Africa as indivisible and integral. Stopping to think about and debate the racist, colonialist geographical and ethnic nomenclature that is the legacy of the whites, will, in part, help us to do so. 

One of the hallmarks of white supremacist play book is naming and renaming the world of the enslaved and conquered people. Whether it is the country, a musical instrument, a language or the people themselves, nothing says “I own you” more than this renaming. Defects in the the conqueror such as the French inability to say “Bamana” result in their mistake or inability to now become the accepted word. So all over the world, the Bamana people are known as Bambara. Now, when the Bamana people accept to refer to themselves by the French mistake, the mental enslavement is complete.

If we are really free and independent, reclaiming African nomenclature will have the kind of effect on our minds that will result in positive action towards African integration and unity. The alternative is this continued existence as like a windsock, simply being filled by the detrimental caprices of foreign ideas, language, mores and ways without first thinking and debating the benefits and the demerits of adopting them. When we don’t think, we will constantly be billowing about in the universe without direction or destination.

by Akenataa Hammagaadji. An African music expert and cultural critic. He is the radio host of First World Music; an African music programme broadcast from WVKR.