Azania – exploring cultural unity across ancient Africa

Although it is considered impolite to eavesdrop, the following conversation I overheard on my way home from work was enough to make me toy with the idea of taking the long route home instead of exiting at my usual stop.

Cultural Map of Azania © photographed by MisBeee Writes

Sitting to my right was a man – on his phone – who kept referring to Africa as Azania. And not only that, he was taking pains to explain to the caller on the other end that African unity was best achieved by applying pre-colonial pan-cultural ideals that were once prevalent across the continent.

He also added that any plan to unify the continent that does not embrace the institutions of indigenous cultures is bound to be superficial and tenuous.

Intriguing I thought and I wanted to find out more.

What’s in a name?

Azania is not a word I’d ever come across before. But its use as a cultural term goes back to the 1950s when the Pan-Africanist movement, which called for unity among colonial African states, was gathering momentum and former African colonies were moving towards independence.

At the 1958 All-African Peoples Conference hosted by Ghana’s first president Dr Kwame Nkrumah, Azania was suggested as a substitute name for South Africa.

Since then, there have been a number of movements in South Africa and beyond which have sought to re-brand the country as Azania – particularly during the apartheid era of South Africa. Some of these movements still exist today such as the Azanian People’s Organization (AZAPO), and the Azanian Students’ Organization (AZASO).

Ivorian master sculptor Kuakudili’s beard style looks familiar ©
Musée du quai Branly photographed by MisBeee Writes

But there the term Azania has other connotations for organisations, such as the Angola-based Azanian National Union. ANU is a political movement that does not subscribe to pan-Africanist ideology but aims to resuscitate the cultural institutions of the Bantu/Cushitic-Ethiopian Pharaonic culture system.

Operations in the UK are handled by ANU spokesman and culture co-ordinator Raul Diaz Guevara – the guy I heard speaking on the bus.

Indigenous population

Now there is much controversy surrounding the name Azania. A quick Google search throws up that the word is Greek. And according to a 1st century AD Greek travelogue called the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, Azania is suggested to be the littoral area south of present-day Somalia.

There are even suggestions that the ancient Azanians were not purely Nubian but were Afro-Asiatic, according to a 1993 report called the Peoples of Azania also based on Periplus’ travelogue. In an extract of the report, it says:

‘Periplus or of any distinction between the fair-skinned people of the Somali coast and the dark-skinned people south of the Juba. The implication is that Bantu-speaking people had not at this stage moved north of Rhapta [a marketplace on the coast of Southeast Africa]). The phrase ‘big-bodied’ has also been taken to refer to Cushitic-speaking people (there are survivals of Cushitic languages in East Africa).’

Later in the report it is even suggests that the east coast of Africa was colonised by Indonesians in the first five centuries AD.

Belief systems

But Raul is keen to make the distinction between indigenous Africans (or Azanians as he puts it) and those that later settled on the continent – particularly in the north. He argues that many of the cultural practices that are attributed to the Pharaonic period in Egypt are not separate form cultural belief systems of sub-Saharan African but actually have their roots there.

For example, the goddess of protection and nourishment Apet or Opet, who was thought to be the mother of Osiris, was also celebrated south of the Sahara. This Green Nile goddess, who was part hippopotamus, crocodile, lion and human, was worshipped alongside the earth god Ptah – also present in Egyptian mythology. Other deities include the Apis Bull or Black bull known in Egyptian mythology but also present in Mali, and the Black Serpent Bida also found among the Dogons of Mali.

His organisation also believes that there is nothing ethno-cultural or national about African tribes. But he believes rather, that these sub-culture groups are linked to one main culture centre based in Karnak (also called Thebes).

Ancient Ghana

Raul also explores the foundations of the Azania cultural system by highlighting the importance of the River Nile, Karnak, (Thebes) and Manfour (Memphis)  as the route along which this culture centre flourished. He also highlights the four cultural regions of Azania:

  • Nubia – covers the northern centre of Africa including Libya and part of Chad,
  • The Ethiopia region covers north-eastern from Egypt through to Kenya.
  • Ngangula – covers present-day Congo down to South Africa, and
  • Nŋhana (pronounced Nghana…the ‘g’ is very soft and nasal) – covers the north-western African region and includes present-day Mauritania and Ghana, and was founded by the Moabas – who lived in an area of Jordan east of the Dead Sea and are found in the Bible.

According to Raul, the Azanian culture centre of the Bantu-ethiopians Pharaonic kingdom was in Karnak (Thebes) but a Greek-Assyrian invasion and occupation led to the demise of Karnak. This led to the relocation of the national culture centre to Meroe.

Following the demise of Meroe, Azanian national culture was relocated to Nŋhana in 1AD. Nŋhana existed for almost 1,400 years and predates Arab arrival in northern Azania. It was considered to be the last refuge of the retreating custodians of Azanian national culture following the demise of Meroe, Raul said.

Nŋhana’s capital was Kimbe Salah/Saleh and its economic relations stretched as far as Portugal and Spain. People from Europe and Asia are believed to have studied philosophy, law, maths and medicine at tertiary institutions in ancient Ghana.

Video blog interviews

Raul stresses the importance of the River Nile in cementing the link between Africans in the north and those further south. He argues in his paper Pan-Africanisms – a contorted delirium or pseudonationalist paradigm? that the Ritual of Resurrection and twin culture process of mummifying dead Pharaohs exemplifies the cultural links between north and southern Africa.

In the Ritual of Resurrection, the journey that started at the Great Nile and ended at the source of the river in the Congo belt – reflected a symbolic return to the ancestors. He also suggests that the seven Hausa states have a cultural link to the Cushitic-Ethiopian Pharaonic culture system.

I have attempted to capture some of this information in a four-part interview with Raul, starting  here.

In the vlog, Raul elucidates on the significance of the Mountain of the Moon – an ancient term used to describe the mountain range in East Africa as the source of the Nile River.

Discussion in part 2 here turns to the Moors and explores the importance of the River Nile as a source of huge cultural significance for Africans (Azanians) And in part 3 here Raul explains the cultural unity between northern Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa. In part 4 here, he outlines why, in ANU’s view, attempts at African unity are resulting in civil unrest.

by Kirsty Osei-Bempong


For more blogs like this, check

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A podcast: Tudor England’s African connections with historian Onyeka

Tudor England II: England’s African connections

Gold Coast: a lucid look into Denmark’s colonial past

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