Setting out to find out why Africa is called Africa, we expected it would be the simplest of the 5 “questions people frequently put to Google” we answered to mark Africa Day. But it turned out to be much more complicated.
After talking to history scholars, we discovered there was consensus on only two facts: that the name “Africa” is a foreign construct and that there is no agreement on its origins.
Everything after that was a stimulating academic – and geographic – adventure.
Term widely used since the Roman time
The word “Africa” does not have an African origin, Thierno Bah, professor emeritus at the University of Yaounde and an author of several books on African history, told Africa Check.
Bah also said there is no agreement on the sources and meanings of the word. He noted a link to the name of the Banu Ifren tribe of Berbers, whose ancestors were variously known as Ifren, Iforen, Ifuraces or Afer.
With the arrival of the Arabs, Banu Ifren became known as the inhabitants of Ifriqiya, a possibly Arabic transliteration of the word Africa and which today covers Tunisia and Algeria, Bah said.
Bah further linked the name to the Latin word afer, whose plural is ifri. Afer could be translated as “take away”, that is, the African “should be taken away by Latin citizens”.
“The term afer appears in European languages by way of the Romans who used it to indicate the northern part of the black continent,” Bah, a founding member of the Association of African Historians, said.
“It seems that the term Africa was widely used since the Roman time, initially to refer to northern Africa, socially dominated by a Berber population, before spreading to cover all of the continent at the end of the first century CE,” he said.
There are other possible origins, he added. In Campania (a region of southern Italy) the word africus indicated a rainy wind from the region of Carthage (modern day Tunis).
To further throw a spanner in the works, Bah noted that the southern part of the continent, occupied for the greater part by black people, was called Ethiopia, not Africa.
Controversial Egyptian link proposed
Prof Djénéba Traoré, the director of the Cape Verde-based West Africa Institute, said that the name Africa refers to foreign domination, contrary to the name “Europe” which is the product of a powerful mythology and culture.
“Europeans, especially Greeks, who went to Egypt since antiquity to broaden their knowledge, used the word ‘Ethiopians’, meaning ‘burned face’, to name the inhabitants of that region.
“There is evidence that at that time most Egyptians had dark skin, as Cheikh Anta Diop wrote in his PhD dissertation. This point is still controversial,” Traoré, who specialises in African literature, said, referring to the renowned Senegalese historian and African scholar.
Diop had in some of his works referred to man’s earliest origins “in the land the Egyptians called Afru-ika”, but the Egyptian link is one of the more robustly debated ones. (Note: For a sneak preview of the sometimes no-holds-barred dispute over the word, see here.)
‘May have been concocted’
“Even if [Africa] was an adoption from the Egyptians, to refer to birthplace… it may have been concocted, it may not have originally meant to refer to the entire region,” Dr Peter Wekesa of Kenyatta University’s department of history, archeology and political studies told Africa Check.
Wekesa said he had looked at the works of authors such as Diop, African history author Robert July, respected Congolese intellectual Valentin-Yves Mudimbe and Berber historian Ibn Khaldun who have all extensively studied African culture and history, but the origin of the name “Africa” stays fuzzy.
“In most of [the theories], you get the impression that Africa as a term actually came to us from the outside world,” the scholar said, adding that more research is needed to answer a question that even stumps historians. (Note: Some lesser-mentioned theories can be found here.)
Are there African sources of the name?
Prof Rokhaya Fall, who heads the history department at Cheikh Anta Diop University, also alluded to Ifriquia, and to a related strand that “Africa” comes from an Arab word meaning “the untied land” because the continent looks like a block that parted from Europe and Asia.
“But all these explanations do not say how African people called themselves. So we look for the origin of the word from the names given by [foreigners],” Fall, who specialises in the history of African societies, said.
“Are there within Africa sources confirming that those who lived in the continent gave that name to their own continent? This a field for research.”
To further leave us in knots, Traoré opened yet another door for the origin of the name, pointing to author Leon the African (Leo Africanus) who lived around the turn of the 16th century.
“According to Africanus, the name Africa was given to the continent by Malek-Afriki, king of the Sabéen Arabs, when he conquered the northern part of Africa in the sixth century.”
Important that Africans research own history
Our heads spinning, we readily agreed with the conclusion of Dr Godwin Murunga, executive secretary of pan-African think tank Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa. “The origin of ‘Africa’ remains in dispute,” Murunga told Africa Check.
The slave trade and colonisation had further muddied the waters of African identity, Traoré said. To turn a new page, it is important that Africans researched their own history and nurtured a sense of ownership.
“This is a very important step on the way to actual self-determination. So is it necessary to change the name of our continent?” she posed.
Additional reporting by Alphonce Shiundu
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