Who is and who isn’t indigenous in Africa?

So, we are in Ethiopia. Addis! A group of Africans from 13 countries. We are discussing nomination of African heritage into the UNESCO World Heritage List. One of discussions about community engagement in heritage matters opens up an interesting topic: who is and who isn’t indigenous in Africa? An intense debate ensues. The debate is cut short due to time constraints.We do not arrive at a conclusion.

Ethiopian Cuisine

There is no universally accepted definition of indigenous peoples. The most cited one however,  was was produced but Jose Martinez Cobo, the special rapporteur of the commission of prevention of discrimination and protection of minorities. More here.

“Indigenous communities, peoples and nations are those which, having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing on those territories, or parts of them. They form at present non-dominant sectors of society and are determined to preserve, develop and transmit to future generations their ancestral territories, and their ethnic identity, as the basis of their continued existence as peoples, in accordance with their own cultural patterns, social institutions and legal system.”

This definition is quite clear as to who is indigenous in countries such as the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Preparation of Ethiopian coffee/buna

When the world discussed the ‘universal declaration  on the rights of  indigenous peoples’ the politics of indigeneity in Africa came up. To everyone’s utter amazement the Afrikaners claimed to be indigenous. Afrikaners are the architects of the apartheid regime in South Africa. Let us refresh our memories, shall we? Apartheid was  anchored on a most virulent form of racism.  The Afrikaners claim to indigeneity was founded on the fact that they had lived in Africa since the 16th century. Now,  isn’t this making a mockery of the whole process since the subjugation of indigenous people all over the world  is  understood through  racial discrimination. But I guess Afrikaners want us to  forget all the horrors (both past and present) of apartheid..rainbow nation  -Viva!  The Africans in South Africa could not even be referred to as Africans since that was too close to Afrikaner. They were collectively known as “Bantu”.

Source: http://www.jacobinmag.com

So, we have to ask ourselves  – why is it that we need a declaration on the rights of  indigenous peoples when we have the  UNIVERSAL Declaration of  Human Rights of 1948. This was meant to offer “equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.” Aren’t indigenous people human enough to be encompassed in this universal declaration?  Ideally yes but that obviously did not happen. That is not surprising because, most of the African continent was under severely oppressive and dehumanizing colonial rule up and  until the 1960’s through to the 80’s . Weren’t Africans human? So, maybe the universal declaration on human rights does not apply to these groups?



So, Afrikaners have claimed indigeneity . What to do?

The Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee(IPAC), a body that  advises the the UN on these matters, recommends that indigenous peoples in Africa will be those communities that are marginalized, either economically (especially because they are not agriculturalists), and or politically. We are talking about pastoralists and hunter-gatherer communities.

This  definition locks out majority of peoples on the continent who might be equally marginalized and in some cases even more marginalized than the hunter-gatherer or pastoralist groups. Sometimes, I think that agriculturalists are even more marginalized that pastoralists. Pastoralists have more autonomy than than say, agriculturalists who are growing cash crops for export – there is no self-determination  in cash crop farming because the farmers do not control the prices of crops.  They are glorified slaves that feed the global capitalism industry much to their detriment, that of the environment, their country and the continent at large.

Maasai Pastoralists 
Agriculturalists – tea farming 

From the face value of indigeneity (originating from a certain place), this IPAC definition does not make sense because, well, Africa is the cradle of mankind and this makes Africans more indigenous than anybody else.  In addition, given the complex migration routes around the continent there is no evidence to say that the Maasai people (pastoralists), arrived in Kenya before the Agikuyu people (agriculturalists), for example.

Naro bushman (San) women walking, Central Kalahari, Botswana
The San people – These ones are considered indigenous


One of the colleagues who contributed to the debate in Ethiopia argued that the IPAC definition is an attempt at “tarzanization of Africa”.


Is this issue worth any debating or are we trying to pound African peoples into categories into which they do not belong?  Does the categorisation of pastoralists and hunter and gatherers  as indigenous not create further schisms in a continent that is already battling with all kinds of divisions?

I am of the view that  all African peoples who cannot trace their origin to anywhere else but on the continent are indigenous.



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