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3: Africa South of the Sahara

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    Re-framing Africa South of the Sahara

    Africa is often viewed as a monolith, in broad continental strokes depicting the “Black continent.” Yet, Africa is home to more than one billion people, and there is no such thing as a singular African identity, nor an African race. By every measure, Africa is the cradle of human diversity and the most diverse region on Earth. Racial constructions based on skin color and other physical human characteristics have served as ideological justifications for the plundering of Africa, including the enslavement and trade of millions of Africans across the Atlantic. Furthermore, persisting depictions of backwardness perpetuate a geographic imagination that is often de-contextualized from the looting of Africa via exploitative economic relationships with the outside world.

    Geographers tend to split the African continent in two separate regions, North and South of the Sahara. The African Transition Zone, along the Sahel, represents a buffer region where regional characteristics begin to shift and become more dissimilar from the patterns of the predominantly Islamic and arid North Africa. Dividing Africa north and south of the Sahara is sometimes accompanied by racist rhetoric as 19th-century constructions separate the predominantly Arab north and Black Africa of the south based on their degree of European cultural influence. The northern part of the continent is sometimes perceived as “European Africa,” highlighting Egypt as the center of cultural achievements while denying the role of the whole continent in the march of history. Cultural achievements of the south have commonly been dismissed as imports from the north. Like the architectural ruins of Great Zimbabwe that scholars, until recently, could not accept as monumental ruins of indigenous Africa. Or the indigenous Ife sculptures that were once perceived as too advanced to be independent artistic expressions rooted in Black Africa. Important food crops, too, are not commonly associated with African contributions to world cuisines. Even the term commonly used to describe the region, "Sub-Saharan Africa", implies a position below, rather than a latitudinal orientation south of the Sahara. We hereby attempt to correct this misalignment in vocabulary by rejecting the more common name for the region.

    Lastly, Africa and its peoples are far too often portrayed as spectators of the past and recipients of the future. This misrepresentation refuses the centrality of African labor, resources, and culture in the making of world history and in the making of today's world powers. First, through the profits accumulated from centuries of forced African labor. Then through the extraction of a wealth of minerals that continue to be key inputs in globally significant technological developments – may it be the uranium used in the atom bomb that brutally defeated Japan and empowered the US and allies to carve the post-WWII world, or the cobalt in lithium-ion batteries fueling a green energy revolution amidst a global climate crisis. Africa today also has people power. It is already home to the world's youngest and fastest-growing population, an epicenter of humanity that will continue to play a key role in the global future.

    In this chapter, we seek to avoid the dangers of a single story, as described by Chimanda Ngozi Adichie in the video below. In each of the sections of this chapter, we hope that you will find a multi-faceted exploration that will help you conceptualize Africa South of the Sahara as a world region and build an understanding of multiple geographical stories of struggle and resistance.


    TED Talk: "The Danger of a Single Story" by Chimanda Ngozi Adichie

    Our lives, our cultures, are composed of many overlapping stories. Novelist Chimamanda Adichie tells the story of how she found her authentic cultural voice -- and warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding. The video transcript is available in 49 languages.


    The World Geographies Atlas: Navigate each world region through maps

    For each of the world regions, our original atlas provides detailed maps to help you navigate the places discussed in this book. These maps are meant to be explored before and during the reading of this chapter. They were designed at a high resolution and best enjoyed enlarged. Click on each map for an enlarged view, and zoom in to see the prominent biomes, physical features, and population centers of Africa South of the Sahara. We recommend that you download these for reference as you read this chapter's content and hope that you enjoy this original compilation.

    Biome and physical features map of Africa South of the Sahara
    Countries, capitals, and population sizes map of Africa South of the Sahara
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): [left] This physical map shows the geographic distribution of biomes in Africa South of the Sahara and prominent physical features, like peaks, rivers, lakes, oceans, plateaus, mountains, and tectonic boundaries. Note how the Sahel is the distinguishing transition between Africa North and South of the Sahara - the regions in the North and the extensive Sahara Desert are considered part of Southwest Asia and North Africa (SWANA), discussed in Chapter 4. Also, note that the continent has about half of its landmass north and south of the equator, contrary to popular conceptions (CC BY-NC-SA; Wallace via Flickr). [right] This map depicts internationally recognized countries, capitals, major cities, and population distributions of Africa South of the Sahara. Note the greater population concentrations in west Africa, Ethiopian highlands, the Great Rift Valley around Lake Victoria, and coastal areas. As will be discussed in this chapter, the region has some of the fastest growing cities in the world (CC BY-NC-SA; Sellers via Flickr).

    3: Africa South of the Sahara is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Aline Gregorio & Jason Scott.

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