10 Things Africa Has Given The World

Twitter nearly gave itself an aneurysm over Taylor Swift’s latest music videoWildest Dreams, which had all the usual cliches that make its location immediately identifiable as idyllic, romanticised “Africa”: sunsets, wildlife, safari boots and definitely no natives. You start to wonder, is that all there is to this vast continent? Are Africans good for nothing else?

So I’ve ventured into the dark recesses of the web to discover how Africa shaped our world and gave us some of our favourite things. Hold on to your pith helmets.


Italians gave it to us short and strong, Americans served it filtered then ratcheted up the calories by adding syrups, whipped cream and even pumpkin. But everyone’s favourite stimulant originates from Ethiopia, where it grows wild. It possibly dates back to the 10th century, when nomadic people would have eaten the red cherries rather than making a beverage with them.

A coffee house in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
A coffee house in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Photograph: Karel Prinsloo/AP

Modern art

Africa’s contemporary artists are having a bit of moment, but the world still largely ignores the continent’s role in inspiring celebrated artists such as Picasso, Matisse or Kirchner. In the early 1900s the aesthetics of traditional African sculpture became what the Met Museum in New York describes as “a powerful influence among European artists who formed an avant-garde in the development of modern art”.


The history of mathematics is so Eurocentric that most accounts of ancient mathematical systems seem to begin and end in Egypt. But the Lebombo bonefound in Swaziland and the Ishango bone, discovered on the border between Uganda and Zaire, both baboon fibulas, are the world’s two oldest mathematical objects – the former at least 35,000 years old. The Ishango bone may be the oldest table of prime numbers.

Mobile phones

People charging mobile phones in Hungary
The Democratic Republic of Congo holds half of the world’s reserves of cobalt, used to make rechargeable batteries such as those used in mobile phones. Photograph: Herbert P Oczeret/EPA

Not all of it, obvs, but in the inner workings of your most precious possession lie bits of the Democratic Republic of Congo in the form of the mineral cobalt, which is used to make rechargeable batteries. According to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, the DRC “holds almost half of the world’s cobalt reserves”. And that’s not all: the DRC is among the world’s largest producers of cobalt, copper, diamonds, tantalum and tin.


Yes, Nando’s, “the home of the legendary Portuguese flame-grilled peri-peri chicken” and the coveted black card. Since its humble beginnings in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1987, Nando’s blend of chicken, hot sauce and African music has spread across the globe. At last count there was a Nando’s on every continent except Latin America, some 1,000 restaurants in 30 countries. No chicken-loving nation is safe.


In the face of refugee crisis, the word “ubuntu” has never been more important. Popularised by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela as a way to heal post-apartheid South Africa, the ancient Bantu word encapsulates the idea of shared humanity: “I am, because we all are.” Here’s how theNew World Encyclopedia defines the word that is also used in Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and Zimbabwe: “It implies an appreciation of traditional beliefs, and a constant awareness that an individual’s actions today are a reflection on the past, and will have far-reaching consequences for the future. A person with ubuntu knows his or her place in the universe and is consequently able to interact gracefully with other individuals.”


It’s all about the polyrhythms – two or more different rhythms happening at the same time – which European folk music also has but African music spread. ThePulitizer prize-winning composer and author Gunther Schuller wrote that “every musical element – rhythm, harmony, melody, timbre, and the basic forms of jazz – is essentially African in background and derivation”.

But Africa didn’t only give us blue notes, it may also have given us Beethoven. This year, a group of musicians revived the question about Beethoven’s ethnicity, arguing that his piano music should be played polyrhythmically and that, as played by most classical pianists, the left hand appears to have almost no rhythm, no soul. Ouch.

Shea butter

A woman sells shea butter in a market in Abidjan, Ivory Coast
A woman sells shea butter at a market in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. Photograph: Thierry Gouegnon/Reuters

Chances are you’ve bought soap, lip balm, skin lotion or even shaving cream that contains shea butter, which grows in 19 countries across the continent from Senegal in the west to Sudan in the east. Skincare brand L’Occitane calls it“nature’s miracle beauty balm; the perfect quick fix for almost anything”. Cleopatra, who knew a good thing when she saw it (hello, Marc Antony!) is said to have used the butter, making it a very valuable commodity during her reign.

Penis transplants

After performing the first heart transplant in 1967, South African surgeons scored another first by this year carrying out the world’s first transplant of the male organ. The nine-hour operation in March 2015 allowed its 21-year-old recipient to become sexually active, and he wasted no time in proving its efficacy. In June head surgeon André van der Merwe announced that the young man’s partner was pregnant.

Jollof rice

Now that Jamie Oliver has written a recipe for Jollof, the rice dish may soon reach such dizzying heights of popularity that its west African origins will be forgotten. Just don’t ask which particular country introduced it to the world. Cameroon, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal – its origins continue to be hotly contested.

jollof rice
Jollof rice, fried plantain and chicken Photograph: Alamy

Source: The Guardian

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