Africa is the second largest and second most populated continent after Asia. It covers over 30.8 million squared kilometres and has over 1.2 billion in habitants. The continent is home to a plethora of diverse cultures, religions, and languages. One thing they all have in common is the significance given to a name. A name of a person, place or artifact contains its essence and history. It can signal prosperity or doom, divide or unite whole communities, and encompass the breadth of life and all its absurdity.
The name “Africa” continues to be hotly debated. There is no consensus as there are number of theories that hold up under scrutiny. It is imperative to explore the origins of the name to better understand the continent’s history.
Some historians attribute the origins of the name “Africa” to the Roman Empire. It is said that the Romans used it to describe the Carthaginian Empire which they conquered in 200 BC. Situated in present day Tunisia and Northern Algeria, the conquest gave the Romans control over large parts of North Africa.
Some have suggested that the Romans got the idea for the name of the region from the Berber tribe that resided in the northern parts of Tunisia. The Romans referred to the Berber people as ‘Afri’, ‘Afer’ and ‘Ifir’. Thus “Africa” was used to describe the land of the Afri
Additionally, other historians have gone as far as to theorise that it was not the Berber tribe that gave the Romans the idea but the climate of the region itself. The Latin word to describe hot weather is ‘aprica’ which gives credence to the notion although the evidence of claim is very thin.
In the 16th century, Leo Africanus introduced another, similar climatic theory. Famously known as a scholar, diplomat, traveller and one of the first Islamic explorers to travel North Africa, he theorised that, from geographical and environmental evidence, “Africa” was derived from the Greek word, ‘a-phrike’ which translates to “land without cold or horror”.
Some experts also believe that the label came from two Phoenician words, ‘friqi’ and ‘pharika’. It is said that the Phoenicianssaw the continent as ‘the land of corn and fruit.’
It is worth noting that, “Africa” was exclusively used to describe only the northern parts of the continent while other regions had different, ever evolving designations. The ancient Greeks and early Arabs referred to North Africa as ‘Libya’. The Portuguese referred to the land below the Sahara as ‘Aethiopia’ which is a Greek term that translates to ‘land of the dark-skinned’. The Portuguese also referred to West Africa as ‘Guine’. It is said that the only indigenous, traceable ancient term for the continent is ‘Alkebalan’. It has several meanings such as ‘the garden of Eden’ and ‘mother of mankind’. The term was used by Moors, Nubians, Nunidians, Khart-Haddans and Ethiopians.
The entirety of the continent only became known as “Africa” in the 16thcentury when sea and land exploration advanced and slavery and colonialism commenced. It is a label with strong European connotations and was used as no more than a geographical marker. Despite this, Africans have imbued the term with pride, history and spirit. It has been repurposed to express the beauty of existing on this wonderous continent.