Contemptuousness of Sub-Saharan Africa

Hands are raised as President Barack Obama speaks in Accra, Ghana, on July 11. (Photo: Saul Loeb/ AFP-Getty Images)

I was more than excited at President Barack Obama's historic visit to Ghana, the first African country to gain independence from colonialist Britain, but highly disappointed that he chose to disrespect the continent of his father's birth when he said, "Ghana's history is rich, the ties between our two countries are strong, and I am proud that this is my first visit to sub-Saharan Africa as President of the United States of America." It is not the part about Ghana being rich in history, but the part in where he said, "I am proud that this is my first visit to sub-Saharan Africa."

Yesterday on my radio program, I argued that we must stop referring to Africa as "sub-Saharan Africa," unless we start referring to the "mainland Africa." "Sub-Saharan Africa" is a pejorative term. It is a euphemism for contemptuousness employed by the continent's detractors to delineate between the five Arab countries that make up North Africa from the other 42 countries and the islands that make up the rest of Africa. I wouldn't argue that the term "sub-Saharan Africa" is racist, but it is on the borderline.

Filmmaker, writer, photographer and music producer Owen 'Alik Shahadah argues that the term is a racist construct. "The notion of some invisible border, which divides the North of Africa from the South, is rooted in racism, which in part assumes that sand is an obstacle for African language and culture. This band of sand hence confines Africans to the bottom of a European-imposed location, which exists neither linguistically [Afro-Asiatic languages], ethnically [Tureg], politically [African Union, Arab league], economically [C.E.N.-S.A.D.] nor physically [Sudan and Chad]. The overemphasis on sand as a defining feature in African history is grossly misleading as cultures, trade, and languages do not stop when they meet geographic deserts. Thus sub-Africa is another divisive vestige of colonial domination which Balkanized Africa."

Shahadah made the argument I wanted to make, which is that "the Sahara is a broad desert belt, which encompasses countries like Mali, Niger, Chad, Sudan, and Mauritania, and hence are neither "sub" nor "North Africa." In addition, many African communities historically have traveled freely across this European barrier set for Africans. Moreover, millions of indigenous Africans are ethnic natives in Morocco, Libya, Algeria, and Egypt, so even ethnically North Africa is not a non-African territory, and testimony to this is the rock art found in this region showing native Africans hunting there 10,000 years ago."

This disparaging and contemptuous term started being used in the early 90's with the AIDS/HIV pandemic in Africa, with its accompanying decimation of millions of people and scourge of poverty across the continent. It was a way of telling people in the region that they were lepers. It hearkens back to the time when Africans were regarded as animals, sub-human, property of their masters, chattels to be sold and maltreated as indentured servants.

There is a sadness to the fact that we meekly accepted what our former colonial masters dubbed us. But it is not too late to correct the mistake. We have decided to take immediate action, addressing letters to the president of the United States, the secretary-general of the United Nations, the chairman of the African Union, as well as the chairperson of the African Union Authority. We are writing letters to the Associated Press, Reuters, Panapress, the major networks and other outside media asking them to stop using the term "sub-Saharan Africa."

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Chika Onyeani.