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? Is it ‘under’ the Sahara Desert or ‘part of’/‘partly’ the Sahara Desert? 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?

At 3.6 million square miles (9.4 million square kilometers), the Sahara, which is Arabic for “The Great Desert,” covers large sections of Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Western Sahara, Sudan and Tunisia. So parts of the Sahara are in SSA? As a geographical term it is increasingly inaccurate and too fluid as a classification. (The Sahara is moving southwards.) It is a similar classification to ‘Tropical Africa’ (TA) which is defined as SSA excluding the South Africa.

We cannot escape the fact that both classifications (SSA & TA)  are geographically inexact/fluid and attempt to classify the sections of the continent mostly inhabited by black people.

Map of Africa by Climatic Differentiation


Why These Classifications Are Redundant

When researching SSA or TA in a  sociological context, these classifications 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 the case has not been exhaustively made to apply similar distinctions to sociological research.

What Africa Should We Research?

How we define Africa 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, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, and John Sibree. The philosophy of history. Courier Corporation, 2004 p 93


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. Sociological research on 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, it should be as diverse as the continent.

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 54 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 devoid of hope, the heart of Africa lies in historical trauma that births love for a world yet unborn.


Leave a Reply