10 Elements Of African Cultures You Did Not Know

Did you know that it is hard to tell how many African cultures and traditions are currently practiced? Although there are 54 distinct African nations, the continent is home to over 3,000 tribes. Each of these tribes usually has its own unique cultures that may be distinct or overlap with each other.

Africa’s cultural manifestations can be tangible in the form of artifacts and sculptures or intangible in the form of language and greetings. Interestingly, Africans are known to carry pieces of their culture wherever they go.

According to Harvard, over 2,000 languages are spoken on the African continent. This places Africa behind Asia in terms of language diversity. Regardless of Africa’s cultural diversity, different regions of the continent often share something in common.

West Africa is known for their spicy foods. Southern Africa has a unique type of music, particularly the Zulu people. Eastern Africans are fierce hunters while North Africa is known for their elaborate dresses.

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Although the world is described as a global village, Africa has been able to preserve its culture and traditions through oral transmission from one generation to another. However, there are fears that some cultures (especially languages) are on the brink of extinction.

To prevent African cultures and traditions from going extinct, African migrants should be encouraged to practice their culture wherever they go. Well, it is likely that you may have been practicing one of the African cultures without knowing it. Keep reading to find out how.

10 elements of African culture people overlook

When people hear about African culture, their minds often imagine some passage rites or rituals. However, African culture goes beyond just that. It includes way much more and encompasses the entire belief of a group.

According to Wikipedia, “[culture is] the social behavior, institutions, and norms found in human societies, as well as the knowledge, beliefs, arts, laws, customs, capabilities, and habits of the individuals in these groups.”

From the way Africans cook their foods to the way they dance, African cultures are rich and dynamic. They are expressed through art, music, sculpture, dance, and food. If you were born and brought up in Africa, you will find it hard to let go of certain African cultures. Below are the elements of African culture that are frequently overlooked.

#1: Food

A dish common in many African traditions
The African Jollof (Photo credit: Demand Africa)

The way we prepare the food we eat says a lot about our culture. It’s a symbol of our ethnicity and a means of sometimes coping with the feelings of missing home. Each sub-region in Africa has its distinctive food and varying methods of preparation.

The Portuguese continue to influence most food in central Africa due to colonialism. Western African foods are often made from starchy plants. People in Southern Africa are known to love barbecues a lot.

Examples of commonly consumed food in Africa are Rice, Yam, Fufu, Potjiekos (a traditional Afrikaner stew). We have curated a repository of African recipes from all over the continent including a guide on how to prepare them.

If you are eating one of the traditional African food, you are practicing the African culture of the tribe that owns the food. You never thought of this, right?

#2: Dance

The Indlamu dance of the Zulu people - one of the African traditions
The Indlamu dance (Photo credit: Binoandfino.com)

Dancing has been a medium of expression for many generations. In Africa, there are different types of dance styles for various occasions. In some African communities, you can easily tell the occasion by simply looking at the dance steps.

In Africa, different regions have their distinguishing dances. Hausa women in Nigeria often dance for healing and spirit possession. In Zulu, the dance styles of young men recall victories of past wars and warriors.

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Although western dance styles and pop culture are becoming more attractive to the youths, the older generations are holding strong to their traditional dance. If you enjoy any native African dance, we want to break it to you that you enjoy an element of African culture.

#3: Beadworks

Traditional African beadwork necklace (Photo credit (earthafricacurio.com on Pinterest)

Prior to the discovery of beadworks made with synthetic materials, Africans use to make beadworks from shells, seeds, and bones. Eventually, these materials were replaced by synthetic beads imported from Europe and Asia.

In traditional African societies, beads were worn for coronations or as a sign of royalty. For example, the Igbo people of eastern Nigeria are famous for wearing red beads with what looks like tusks for coronations. It is forbidden for anyone who is not a chief to wear them.

For the Zulu and Massai people of southern Africa, beadworks say a lot about the wearer. For example, the colorful beaded bib worn around the neck can disclose the marital status and age group of the wearer.

Sadly, millennials often wear them now for fashion, especially when they are miles away from their home country. It is not surprising that people often mistake this African tradition for another fashion trend. If you were one of them, you know better now.

#4: Respect

A show of respect, which is one of the African traditions
A show of respect to elders (Photo credit: Thisisafrica.me)

The African continent puts so much value on respect for elders. The Yorubas in the southwestern part of Nigeria consider it taboo if a man can’t prostrate to greet an elder or a woman can’t kneel to greet an elderly person.

Many believe that giving respect to adults is a blessing for long life and a testament to how you would be treated when you reach old age. The African tradition of respect has existed for ages and is upheld by successive parents.

Therefore, it is not surprising that Africans in the diaspora often send their children home to learn respect. This exaggerated emphasis on respect for elders has become an African culture in its own rights.

#5: Sculpture

African sculptures of some African Traditions
Picture of African sculptures  of a man and woman (Photo credit: LiveAuctioneers on Pinterest)

African sculptures are carved from wood, stones, and sometimes metal. They are often abstract figures that are meant to portray a miniature representative of real-life people or spirits.

Many African arts and sculptures are scattered all over museums in Europe and beyond. A vast majority were looted from Africa during the colonial era. African sculptures have a lot of cultural significance. For example, African deities are represented by stone, wood, or metal carvings.

Therefore, it is not surprising that many African countries are working hard towards the repatriation of their stolen artifacts. Africans in the diaspora often carry that African tradition with them by decorating their homes with sculptures.

ALSO READ: Here Are 10 Looted African Arts That Will Be Returning To Africa

#6: Religion

A religion in one of the African traditions
Traditional African religion (Photo credit: mrowl.com)

Africa has diverse faiths and beliefs. Unlike popular opinion, before the colonial era, many Africans believed in the existence of a supreme being. However, some cultures say the creator withdrew himself after creation, and they connect with him through rituals and sacrifices.

Examples of some African gods are Amma, Sango, and Mulungu. Most Africans grew up believing in a spiritual being that watches over them and gives them a sense of guidance in life. There are often traditional rites offered at different times for some of these gods.

Inasmuch as western religion now dominates the African continent, there are still Africans that hold on to their traditional religion. Many traditional religious rites are still in practice in different African countries to this day.

#7: Music

African instruments from one of African traditions
African instruments (Photo credit: Paul Joseph on UBC School of Music)

African music has evolved over the years. Hitherto, African musical instruments were made from sticks, animal skins, and animal horns. African music is distinct compared to music from other cultures.

ALSO READ: 9 Traditional African Music Instruments And Their Origin

You will hardly find a serious African traditional celebration that doesn’t include an elegant musical display. They say music is food for the soul—and it is definitely one of the ways Africans in the diaspora connect to their roots.

#8: Language

Swahilli language
English translations in Swahili (Photo credit: empoweryourknowledgeandhappytrivia on Pinterest)

The idea of a language is for easier communication and creating a meaningful bond between its speakers. It is a general African belief that words said in local dialects or languages are more powerful than those spoken in a foreign language.

The Swahili language gave the world “Hakuna Matata” popularized by the “Lion King” Movie. When you say ‘Hakuna Matata’ and don’t worry, although they mean the same thing, the local dialect carries more weight.

ALSO READ: How To Say “I Love You” In 20 Popular African Dialects

Therefore, wherever Africans go, they always strive to speak their local dialects. If you say language is the most versatile African tradition, you won’t be wrong.

#9: Dressing

African dress which is part of the African traditions
An African dressing style (Photo credit: DHgate.com)

Clothing in Africa varies from locally made “Adire,” popularly known as tie and dye, to embroidered clothes and brightly colored Ankara. African clothes are peculiar and easy to identify because of their brightness and elegance.

Native African clothes have become an easy means of cultural identification anywhere in the world. To date, African clothing is one of the African traditions that enjoy massive acceptance around the globe.

It is possible to guess with a high level of accuracy the part of Africa that someone belongs to by looking at their cloth. Did that catch your curiosity? Look at one of our previously published posts on traditional African clothes for more details.

#10: Hairstyles

African hairstyles
African hair braiding styles (Photo credit: StayGlam)

In traditional African cultures and societies, hairstyles can signify spirituality, tribe, position, or societal status. Just like clothing, you can read off a lot from a woman’s hairstyle or guess her ethnicity. We talked about it in detail in our previously published post on African hairstyles and their origin.

Some Africans in the diaspora have been worried that they don’t know how to connect with their motherland. Well, everytime you wear your native hairstyle, you are indirectly celebrating your culture.

Again, the African culture on hairstyles is gradually being watered down. Today, women mix their traditional hairstyles with contemporary hairstyles to create trends. Nevertheless, hairstyle is a regularly underlooked element of African culture.


We hear a lot of Africans in the diaspora talk about finding ways to connect with their African roots. They complain that they don’t know how to uphold their African cultures in a foreign land. Well, in reality, you are upholding African cultures without even knowing it.

Nevertheless, Africans in the diaspora need to understand that they play an essential role in representing their roots and popularizing their African traditions. Start by teaching your kids what you learned from your parents.

Then proceed by confidently wearing your native clothes and hairstyles. The more popular African traditions become, the less pressure future generations will face to change who they are.


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