Africa, Idea of

Paul Tiyambe Zeleza. New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Editor: Maryanne Cline Horowitz. Volume 1. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005. 

The idea of “Africa” is an exceedingly complex one with multiple genealogies and meanings, which make any extrapolations of “African” identity in the singular or plural, any explorations of what makes Africa “Africa,” quite difficult. Both Africans and non-Africans have conceived “Africa” differently in various historical and geographical contexts, especially in contemporary times. The descriptions, meanings, images, and discourses of Africa have changed over time as the continent’s boundaries—geographical, historical, cultural, and representational—have shifted according to the prevailing conceptions and configurations of global racial identities and power, and African nationalism, including Pan-Africanism. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the maps and meanings of “Africa” and “Africanness” are being reconfigured by both the processes of contemporary globalization and the projects of African integration.

Discourses about the “idea of Africa” can be framed in various ways. One common approach is to distinguish between Eurocentric and Afrocentric paradigms, between ideas and conceptions of what constitutes “Africa” derived from European as opposed to African perspectives. The difficulty with this method is that it assumes homogeneity within each paradigm and it inscribes an epistemic division between the two approaches that are otherwise deeply implicated with each other. There are other possible typological or taxonomic descriptions of Africa. One can think of religious, ecological, linguistic, and even ethnic taxonomies. This article has chosen four typologies that seem best able to capture a wide range of constructions of Africa: the racial, representational, geographic, and historical conceptions. As with the Eurocentric-Afrocentric dichotomy, there are no discursive Chinese walls separating the four typologies, nor do they exhaust other possible categorizations, but they do have heuristic value.

Origins of the Name Africa

The historical origins of the name Africa are in dispute. At least seven origins have been suggested: (1) it is a Roman name for what the Greeks called “Libya,” itself perhaps a Latinization of the name of the Berber tribe Aourigha (perhaps pronounced “Afarika”); (2) it is derived from two Phoenician terms either referring to corn or fruit (pharika), meaning land of corn or fruit; (3) it comes from a Phoenician root faraqa, meaning separation or diaspora; a similar root is apparently found in some African languages such as Bambara; (4) it is drawn from the Latin adjective aprica (sunny) or the Greek aprikē (free from cold); (5) it might even stem from Sanskrit and Hindi in which the root Apara or Africadenotes that which, in geographical terms, comes “after”—to the west—in which case Africa is the western continent; (6) it is the name of a Yemenite chief named Africus who invaded North Africa in the second millennium B.C.E. and founded a town called Afrikyah; or (7) it springs from “Afer” who was a grandson of Abraham and a companion of Hercules (Ki-Zerbo; Spivak).

Clearly, there is little agreement on the sources and original meanings of the word Africa. The foreignness of the name once prompted Wole Soyinka to demand that it be dropped, and as an act of self-definition he proposed the adoption of terms for Africa and African rooted in an indigenous language, preferably Abibirim and Abibiman from Akan. It appears the term Africa was used widely from Roman times to refer initially to North Africa, originally called by the Greek or Egyptian word Libya, before it was extended to the whole continent from the end of the first century of the common era. The Arabic term Ifriqiya most probably represents a transliteration of the word Africa. In this sense, then, Africa was a European construct—as much as Europe itself was a construct inflicted by the idea of Africa (and Asia)—whose cartographic application was both gradual and contradictory in that as the name embraced the rest of the continent it increasingly came to be divorced from its original North African coding and became increasingly confined to the regions referred to in Eurocentric and sometimes Afrocentric conceptual mapping as “sub-Saharan Africa,” seen as the pristine locus of the “real” Africa or what the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) called “Africa proper.”

The divorce of North Africa may have started with the Arab invasions of the region in the seventh century, but got its epistemic and ideological imprimatur with the emergence of Eurocentricism following the rise of modern Europe, which for Africa entailed, initially and destructively, the Atlantic slave trade, out of which came the forced migration—the largest in human history—of millions of Africans and the formation of African diasporas in the Americas, diasporas that appropriated and popularized the name Africa and through whom Africa became increasingly racialized. For example, the adoption of “black” as the preferred name of African-Americans from the 1960s, in place of “Negro,” simply reinforced the relabeling of Africa as “black,” a tag that simultaneously rejected and reinscribed the old pejorative appellation of the “dark continent.” For the French, Afrique noire served to distinguish the west and central African colonies from the fictive overseas provinces of metropolitan France in North Africa, especially Algeria.

Far less clear is when the appropriation of Africa, as a self-defining identity, occurred in the various regions and among the innumerable societies that make up this vast continent, the second largest in the world. Such an archaeological project has not been undertaken, partly because it is a daunting task to untangle the interpellations and intersections of political and cultural identities for Africa’s peoples—ethnic, national, continental, and global—and partly because African intellectuals, whether nationalist or postcolonial, have been preoccupied with denouncing or deconstructing Eurocentrism.

The Racialization of Africa

The conflation of Africa with “sub-Saharan Africa,” “Africa south of the Sahara” or “Black Africa” so common in discourses about Africa, within and without the continent, ultimately offers us a racialized view of Africa, Africa as the “black” continent. It rests on the metaphysics of difference, a quest for the civilizational and cultural ontology of blackness. For Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) and his descendants, as Olufemi Taiwo calls purveyors of contemporary Eurocentrism, Africa is the ultimate “undeveloped, unhistorical” other of Europe. Hegel’s “Africa proper” is, in his words, the “land of childhood,” from which North Africa and especially Egypt is excised and attached to Europe, and where history, philosophy, and culture are “enveloped in the dark mantle of night” because its inhabitants, “the Negro exhibits the natural man in his completely wild and untamed state” (Hegel, pp. 91, 93).

Hegel’s ghost still stalks African studies and definitions of Africa. According to some this fragmentation of Africa in African studies has been unproductive intellectually, leaving aside its ideological motivations and effects. To quote John Hunwick:

The compartmentalization of Africa into zones that are treated as ‘Middle East’ and ‘Africa’ is a legacy of Orientalism and colonialism. North Africa, including Egypt, is usually seen as forming part of the Middle East, though Middle East experts are not generally keen to venture farther west than the confines of Egypt. Northwestern Africa—the Maghreb—is generally regarded as peripheral to Middle Eastern Studies and extraneous to African studies. Even the Sahara has been generally viewed as something of a no-go area (especially among anglophone scholars), while the Sudan and Mauritania (which are impossible to label as either ‘sub-Saharan’ or ‘Middle Eastern’) remain in limbo. Northwestern Africa (from Morocco to Libya), despite the area’s close and enduring relationship with West Africa, has been excluded from the concerns of most Africanists. (p. xiii)

This truncated characterization and racialization of Africa is of course not confined to Western scholars. Many African scholars also subscribe to it, as is so evident from their publications on Africa that often omit North Africa. Unlike Hegel and the Eurocentrists, however, African scholars seek to invest, not divest, sub-Saharan Africa with history and intellectual agency. The epistemological fixation with black Africa is so insidious that few remark on it, and when they do they tend to invoke cultural unity for sub-Saharan Africa in which “culture” largely serves as a proxy for race given the fact of cultural diversities within sub-Saharan Africa itself and the cultural affinities between some societies in this region, say the Sahel, with those of North Africa. Take language and religion, two critical attributes of culture: historically the Hausa of West Africa had more in common with their Berber and Arab neighbors to the North than with the Zulu of South Africa. The former traded with each other for centuries, shared religion (Islam) and a script (Arabic), and their languages are part of the Afro-Asiatic family. But this familiar material, moral, and mental universe does not count in the ontology of Africanness confined to the sub-Saharan region.

The separation of North Africa is sometimes based on the question of consciousness and self-representation. It is said people in North Africa perceive themselves to be part of the Arab world and therefore should not be considered a part of Africa. This ignores the simple fact that the vast majority of Arabs actually live in Africa, so that at a minimum Africa has to be considered an Afro-Arab continent. There is no doubt that North Africans have multiple identities and extracontinental affiliations, but so do people in so-called sub-Saharan Africa—ethnic, national, religious, gender, sexual, racial, and so on—in which the identity “African” may not be the primary one. Indeed, the African diaspora was African long before the communities they left behind on the continent developed a consciousness of being African.

Behind these conflicting definitions of Africa, about which regions to include and exclude, lie complex ideological and historical processes that need to be taken into account, for example, the relative decline from the sixteenth century of the trans-Saharan economy following the rise of the Atlantic economy. Another powerful development setting North and West Africa apart, it has been suggested, was the development of an autonomous Sufi Saharan/Sahelian Islam, independent from the North African impulse. Even more crucial, for our purposes, is the need to distinguish between historical knowledge on the one hand, and ideas or imaginings of Africa as intellectual and ideological projects on the other and to ask: who is defining Africa and for what purpose, whose ideas and imaginings predominate, and why? In this regard, it is important to underline the role of institutions from academic institutions to international organizations in this endeavor, to examine both scholarly and popular ideas of Africa and their discursive, spatial, and temporal articulations.

Adebayo Olukoshi and Francis Nyamnjoh remind us that to most ordinary people in Africa, to be African goes beyond making ontological, let alone epistemological, claims. It is a complex and constantly changing and challenging existential and ethical reality.

For the masses of Africans, Africa is above all a lived reality, one that is constantly shaped and reshaped by their toil and sweat as subjected and devalued humanity, even as they struggle to live in dignity and to transform their societies progressively. For these people, the fact of their Africanity is neither in question nor a question. And the least they would expect from concerned scholars is to refrain from adding onto their burdens in the name of a type of scholarship which, in being ahistorical, also trivializes their collective experiences and memories (pp. 1-2).

Representational Discourses of Africa

The notion that there is no racial essence that characterizes Africa and Africans because identities are socially constructed or invented and constantly changing has been the central message of scholars using postcolonial theory. V. Y. Mudimbe’s seminal work has sought to map out this discursive process. In The Invention of Africa (1988), he interrogates the construction of Africa through Eurocentric categories and conceptual systems, from anthropology and missionary discourses to philosophy, an order of knowledge constituted in the sociohistorical context of colonialism, which produced enduring dichotomies between Europe and Africa, investing the latter’s societies, cultures, and bodies with the representational marginalities or even pathologies of alterity (otherness).

In The Idea of Africa (1994), he seeks to demonstrate that conquering Western narratives, beginning with Greek stories about Africa, through the colonial library to contemporary postmodernist discourses, have radically silenced or converted African discourses. African intellectuals, he argues, have been reacting to this ethnocentric epistemological order, itself subject to the mutations of Western material, methodological, and moral grids, with varying degrees of epistemic domestication and defiance, in the process of which Africa’s identity and difference have been affirmed, denied, inverted, and reconstituted.

For some thinkers one of the most important aspects of Africa’s representation lies not in its invention per se, a phenomenon that is by no means confined to the continent, but in the fact that Africa is always represented and performed as a reality or a fiction in relation to something else, mostly Europe (white); Africa is always the Dark Continent (black). The question is precisely what makes the representation of Africa so distinctive and different from the representation of other continents: it is that Africa is always represented and imagined, in ways that Asia, for example, is not necessarily, in relation to master references—Europe, whiteness, Christianity, literacy, development, technology (the comparative and colonizing tropes mutate continuously)—mirrors that reflect, indeed refract Africa in peculiar ways, reducing the continent to particular (negative) images of “lack” and “becoming,” lacking and becoming “Europe.” In short, Africa more than any other continent is the quintessential representational other of Europe; from the moment (historically understood) that the two continents became entangled with each other, the grammar of their self-definitions became distorted mirror images of the other.

From this angle it can be seen why Eurocentric and Afrocentric representations of Africa are so deeply implicated with each other, why the inclusion or exclusion of North Africa is so crucial to both of them, why their discursive possessiveness centers on Egypt. At stake is the civilizing authority and antiquity of Africa. The contemporary debate about the Africanness, and for some the “blackness,” of ancient Egypt was launched by Cheikh Anta Diop’s provocative book, The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality (1974). Afrocentric scholars in the United States led by African American scholar Molefi Asante, who coined the term Afrocentricity, picked up and popularized Diop’s ideas.

But it was not until a European American scholar, Martin Bernal, published his tome Black Athena (1987, 1991), affirming the “blackness” of the ancient Egyptians and their enormous contributions to Greek civilization—the cradle of Western civilization—that Afrocentric claims received attention in the mainstream American and international academic media. Among those who were outraged was the classicist Mary Lefkowitz who vehemently attacked Bernal and the Afrocentric movement as a whole for its alleged “myths.”

For many African scholars the debate about the race of the ancient Egyptians seemed rooted more in American preoccupations with race than African history as such. To some of them blackness is less about race and more about representation, a sign not of submission to the Hegelian and colonialist schema of inferior difference, but of subversion and struggle against it. They see black identity as the result of political, social, and cultural negotiations, cooperation, transactions, differences between self and the other that goes beyond skin color; it is about the common experience of pain, exploitation, and suffering shared by an oppressed people and is deployed as a powerful symbol of subversion, struggle, and self-affirmation. It was in this sense that the term black was extended to “coloreds” (people of mixed race, Indians, and people of Asian descent) in South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s, and used to refer to people of African and Asian descent in Britain.

Others denounce the use of race altogether as a biological determinism that should have no place in Africanist scholarship while affirming the possibilities of (forging) a common African identity. Kwame Anthony Appiah is perhaps the most renowned proponent of this critique in his book In My Father’s House (1992). Appiah is unsparing in his attack on the dangerous fictions of race and racialist thinking and takes direct aim at some of the icons of Pan-Africanism, including W. E. B. Dubois (1868-1963). He seeks to demolish essentialist conceptions of Africa and demonstrate that Africa is not a primordial fixture, but an invented reality, and Africans are not molded from the same clay of racial and cultural homogeneity. This is a celebration of the diversity, complexity, richness, hybridity, and contingency of African identities and social and cultural life, mounted to challenge the totalizing narratives of both African nationalism and European imperialism with their dualistic and polarized representations of Africa and African identities and culture.

Critics of Appiah and Mudimbe and other postcolonial and postmodern African scholars such as Achille Mbembe, who also dismiss “nationalist” or what they sometimes refer to as “nativist” definitions of African identities, have pointed out that despite these writers’ celebratory analyses of the plurality and social construction of African identities, their work is not always sufficiently historicized and is trapped in the “colonial library”—Western episteme—and virtually ignores the “Islamic library”—African writings in Arabic and Arabic script—which would radically shift their conceptions of African thought and ideas of self-representation.

These shortcomings are readily evident in Appiah’s book, for example, when he compares the different roles of religion and the modes of thought in what he calls the traditional oral cultures of Africa and the industrialized literate cultures of the West. The comparisons drip with a fundamental tension rooted in a binary conception of African “orality” and European “literacy.” This is a problematic formulation, not only because he draws his African examples largely from one culture, Asante, but the conflation of orality with Africa and literacy with Europe is simply false if the “Islamic library” is taken into account. Also, the framing of “traditional” Africa versus “modern” Europe locks both Africa and Europe in a temporal binary that effectively dehistoricizes each. The irony, then, is that despite his best intentions Appiah ends up with an essentialized Africa with an ontological essence—lacking the supposedly European attributes of literacy—and a racialized one as well in that his analysis is confined to sub-Saharan Africa.

Geographical Conceptions of Africa

If we dispense with the racial conceptions of Africa, we are left with geographical and historical notions, Africa as a spatiotemporal construct that is at once a process, product, and a project of a complex and contradictory historical geography. The concept of historical geography, sitting at the intersection of two disciplines, has allowed scholars to combine the spatial and temporal interests of geography and history, to understand that the physical environment and human agency are mutually constitutive, that people’s creativity and thought produce places as much as places produce people’s cultures and identities, in short, that landscapes are not only important aspects of culture, they are products of historical processes.

Whereas nobody denies that a geographical entity called “Africa” exists, for some this is merely a cartographic reality not a cultural one, an exercise in mapping devoid of experiential meaning for the peoples that have lived within the continent’s porous borders. They would be right, some contend, if the argument were that Africa’s peoples have always been conscious of living in a place called “Africa.” Clearly, they have not, no more than people who in the twenty-first century are called “Asians” or “Europeans” have always had such a spatial consciousness. Historically, local spatial identities, encapsulated and articulated in ethnic, regional, and national terms, have been far more important, while broader (continental) spatial imaginaries have tended to develop as the processes of globalization, understood here to mean the expanding circuits of transregional connectedness, have grown in extensity and intensity.

Thus, in Africa, as elsewhere in the world, there is a hierarchy of spatial identities that are interwoven and interactive in complex ways engendering multiple cultural identities. Space and the spatial stage contextualize cultures, economies, and politics, and invent and inscribe places and landscapes with ethical, symbolic, and aesthetic meanings. “‘Space’ is created,” argues Doreen Massey, “out of the vast intricacies, the incredible complexities, of the interlocking and the noninterlocking, and the networks of relations at every scale from local to global” (pp. 155-156). Space, then, is not a static and passive template of social existence, but an active, constitutive force of the social’s very composition and construction.

Seen in this way, then, the multiple mappings of Africa are indeed to be expected. The numerous peoples and societies that have carved out a place of their own across this vast continent have, in a sense, been creating their little Africas, each laying their bricks of African identity across the huge and intricate cartographic, cognitive, and cultural construct known as “Africa.” Therefore, a geographical conception of Africa does not need the existence of racial solidarity or the invention of cultural homogeneity. But this is not an empty cartographic vessel either in so far as the diverse cultures and identities that have emerged and have yet to emerge have been and will continue to be shaped by the mapping and materiality of Africa as an ever changing spatial entity and social construct.

The map of Africa, as with all maps, entails many things. Maps are not simply representations of the geographical world. A map is, as David Woodward and Malcom Lewis argue in their massive global history of cartography, simultaneously a cognitive system, a material culture, and a social construction. They speak of “cognitive or mental cartography,” “performance or ritual cartography,” and “material or artifactual cartography.” Recent studies on indigenous cartography in Africa demonstrate that all three have been employed by Africa’s various peoples to map, name, and claim their landscapes, stretched over varying scales of expansiveness.

In the nineteenth century, many European explorers solicited and used some of these maps to produce their own maps, which shows cross-cultural intelligibility between African and European maps. To quote Thomas Bassett: “Notwithstanding broad epistemological divides separating Europeans from various African cultural groups, it appears Europeans had little difficulty in reading these maps. Solicited maps demonstrate that Africans had the spatial competence and requisite sign systems to produce maps spontaneously.… Indeed, there is evidence that [these] maps were influential in shaping the form and content of European maps of the continent” (p. 37).

Quite clearly African maps influenced European mapmaking in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in several ways. They enabled European explorers to construct or correct their maps, and were essential for topological determinations, and place-names, which were widely transcribed onto European maps. In turn, European influences also became increasingly discernible in African mapmaking in terms of the materials used, the northerly orientation of some maps (e.g., Ras Makonnen’s famous map of Ethiopia of 1899), and the methods employed in their construction (e.g., Cameroonian King Njoya’s topographic survey from 1912 to 1916).

For more than fifteen hundred years maps of Africa produced in northern Africa, southern Europe, and western Asia had reproduced the maps made by Ptolemy in Alexandria in the second century B.C.E., only “altering them slightly to suit their needs” (Mbodji, p. 44). The creation of new and more accurate maps of continental Africa began with the emergence of “scientific” cartography and the beginnings of European global voyages and conquests in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, although it was not until the mid-nineteenth century that the broad external and internal contours of the continent were finally filled out as we know them today. The European mapping of Africa was implicated with imperialism both directly and indirectly, directly in that mapmaking facilitated the voyages of exploration and colonization, and indirectly insofar as it was part of the ideological architecture of inscribing European nationalisms at home and forging collective European grandeur globally: from Gerardus Mercator’s (1512-1594) projection, still widely used in the twenty-first century, tiny Europe was inflated in size and massive Africa was dwarfed. It was almost as if Africa’s civilizational diminution had to be accompanied by a cartographic one.

Upon this shriveled “blank darkness” Europe sought to write its cartographic and epistemic will by dividing the continent into colonies, themselves further splintered into allegedly primordial and antagonistic ethnic enclaves, a cognitive mapping sanctioned by the structuralist-functionalist paradigms of anthropology, the premier colonial science. But against the “tribalization” of Africa and African cultures and identities by the colonial administration and colonial anthropology, which were contested by local circuits of exchange, movement, and interaction so that borders served not simply as points of separation and struggle but often as places of convocation and conviviality, there emerged the countervailing elite paradigms, politics and projections of Pan-Africanism, the progenitor of the numerous territorial nationalisms in Africa.

As an ideological, intellectual, and institutional formation Pan-Africanism embodied within itself conflicting tendencies and imaginaries of Africa, premised on racial, spatial, and ideological constructs. While there always existed different versions of Pan-Africanism premised on diverse spatial conceptions of Africa (for example, trans-Atlantic Pan-Africanism embraced the African diaspora in the Americas), the one that received lasting institutional expression for independent African states was continental Pan-Africanism, which was sanctified in 1963 with the formation of the Organization of African Unity (OAU). In 2001 the African Union (AU), a more ambitious project of continental unification, succeeded the OAU.

The formation of the OAU and later the AU entailed a remapping of Africa, the creation and consumption of new national, regional, and continental maps that were produced, performed, and internalized everywhere from schools, the media, and academic and political conferences, to international forums where regional blocs assumed representational identities. In short, “Africa” the map and the place was becoming increasingly “Africa” the idea and the consciousness, buttressed by an intricate web of hundreds of continental institutions covering an ever expanding range of spheres from politics, the economy, environment, health, education, and culture, to technical cooperation and the prosaic world of leisure involving competitive games and sports and forms of popular entertainment.

By the beginning of the twenty-first century, “Africa” was perhaps more “African” than it had ever been in its history, that is to say, more interconnected through licit and illicit flows of commodities, capital, ideas, and people, not to mention multilateral conflicts and ecological and health panics, and more conscious of its collective identity in the global panorama and hierarchy of regional identities. The historical geography of Africa had been stretched and deepened despite, on the one hand the centrifugal push of spatial and social identities within the continent itself (some of which degenerated into destructive conflicts including civil wars, massive migrations, and state collapse), and on the other the centripetal pull of contemporary globalization and its “glocalization” effects—its tendency to simultaneously internationalize and localize identities and cultures—and the enduring seductions of extracontinental alliances for some regions and countries.

Historical Conceptions of Africa

From the discussion above it is evident that Africa and African identities can be conceived both as states of being and of becoming. In other words, “Africa” is a dynamic historical process, a messy spatio-temporal configuration of agency, structure, and contextuality that is subject to change, which is not always easy to perceive or predict. Africa, in this sense, has emerged out of the complex histories of the continent’s peoples. Indeed, African historians have been in the forefront of constructing Africa as a coherent and complex object of study, investing the continent with a distinctive civilizational identity. They were among the first to take up the Eurocentric lie that Africa was a continent and Africans were a people “without history,” an indictment intended to devalue their humanity.

The pivotal and central role of historians is precisely to propose a space, an axis to locate and make sense of the human experience, politically, socially, culturally, and economically. Needless to say, there are different types of African historians in terms of their training and institutional locations and methodological and theoretical orientations. Academic historians compete with “traditional” and popular historians in public historical discourse, so that there are continuous contestations about space, communities, and histories. But academic historians have tended to dominate in the production of the history of the postcolonial nation and the continental imaginary called Africa.

Once the dominant tendency was to produce linear and celebratory narratives of the nation and the continent, in which colonialism was reduced to a parenthesis or an episode, then the various subalterns wearing the identities of class, gender, or generation joined the historians’ parade, before the postal turn (poststructural, postmodern, and postcolonial theories) that sought to reveal the fictionality of the whole enterprise, that the past is largely imagined, constructed, or invented. The better historians had always seen and constructed history as a series of messy, multiple, complex, and often conflicting processes and discourses about the past, produced simultaneously at local, national, and transnational levels, themselves connected and constructed in intricate and contradictory and ever changing ways.

By the end of the twentieth century, academic historians had produced a phenomenal amount of scholarship, invented and refined methodologies of research, and excavated the histories of African polities, societies, economies, cultures, and environments from the onerous weight of Eurocentric derision and Afrocentric romanticism. The publication of the UNESCO (1981-1993) and Cambridge (1977-1985) histories of Africa marked the apotheosis of this spectacular scholarly achievement. To be sure, there is much one can criticize about African historiography methodologically and theoretically, but the fact remains historians have written extensively on the development and invention of African cultural traditions and identities over time that make it possible to research, write, and teach about “African” history as a distinctive field, even if complexly connected to other histories, especially of “Europe.”

Despite their prodigious production since independence, African historians, not to mention scholars from other disciplines, have not generally been anxious to propose the defining characteristics of Africa, the essential elements that constitute its development as an idea and a historical geography. The most renowned model is the one proposed by Ali Mazrui, the notion of the “triple heritage,” that the African world is constituted by the confluence of three civilizations: the indigenous (traditional), Western (Christianity), and Arabic (Islam).

The three forces apparently exhibit enormous variations in their spatial and temporal manifestations, some are more dominant in certain regions, countries, and societies, and one could add here among certain classes and genders and at certain times, than in others. But the journey in Mazrui’s gnosis seems not to be toward the harmonious and universal synthesis of the Negritude writers and philosophers, who posited a duality between Africa and Europe, reason and emotion, materialism and morality, humanity and nature, out of whose dialectical encounters and reconciliation a universal civilization would be forged. Rather it is toward a triumphant resurgence and reclamation of Africa’s cultural spaces by tradition and Islam.

Mazrui did not invent the trilateralist view of Africa and its cultures and identities, that contemporary Africa contained an allegedly uneasy mixture of traditional, Western, and Islamic values and practices. The idea can be traced back to the 1887 work of Edward Blyden (1832-1912), the great nineteenth-century Liberian intellectual, for whom the modern “African personality,” as he called it, was formed and would flourish out of the organic integration of the best elements from indigenous culture, Islam, and European science and Christianity. Kwame Nkrumah (1909-1972), the Pan-African activist and intellectual and Ghana’s first president, elaborated on Blyden’s notion of the “African personality” in his concept of consciencism, a cultural and cognitive synthesis between the humanistic and socialist ethos of “traditional” Africa, the acquisitive capitalist values and redemptive Christian hopes of the “West,” and the holistic secular and spiritual precepts of Islam. Forged out of this crucible, the “African personality” would emerge, modern, assured, and liberated, ready to take its rightful place in the world.

Nkrumah has been faulted for not giving the traditional and Islamic legacies the kind of serious analysis accorded the Western one in his book Consciencism (1964). Part of some critics’ unease with Nkrumah’s schema is based on doubts that there indeed exists an exclusive and distinctive African traditional culture or a homogeneous African cultural universe. The same critique has been leveled against Mazrui, who has been attacked for what some regard as his evident partiality to Islam as the more benevolent force than the European-Christian and indigenous parts of the triad. In his withering critique of Mazrui’s television series, The Africans: A Triple Heritage, Soyinka accused Mazrui of denigrating indigenous religions and cultures, a charge Mazrui vigorously denied (Mazrui and Mutunga).

The Mazrui-Soyinka debate over Mazrui’s television series underscores the unresolved issues and stakes in contemporary definitions of Africa and Africanness. As noted with reference to Appiah above, both Soyinka and Mazrui do not historicize the moral, societal, and cultural values that constitute African identities. Their ethnographic notions of tradition are problematic; they ignore the sedimentations of exchanges, adaptations, inventions, and changes that the traditions in question, whether seen positively or negatively, have undergone. Often forgotten in these debates are several basic questions, such as how foreign, indeed, are Christianity and Islam to Africa, if we can restrict ourselves to the religious dimensions of the triple heritage for a moment. As histories of both religions clearly indicate, Christianity and Islam were implanted in certain parts of Africa almost at their inception and Africans made significant doctrinal contributions to both religions long before they were introduced to many parts of Europe and Asia where they are considered “indigenous,” “traditional,” or at least their “foreign” pedigree is not always emphasized.

This is to suggest that while the notion of the “triple heritage” highlights the diverse sources of African identities and cultures and seeks to clarify the complex streams that have flowed into their making, it flirts with an essentialized and almost ahistorical notion of a primordial Africa, a “real Africa,” that somehow exists alongside external cultural diffusions, a narrative that is quite reminiscent of the misguided searches for a Hegelian “Africa proper.” The inadequacies of the Blyden-Nkrumah-Mazrui cultural typologies do not mean that all attempts at creating such schemas are mistaken or doomed. Typologies or conceptual categories are essential to intellectual analysis; they are intended to clarify complex social phenomena. Difficulties often arise when the categories cease to be explanatory devices sensitive to human agency, social structure, and spatiotemporal contexts and begin to wallow in their own transcendental magnificence.


It is quite evident that there is no agreement on what “Africa” means, let alone how to define African identities beyond what can only be provisional and partial conceptualizations and categorizations. Yet, we all believe we know what “Africa” is, what it must be, but when we think we have finally seen it, felt it, touched it, captured and tamed it with our terms of endearment, aversion, or indifference it suddenly melts away into a mirage beyond the assured and unilateral classifications of race, representation, geography, or history. Perhaps wisdom lies in accepting the simple proposition that Africa is indeed many things, a mélange of peoples, places, practices, processes, projects, and possibilities that are both unique and common in their configuration over time and space.

Africa is, in short, a critical site of the human drama, the original homeland, as modern archaeology and genetics tell us, of humanity and it continues to be the continent that hundreds of millions of people in all their marvelous and sometimes bewildering complexities, colors, and cultures still call home. Who can claim the right to divine who belongs or does not belong to its porous boundaries and the histories and memories etched on and eked out of its variegated landscapes? The idea of “Africa,” it would seem, will continue to elude any definitive conceptualization that is premised on exclusive claims of race, geography, or history because it is a phenomenon that is always in a state of becoming.