A common mischaracterization among the uninformed is to refer to Africa as a country. An Africa expert might retort that in fact it is not a country; there are 54 countries on the continent. However, depending on the “African” you talk to, you might get a much smaller number. This is because many residents of countries on the continent do not think of themselves as African.
First, and perhaps most logically, North Africans often do not think of themselves as African. Those from places like Algeria, Tunisia or Egypt are much more likely to identify with the Middle East, and Arabic culture. Given that much of early “international” travel was by sea and that they are on the Mediterranean, this seems a pretty reasonable argument. For instance, Tunisia was part of the Roman Empire, and North Africans often had much more interaction with Europeans than they did with those south of the Sahara. The (north) Sudanese, while not on the Mediterranean, also tend to identify as Arabs rather than Africans. This is in no small part due to the fact that their colonial masters, the British, used Egypt as their proxy ruler, meaning the north Sudanese in particular had a close tie to Egypt. Before coming to Africa, I was aware of all of these countries and their claims to non-African-ness. What I didn’t know was that the trend sometimes continues south of the Sahara.
First, the Malagasies (those from Madagascar) are decidedly not Africans. Another Princeton in Africa fellow living there told me about how they refer to issues like malaria and HIV/AIDS as “not their problems, those are Africa problems.” Again, their origins might have something to do with their lack of African-ness, as many Malagasies are thought to be re-settled from Southeast Asia.
Somalis are also certainly not Africans. Here the argument gets a little bit weaker, in my estimation. Somalia is distinct from most African countries in that it is comprised of a single tribe. Its strategic position on the Gulf of Aden also meant that much of its interaction was with non-Africans, perhaps developing its distinct culture. However, the nomadic lifestyle of Somalis, and their focus on rearing livestock reminds me tremendously of the region of Northern Kenya where I worked. Somalia and Northern Kenya certainly share some common elements (and a border), and I don’t think many North Kenyans would ever conceive of themselves as anything other than African.
I learned today from one of my co-workers that some Ethiopians also contest the claim that they are African. This time, the central argument is based on their skin, as Ethiopians tend to have much lighter skin (which Ethiopians refer to as “Habesha”. I am white, someone from Kenya is black, and an Ethiopian is habesha). Also, unlike every other African country, Ethiopia was never colonized. I find this argument really amusing, that a country’s lack of colonial legacy makes it less African.
However, my all-time favorite instance of people denying their African-ness comes in the form of the Republic of South Africa. You would think that a country whose name includes “Africa” in it would certainly not contest its relation to Africa. However, many white South Africans do not consider themselves to be living in Africa (and honestly, given how segregated the communities are in South Africa, in practice parts of Johannesburg and elsewhere might not feel very African). When a Princeton in Africa Fellow of Kenyan origin would tell White South Africans her country of origin, she said they would often say “That’s great. I would really like to visit Africa some day.”
I don’t know why so many individuals on the continent are so determined to separate themselves from the classification of African. However, if I had to guess, I would say that it has something to do with the very negative characterizations of Africa presented in the media. When the notion most people have of Africa is place of disease, death, and civil war, it seems natural to want to separate yourself from such a label. I would imagine nearly every country in the continent has some characteristic that makes it unique, whether it’s a lack of colonial legacy, trade partners on the Gulf of Aden, or some other key feature. However, whatever the reason, it’s clear that many “Africans” don’t see themselves as African at all.