African Ethnic Groups

The continent of Africa contains nearly 2,000 ethnic groups. This is the largest number of diverse ethnic groups of any continent. Many of the ethnic groups of Africa are larger than European nations. For example, the Hausa population of Northern Nigeria is larger than the population of the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, Portugal, or Norway.
Each ethnic group traces its origin to a single female or male ancestor. Some groups are related to others through lineage. The Akan group of Ghana and the Ivory Coast, for instance, is connected to seven founding sisters. Each group of Akan has the same set of abusua as all the others. Some African people trace their ancestry to only one ancestor. For example, an ethnic group such as the Ijaw of Nigeria traces its ancestry to Woyengi, a female deity.
Of the hundreds of ethnic groups on the African continent, less than 20 can be considered major groups in terms of population. Thus, the Yoruba, Ibo, Hausa, Wolof, Mandinka, Congo, Chokwe, Akan, Kikuyu, Hutu, Oromo, Zulu, Xhosa, and Shona are among the ethnic groups that are considered significant in their countries. In some modern states, how these groups are treated and how they treat others determines the fate of national politics.
A major source of internal political conflict in Africa has been the rivalry between ethnic groups, such as the war between the Hutu and Tutsi in East Africa. The Hutu and Tutsi populations share the same language and the same ancestors, but they have had devastating wars. One reason for the animosity might be that the colonial era European powers, mainly the Germans and the French, created distinctions between groups of East Africans in order to have a buffer population devoted to the colonial masters.
African ethnic groups are no different from ethnic groups on other continents in their relatedness to ancestry. Just as there are Irish, Scottish, Welsh, and English ethnic groups in the United Kingdom, there are various ethnic groups in African countries. These groups must never be referred to as tribes, as this is a pejorative term related to a notion of Africans as uncivilized, primitive, and backward. African ethnic groups represent culture, customs, and traditions.



Further Reading

  • Agyei-Mensah, Samuel. (Ed.). (2003). Reproduction and Social Context in Sub-Saharan Africa: A Collection of Micro-Demographic Studies. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. The authors in this volume discuss the role of diversity in reproductive behavior in Africa.
  • Oheneba-Sakyi, Yaw, and Awusabo-Asare, Kofi. (1999). Female Autonomy, Family Decision-Making, and Demographic Behavior in Africa. Lewiston, NY: Mellen Press. This is a penetrating analysis of the way female autonomy operates in the process of reproduction in Africa.