In African culture, the ‘self’ is not separate from the world, it is united and intermingled with the natural and social environment. It is through relations with one’s community and surroundings that an individual becomes a person of volition, whose actions and decisions affect the entire group rather than just oneself. There is a Xhosa proverb that is common to all African cultures and languages, ‘Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu,‘ (A person is a person through persons).
The rich and diverse African culture varies not only from one country to another but within each country as well. The culture of each ethnic group centers on family and can be found in each group’s art, music, and oral literature.
Throughout Africa, the people speak a variety of languages, practice numerous religions, and reside in various types of dwellings. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), culture defined as a ‘complex whole which includes knowledge, beliefs, arts, morals, laws, customs, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by [a human] as a member of society.
As the mother continent and first inhabited region on earth, Africa is characterized by vast lands and one of the largest populations on the planet with rich human heritage and cultural diversity. The broad history of Africa tells the world about the story of her civilizations ranging from the first artists that left impressions on their rock shelters to the scholars who built great universities in the Sahara.
Africans have been mixing with people from all over the world for centuries. The 7th century AD marked the arrival of Arabs from the Middle East into North Africa, introducing the Islamic faith to the region. Moving forward to the mid-17th century, Europeans began establishing settlements in the southern part of the continent. Simultaneously, South Asians made their homes in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, and South Africa. Over time, this cultural intermingling shaped the mosaic of African culture, but much of traditional African customs have remained.
Art of African Culture
African art includes various forms like sculptures, paintings, pottery, textiles, masks, jewelry, and more. It serves different purposes, such as entertainment, expressing political or ideological ideas, holding ritual importance, and having intrinsic beauty. African art is diverse due to the involvement of both full-time and part-time artists, some with political influence and others without, and the accessibility of these art forms to experts and amateurs. Precolonial sub-Saharan African art doesn’t have a separate concept of “art” as distinct from skill, and local aesthetic values vary. African art goes beyond masks, encompassing a wide range of creative expressions valued for both function and beauty.
Clothing and fashion in African cultre showcase the continent’s rich cultural diversity, with traditional attire varying across countries and regions, deeply rooted in local textile crafts like weaving and dyeing. While some urban areas swiftly adopt Western fashion trends, rural communities steadfastly maintain their traditional styles, influenced by geography, religion, and cultural customs. This results in unique variations in color, fabric, and accessories among different cultures.
African clothing is a diverse and vibrant expression of the continent’s many cultures, where each garment, from the Maasai’s elaborate robes to Ghana’s colorful kente cloth, narrates a story about its wearer’s heritage, beliefs, and values. Traditional African clothing is often made from locally-sourced materials, such as cotton, linen, and silk. It is typically hand-woven or hand-dyed, using techniques that have been passed down for generations. The colors and patterns of African fabrics are often symbolic, and can represent things like fertility, prosperity, or protection.
The diversity of African cuisine is heavily influenced by the environment, leading to a wide variety of foods consumed across the continent. Most African cuisines include staples like fruit, grains, vegetables, milk, and meat products. Interestingly, many cultural groups share similar foods. For instance, a common maize or corn-based dish known as pap, also called ugali, sadza, nsima, nchima, chima, poshto, tuozafi, ubgali, bugali, sokoro, or sokora, varies in name depending on the region where you’re enjoying it. With numerous cultures and ethnic groups across Africa, each has its unique cooking methods and favorite dishes. Some of these dishes, like Nigerian suya and Moroccan tajine, have gained popularity worldwide and can be found in restaurants in places like New York and London, making African food a delightful global experience.
Music of Africa
African music is incredibly diverse, reflecting the vastness of the continent and its rich musical traditions. Various regions and nations have their distinct musical styles, including amapiano, Jùjú, Fuji, Afrobeat, Highlife, Makossa, and Kizomba, among others. The continent boasts a wide array of musical instruments, from xylophones to djembes, drums, and instruments like the mbira or “thumb piano.” African music is known for its intricate rhythms, often involving polyrhythms, where one rhythm plays against another, creating a complex and engaging soundscape.
A defining characteristic of African music is its call-and-response nature, where one voice or instrument initiates a melodic or rhythmic phrase, echoed by another. This dynamic extends to improvisation, with musicians adding their unique patterns to the existing music. Traditional African music is primarily oral, passed down through generations. Often defies Western notation due to its subtle intonations and pitch differences. It adheres to various scales and harmonization techniques, and its significance goes beyond entertainment, playing a crucial role in religious rituals and cultural expression, addressing social, political, and moral topics. African music has also influenced other cultures, leading to widespread study and admiration of its traditions, making it a vital element of community life and social happiness.
Some Interesting African Cultures
Across Africa, diverse tribes uphold intriguing cultural traditions. In Sudan’s Latuka tribe, a unique marriage custom prevails as men occasionally practice bride kidnapping, taking a woman they wish to wed and subsequently seeking her father’s blessing. Further west, the Himba people of Namibia protect their skin from the relentless sun by applying a blend of red soil and milk fat, resulting in a distinctive reddish hue. This mixture, known as otjize, doubles as a beauty cosmetic.
In addition to this, wood ash serves for hair cleansing due to limited water resources. Meanwhile, Algerian men of the Ahaggaren Tuareg group often wear veils. They reveal their faces primarily within their family circle or during journeys. Amid these captivating traditions, the Mursi tribe employs lip plates as a distinctive form of adornment, with women wearing large plates in their lower lips. On a different note, the Wodaabe tribe engages in a captivating courtship dance, where men adorned in elaborate attire showcase their dancing prowess and charm to win the affection of potential partners. These customs embody the rich tapestry of African culture, each with its unique significance and allure.