Ethnic Groups in Africa

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday recently earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

In this lesson, we'll explore some of the largest ethnic groups on the continent of Africa. We'll also give population numbers and locations as well as some key details of each particular group.

A Diverse Africa

Many people have the mistaken impression of Africa as a group of one people like you might expect to see in a country, but they fail to consider that Africa is a huge continent. There are over 3,000 different ethnic groups speaking more than 2,100 different languages in all of Africa. The people there practice a variety of religions, including Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and traditional religions specific to their ethnic group.

The different peoples of Africa also display the widest difference in physical variation of any continent on the planet. We have the extremely tall Maasai, the very short Khoisan who were once called bushmen and pygmies, and such a variety of skin tones and facial features that you just can't lump them together as a single group. Unfortunately, to describe all the ethnic groups would take a book or even a series of encyclopedias. Instead, we'll list the largest groups with a few details, elaborating on a few of these.

Race and Ethnicity

Before moving forward, it's best to clarify what we mean by ethnicity. We unfortunately still see people classified by race, a socially constructed category of people based on skin color and other physical features. However, these traits are only a tiny part of their genetic makeup and it has even been shown that two people assigned to different racial categories may share more genetics in common than two people assigned to the same racial category. It is more accurate to describe people in terms of their ethnicity, which is based on their cultural heritage and customs.

Some Larger Groups

Let's take a look at a few of the larger ethnic groups in Africa, focusing on those distinguished by region, cultural practices, and history.

Berber

  • Population: estimated between 5 and 9 million
  • Location: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt

Unfortunately, no official census exists for the Berber population except in Morocco. Algeria is believed to have as many Berbers as Morocco with smaller settlements in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt.

Berber Tribesman
Berber

The Berber people were given their name by the Romans, but the name they go by is Imazighen, meaning free and noble men. Indigenous to northern Africa since the beginning of written history, they appear in records from around 3000 BCE. Today, they speak Arabic and follow the Muslim faith, heavily influenced by 7th-century invaders, Bedouin tribes, and Andalusian refugees.

Hausa

  • Population: approximately 20 million
  • Location: Nigeria, Niger, Ghana, Chad, Cameroon, Cote d'Ivoire, and Sudan

The largest ethnicity in western Africa, their folklore claims they descend from the legendary hero Bayajidda who came to Africa from Baghdad sometime around the 9th or 10th century. Most Hausa today are Muslims who live in extended family groups.

Yoruba

  • Population: approximately 5.5 million
  • Location: Nigeria and Benin

Yoruba Beaded Crown
Yoruba Crown

The Yoruba people are well-known for their artwork, specializing in making masks, pottery, woven crafts, and beadwork. The largest ethnic group in Sub-Saharan Africa, they believe they all descend from a mythical hero named Odua. Best friends play a huge role in Yoruba life, to the point that a person will spend their last moments telling their dying wishes to their best friend.

Igbo

  • Population: approximately 5.5 million
  • Location: Nigeria and Cameroon

The Igbo live in extended family villages. They believe in a distant supreme God and several minor gods, but the main religious practice involves communing with the spirits of their ancestors.

Oromo

  • Population: approximately 28 million
  • Location: Ethiopia and Kenya

The Oromo once consisted of a mighty empire governed by a constitution, democratically elected leaders, and a strong military before colonial occupation.

Amhara

  • Population: approximately 14 million
  • Location: Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea, and Djibouti

The Amhara are the largest and most powerful ethnic group in Ethiopia, though they mainly live on the central highland plateau.

Fulani

  • Population: approximately 6 million
  • Location: Ginea, Nigeria, Cameroon, Senegal, Mali, Sierra Leone, Central African Republic, Burkina Faso, Benin, Niger, Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Ghana, Chad, Sudan, Togo, and Cote d'Ivoire

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