I have always found the use of Sub-Saharan Africa problematic, especially in research, but also in the media. In this post, I argue that ‘Sub-Saharan Africa’ is neither an accurate geographical term or a reliable scientific unit. And therefore, we should stop researching it.
What does Sub-Saharan Africa mean?
In practice, ‘Sub-Saharan Africa’ (SSA) refers to all of Africa except the five predominantly Arab states of North Africa (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt) and the Sudan, a north-central African country.
Is it a geographical term?
What does ‘sub’ mean in this context? As a prefix ‘sub’ means ‘under’ or ‘imperfect.’ So does SSA mean that this region is ‘under’ the Sahara Desert or ‘part of’/‘partly’ the Sahara Desert or ‘imperfectly the Sahara’? Or, presumably, ‘partially’/‘nearly’ the Sahara Desert or even ‘in the style of, but inferior to’ the Sahara Desert, especially considering that there is an Arab people sandwiched between Morocco and Mauritania (northwest Africa) called Saharan?
What does the Sahara cover? At 3.6 million square miles (9.4 million square kilometers), the Sahara, which is Arabic for “The Great Desert,” [An aside: Sahara Desert = The Great Desert Desert] covers large sections of Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Western Sahara, Sudan and Tunisia. So does this mean that parts of the Sahara are in SSA? As a geographical term it is increasingly inaccurate and too fluid a classification. The Sahara is moving southwards. Which means that the countries covered by the Sahara will rise. Will we then change where SSA refers to?
As a geographical term SSA is a similar classification to ‘Tropical Africa’ (TA) which has had many definitions but is mostly currently defined as SSA excluding the South Africa. NB: TA has nothing to do with where the weather is tropical. We cannot escape the fact that both classifications (SSA & TA) are geographically inexact/fluid and rather than identifying discernible geographical areas, they attempt to classify sections of the continent thought of as mostly inhabited by Black people.
Why These Classifications Are Redundant
When researching SSA or TA in a sociological context, these classifications rely on race science and presume a homogeneity of Black experience. However, Africa is generally considered to be the most diverse continent – linguistically, sociologically, genetically and even geographically. I admit that there may be some good reasons to restrict scientific studies to certain geographical demarcations, but those demarcations have to be exact and I do not think the case has not been exhaustively made to apply similar distinctions to sociological research.
What Africa Should We Research?
How we define Africa for research purposes has long been the preoccupation of writers of and in Africa. Georg Hegel said of Africa and Africans:
‘The Negro, as already observed, exhibits the natural man in his completely wild and untamed state. We must lay aside all thought of reverence and morality-all that we call feeling-if we would rightly comprehend him; there is nothing harmonious with humanity to be found in this type of character. The copious and circumstantial accounts of Missionaries completely confirm this, and Mahommedanism appears to be the only thing which in any way brings the Negroes within the range of culture… it has no movement or development to exhibit. Historical movements in it-that is in its northern part-belong to the Asiatic or European World. Carthage displayed there an important transitionary phase of civilization; but, as a Phoenician colony, it belongs to Asia. Egypt will be considered in reference to the passage of the human mind from its Eastern to its Western phase, but it does not belong to the African Spirit. What we properly understand by Africa, is the Unhistorical, Undeveloped Spirit, still involved in the conditions of mere nature, and which had to be presented here only as on the threshold of the World’s History.’ [Hegel, 2004: 93]
Thus, studying SSA or TA accords to Hegelian ideas about Africa i.e. that Africa is backward and North Africa is not African but Asiatic or European. There is also a risk of ignoring the non-SSA sections of the continent in Africa-wide research. Sociological research on and of the continent should focus on the needs and wants of the whole continent, it should reflect the voices of the continent, it should be ethical, it should be divorced from the Hegelian and the colonial library, and it should be as diverse as the continent itself.
Studying Sub-Saharan Africa as a category, obscures historical racial evaluations behind a facade that pretends to objectively be contemporary and only about geographical demarcations. It is a magician’s sleight of hand, a misdirection.
There are many Africas to be researched; there is the ‘idea’ of Africa that exists in the writings of Hegel, and is contrasted with the writings of Nkrumah and Garvey. There is the political Africa – all 55 states that can be researched separately or by reference to regionalism or sub-regionalism. There is the scientific space of floral and fauna, of earth, and water and skies. Then there is the heart of Africa, evident in the lives of Africa’s people. The heart of Africa lies in the daily struggles that birth resilience into a world of audacious hope, the heart of Africa lies in souls that inexplicably birth love for a world yet unborn. Why don’t you research Africa with her people? Why don’t you ask them what Africa they want to research? Why don’t you stop researching sub-Saharan Africa?
Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, and John Sibree. The philosophy of history. Courier Corporation
Mudimbe, V. Y. The invention of Africa: Gnosis, philosophy, and the order of knowledge. Lulu Press, Inc, 2020.
Mudimbe, Valentin Yves, and Vumbi Yoka Mudimbé. The idea of Africa. Indiana University Press, 1994.