Africa is where humankind was born, about 5 million years ago. It’s a vast continent and boasts a huge diversity of people and a fascinating history.
Africans are storytellers and the folklore is incredible. Not only from country to country, but within each country, the people speak different languages, practice different religions, sing different songs, dance different dances and make different art. It's a cultural smorgasbord.
Cultural traditions of the indigenous population date back many thousands of years, and in more ‘recent’ years, outside influences have added more layers. Arabic, Indian and European immigrants brought with them more flavours, traditions, religions and art.
In this blog we’ll touch on just a couple of the cultural highlights in the countries our safaris visit.
Origins Of Humankind
Origins Centre, South Africa
If you are interested to learn about where exactly humankind came from, Johannesburg is the place to be. The Origins Centre in Braamfontein is a fabulously-designed interactive museum that details the history of modern mankind. If you’re curious to know your very own origins, you can even have your DNA tested here!
While in central Johannesburg, take a trip into Fordsburg – go with someone who knows the area – and visit the Oriental Plaza. Get a glimpse of the Indian influences on Africa and shop until you drop. Be sure to try the samoosas and bunny chow at The Golden Peacock!
Cradle of Humankind, South Africa
A little outside Johannesburg lies the Cradle of Humankind and Maropeng where over a thousand hominid fossils were found. While there, visit the Sterkfontein Caves, and marvel at its fantastical stalactites and stalacmites. Make a day of it and have lunch on the deck of the Tumulus Restaurant with its spectacular views across to the Witwatersberg and Magaliesberg mountains.
Living Museums, Namibia
Like all African countries, Namibia has many tribes of people who make up its indigenous people, each with different and fascinating cultures and traditions. The Living Culture Foundation of Namibia has established five Living Museums.
The goals of the foundation are three-fold: the conservation and transfer of traditional culture, the creation of an income source in local areas in Namibia and the development of a cultural and intercultural educational institution.
At each Living Museum, or village, the visitor is offered a glimpse into how life was (and still is) lived traditionally – from fire-making to hunting to dancing and story-telling.
Great Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe
Built between the 11th and 14th century, these incredibly well-preserved ruins are the biggest in Sub-Saharan Africa and second-oldest to Mapunguwe in South Africa. Made up of three distinct areas, they cover over 7 km2. The structures, walls and sculptures, made mostly of granite, are intricately put together without mortar. They are, in short, an architectural and archaeological wonder.
The area around Great Zimbabwe is thought to have been occupied by the Gokomere people - from whom the Shona people are descended - from as early as 500 AD. They were cattle-herders and metal-workers with strong trade links to Persia, India and China. It is thought that up to 20 000 people occupied the area at its height.
The actual buildings are thought to have been built between the 11th and 14th century and were then abandoned around the 16th century. Go early and take a hat and water - it's hot out there!
Kuomboka Ceremony, Zambia
This ceremony, still practiced each year, at least 300 years since it was first done, is the perfect example of African ritual. Each April, before the big rains flood the plains, drums reverberate through Lealui. It is time for the Litunga – Lozi king – to move from the palace on the Barotse Floodplain to the palace at Limulunga, on higher ground.
The royal entourage travel by barge up the great Zambezi River, the King’s painted black and white, with an elephant replica on it, his wife’s with a cattle egret. They are followed by an array of other boats, all accompanied by drumming and singing.
Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania
Also known as Oldupai Gorge, and situated near the Ngorongoro Crater, over 60 hominim fossils have been found at this World Heritage site. It’s a steep-sided ravine and treasure trove of archaeological finds.
There are a number of exhibits of fossils and artefacts at the Olduvai Gorge Museum and Visitors Centre. Here you can see and touch a cast of the actual footprints made by our early human ancestors, which were discovered in the gorge.
Olpopongi Maasai Cultural Village, Tanzania
Learn about the incredible Maasai tribe with their regal warriors and ancient traditions at this reproduction of a Maasai village. The Olpopongi Village is run by the Maasai and a visit can include an overnight stay in a Maasai hut.
The village includes a museum detailing the fascinating history of the tribe.
Located 70 km away from Nairobi – be warned, the road may be a little rough – lies the site known as the ‘Factory of Stone Tools.’ Here at Olorgesailie, the largest collection of prehistoric man’s tools have been excavated.
There is a museum and walkway through the actual dig site. You’ll be treated not only to the tools, but numerous animal fossils, including prehistoric hippos and elephant. Fascinating stuff.
The continent of Africa offers art everywhere you look. Here, it's not necessary to go into galleries to see incredible beadwork, paintings, textiles and sculptures.
Art, and incredible craftmanship, runs in Africa's blood and shows in markets, on street corners and urban walls, at the side of rural roads - it's everywhere.
There are fabulous galleries and art centres, too, a handful of which we detail below.
Iziko South African National Gallery, South Africa
If you’re looking for art, the Iziko South African National Gallery, situated in The Company’s Garden in Cape Town is the place to go. The gallery houses collections of South African and European artworks and has rotating exhibitions of contemporary South African artists.
Amble down Government Avenue, pop in at African Image (cnr Burg and Church St) to buy fabulous African goodies to take home and head on to Greenmarket Square.
Take a walk down Long Street and experience its multi-cultural bustle. If you’re looking for a traditional lunch, why not try Mama Africa in Long Street? If you go for supper, you'll be treated to a traditional marimba band.
San Art, Namibia
Some of the best San art sights are found in Namibia. These ancient carvings and paintings on the rocks of the desert depict scenes from life over 6 000 years ago.
At Twyfelfontein, over 2 500 engravings and numerous paintings are found. The five-toed Lion Man and the five-horned giraffe are found here. They are thought to be depictions of creatures from the spirit world as witnessed during a trance state. The San people reach this state by dancing and hyperventilation.
Kuru Art, Botswana
Just past Ghanzi, on the A3, lies the tiny village of D'Kar. It is here that Kuru Art Project has its home. San artists, all of whom grew up in the Kalahari, weave their magic combining contemporary art materials with traditional methods, ancient tales and different media.
The result is a beautiful array of art, from textiles to linocuts to oils on canvas. The project has been running for over 25 years and has had over 150 exhibitions in more than 15 countries.
Situated at Mua Mission in the hills above Lake Malawi, the Kungoni Centre gives the visitor a display of both traditional and modern Malawian art.
At the Chamare Museum, the culture of the local Chewa, Ngoni and Yao people is chronicled. This includes a fantastic display of Gule Wamkulu masks which are/were used in Malawian storytelling. If you time it right, you may also catch a performance of the Kungoni Dance troupe on the bwalo (dancefloor) next to the museum.
There is also a lodge and restaurant at the Kungoni Centre, and campsites in the gardens.
Shanga River House, Tanzania
Outside Arusha, on the Dodoma Road lies Shanga River House. Started in 2006 by Saskia Reichsteiner who made necklaces using African beads and fabric, she initially employed a deaf woman to help her. She soon realised the difficulties facing the disabled in Tanzania.
The business grew exponentially and now provides employment to many disabled people. Making environmentally-friendly products – beadwork, clothes, glasswork and jewellery - the centre now boasts the workshop, three boutiques and an open-air restaurant.
Its ethos: “Kindness is a language blind people can see and deaf people can hear.”
Nairobi Gallery, Kenya
Situated in the beautiful old colonial building that housed the Old PC's Office, the Nairobi Gallery showcases a range of Kenyan arts.
The gallery houses collections of old Kenyan art and changing exhibitions of both old and contemporary art.
Modern Art Galleries, Kenya
There's a great, ever-evolving, art scene in Kenya, with numerous interesting galleries that showcase Kenya's talented artists.
One of the oldest galleries, One Off, is in a fantastic building set under towering eucalyptus trees. They showcase some of Kenya and East Africa's best-loved and upcoming artists.
A newer kid on the block, The Shifteye Gallery is an exciting place incorporating an art gallery, photographic studio and event space. They cater for a wide array of cultural activities - art exhibitions, photography, fashion events, musical performances and creative performance pieces. It's fun and fresh here.
Even if you're not in Nairobi, there's art to be seen. Frolicking in the sea at Diani Beach? Don't forget to pop in at Diani Beach Gallery to view some gorgeous Kenyan art works.
As we said above, this is just a tiny peep into what Africa has to offer, culturally. It's honestly an art-and-history lover's paradise.
Somewhere you went that got your artistic heart aflutter? Tell us in the comments and we'll add it in!