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One reason that I was happy to shift my focus from Eastern Europe to Africa was that I thought that I would no longer have to deal with silly geographic name debates. Eastern Europe has two petty name squabbles: 

  1. Where is Eastern Europe?
  2. Should Macedonia change its name? 

I thought that Africa didn't have such infantile name debates. 

I thought wrong.

On the one hand, I was right. People from East Africa don't whine when you tell them that they are East Africans (unlike Eastern Europeans who cry when you observe that they live in Eastern Europe). Likewise, North and West Africans are fine with their geographic unit's name. 

Things get a bit muddy when you talk about Central Africa because one of the countries in Central Africa is called the Central African Republic. To avoid any confusion, I prefer using the term Middle Africa. Nobody seems to mind, although I'm waiting for an overly sensitive idiot to say that it sounds too much like "Middle Earth" of the Lord of the Rings. The troll will say, "Are you saying that Middle Africa is backward like Middle Earth?"

"No, you politically correct Nazi, I would never be so insensitive," I would reply. "I'm saying that Middle Africa's witch doctors are like Gandalf in Lord of the Rings."

Another minor annoyance is South Africa's name. Had South Africa called itself something like Zululand, Boerland, or Racist Stronghold, then we would have called the southern region of Africa South Africa to match the parallelism with East, West, and North Africa. Instead, South Africa breaks the parallelism and forces us to call the greater region Southern Africa. 

The South Africa name problem could be easily solved if we called the four compass regions of Africa the same way we call the four compass regions of Europe: northern, eastern, western, and southern. Alas, there's no consistency. We say usually Eastern Europe but East Asia and East Africa. 

Still, the Central Africa and South Africa name problems are minor debates compared to the two Eastern Europe naming problems. Overall, it seemed to me that Africa was largely devoid of geographic name disputes. In my fourth year of traveling Africa, I learned just how wrong I was.

Map of countries that are in Southern Africa

Defining Sub-Saharan Africa

In his Quartz article, Max de Haldevang tries to answer the question, "Why do we still use the term 'sub-Saharan Africa'?" He claims that the term is "confusing" and "historically loaded."

His evidence that it is "confusing" is that the UN Development Program lists 46 of Africa’s 54 countries as "sub-Saharan" whereas the World Bank puts 48 countries in the Sub-Sahara.

There's also debate about what countries to include in East Africa, West Africa, Middle Africa, and Southern Africa. Follow those links to the Wikipedia pages and you'll see the various ways we can clump countries together in a block (or just look at the green-colored maps on this page to see the debate).

Does this debate mean that we should abandon all those geographic terms too?

On the contrary, argues Max. At the end of his article, he says that we ought to use them instead of Sub-Saharan Africa. In his penultimate sentence, he asks a seemingly rhetorical question, "What’s wrong with more accurate geographic markers, such as East, West, Central and Southern Africa?"

We just saw what's wrong with it. It's subject to a similar debate that the Sub-Saharan term is subject to -- defining who is part of the group.

Max's article focuses on Nigeria, which almost everyone will agree is in West Africa. But what about Cameroon? 

My wife, who is from Cameroon, has heard many of her fellow countrymen argue that Mount Cameroon is the tallest mountain in West Africa. However, many believe that Cameroon ought to fall in Middle/Central Africa. 

Similar ambiguities bother:

  • Angola and Zambia (Middle Africa or Southern Africa?)
  • Eritrea and Djibouti (East Africa or North Africa?)
  • Mozambique (East Africa or Southern Africa?)
  • Mauritania (North Africa or West Africa?)
  • African island nations like Sao Tome (West Africa or Middle Africa or just out there?)

I'm certainly not suggesting that we ought to abandon these terms just because they have ambiguities. I use them all the time.

I'm simply arguing that just because a geographic term is "confusing" doesn't mean we shouldn't use it.

 Map of countries that are in West Africa Map of countries that are in Middle Africa Map of countries that are in East Africa

Americans is a confusing term because it could refer to citizens of the United States or to people of the Americas. There are endless debates about which countries are in Eastern Europe, but we still use the term. 

And that brings me back to the larger picture.

Max, I'm sure, uses the broad term of Europe all the time, even though it's extremely confusing. People use the term Europe to refer to just the EU. Others say, "That food is very European," when they are really just talking about Western Europe. Is Iceland in Europe? What about Russia? Or Cyprus? Malta? Armenia?

Max quotes Rosalind Morris, an African Studies professor at Columbia University, as saying, “‘Sub-Saharan Africa’ is such an enormous catchphrase that it’s almost useless. Nigeria as a state doesn’t look anything like Kenya as a state, doesn’t look anything like Botswana.”

I dearly hope that Rosalind doesn't use the term Europe in her vocabulary because Lichenstein as a state doesn't look anything like Russia as a state, doesn't look anything like Greece or Norway.

I also hope that Rosalind and Max don't use other broad terms like Asia, or South America, or the planet Earth. 

After all, there's such diversity on this planet, it's confusing to use such a broad term, so those fucking Martians really ought to stop that.

AIDS prevalence in Africa shows a significant difference between North African and the Sub-Sahara
AIDS prevalence and the HDI in Africa shows a significant difference between North Africa and the Sub-Sahara

Is the Sub-Sahara a real or imagined divide?

Max paraphrased Columbia University anthropologist Brian Larkin, who argued, "'Sub-Sahara' is too vast to shed light on those [shared] traits and can strengthen an often imagined divide between northern Arab countries and the rest of Africa."

First, Brian probably uses term Middle East and North America even though some could argue that it's "too vast a term to shed light on shared traits."

Second, he's right that there is no "imagined divide between northern Arab countries and the rest of Africa."

It's a real freakin' divide! 

For example, notice that there is a clear divide in the Human Development Index (HDI) score of North Africa versus the Sub-Sahara. Same is true for AIDS rates

Has Brian Larkin ever traveled to the region? Is he really arguing that there is no difference (no divide) between North Africa and the rest of Africa?

HDI - Human Development Index map of Africa

I'm sure Brian, the politically correct anthropologist, will slap anyone for arguing that all Africans are the same, yet that's what he is implying when he says that there is an "imagined divide between northern Arab countries and the rest of Africa."

Maybe Yale anthropology professor Louisa Lombard was thinking of her fellow anthropologist Brian Larkin when she said, “Academics are used to people speaking about Africa as one country.”

It seems that "imagined divide" Brian is an academic who sees no division in Africa - it's just one big happy country. 

Sorry, Brian. Get out of your ivory tower and travel a bit. The divide is 100% real.

For some proof, see the 10 maps at the bottom of the article.

Campaign to abolish the Sub-Saharan term

In 2010, Nigerian-born Chika Onyeani, Chairman of the Celebrate Africa Foundation, led a petition to rid the world of the evil "Sub-Saharan" term. Why?

He claimed, "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."

No. The term Sub-Saharan is not a euphemism. It is a genuine geographic term to delineate a very real physical separation between North Africa and the rest of Africa.

This ethnomusicological map illustrates that there is far more diversity in the Sub-Sahara versus North Africa

I've driven deep into the Sahara in Morocco, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad, Libya, Sudan (through all of Darfur). I have driven all over Algeria and Egypt. What's clear is that there's no subtle transition from North Africa to the Sahel. Look at my tracks through the Sahara (and all of Africa)

The vast Sahara acts like a sea or like the Himalayas. You don't have to be Darwin to understand that geographic separation and isolation helps give birth to distinct cultures. 

Of course, there was some cultural exchange across the Sahara for many centuries just like there was a significant cultural exchange between all the countries that have a shoreline on the Mediterranean Sea.

Still, to deny that there is a divide is as stupid as not admitting that Ethiopia's mountains and high plateau were important factors that explain its unique culture and lack of serious colonization.

Is Sub-Saharan a racist term?

Onyeani wrote, “We feel that it’s a racist term, and it is something that Africans should not accept. Right now, there is no other continent that you have sub-anything. You have Europe, you don’t have sub-something Europe; you have America, you don’t have anything sub about (America); you have Asia. But, it’s only the same people who have been referred to as sub-humans that are being referred to as sub-Saharan Africa.” 

Although Onyeani earned a doctorate, he's not demonstrating it with that assertion. I haven't traveled there yet (he probably never did either), but I know that another name for India is the subcontinent or the Indian subcontinent

There's also the Greater Mekong Subregion, where six countries and 300 million people create a region around the Mekong River basin in Southeast Asia. 

Therefore, Onyeani's claim that Africa has been singled out is false. 

Why is the region south of the Sahara called the Sub-Sahara? 

Africa satellite view from space

Onyeani said, "According to what the term 'Sub-Saharan Africa' entails right now, it means North Africa consists of Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia. Who decided on the line of demarcation between 'northern' and 'southern' Africa?"

Answer: geographers decided. 

When humans see a distinct pattern, we want to name it. We see a bunch of mountains in South America, we decide to brand it "the Andes." We see a big pond between Europe and the Americas, we call it the Atlantic Ocean. We label the Americas into four zones that are obvious to anyone looking at a map: North, Central, South America, and the Caribbean.

Now, look at the photo of Africa from space (on right). You instantly see two obvious things:

  1. The African continent is a distinct landmass.
  2. That landmass has three obvious zones: desert (in the north), green almost everywhere else, and Madagascar (that island in the southeast).

This is similar to when you look at yourself in the mirror. You're one unified creature with four distinct zones: your head, arms, torso, and legs.

We naturally want to name these three major zones in Africa. We've already named one: Madagascar. 

So now we need to name that big desert. Let's use the Arabic word for desert: Sahara.

Finally, what do we call everything else? Maybe we should have called it the Green Zone. However, we ended up calling it the Sub-Sahara, meaning, "Under the Sahara." 

If those who invented maps and compasses had oriented the world to the South Pole, then we would all be using a map that looks like this:

The World Map Where We Would Have The Super-Sahara, Not The Sub-Sahara

In the South Pole oriented world, perhaps we would have called Africa's green zone the Super-Sahara, which alludes to the subscript and superscript distinction. Now that would certainly shut up all these Sub-Sahara name haters. They would brag about living in the Super-Sahara. I'm a super-Saharan!

Replace the term Sub-Saharan Africa with the Sub-Sahara

Some oversensitive people cringe whenever they hear the term, Sub-Saharan Africa. I cringe too but for different reasons.

Most people who cringe do so for the reasons that I argued against above. I cringe because it's needless verbose. Is there a Sub-Saharan Asia? Or a Sub-Saharan America? Or Sub-Saharan Europe? 

NO! There's only ONE continent that has a Sub-Sahara. 

Therefore, specifying Sub-Saharan Africa is stupid and wordy.

Let's make it shorter by just saying, the Sub-Sahara. It is, after all, the world's one and only Sub-Sahara. Yes, I know it's not that much shorter than Sub-Saharan Africa. But it's an improvement and isn't needlessly wordy. The Sub-Sahara is 75% of the length of Sub-Saharan Africa. It's 12 letters instead of 16 letters.

Fans of brevity will argue for the SSA term but that's not as well known as the USA, IBM, JFK, MLK, or OMG.

And while we're at it, let's not call the people who live there Sub-Saharan Africans. That's too wordy for the same reasons. Let's just call them Sub-Saharans. Easy!


I dislike the term the Sub-Sahara and Sub-Saharans. I understand that oversensitive souls will think it sounds too close to "sub-human."

If I could start from scratch, I'd come up with a sexier term, like Green Africa and the people who live there are the Greens, even though their skin is more black than green. If you have a better name for the Sub-Sahara region and its people, put it in the comments below.

I also dislike that the United States hogs the term Americans. I wish I could change that too. Americans should be reserved for the people of the Americas. We have Africans, Asians, Europeans, and then Americans. Because the USA owns that term, we no longer have a good word for people from the American super-continent. I'd be happy to be called Yankees or Gringos.

Although these Sub-Saharans and Americans are imperfect terms, trying to change them is tough, especially since nobody has offered a good replacement for the Sub-Sahara. Some used to say Black Africa but that's even more politically incorrect than the Sub-Sahara. 

The point is that Sub-Sahara is really not that bad of a term. Learn to embrace it just like gays embraced the word queer.

It reminds me of my endless nights debating with Eastern Europeans who hate the term Eastern Europe, especially if their countries are considered Eastern European. 

I tell the Sub-Saharans the same thing I told the Eastern Europeans: focus your energies on making a real improvement to your region so that the term you use to describe your region has a positive connotation. Sub-Saharans are trying to take the easy way and simply re-brand themselves. Such a superficial change is meaningless if you don't change what really matters. It won't fool anyone. Trump and others will continue to think the Sub-Sahara is a shithole even if you call it the Super-Sahara. 

This reminds me of Kanyile Ka-Ngwenya, who believes that the African Union (AU) should be renamed as the Union of Africa (UA). He explains in his book:

The name [AU] is a tainted one, African Union represents the vision of the likes of Libyan dictator Colonel Momma Gadhafi and the Big Men Club, while a new name [Union of Africa] represents a new vision crafted by a new generation for the next generation and the next. The name AU cannot be kept as it represents the past and that is where it belongs like many of the Leaders of that era in the dustbins of history.

His argument might be a bit more convincing if Africans hadn't already done such rebranding. The AU used to be called the OAU (Organization of African Unity). Changing its name obviously didn’t help. But I'm sure the Big Men spent days and weeks debating the name change.

Simply renaming something does nothing to solve complex problems. Putting lipstick on a pig won't make it sexy. Band-aids won’t help someone whose arm has been cut off.

Germany and Japan had extremely negative connotations from 1930 to 1960. After World War II, they kept their names and focused on making a real substantial transformation. The Sub-Saharans should do the same. 

Map of Sub-Saharan African CountriesWhat countries are in Sub-Saharan Africa?

Or as I prefer to ask, "What countries are in the Sub-Sahara?"

Here's the quick answer. Africa has 54 countries, according to the UN. North Africa has five countries: Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia. They are those grey countries on the map on the right. (I include Western Sahara as part of Morocco since it basically is.) Those five countries are not in the Sub-Sahara.

All the other African countries, including its island nations (e.g., Cape Verde, Seychelles, Mauritius), are in the Sub-Sahara.

Therefore, there are 49 Sub-Saharan countries. They are all those lovely green countries on the map. If you want me to spell them out, I will:

Angola, Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cape Verde, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Comoros, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Republic of the Congo, Cote d'Ivoire, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sao Tome and Principe, Senegal, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Africa, South Sudan, Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

Is this gospel? Of course not.

For example, if someone insists that Sudan and/or Mauritania are in North Africa and not in the Sub-Sahara, then I agree that's a defensible position. Indeed, in the map on the right, Sudan is in light green, showing the ambiguity of its position. Still, I would argue that it's in the Sub-Sahara. I just wouldn't be that passionate about that argument.

On the other hand, taking Djibouti, Somalia, or Eritrea out of the Sub-Sahara makes no sense unless you're trying to argue that Sub-Sahara is just a polite term for Black Africa.

In conclusion

  1. The only African countries that are not in the Sub-Sahara are 5 North African ones.
  2. Let's stop saying Sub-Saharan Africa and just say the Sub-Sahara unless you believe there is another Sub-Sahara in some other continent. 
  3. By the same logic, let's stop writing Sub-Saharan Africans, let's just say Sub-Saharans.

Maps that show how the Sub-Sahara stands out from North Africa

Those who insist that the Sub-Sahara region has no basis in reality and that there is an "imaginary divide" ought to see the maps below.

They illustrate how North Africa and the Sub-Sahara are different worlds.

The first three maps show differences in nature and the last seven show differences in societies.

1. Amphibian diversity 

Aside from Nambia and Somalia, the Sub-Sahara has rich amphibian diversity, while North Africa is none.

Amphibian diversity world map


2. Where the bird diversity is

Birds and amphibians have something in common. They prefer the Sub-Sahara.

Bird diversity world map

3. If you're in the east DR Congo, watch your head!

Lightning won't hit you in North Africa. In the Sub-Sahara, especially the DRC, you better watch out!

Lightning world map

4. The darker areas are more remote and distant from cities

The Sahara is devoid of cities. The main connection is the Nile.

The Sahara forms a natural border and barrier. It has for the last 8,000 years.

And when populations are isolated, diversity increases, as Darwin revealed. 

If you don't believe that separation causes differences, explain how different Native American societies were when the Europeans first arrived. 

There was Trans-Sahara trade but not enough to create homogeneity. 

City remoteness world map


5. Africa has few power lines

Given North Africa's relatively small population (100 million), there are many power lines.

Compare that to the Sub-Sahara's 1.5 billion population.

It's a big difference. That why I never got power cuts in North Africa and why I often got them in the Sub-Sahara.

Energy lines world map

6. Where the fat asses are

Libya is that deep pink country in Africa. I didn't visit Libya's north coast (where 95% of Libyans live). However, North Africans are fatter than Sub-Saharans.

I don't really believe this map because black African women are usually fat and often obese. Curiously, black African men are usually thin.

Fat people world map

7. The baby factories

You can almost draw a line across the Sahara to delineate who has more babies. Sub-Saharans lead the world in baby production. North Africans don't. 

Global Fertility world map

8. Air traffic

It's hard to see North Africa's coastal cities in this map but they get far more planes than the rest of the continent.

Air traffic world map


9. Language diversity map

The Sub-Sahara has so much linguistic diversity. North Africa does not.

Language world map


10. Sugar lovers 

North Africans consume vast amounts of sugar compared to Sub-Saharans.

I rarely had dessert in the Sub-Sahara. In North Africa, they drowned the tea in sugar and passed out the sweets.

Sugar world map

If you like these 14 maps, support Alastair Bonnett's great New Views book by buying a hardcover.


P.S. I feel a bit bad criticizing Onyeani because he died in his late 60s of prostate cancer in December 2016. So he's not around to defend his ideas, but I'm sure his followers will chime in and tell me why I'm a white supremacist who loves Donald Trump despite what I've written about Trump


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