decolonise development how-tos political power & power relations rethinking

“sub-saharan africa” doesn’t exist – drop the scissors

So last year we talked about how there is no such thing as the “Arab spring” – yes? yes. And you cut that out of your vocabulary. Good.

I thought we wouldn’t need to have a conversation about how there is no such place as “Sub-Saharan Africa”…. but well, it seems we do, because the rate I keep seeing this term, and with my fellow rads and Africans too…… so here goes:

1. No such place exists.

Again, no such place exists. Third time, until we invent the scissors that will perpetually shiftingly cut across a shifting sand line, no such place exists.
This should be enough… but I’ll keep going.

2. Who names you has power over you.

That pair of scissors and border was invented by people who most definitely are not the ones who live above or below the imaginary border line; and who know nothing of the fact that the border exists only in their minds. Trade, language, religion, music, dance, people, animals, water, gold, salt, and more have flowed back and forth and sideways across this whole region for centuries.

It is (white) development speak. It is also racist. It is born of the idea that north Africa, imaginably only a place where Arabs exist (we uncovered this lie in the previous class on arab spring if you need to catch up), is closer to Europe, and closer to whiteness and “different” and superior therefore. Definitely not where all those poor hungry “sub-Saharan” Africans are dying. It is racist code.

A quick catchup – Amazigh, Nubian, Tuareg and many more African peoples lived and continue to live in North Africa. Read about them, see the beautiful rock art, pyramids, etc they have made, support their actions for sovereignty and self-determination, visit if you can.

A 2nd quick catch up from when we deleted “Arab Spring” from our vocabularies:

In “Something Torn and New” Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o talks about the power of naming. It appropriates, it owns, it shows who has power, it marks out their territory, whether physical or discursive, it defines what is to be remembered and how. Read in full.

3. Where else in the world do people talk of “sub” anywhere to refer to a section of a continent?

Where else are such machinations of speech, backflips of mind, and somersaults of tongue applied to refer to sections of continents? …. {{and before you say the Indian sub-continent — that is not the same. It is not referring to India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka as sub-line Asia. It is agglutinative, not separatist because nation-state borders are colonial inventions}}

disclosure: I tried to come up with something like sub-tundra Europe or sub-river-name America to illustrate….. and I have failed. Don’t be a mental gymnasticker of this type. Save your energy and do something more beautiful with it.

4. Back to the shifting lines of sand, before anyone says ‘but it’s not actually racist’.

If it really were about fixing the geography that is one continent – you know because it’s so huge it helps to cut it into 2 (unequal) halves in order to truly see it, and what was Pangea thinking breaking up like this {{if you didn’t catch it because I am not often, I am being sarcastic}}.

So if it really were about fixing the geography, all the sentences that ever follow someone saying “sub-Saharan Africa” would disambiguate the part of Mali, Niger, Chad, Sudan, Burkina Faso, and Morocco that fall below or above the desert……… I’m waiting for that day. They never do.
And when South Africa was under Apartheid (a system created by white people to keep races separate, with white people at the top of the hierarchy), it was not considered part of this imaginary “sub-Saharan Africa”. Once Apartheid ended……it was.

5. Sometimes some peoples of African descent want to uphold this erroneous belief that North Africa is different, and use sub-Saharan Africa to mark this difference. It is. And it isn’t. It is, in the same way that West Africa is different from East Africa from Central Africa from South Africa. But realise that racism and internalised oppression lives in people and systems, it is not inherent in the land. You can talk about the very real racial prejudice & colourism experienced in parts of this continent without employing a denigrating term.

And because I catch whiffs of this, it is definitely *not* a compliment to declare yourself “sub-Saharan African”. Remember, who names you has power over you.

6. This blog post breaks down the connection between language and reality and is thorough. I quote: “This band of sand hence confines Africans to the bottom of a European imposed location, which exists neither linguistically (Afro-Asiatic languages), ethnically (Tuareg ), religiously (Islam), politically (African Union, Arab league, UNESCO), economically (CEN-SAD), or physically (Sudan and Chad).”

So we’re back where we started: “sub-Saharan Africa” doesn’t exist.

In summary, if you are not a white development saviour who has imbibed the idea that North Africa is closer to your whiteness and therefore superior to the rest of *whispers* “the Africa where the ‘other’ Africans live” that is poor, starving and still needs saving, drop the scissors [maybe grab some glue?], press delete on that phrase and let’s keep 2019 flowing well.
If you are those things, well, glad I know.

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