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Introductory note

The short general notes below are largely based on the Wikipedia entry on Africa[1]. For more information on the features and history of the continent as a whole, go there. The discussion of the implications for theatre and performance studies below however are by the editor of ESAT.

General features

Africa, widely regarded within the scientific community to be the origin of humans, is the world's second-largest and second most-populous continent, after Asia. At about 30.2 million km² (11.7 million sq mi) including adjacent islands, it covers 6% of the Earth's total surface area and 20.4% of the total land area. With a billion people (as of 2009) in 61 territories, it accounts for about 14.72% of the world's human population.

It is possibly the most multilingual continent in the world and by most estimates, well over a thousand languages are spoken in Africa (through (UNESCO has estimated around two thousand). Most are of African origin, though some are of European or Asian origin (e.g. local versions of English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, etc.), or languages that developed out of European and Asian contact (e.g. Afrikaans in South Africa). It is not rare for individuals to fluently speak not only multiple African languages, but one or more European ones as well.

The continent is also perhaps one of the most diverse culturally, with the many languages mentioned above representative of an equal number of culturally specific groups or tribes, who have distinct and often unique cultural practices and forms.

The continent straddles the equator and encompasses numerous climate areas; stretching from the northern temperate to southern temperate zones. At present it has 54 sovereign states, including Madagascar, various island groups, and the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, a member state of the African Union whose statehood is disputed by Morocco.

Implications for theatre, film, media and performance studies

The first and perhaps most important observation to make, given the variety, size and cultural diversity outlined above, is a question one may ask about "African theatre, namely "What Africa are you talking about?" It is one often asked by a number of commentators, one of the more critical being the Nigerian born author and academic Kole Omotoso (See for example Hutchison and Omotoso. 1995.) The fact is that there are a multitude of "Africas", each with its own particular cultural, social, political, economic, ethical and other characteristics - and ipso facto, its own traditions, conventions and functions of and for theatrical performance.

The second obeservation has to do with the rather dated notion that Africa did not have a tradition of theatre (or the idea of theatre), and that many African languages did not have a word for it. This stance assumes that theatre - as a cultural practice - was brought to the continent in the period of colonization by European settlers. But this belief is this is patently absurd, for it totally ignores the nature of theatre and performance as we see them today, as well as the growing archaeological evidence. For example, it is widely believed that the first human beings almost certainly came from the continent, and these peoples (e.g. the San in Southern Africa) (See Khoisan Theatre) had a long narrative and dance tradition, as evidenced by age-old rock paintings containing drawings and other physical indications. In addition, the northern regions, notably Egypt, abutted the European continent and yet are part of Africa.

However, there is a long history of the erasure of African achievement in favour of European benevolence and beneficence, it is has long been a fundamental part of the skewed history of the arts and cultures of the continent, an attitude that to this day still requires energy and vigilance to oppose, reinterpret and rectify.

(For more on these points, see African and African theatre)


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