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Tuareg boy, Mali - Shot by Mario Gerth.

Here’s what you need to know about the 3000 tribes in Africa.

Africa is known as a tribal continent even though it is not always the determining factor in a nation’s life. Colonial powers took little notice of tribes when they drew their national boundary lines. The result is that several tribes overlap into two or even three modern-day countries. In countries like Egypt, the population is described as Egyptian or Arab without reference to origins. The subject of tribes and ethnicity in Africa is one of fascination. Over the years, adventure films have often portrayed tribes as living as their ancestors did generations before. It makes for a good story and in many instances, it does still apply today. In others, it most certainly does not as the culture has changed or evolved.

There are about 3,000 tribes in Africa, speaking more than 2,000 different languages. The African population has been marked by immense change over time. Some tribes have died out, while others have joined together, been split or even formed due to the continent’s colonisation.

Difference between Ethnicity and Tribe

It is important to understand the difference between ethnicity and tribe. A Tribe is an organization of people who share the same culture and language. History can point to the success of a tribal organization as a means of living, if not particularly a means of creating wealth and well-being.  In the days when African life was largely rural, few members moved away from their tribal areas. The growth of conurbations began to change that to a limited extent as people sought work rather than living a subsistence lifestyle. Ethnicity is a broader term. An ethnic group can include several tribes; the Ashanti, Aykems and Bonus are all tribes within Ghana in West Africa yet in ethnic terms, they are all Akans.

It was the colonial powers who introduced the idea of nationalism into Africa, but it is not something that everyone has embraced; tribal differences have created conflict even within recent decades although the conflict has been between tribes with the same nationality. The Biafran War in Nigeria half a century ago devastated large parts of Eastern Nigeria as the Igbo unsuccessfully sought independence. Rwanda is a more recent case in point with the Tutsi subject to genocide by the majority Hutu in the last decade of the 20th Century. Contrast Rwanda with Ghana where tribal and ethnic pride exist but so does national pride. This Western African State adheres to democracy despite its tribal diversity.

Africa is a vast continent which can be broadly divided into regions although climate and vegetation are both factors in deciding which countries and hence their people belong in which region. Here are some tribes to give you a general idea of their history, and lifestyle.

Here’s a brief overview of the tribes in Africa and their origins.

Africa has many tribes who share the same region and language base, and generally has similar traditions and customs. Most sub-Sahara African tribes has their origins in central and west Africa. Various reasons led to their migration across the continent, and this sharing of main origin is seen clearly in their common root languages. 

The northern tribes (Sahara and north-ward), had an Arabic influence in their language, cultures and traditions. The spreading of Islam, Arab slave trade and war, created pressure on many tribal groupings to move further south down the African continent. 

This expansion of central African tribes, in turn pushed the southern African indigenous peoples (Khoi, San) into more isolated areas. The Khoi-san (Bushmen) do not belong to the same genetic grouping as most African tribes, and the San belong to an much older pre-historic grouping. An interesting fact is, that only by the 16th / 17th Century did the first black African tribes arrived in the far south-eastern region of southern Africa, what is now known as the Transkei region of South Africa.

A fascinating color-coded map of Africa’s diversity

If you haven’t already seen this Harvard University map of ethnicity in Africa, based on data from a 2001 book edited by anthropologist Marc Leo Felix, it is really worth taking in:

Harvard University / “People’s Atlas of Africa,” ed. Marc Leo Felix

Each color roughly corresponds to an ethnic group that constitutes the majority in that region, based on how people self-identify. Ethnicity is notoriously difficult to measure and demarcate — everyone sees their own ethnic identity a little differently — but the results here roughly track with a 1959 ethnography by anthropologist George Murdock and with a 2002 Harvard Institute study on ethnic diversity.

That latter study found that sub-Saharan African contained many of the most ethnically diverse countries on Earth, including the two most diverse: Uganda and Liberia. And the above map certainly suggests enormous ethnic diversity across western and central Africa.

One thing to keep in mind when looking at this map or any study on ethnicity is just how flexible ethnic identity can be. Any given person might hold several ethnic identities he or she uses interchangeably, and they can shift over time.

What we would like for you to take away from this article is the diversity of Africa but as much as we are different, what brings us together is that we are all African. 3000 tribes, One Africa!

Red costumes, ochre-coloured hair and brightly-coloured headgear are just some of the characteristics of the different African tribes, and just as they look different, they have different traditions, too. Some tribes have distinctive spitting rituals, others dance rituals, while others have rituals when it comes to marriage.

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