The People

Africa is inhabited by members of all races, but most Africans are descendants of indigenous peoples. This group includes thousands of different ethnic groups. In the northern Saharan countries, the dominant groups are the Berbers, Arabs, and Egyptians. In some countries south of the Sahara, there are hundreds of ethnic groups, each with its own language. Some of the larger groups include the Hausa, Yoruba, and Ibo of Nigeria, the Omoro, Amhara, and Tigre of Ethiopia and Eritrea, and the Zulu of southern Africa. Bantu-speaking peoples, who belong to dozens of different ethnic groups, form majorities in several central and southern African countries. Asians and Europeans are found throughout the continent, principally in southern and southeastern Africa. Some ethnic groups in Africa are in danger of disappearing due to industrialization and the disappearance of their traditional lands. The San of the Kalahari desert are one such group.


There are more than 800 African tongues and several Asian and European languages spoken in Africa. African languages are divided into about a dozen large groups. The languages spoken by the greatest number of people belong to the Niger-Congo, Afro-Asiatic (Semito-Hamitic), Nilo-Saharan, and Khoisan groups.

Niger-Congo Languages spoken by most of the Negroid peoples of Africa, are divided into several subgroups. The largest subgroup is Benue-Congo, which includes the Bantu languages. Almost all of the African languages spoken south of the Equator are Bantu languages.

Afro-Asiatic (Semito-Hamitic) Languages spoken mainly in North Africa, but extending into eastern Africa, are divided into five subgroups: Semitic, Berber, Cushitic, Egyptian, and Chadic. (Formerly Berber, Cushitic, and Egyptian were considered part of the same subgroup, which was called Hamitic.) Arabic and Hebrew are well-known Semitic languages.

Nilo-Saharan Languages are spoken in eastern Africa and in a large area north of Lake Chad. This group includes Eastern and Central Sudanic languages and Saharan languages such as Kanuri.

Khoisan Languages are among the few non-Bantu African languages spoken in Africa south of the Equator. They are spoken mainly by the Khoi (Hottentot) and the San (Bushmen). Their most distinctive feature is the presence of a clicking sound.

Hausa, a Chadic language of western Africa, and Swahili (properly, Kiswahili), a Bantu language of eastern Africa, have become lingua francas (languages spoken widely outside their original culture groups). Both Hausa and Swahili have been strongly influenced by Arabic. Afrikaans is a language spoken by South Africans of Dutch descent. A Malayo-Polynesian language is spoken on Madagascar. English and French, the languages of the major former colonial powers. are widely used in business, government, and school.


The oldest and most prevalent religions in Africa are based on animism, ancestor worship, totemism, and other traditional beliefs. Such beliefs are found especially among the Negroid peoples south of the Sahara. Islam prevails in North Africa and much of eastern Africa. Islam was introduced into North Africa in the 7th century, and its influence began to extend south of the Sahara in the 13th century.

Christianity is strongest south of the Sahara. It was introduced into North Africa in the first centuries after the birth of Christ; the Coptic church, in Egypt, and Ethiopian Orthodox Church are the only bodies that remain from that era. Later missionary efforts—especially after the 18th century—made many Christian converts in Africa south of the Sahara. Many churches here combine Christianity with traditional beliefs, notably animism.

There is considerable variation in the traditional beliefs of the Negroid peoples of Africa. Generally speaking, religion is a vital part of everyday life. Most pervasive of the traditional beliefs is animism, the belief that every living thing and inanimate object has a spirit dwelling inside of it. Most followers of African traditional religions believe in a supreme being, who is regarded as the creator of all things.

The individual personality is believed to consist of several parts, and death is not thought to be the end of the total personality. Ancestor worship, common to most African religions, is based on the belief that the ancestors of a group—such as family, clan, or tribe—continue after their death to play an important part in the lives of their descendants.

Totemism—the belief in a mystical relationship between a group and a particular animal or plant—influences the social structure of some groups. Magic, including witchcraft, plays a large part in traditional African beliefs.


Educational opportunities vary greatly from one African country to another as a result of social and geographical influences. For example, education is hampered in Sudan because the country is large and sparsely settled, and the nomadic people speak 30 different languages. In some countries, children are kept out of school because they are needed to help support the family. School attendance is irregular in some areas because children suffer from chronic ill health caused primarily by malnutrition, malaria, and parasitic infestation. Many African peoples are traditionally opposed to formal education for girls. A few groups resist all education that is foreign to their own cultures.

Political differences are also important. Until after World War II, most of Africa was under European rule, and each colonial region reflected the educational policies of the nation that governed it. The effects of these policies have continued after the countries have become independent.

Most African nations emphasize education, and large portions of their national budgets are set aside for educational purposes. They have continued many programs begun by colonial powers and missionary groups, and initiated others. Universal, free, compulsory education at the primary level has been made a goal in virtually all the countries. The number of teacher-training, technical, vocational, and agricultural schools and colleges is continually being increased. Adult education programs stressing literacy and hygiene are expanding.

Financial and technical aid from America, Europe, and Asia has played an important part in African educational progress. In some countries, mission schools provide much of the elementary and high school education. At the university level in most of the countries, foreign instructors are common. The Peace Corps (United States) and the Volunteer Services Organization (United Kingdom) also supply primary and secondary school teachers to various African countries.

Almost every African country has a national university. The countries with the most extensive systems of higher education, each with more than 20 universities and colleges, are Egypt, Nigeria, and South Africa. Most African nations send large numbers of secondary-school, college, and graduate students abroad for their education.

Literature and the Arts

For centuries the art. music, and literature of North Africa have been an important part of world culture.

There was little recognition of the arts of Negroid Africans south of the Sahara until early in the 20th century. At that time the Fauve group of French painters became interested in West African sculpture and were consciously influenced by it. However, since the beginning of the 17th century, African folklore, music, and dance—introduced by slaves—have had an increasing effect upon culture in the Americas.

By the middle of the 20th century, the importance and the uniqueness of the African plastic arts (sculpture, pottery, and the like were widely recognized. African writers, musicians, dancers, and actors were gaining acceptance in other parts of the world. African intellectual and political leaders were interested in preserving African art objects in African museums, and in developing creative expression in schools and other cultural centers.

Traditionally, African literature (mainly in the form of songs, stories, and proverbs), music, and art are interrelated and play a part in almost every phase of life. Special music and dances are used for weddings, initiations, preparation for battle and the hunt, and healing the sick. There are songs for various kinds of work. Stories and proverbs are used to instruct the young. The various literary and art forms are also used purely for entertainment. The use of drums is widespread, although unknown to a few peoples. Other traditional instruments include the lyre, the xylophone, and several kinds of harps and wind instruments.

West African sculpture is considered to be the most important of the African plastic arts. The human body is the usual subject, but the style is seldom representational. Figures are often distorted to give them religious or emotional meaning. In modern times, most sculpture has been of wood, and the most common forms are masks used in various ceremonies. There is some metal-casting and jewelry-making. In the past, there was a considerable amount of fine work in gold, bronze, and ivory.

Among the oldest existing works of art in Africa are the rock paintings and engravings that are found in arid and highland regions from the Sahara to the Kalahari. Some of this rock art dates back to about 13,000 B.C. Terra cotta figurines from as early as 900 B.C. have been found in archeological remains of the Nok civilization in Nigeria. Also from Nigeria are the terra cotta and bronze sculptures of life (12th to 14th centuries A.D.) and the bronze sculptures of the kingdom of Benin (16th and 17th centuries).

Ways of Life

Most educated and well-to-do Africans live in towns and cities and have adopted a European style of life in regard to housing, dress, recreation, and—to some extent—food. Even country people have come into contact with Western customs and products, and their traditional habits have been modified. The return to traditional African names, dress, and customs, however, has been encouraged by rulers in many African countries to instill a sense of nationalism and pride in their peoples.

The great majority of Africans live in rural areas. A few groups—such as the Pygmies and the San (Bushmen)—live by hunting and gathering wild plants, but most Africans are farmers. Many men who work in towns spend part of their time in farming communities where their families live, and eventually return to their farm homes to stay.

Traditional African homes are built of locally available materials. Herdsmen of North Africa live in tents of cloth or skins of goats or sheep, with skins or woven rugs on the sandy floor. In the tropics and subtropics, herdsmen usually live in round huts made of wooden poles, osier (pliable twigs), and hides. Farming people tend to build square, thatched huts of wattle (wooden framework) and clay, or of sun-dried bricks. Floors may be of tamped-down earth, and may be covered with grass mats. A family dwelling usually consists of one or more one-room huts and several small granaries. Some African peoples live in villages, others live in isolated family dwellings.

The family is of great importance in African life. It is usually extended to include near relatives such as grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins. With the exception of the Berber-speaking peoples, the Pygmies, and a few other groups, most African people accept polygyny (more than one wife for each husband) as the ideal form of marriage. However, most Africans are monogamous for economic reasons and because the numbers of men and women are approximately equal. Christian Africans are monogamous for religious reasons. Bridewealth, a gift by the groom to the bride's family, is generally a required part of an African marriage.

At a certain age, often corresponding to puberty, it is common for young people to undergo elaborate initiation rites, which admit them to adult status. All the young men in a community who are initiated at the same time form an age set that lasts through life and whose members have mutual rights and obligations. Young women may have corresponding age sets. In some parts of Africa there may also be initiation into one of the men's or women's secret societies that perform certain traditional functions to keep order in the community.