How Homogeneous Is Sub-saharan African Culture?

My question is how varied is the everyday life of Africans? For comparison, Europe has a very homogeneous culture, though various languages are spoken, and every country has its ‘national’ cuisine, daily life is very similar. One can go from Lisbon to Moscow, for example, and not suffer that much culture shock. Music, television programs, fashion are all similar, meaning they have far more in common than not.

How does sub-Saharan Africa compare? If a person drove from Dakar to Lagos to Johannesburg to Mombasa, how varied would the trip be? Ignoring language, how much culture shock would someone experience as they crossed borders? Music and fashion changing radically? Shops, markets dramatically different?

I am mostly interested in first hand experiences, but any other info is welcome also.

A second question, I am thinking it was much more divergent in the colonial era and prior, so is a convergence occurring as with Europe?


I lived in both Mali and Uganda, and traveled in South Africa, Botswana and Tanzania. Considering that tribal customs are completely different in different areas and that religions can vary from animism to muslim to christian, I’d say that the answer to your main question is “not very”. Some cultures have a history of hunting, others are agrarian. The differences between city life and exurban areas don’t remotely resemble each other.

Music, dress, food, etc. are often radically different from country to country. Jo-Burg is cosmopolitan and modern, Bamako not so much. Kampala is fairly modern, but towns elsewhere in the country are primitive, mostly without electricity, running water or sewage systems.

Just traveling within Mali: You leave Bamako, which has some restaurants, bars and hotels, and head northeast to Segou, where amenities diminish a bit, then onward to Mopti where things are even cruder, then to Djenne or Timbuctu, where it’s mostly mud huts, or even into the Dogon country, where people are living in stick huts or in caves in the cliffside. In the process, you are transitioning from the Sahel to the Sahara, and from agrarian society to nomadic.

I can’t begin to imagine that much of anything in Africa is homogeneous outside individual villages. There is effectively nothing in common between different parts of it besides the ability to travel overland to the same places. Europeans, Arabs, Asians, and (Aboriginal) Americans all have a common shared ancestor far closer to the present than sub-Saharan Africans. While there may have been outside trade links to some West African Empires and the Ethiopia area, and all coastal areas had some Portuguese contacts starting in the late 1400s, there were no common trade-routes through the southern half of Africa on the same level as the Silk Road that brought goods from one end of Eurasia to the other. There is no reason to expect that culture in one part of it will resemble the culture somewhere else; to expect that is almost like expecting Scandinavians and Aboriginal Australians to have similar cultures.

In my experience, it’s extremely variable. In Cameroon alone you can kick it on the beach with cosmopolitan Anglophones, hang out in the deep rainforest where Pygmies still live using bronze age technology, spend time in the grasslands where powerful chiefs still practice ancestral skull worship, dance the night away in the agressive hustle-hustle big cities, or head up north to the medieval Muslim kingdoms where life is much slower. Even in the North where a sort of generic Fulbe/Hausa West African Islamic culture is the norm, there are still holdouts of pagans with a completely different lifestyle, and nomadic herdsman still roam the plains. Even town-to-town and state-to-state differences can be striking. I felt Mali was much closer culturally to North Cameroon than South Cameroon was…but even then there were huge differences.

In South Cameroon, you would most likely see more Western clothes and long loose gowns called kaabas, and hear Cameroonian Bikutsi or Makossa music. Southerners are generally Christian, and tend to be more boisterous. The markets would be filled with tropical fruits and all manner of meat from the bush. The diet tends to be varied, but heavy on the corn oil.

In the north men tend to wear long flowing robes, and women wear fitted outfits and usually some kind of veil. The markets are sparse, and food relies on millet, various leaves, and whatever people can scrounge out of the dusty land. Outside of mango season, fruit is a rare luxury. People tend to listen to Fulfulde or Hausa music (or even local music), although Ivorian Pop is also huge.

Country-to-country differences are even more striking. I’ll never forget watching a planeload of big, agressive, chaos-prone Francophone West Africans get off a plane in the characteristic loud and boisterous manner while the poor skinny Ethiopian airport workers, full of ideas about what is proper, tried desperately and futilely to get them to form a line.

Thanks for the responses, especially for all the links even sven. I knew it was extremely diverse during pre-colonial times, but had wondered if a pan-African culture had started to form similar to Europe. From what I had read before, it appeared that one might be forming among the urban elites, but that seems very limited also.

Part of the motivation behind my question was reading about the African Union and smaller proposals like the East African Federation. I think those efforts are worthwhile, but I also believe political unions do not work unless there is a strong shared social foundation. That is obviously not the case in most of Africa, so I wonder about the long term prospects for those unions. I knew that those who advocated Pan-Africanism in the past were biting off more than they could chew. Looks like that is still the case.

Having known West Africans and Ethiopians, I can totally picture that scene. There are some great African comedies waiting to be written.