Is Africa a country?

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Is Africa a country?

That is a question that can be answered in just about any way that seems most suitable, given the situation. No, say some: Africa has an almost infinite variety of peoples and cultures – it is not one country. Yes, some others might say: Africans share a common cultural and historical heritage – you could look at it as a country. Is it really impossible to be a bit more precise?

One question one might ask, for example is this one: what have been the effects of the colonial histories and after that, of ‘nation building’ on the cultures of African countries? Have the peoples in these different countries grown together more closely, culturally speaking, or has this not happened? Answers to this question can be relevant in many ways: for African governments and politicians, but also for companies, business people and the development industry.

In research just published in ‘Cross-Cultural Research’, one of the Sage journals, I have been able to get a bit closer to an answer to this question. Using a data reduction technique known as cluster analysis, I have been able to re-analyze the responses collected in 35 African countries through the Afrobarometerseries of opinion surveys, looking at typical differences in answers between 198 ethnolinguistic groups. This way of analyzing data is inspired by earlier work by the well-known cross-cultural psychologists Hofstedeand Minkov.

I have selected those questions in the Afrobarometer survey that are related to three cultural dimensions developed by Beugelsdijk and Welzel(not specifically for Africa): collectivism – individualism; duty – joy; and distrust – trust.  My next step was to find which ethnolinguistic groups within one country cluster together and which stand apart. As a result, three separate groups of countries emerged:

  1. A group of countries with most internal homogeneity. Not surprisingly the Arab countries are part of this group: Algeria and Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and Sudan. But there’s also 10 countries in Sub Sahara Africa where all the ethnolinguistic groups that were measured fall within one (sub)cluster: Botswana, Madagascar, Lesotho, Mauritius, Burkina Faso, Liberia, Namibia, Niger, Senegal and even Cameroon.
  2. Five countries in which the majority falls within one (sub) cluster, with only one or two ethnolinguistic group(s) that seem to be the exception: Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Malawi, Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe.
  3. This leaves 11 countries with considerable diversity within their countries: Nigeria’s six groups measured fall into three different clusters; Benin, Togo and Mali also with three different clusters each; Mozambique’s 10 groups fall into four different clusters; South Africa’s 13 groups fall into three clusters; Zambia’s four groups are all in separate clusters; Uganda’s 14 groups measured are spread out over nine different clusters; Kenya’s 11 groups are spread out over four clusters and Tanzania’s 14 groups fall into 5 different clusters.

Within Sub Sahara Africa, roughly two-thirds of the different ethnolinguistic groups cluster together with other ethnolinguistic groups from their own countries, forming homogeneous national clusters. This shows more analogy than some might have expected and may point towards the fact that the shared colonial and postcolonial histories have had their effect on African cultures.

It is important to treat data of this type with some caution, though. First of all, even if ethnic groups do fall within the same cultural cluster, this does not mean that there has been a credible process of nation building. Diverse groups like the Bamiléké, Beti, Mafa, and Peule of Cameroon may fall within the same cluster in the present calculation, but that doesn’t mean that either other differences or disparity won’t create tensions.

Secondly, measurements at different moments in time would be needed in case we would like to map out the process of nation building. Thirdly, there are quite a number of countries with a large variety within their cultural make-up. There do not even seem to be regional patterns here. And finally, this form of cluster analysis doesn’t say much yet about the content of the differences.

Still, it seems plausible from my study that for many African countries, national culture is a relevant concept and worth studying. However, the study also shows that there are a significant number of countries in which ethnolinguistic groups do not cluster at national level. Africa is diverse in this respect as well. Hopefully, though, this way of looking at African cultures will open up new avenues for research, leading to a better understanding of the dynamics and the complexity of the continent.

Bert is a Dutchman who was trained as a social scientist. He has been active in the environment and development movement in the Netherlands and elsewhere, starting his ‘career’ in the Anti-Apartheid movement. Bert has lived in Kenya for four years and is passionate about anything related to culture and intercultural communications. He is a world citizen with a particular interest in Africa, loved for its diversity and richness.

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