Research Guide: Peoples and Cultures of Africa

Overview of Ethnic and Language Groups

Depending on how one defines the boundaries between one language or ethnic group and another, there are nearly 2,000 languages spoken in Africa, each the mother tongue of a distinct ethnic group.

Note the terminology.

Words like “tribe” and “dialect” can be pejorative if used incorrectly. People in Africa cannot be described as being members of “tribes” or speaking “dialects” any more than a European could be described as belonging to the French “tribe”, or speaking the German “dialect”. “Ethnic conflict” in the former Yugoslavia, “religious strife” in Northern Ireland and “tribal warfare” in Rwanda all mean the same thing: people of different ethnicities, languages, religions or beliefs killing each other for reasons no outsider can understand.

Determining the correct name is the essential first step in research. For instance, Fula, Fulani, Fulbe, Peul, and Pullo are all terms used to refer to the same ethnic group in West Africa. The people call themselves Fula. Their Hausa neighbors call them Fulani. The phonemes “p” and “f” are interchangeable in Fula speech, so outsiders may hear and transcribe words differently, for example, Fula and Pullo. The Fula people were colonized by both the French and the English, and this led to orthographic variations such as Peul. Just to make things interesting, there are subgroups of the Fula, such as Bororo or Wodaabe which are also used as subject headings.

This is not just an interesting bit of academic trivia.

Nomenclature affects the search terms you choose for research in electronic databases, on the Web, and even in printed indexes and bibliographies. If you go to any library catalog — at BU, elsewhere or on World Cat — and put in a subject search for Peul, you will be directed to the established subject heading Fula (African People) or Fula (African Language), and thus to the works in the collection. Libraries take great care to determine the most accurate term and establish that as the subject heading, with cross references from other terms. Most indexes and Web search engines only match your search term with words used in the text.

If you use Peul as a word search in the catalog, you will only get works in French, and will only find other works by looking at the subject headings and following up Fula (African People). In an index, you will not be as likely to find cross references, and might zero out, even though there are citations that could be of great interest to you. They are just hidden because you haven’t matched the term used in the title, abstract or text of the article.

Arm yourself with a list of all the possible variations on the name of the ethnic group and its language before you start searching in indexes. Being prepared is half the battle when it comes to research.

Ethnic Groups of Africa

Finding works on African ethnic groups in the Catalog

Start with the name of the ethnic group, for example, Zulu. Most works will be grouped under the subject heading Zulu (African People), but doing the more general search may yield many interesting works. If you can’t find any entries under the form of name you have, check reference books to determine other possible terms used to indicate this group. Also try a Word search to catch books that use the term in the title. The subject headings for any books you find can help to expand your search. If you know what nation or nations they inhabit, try the country name and ethnology.

Finding works on African ethnic groups in the Stacks

A great many of the works on African peoples will be found in the classification range of GN, particularly in GN 643 – GN 661, and GN 861 – GN 865. Browsing these stack areas can be helpful, but books may also be found in the DT section, and in many other call number sections. The best way of finding books is through a catalog search.

One of ASL’s archival collections is the Yoruba collection of William and Berta Bascom, two anthropologists and folklorists who did extensive work among the Yoruba people of West Africa, principally Nigeria. The guide to this collection is: The Yoruba Collection of William and Berta Bascom from the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. Guide to the Microfiche Edition. (Afr. St. DT 515.45 Y67Y65 1993)

The microfiche set is in the Microfroms Library in the basement of Mugar Library.

Reference Works for African Ethnic Groups

Cultures and societies of Africa. Edited by Simon and Phoebe Ottenberg. New York, Random House [1960]
GN643 .F60

Encyclopedia of African Peoples. New York: Facts on File, 2000. An A-Z list of African ethnic groups with cross-references to variant spellings and form of name. Maps and numerous illustrations of people, structures, and artifacts make this comprehensive work especially valuable.
Afr. St.DT 15 E53 2000.

Ethnographic Survey of Africa. London: International African Institute. 1950-1974. 60 monographs in seven parts of Africa. The Ethnographic Survey of Africa, published in London by the International African Institute in the mid-1950s, is an enormous multi-volume work which brings together ethnographic studies of many African peoples.
GN643 F50 EC pt 1 – GN643 F50 W pt. 7

Human Relations Area Files. (HRAF). Designed specifically for comparative research, these files contain references to books and articles about over 300 cultures worldwide. Outline of Cultural Materials (Mugar Micro Z 5111 M86 1982M) assigns a numeric designation to more than 700 categories of human culture. It is used in conjunction with Outline of World Cultures to locate materials in the HRAF archive. See HRAF Research Guide for a list of African peoples described.

Levinson, David. Encyclopedia of World Cultures. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1991-96 10 vols (vol. 9 Africa and the Middle East. Indexes in 10th volume). Mugar Ref GN 307 E53 1991

Moss, Joyce and George Wilson. Peoples of the World. Africans South of the Sahara. Detroit, London, Gale Research, 1991, 443 pp.Divided into “Old Cultures” “African Societies Today” and “The New African Countries Today”. Covers the most important culture and countries of Africa. Bibliography, glossary and index. Afr.St. DT14 M68 1991

Murdock, George Peter. Africa: its peoples and their culture history. New York, McGraw-Hill, 1959. Murdock compiled this handbook from existing published sources because he could find no other satisfactory outline of the peoples of Africa. View it online  or in print 

Peoples of Africa. Edited by James L. Gibbs, Jr. New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston [1965] DT15 F65

Peoples of Africa. introd. by John Middleton. New York : Arco Pub. Co., 1978. GN645 .P3

Yakan, Mohamad Z. Almanac of African peoples & nations. New Brunswick, N.J. : Transaction, c1999. DT15 .Y35 1999

Languages of Africa

Finding African Language Materials in the Catalog

Start with the name of the ethnic group followed by the word language, as in Yoruba language. You may also find useful information by using the country name followed by the word language, as in Nigeria language. This will catch works on the languages of Nigeria, as well as subjects related to language in Nigeria.

Finding African Language books in the stacks

The African Studies Library has always collected extensively in works in and about African languages, even before the African Studies Center undertook the teaching of African languages in 1978. Dictionaries, grammars, linguistic studies and readers and general works in the languages are collected. Browsing the shelves of the African languages and literature section (PL 8000 – PL 8800; Arabic: PJ 6000-8499; Ethiopian languages: PJ 8991-9290; and Somalian languages: PJ 2531-2551) reveals some of the extent of the collection.

Reference Works on African Languages

African Language Materials in the Boston University Libraries is a guide to this library’s holdings.
Afr. St. Z 7106 A55 1988

Atlas of Africa was published in Paris by Jeune Afrique in 1973. Although now considerably out of date, this remains the best atlas of the continent of Africa available. A more recent edition, smaller, with text in French, and maps of inferior quality, is far from a satisfactory replacement. Particularly useful are the continent-wide maps illustrating historical events as well as physical, social, and economic geographical features. Includes maps of the entire continent showing ethnic and language locations.
Afr. St. G 2445 F72 1973

Dalby, David. Language Map of Africa and the Adjacent Islands. London: International African Institute, 1977, 63 pp. Includes a discussion of classification and an alphabetical index. There are 4 maps of various scales.
Afr. St. G 8200 E3 1977 D25

Ethnologue. Languages of the World. 13th ed. Dallas: Summer Institute of Linguistics. Subdivides by major region then by country and finally by language. Gives alternate designations and subdivides by language group.
Afr. St. P371 E83.

Fivaz, Derek and Patricia E. Scott. African Languages; A Genetic and Decimalized Classification for Bibliographic and General Reference . Boston: G.K Hall, 1977. Attempts to reconcile Greenberg, H. E. Bliss, Dewey, Library of Congress and the Universal Decimal System.Part 1 is the classification schedule. Part 2 is an alphabetic index with many variants of the language names keyed to the classification scheme. Language family trees are included. Afr. St. Z697 A33 F58

Greenberg, Joseph. The Languages of Africa (PL 8005 F63) hypothesizes five major “families” of African languages, and is considered the classic work on the classification of African languages.

Mann, Michael and David Dalby. A Thesaurus of African Languages. A Classified and Annotated Inventory of the Spoken Languages of Africa with an Appendix and Their Written Representation. London., Munich, New York, Paris: Hans Zell, 1987. A departure from traditional classification, this work attempts to show relationships between languages based on the perceptions of their speakers. The orthographic devices, font style and peculiar convention of putting the entire text in lower case detracts from the utility of this major work. Contains a classified inventory, a listing by country, a section on writing systems, bibliography and index.
Afr. St. PL8005 M36 1987

Bibliographies and Indexes

Africa Bibliography. An annual index of 700 journals with articles dealing with Africa. Afr. St.

“African Bibliographies.” Britz, Daniel A. And Hans E. Panofsky. In Anthropological Bibliographies: A Selected Guide.
Mugar Ref Z5111 A57M

Hendrix, Melvin K. An International Bibliography of African Lexicons. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1982, 348 pp. Over 2600 entries listing dictionaries for 600 languages and 200 dialects.
Afr. St. Z 7106 H45 1982

International African Bibliography indexes books and conference proceedings as well as journals.
Z3503 .F71

International Bibliography of Social and Cultural Anthropology Bibliographie Internationals de Anthopologie Social et Culturelle. London : Tavistock Publications ; Chicago : Aldine Publishing Company 1955-1995. Annual.
Mugar Ref Z 5111 F58

Meier, Wilma. Bibliography of African Languages. Wiesbaden: Harrasowitz, 1984, 888 pp. Over 2,000 entries with many indexes.
Afr. St. Z 7106 M44 1984

Westerman, R.C. Fieldwork in the Library: A Guide to Research in Anthropology and Related Area Studies. Chicago: American Library Association, 1994, 357 pp. Africa South of the Sahara pp. 119-144. The Middle East pp. 304-311.  Mugar Ref GN42 W47 1994

Reference Guide to Africa : a Bibliography of Sources by Al Kagan and Yvette Scheven.
Afr. St. Z3501 .K15
Earlier editions of Scheven’s bibliographies of bibliographies on Africa can be found in the catalog under her name.

Popular Culture, Film, and the Media

There is a subtle but pervasive assumption that African culture is “traditional”, connected to an exotic past, and thus somehow distinct from the modern (i.e. “Western”) world. Just as the study of African literature is not simply the study of folklore, the study of African music, art, and other cultural expressions is not the just study of ethnomusicology, primitive art, etc. Nor is popular culture in Africa simply the importation of Western entertainment along with Western technology. It’s important to look at popular culture in Africa as part of a survey of the literature of the humanities.

Finding works on popular culture in the catalog

Works on popular culture in Africa are scattered through several classification areas. They can by found in the catalog by starting with the subject heading Popular Culture Africa. Works on African cinema can be found under Motion Pictures Africa, and on African theatre under Theater Africa. Substitute country names for Africa or browse through to find works which are geographically focused.

Introductions to Popular Culture

Readings in African Popular Culture, edited by Karin Barber. (PL 8010 R43 1997)

Signs & Signals : Popular Culture in Africa, edited by Raoul Granqvist. (PR 9340 S58 1990)


Africa Media Review (P 92 A35 A37)

Critical Arts (P 87 C77).


David Kerr’s African Popular Theatre from Pre-Colonial Times to the Present Day. (PN 2969 K47 1995)

The World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre. Volume 3: Africa. (Afr. St. PN 1861 W67 1994 v. 3)

West African Popular Theatre by Karin Barber, John Collins, and Alain Ricard (PN 2979 B37 1997)

David B. Coplan’s In Township Tonight! : South Africa’s Black City Music and Theatre. (ML 350 C6 1985b)

John Gray’s Black Theatre and Performance: A Pan-African Bibliography. (Afr. St. Z 5784 B56 G7 1990)


Manthia Diawara’s African Cinema : Politics & Culture. (PN 1993.5 A35 D5 1992)

Nancy J. Schmidt’s Sub-Saharan African Films and Filmmakers, 1987-1992 : An Annotated Bibliography

(Afr. St. Z 5784 M9 S32 1994)


Gretchen Walsh’s The Media in Africa and Africa in the Media : an Annotated Bibliography.
(Afr. St. Z 5634 A4 W35 1996)

Carol Lems-Dworkin’s Videos of African and African-Related Performance : an Annotated Bibliography
(Afr. St. CB 235 L46 1996)

is a database of approximately 800 ethnographic videos, ranging from documentaries to interviews to field recordings and performances. Videos can be browsed according to cultural group, anthropologist/ethnographer, geographical location, etc.



Finding African music in the catalog

Works on African music and be found in the catalog under the heading Music Africa and Musical Instruments Africa, substituting country names for Africa as appropriate.

Finding African music in the stacks

Most works on African music will be in the Music Library book stacks on the 2nd floor. Studies of African music may also be contained in works on anthropology or religion, so searching the catalog is the best strategy.

Reference Works

The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music. Volume 1: Africa (Afr. St.ML 100 G16 1998)

Ronnie Graham’s Stern’s Guide to Contemporary African Music. (Afr. St. ML 3502.5 G7 1988) , updated by The World of African Music ( Afr. St. ML 3502.5 .G73 1992)

John Gray’s African Music : A Bibliographical Guide to the Traditional, Popular, Art, and Liturgical Musics of Sub-Saharan Africa (Music Library Ref ML 120 A35 G7 1991)

Carol Lems-Dworkin’s African Music : a Pan-African Annotated Bibliography (Afr. St. ML 120 A35 L4 1991)


Chris Stapleton’s African All-Stars : the Pop Music of a Continent (ML 3760 S73 1987)

Sean Barlow’s Afropop! : An Illustrated Guide to Contemporary African Music. (ML 3502.9 B37 1995)


As with literature, music and popular culture, African art is often thought of as exotic: masks and traditional religious carvings, or design incorporated into everyday utensils, rather than in the Western concept of fine arts. This is not entirely the case, but accurate analysis of African art or not, this concept should not in anyway detract from the recognition of African art as a real and vibrant expression of ideas and aesthetics.

Finding African art in the catalog

The main subject headings for African art are : Art, African and Arts, African. For specific genres of art, use the appropriate term with Africa, as: Sculpture Africa, or Masks Africa.


Janet Stanley’s The Arts of Africa : An Annotated Bibliography. (Afr. St. Z 5961 A35 A78)


Robert Brain’s Art and Society in Africa (DT 14 B7)

Frank Willett’s African Art : an Introduction (N 7380 W55 1993)