African culture, its influence and relationship with other cultures

Written by: Adama Bamba

Translated by: Jum’ah Habeeblai Abiodun

This paper is available in Arabic

African culture, like other cultures, necessitates the articulation of certain theoretical concepts, such as the concept of culture and its distinguishing features. But in this case, we’ll go with Piddington’s definition of culture: “the material and educational acquisitions of a society that meet its biological needs and allow it to fit in with the rest of society” [1]. This definition, no matter our satisfaction with its accentuation, is insufficient, primarily because what a society envisions of acquisitions and identifying features defines its culture. It may borrow some cultures from foreign civilizations or have some cultures that are shared among other civilizations.

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After that, there is a need to discuss another challenge that is peculiar to African culture. Is it a homogenous or heterogenous civilization? This issue has sparked reactions from researchers, some of whom believe that Africa is a continent with a homogenous culture while other researchers opine otherwise.

For example, the formal opinion would present “culture” in its singular form in its series of Greenwood publications about African countries with the title:” culture and customs of Africa,” to which each neo-African country was dedicated with two books carrying such a title and the name of the country [2], and similarly, in the popular encyclopedia edited by Baj[3].

This opinion on the homogeneity of African culture is more apparent and assertive among researchers in Pan-Africanism such as Z. Ademuwagun (1963), Guy Hunter (1963), E.O. Ayisi (1972), Bohannan (1971), Cheikh Anta Diop (1962), etc. This usage was further authorized by the anthropological and Afrocentric historian, Cheikh Anta Diop, especially in his book on this topic, “Cultural Homogeneity in Africa” [4], where he expressly said: “I have been able to portray the deep-rooted African homogeneity that still exists under a microscopic misleading controversy” [5].

By this, he chose his view by sternly denouncing heterogeneity opinion. This stand was also promoted by the social researcher, David Dalby, who expressed his view by saying “we cannot but talk about African homogeneity; hence, it is imperative that UNESCO relates to Africa as a culturally homogenous group in its cultural programs”[6].

On the other hand, other researchers disagree with the view of African homogenuity by using the word “culture” in its plural form, “cultures”, as an expression of heterogeneity and pluralism. They include: J. (1963), G. Hunter (1962), C.M. Turbull (1959), Mudrock Middleton (1970), etc. Toyin Falola has considered resolving the controversy by combining the two views. He opines that this phrase is more accurate in articulating homogeneity in Africa, which consists of more than 8000 cultures and languages.

However, Falola warns against the overuse of this term as it may convey a misleading notion[7]. “Mountain-people, Forest-dwellers, Dessert and Savanah-settlers, and those staying in the Banks of Rivers and swamps will definitely keep different practices and ways of life based on their environmental differences”[8]. For this reason, Meyer Fortes contended in his work with the homogeneity theory of the African cultures, citing the Khung group as an example or those whom he arbitrary referred to as Bush-men in the Kalahari Desert, who are itinerant headers. According to Fortes, those people cannot be compared with other groups that “are more organized, richer, and more politically, socially, and militarily complicated in the West African empires”[9].

Some researchers have sought to reconcile the two views by employing “cultures,” whereas they confine and particularize that by employing “cultural areas” to indicate some cultural peculiarities among certain ethnical groups. For instance, they would say: Yoruba Cultural region, Swahili region, Fulani region.. This is the proposition of the Akra Conference (1980), where the attendees conclude that there had been “a homogenous African culture” before the existence of cultural areas. [10]

Moreover, some other researchers have used the word in its singular and plural forms, such as Dan Fulani, [11], Ido[12], Philosopher Mbiti[13], and Abolaji [14] to indicate African culture and religions.

However, using “culture” in the singular form does not unequivocally mean that ethnic groups across the continent are culturally heterogeneous. It only shows the terms that are the same between the cultures, and the opposite is true, since the use of the plural form hasn’t put up solid barriers between African cultures.

The relationship between African cultures

Consequently, the discussion of the opinions of researchers on the homogeneity and heterogeneity of Africans, as studying the common phenomena among African communities will lead to a long list of cultural common-grounds. Hence, our previous discussion is only suggestive of a blink-light on different material cultural areas.

1-Foreign Languages

Regardless of the relationship between African languages and a convergent family, the high-correspondence between the languages is indicative of a clear phenomenon. Even though the languages are numerous, as there are more than 2000 languages, approximately 30% of the world’s languages[15]. Many of these languages, such as Hausa, Fulfulde, and Madinga in West Africa, Beti-fang and Lingala in Central Africa, Sishewa and Setswana in South Africa, and Swahili in East Africa, are classified as “trans-border languages,” which means they are spoken in multiple regions and countries.

On this note, Ebanos confirmed that there are 45 common languages between Nigeria and its neighboring countries [16]. But with this pragmatic language-association, we think there is a shared cultural and intellectual association between people who speak the same language, no matter where they live, because language is the carrier of culture and intelligence.

2-Art and Literature

There is homogeneity and similarity in African national literature, either oral or written, in the same way it appears in their performing arts, such as acting, crafting, and decorating, among others. Consequently, the discussion of homogeneity and heterogeneity earlier discussed is still very apparent in the literary field. Do we use “African literature” in the singular sense or “African literature” in the plural sense? Those who preferred the plural sense argued that African languages are diverse and that oral and written literary styles take different forms.

However, the proponents of homogeneity argued otherwise, on the premise that there is no significant effect of linguistic heterogeneity on African cultures. Also, critics have discovered in their comparison studies apparent areas of convergence between the Sundiata story and its equivalent, such as Shaka Zulu, the citadel of the Zulu ethnic groups of South Africa, even though the two stories emanate from two divergent ethnic groups [17]. The point is that the literary inter-relations on the continent are not farfetched since the relationships are beyond the homogeneity level in most cases.

3-Sports and Numerical Systems

African cultural relationships are further evident in the mathematical and numerical systems in almost all parts of the region. There is a verbal numerical similarity in virtually all the languages between the numbers (2,3,4,5), which are basically formed from the sounds “di” and “li,” while the number (3) normally contains the sound “ta\sa” and number (4) also has the nasal sound of “ri. Referring to numbers (6-9) in most African languages is done by adding (1) to number five and so on. The addition will start in some ethnic groups from (6) as in the case of Sango in the Northern Kongo [18].  The limited space will not allow us to present the complex numeric system [19].

African Culture and Intra-Cultural Relations

Through natural convergence situations and even exceptional situations, African culture generates a give-and-take relationship with international cultures. In the next section, we’ll talk about how cultures in the Americas and Asia give Africa and take from it.

Firstly, in the Americas:

There is an apparent cultural relationship between Africa and the Americas specifically. The region contains the highest number of Africans outside of the continent, This is consequent to the well-known historical reasons that led to the slave trade. Africa has the highest population in Barbados, Haiti, Jamaika, Trinidad and Tobago and other countries with high in-law relationships with Africa and others such as Cuba and Brazil. This concentrated African presence in those regions has birthed a wide acculturation that is comprised of all the cultural phenomena.

1-Music and Songs

The most apparent phenomenon in the African-West Atlantic acculturation is music. There are lots of musical lyrics with African origins, such as Abakua, Jaz, Blues, Brazilian Zamba, Juba, Akimbo, and other national arts that were transmitted to the Americas from Africa, which have become unique features in the cultures of those cultures. In addition to that, there are other phenomena such as traditional medicine, food, clothing, and social norms, among others. Kente is a prominent embroidered clothing for modern Ghana’s Ashante ethnic groups, and it is a carrier of various cultures and languages with specific content. It has a presence in the communities of the Americas [20]. In the book edited by Josef Huluwe, there is an overview of many of these cultural things that America took from Africa, including history, language, art, religion, agriculture, and more [21].

2-Religious beliefs

There are many religious beliefs and practices in the Caribbean regions that were transmitted from Africa. In fact, many of the religious practices still retain African features in their languages and ways of worship. Among these is the Voodoo religion, which was, according to Jessi Gaston, snatched from Dahomey and planted in the New Orleans state of America alongside its magical rituals, symbols, music, and dances [22]. Also, the Sasabonsan practice is an Ashante religion that was transmitted to Jamaica and was later misrepresented as a demonic ritual, after which it became incorporated into Christian free will baptism under Pope Bedward in 1894. Orisa is a religion practiced by the Yoruba people of Nigeria and the Macumba people of Brazil. It is a mix of old African beliefs and Catholic rituals.

Prior to that, some argue, African presence in the two Americas predated the slave-trade conditions. Many archaeological studies have revealed that there are numerous antiquities confirming African presence in the Caribbean Coasts, particularly from Mali. There are some regions bearing Malian names and some archaeological zones where archaeologists found some inscriptions of some Africans wearing coats and turbans and some Malian copper instruments from the 14th century. Among the well-known regions are Sierra de Mali, Mandinka Bay. [24] Those Africans are supposedly from ethnic groups that accompanied the Malian King, Mansa Abubakr Thani Musa, on his adventurous tour across the Atlantic Ocean year (1311C.E).[25] “This was prior to Columbus’ discovery of what he tagged the New-World year 1492, according to Sertima in the title of his popular book” [26].


African-American lingual cross-fertilization is evident in the abundance of lexical borrowing. For instance, studies have revealed that Africans in Caribbean regions have greatly influenced the Portuguese and Spanish languages in those regions. In a Burgas dictionary, the number of Portuguese and Spanish borrowed vocabulary from Yoruba, Ibo, Fulani, Mading, and Ewe-Twi is about 2,500 words, consisting of vocabulary of home appliances, social and day-to-day expressions [27]. Through the Portuguese and Spanish, many African vocabulary words are introduced to English, French, and European languages. Among the popular researchers in this field are the American linguist Lorenzo Turner (D.1972) and the English philologist David Dalby [28].

Secondly, in Asia:

African-Far Asian relations remain the oldest and deepest of African-international relations due to the active trading across the Indian and Pacific Oceans. In this regard, historical sources reveal that African slaves were present in Chinese ports beginning with the reign of the Sung Dynasty in 976 A.D. and were known as “K’un Lun,” or “Black-skinned.” The African presence is also confirmed in different regions of Asia. Because of this, African ethnic groups in Asia still have unique bodies and cultures, which are now a part of the cultures of the Asian communities and can’t be separated from them.

For instance, in the Ari Atoll, on Feridu island in the Maldives, there are some African ethnic groups that are known as baburu, many of whom originate from East African countries and Oman. The Bodu-beru, i.e., the big drum, is one of the Maldives’ cultural dances whose accompanied lyrics are called baburu-lava, i.e., the Negro lyrics, which have become one of the prominent lyrics and dances in the Maldives [29].

Also, there are Africans in India in the Gujarat, Kamataka, Maharashta, and Goa regions. Likewise, in Sri Lanka, there are many ethnic groups with various names, such as “Coffers\Kaffirs\habsh” who migrated to those regions since the last quarter of the 17th century. Around 1773, many African fighters were the guards in the palaces of the Asifyah dynasty in Hyderabad, who were known as “the Shawish” in the Turkish Army. As for cultural arts of those regions such as dances and lyrics, Jaya Shure has revealed some of them in her study like: Manhas that she believed has a direct effect on Ballia, the most prominent traditional lyrics in the post-colonial Sri Lanka.[30]

The Governor of Dutch confirmed in his memoir that more than four thousand negros built the Colombo fortress between 1680 and 1675, indicating their large number since that time since the colonials brought them for labor of road building, military recruitment, and agriculture, which led to marital relationships between them and the indigenous settlers who later birthed what is now known as the Afro-Sri Lankan group [31]. Furthermore, these African ethnic groups have a long history in Pakistan’s Baluchistan and Sistan Provinces, where they are known as the Seedes, Sheedi, Makrani, Gulam, and Zangibari from the Arabic Sayyid.

They have settled in those provinces since Sultan Sayyid-Saeed’s dynasty, when the modern Pakistan and Iran coasts were part of Oman’s Empire. These ethnic groups contributed to Pakistan’s cultural shipping and fishing. They also have their own known-cultural dances and arts.

In Southeast Asia, the major African presence is in Indonesia, where they are known as the Oran Belanda Hitami, which means the Black Dutch, since they came there alongside the Dutch colonial military. Many of them married Indonesian women, and the African-Asian culture is more pronounced specifically in Madagascar.

African Culture Benefitting from other Cultures

Despite the fact that Africa is the origin of human cultures, it is indebted to other cultures for many cultural phenomena. In language, we can cite the borrowing of African lexical patterns from other languages. For instance, Arabic has clear effects on the vocabulary of Swahili, Hausa, Mading, Kanuri, Songhai, Soninke, and Fulani languages. [32] Also, in the Dagumba language of Northern Ghana[33], Mossi in Burkina Faso [34], and others. [35]It is what Salawu calls a “flood effect,” which is not a natural effect in the case of colonial languages like English, which are called “Glottophagous, Killer languages” [37].

In costumes and dresses, there are multiple sources of influence in Africa, among which is the development of embroidery, needlework, and tinting in Hausa cities, for instance, and their neighbors in the Yoruba and Nupe empires by producing dresses with bold Islamic antiques of geometric lines that are now known as Arabesque and asterisks[38]. Also, Mali is popular for tilbi (also called tirbi) embroidery, which is a kind of embroidery in Jellabiyas. Its origins are from Timbuktu and Djenne cities.

In traditional medicine, for instance, Islam has a vivid effect, which indicates there are Middle-Eastern cultural effects in African medicine. In the Hausa community, there is Onwanzani, which is directly related to Islam, and also Islamic Buri [39]In the Senegalese region, the major medical styles of the ethnic groups originated from the Islamic creed. The same thing is recorded among Mading, Fulani, and Swahilis. Also, the Zaramo ethic groups of the Swahili in Tanzania [40], who, according to Swantar, 98% of their traditional medical practitioners are Muslim clerics[41].

Likewise, there is a presence effect in the architecture. There are these Afro-Brazilian structures that were designed by African returnees from Bahia and Salvador. Among the prominent mosques with Afro-Brazilian structures are the Great Mosque of Port-Novo (1912), Abeokuta Centra Mosque, Nigeria, Abomey Mosque, and Modakeke Mosque, Nigeria, even though these designs are not peculiar to worship centers.


[1] Piddington, Introduction to Social Anthropology, (London: Oliver $ Boyd,1950, p.30

[2] It seems this series covers all neo-African countries, the sub-titles of each book are the same which are: Religion and Worldview, literature and Communication, Art and architecture, Cooking and dresses, family, marriage and gender rights, social norms, Music, dance and performing art.

[3] Encyclopedia, Wille F. pages, facts on File, 2001 (5 Volumes).

[4] Cheikh Anta Diop, L’unite Culturelle de l’Afrique noire: Domaines du patriarcat et du matriarcat dans l’antiquité classique, (Paris: Presence Africaine, 2e éd. 1982).

[5] Anta Diop, the cultural unity of negro, 7.

[6]  Benjamin Nimer, Distinctive Characteristics and Common Features of African Cultures, The International Journal of African Historical Studies, Vol. 22, No. 1, (1989), 145-147, (18).

[7] Falola, Toyin. The Power of African Cultures, (University Rochester Press, 2008), 3.

[8] Victor B. Kapela. Dialectics of Praxis and Theoria in African Philosophy: An Essay on Cultural Hermeneutics, (African Books Collective, 2011), 27.

[9]Meyer Fortes. Introduction, in: Eric O. Ayisi. An Introduction to the Study of African Culture, (East African Publishers, 1992), ix.

[10] Benjamin Nimer, Distinctive Characteristics, Op. Cit. 18.

[11] Dan Fulani. “African Religion in Scholarship: A Critique” in: Adogame et al. Religion in the context of African migration, 9, 23, 25.

[12] E. B. Idowu. African Tradional Religion: A Definition, London: SCM Press, 1973, xi.

[13] John, S. Mbiti. An Introduction to African Religion, (Heinemann, 1990). Also: African Religions and Philosophy.

[14]  E. Bolaji, “The Study of Religion with Special reference to African Traditional Religion”, ORITA, I, (1), 1967: 1.

[15] Heine and Nurse (ed). African Languages: An Introduction, (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2002), 1.

[16] Simpson, Andrew. Language and National Identity in Africa, (Oxford University Press, 2008), 172-198.

[17] Researches in African Literatures, Vol.35, AFRICAN AND AFRO-AMERICAN STUDIES, University of Texas, 2004, 178.

[18] Huylebrouk, Dirk. 138.

[19] Zaslavsky, Claudia. Af. Counts.

[20] Joanne B. Eicher & Sandra Lee Evenson. The Visible Self: Global Perspectives on Dress, Culture and Society, (Bloomsbury Publishing USA, 4th ed., 2014), 185.

[21] Joseph E. Holloway. The power Africanisms in American Culture, (Indiana University Press, 2005). (436 pages)

[22] Falola, The Power of African Culture, Op. Cit., 283.

[23] Larry A. Nichols, George Mather, Alvin J. Schmidt (ed). Encyclopedic Dictionary of Cults, Sects, and World Religions: Revised Edition, (Zondervan, 2010).

[24] Rick Duncan. Man, know Thyself, (Xlibris Corporation, 2013), 173.

[25] Gaoussou Diawara, Abubakari II, Explorateur Mandingue.

[26] Sertima, Ivan Van. They Came Before Columbus: The African Presence in Ancient America, Random House Trade Paperbacks, 1976).

[27] John T. Schneider, Dictionary of borrowings in Brazilian Portuguese, (Buske Verlag, 1991).

[28] Geneva Smitherman. Talkin and Testifyin: The Language of Black America, (Wayne State University Press, 1977).

 Jayasuriya, Shihan de Silva. Identifying Africans in Asia: What’s in a Name? African and Asian Studies, Vol.5 (3-4), Brill, 2006. 276-301. [29]

[30] Jayasuriya, Shihan de Silva. African Migrants as Cultural brokers in South Asia, FRAS, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London,

[31] Ibid,283

[32] R. D. Abubakre, “Survival of Arabic in Difficult Terrains”, University of Ilorin, 2002.

[33] Salifu, Nantogma Alhassan. « The Influence of Islam on the Culture and Language of the Dagomba of Northern Ghana”, Maghreb Review, Vol.37, No.3-4, 349.

[34] Gaston Canu, “Remarqes sur quelques emprunts lexicaux en More”, The Journal of West African Language, Vol.5, No.1.

[35] Sergio Baldi. Dictionnaire des emprunts arabes dans les langues de l’Afrique de l’Ouest et en Swahili, (Paris: Karthala, 2008), 662p.

[36] Adewunmi Salawu. “The Spread of Revealed Religions in West Africa and Its implications for the Development of Translation”, Journal of Translation, Vol.3, No.2, 2007, 30.

[37] Cecile B. Vigouroux, Salikoko S. Mufwene. Globalization and Language Vitality: Perspectives from Africa, 171.

[38] Colleen E. Kriger, Cloth in West African History, 69.

[39] Abdalla, Ismail Husein. (1981), Islamic Medicine and Its Influence on Traditional Hausa, 101.

[40] Lloyd, w. Swantz. The Medicine man among the Zaramo people, 39.

[41] Lloyd, w. Swantz. The Medicine man among the Zaramo people, 166 (footnote).

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