SOAS University of London

African Languages, Cultures and Literatures Section

Culture in Africa

Module Code:
FHEQ Level:
Year of study:
Year 1
Taught in:
Full Year

Please note from September 2020 this module will change to being a 15 credit module

This module investigates how Africans (on the continent and in its diaspora) and outsiders construct and perceive culture in Africa.

Africa is a continent hosting huge cultural and linguistic diversity that is tied into the wider spaces of the Atlantic and Indian Ocean. Rather than offering an exhaustive canon on culture in Africa that would be an imperial project, the module will equip students with critical tools enabling them to understand how ‘culture’ is perpetually (re)created, (re)presented and (re)appropriated, and how different perspectives create different forms of social practice and authorize some of them to stand for ‘Culture’ and ‘cultures’.

We interrogate how such essentialised collective identity can be created by fore- and backgrounding different aspects of social practice and by reframing them as indexes of identity in a dialogue between in- and outsiders, researchers and research participants, through creating contrast, similarity or alterity, being mindful of power dynamics and questioning Eurocentric notions and perceptions.

Culture in Africa is a core module for first year African Studies degree students, this module may be taken as an “open option” by other SOAS first or second year students with the consent of the module tutors. NYU and other Year Abroad students may also take this as an “open option” for Term 1 only, for term two and three or for the whole year, subject to the consent of the module tutors.

The lecturers for this module come from different academic disciplines and regional backgrounds to offer a vast and a really anchored overview of Africa’s diverse cultural landscapes.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

On successful completion of this module students will:

  • have acquired a deep awareness of the cultural diversity of Africa and its global connectedness
  • have understood differences between colonial, postcolonial and decolonial approaches to Africa and its cultures
  • have analysed colonial European framings of cultural production and their differences to other perspectives
  • have reflected on the applicability of Eurocentric categories for describing African settings
  • have explored alternative ways of conceptualizing culture(s)


Total of 22 weeks teaching with 3 hours classroom contact per week consisting of a 2 hour lecture and 1 a hour tutorial.

From 2020 Entry

Total of 20 weeks teaching with 2 hours classroom contact per week consisting of a 1 hour lecture and 1 a hour tutorial.

Scope and syllabus

  • Term 1 is dedicated to case studies on forms of religious expression and literary and musical production in a number of African and diaspora settings.
  • Term 2, we investigate different ways of recognizing and framing culture through the lens of different academic fields, and through exploring how different elements of social behaviour can turn into ‘Culture’ and become associated with an imaginary group while at the same time contributing to its creation.

Topics covered in this module will typically include the following, all based on case studies from the continent and its diasporas:

  • an introduction to perspectives on African culture(s) and colonial and postcolonial epistemes of knowledge creation
  • language(s) and culture
  • oralities and writing
  • literatures
  • philosophies
  • film, music, and/or performing arts
  • culture as heritage
  • culture as sartorial style

Method of assessment

  • One three-hour written examination taken in May/June (60%)
  • One essay to be submitted on day 1 of term 2 (15%)
  • One essay to be submitted on day 1 of term 3 (15%)
  • Two presentations to be submitted at a time agreed by the Convenor (10%) (5% for each presentation)
From 2020 Entry
  • Essay outline (20%)
  • 2000 word essay (50%)
  • One 10 minute presentation (30%)

Suggested reading

Four monographs are required readings for the module and should be read by all students during the first half of term 1. These set readings for the module reflect the diverse viewpoints from which ‘culture’ can be approached, offering insights on constructions of religion, race, gender and language:

  • Matory, J. Lorand. 2005. Black Atlantic religion. Tradition, transnationalism, and matriarchy in the Afro-Brazilian Candomblé. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
    Written by an African American anthropologist, this study of the Candomblé describes how diaspora culture is not simply related to a source culture that it ‘preserves’ under violent conditions, but how it creates networks of interaction with what becomes to be seen as the ‘homeland’, and how expression and meaning of the Candomblé are constantly negotiated under the influence of its practitioners on both shores of the Atlantic, and by those who research it.

  • Mbembe, Achille. 2017. Critique of black reason. Durham, NC: Duke University Press
    Originally from Cameroon and now teaching in South Africa and the US, Achille Mbembe has become one of the most influential political philosophers and cultural theorists of the 21st century. In this newly translated book (those of you who read French can try the original, Critique de la raison nègre), he traces notions of blackness and race back to the slave trade and the European enlightenment (hence the nod to Kant in the title) and links them to a humanist vision.

  • Buchi Emecheta. 1979 (reprint 2008). The joys of motherhood. London: Heinemann
    This Bildungsroman by Nigeria-born British novelist Buchi Emecheta is a gripping feminist account of women’s roles as set out in different cultures, contrasting rural and urban configurations and the different conceptualizations of gender and personhood in an Igbo society rapidly changing under British colonialization. It is not only a work of literature but also constitutes a woman’s view on her own society and how it culturally frames women’s roles.

  • Lüpke, Friederike & Anne Storch. 2013. Repertoires and choices in African languages. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter
    This co-authored monograph written by two anthropological linguists draws on a broad range of case studies to discuss the role of languages in expressing different aspects of identity and culture, also drawing on the colonial history of African studies and African linguistics, when flexible, multilingual practice became cast in essentialist labels.
General Additional Readings
  • Arnold, G. (2005) Africa: A Modern History
  • Chamberlain, M.E (1999) The Scramble For Africa London : Longman
  • Olusoga, David (2016). Black and British. A forgotten history. London: MacMillan
(Post)colonial theory
  • Achille Mbembe (2001) On the Postcolony
  • Anderson, B. (1983) Imagined Communities
  • Balibar, Etienne (1991) Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities
  • Bhabha, H. (1994) The Location of Culture
  • Cesaire, A. (1950) Discourse on Colonialism
  • Darian-Smith, E (1996) Postcolonialism: a brief introduction Social and Legal Studies 5 (3) 291-299
  • Gilroy, P. The Black Atlantic (1993) & Against Race (2000)
  • Fanon, F (1968) The Wretched of the Earth & Black Skin, White Masks.
  • Ranger, T. 2006 (1983). The Invention of Tradition in Colonial Africa. In: Hobsbawm, Eric & Terence Ranger. eds. The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge University Press, pp. 211-262.
  • Said, Edward Orientalism (1978) & Culture and Imperialism (1993)
  • Spivak "Can the Subaltern Speak?" (1988)
  • Wa Thiong’o, Ngugi (1986) Decolonizing the Mind: The politics of Language in African Literature.
  • Williams, Patrick and Laura Chrisman (eds) (1993) Colonial Discourse and Postcolonial Theory
  • Spivak (1999) A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present
Approaches to the study of culture in 'Africa'
  • Adejunmobi, Moradewun. 2004. Vernacular palaver. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.
  • **Asante, M. K. 'Afrocentricity and Culture', in Asante (ed.), African Culture: the Rhythms of Unity, Ch. 1. (10 pages)
  • Asante, M. K. 'The Search for an Afrocentric Method', in The Afrocentric Idea., pp. 159-181.
  • Outlaw, Lucius. 'African, African American, Africana Philosophy', in E. C. Eze, African Philosophy: an Anthology, pp. 23-42.
  • Irele, Abiola. 'In Praise of Alienation', in Mudimbe, V. Y. (ed.) The Surreptitious Speech, pp. 201-224.
  • **Irele, Abiola. "What is Negritude" & "Negritude and the African Personality" in The African Experience in Literature and Ideology. (22 + 25 = 47 pages)
  • Henderson, Errol A. Afrocentrism and world politics: towards a new paradigm.
  • Howe, Stephen. Afrocentrism: Mystical Pasts and Imagined Homes. London: Verso, 1998.
  • Soyinka, Wole. Myth, Literature and the African World, Chs. 1 "Morality and aesthetics in the ritual archetype," and 2 "Drama and the African World View."
Issues surrounding Cultural identity: Gender, Diaspora, Power and Marginality ect.
  • Abu-Lughod, L. (1986) Veiled Sentiments
  • Furniss, Graham and Gunner, Liz (1995) (eds.) Power, marginality and African oral literature
  • Hall, Stuart. (1994) "Cultural Identity and Diaspora" in Colonial Discourse and Post-colonial Theory. (eds.) P. Williams and L. Chrisman. pp. 392-403. (12 pages)
  • Mudimbe, V.Y. "The Idea of Africa" (1994) Invention of Africa (1988)
  • Oyèwùmí, Oyèrónkê. 1997. Conceptualizing Gender: The Eurocentric Foundations of Feminist Concepts and the Challenge of African Epistemologies. In
  • The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules