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Symbolism in the Pan-African Flags

Many of the flags of African countries bear a striking resemblance, repeating colors and themes so closely that it can be difficult to distinguish them. A little background on the flags and their common themes can help in understanding them and telling them apart.
If you are the sort of person who pays attention to flags, you may have noticed that the flags of many African countries are quite similar. If you aren't that sort of person, you have probably still noticed this fact on some level. Upon seeing a red, gold, and green flag, you might think, "Oh, I recognize that flag, it's from some country in Africa." If you don't live in one of the associated African nations yourself, it's perfectly understandable that you would have a hard time pinpointing exactly which country those red, gold, green, and sometimes black stripes represent.
Pan-African Colors
The reason is that red, gold, and green, along with black, are colors commonly used to represent Africa and Pan-Africanism. Pan-Africanism is the idea that African countries should embrace their mutual bond as African, perhaps uniting economically and socially, much the same way that the countries of Europe have. Although the idea does not have one official manifestation, it is an ideal that is held by a number of official organizations and promoted throughout Africa in various ways.
What is Pan-Africanism?
Pan-Africanism came about in the wake of a long history of colonization by Western powers. When the countries of Africa began to assert their independence, they also chose to assert their status as African nations, thus, distinguishing themselves from those who had oppressed them. In this spirit, Marcus Garvey, a key figure in the history of Pan-Africanism, developed the Pan-Africa flag, which consists of three horizontal bars of red, black, and green (top to bottom). Three horizontal bars of green, gold, and red comprise the Ethiopian flag, and these two flags have come to symbolize Africa around the world.
Color Meanings
As with many national flags, the colors in the Pan-African flags have important symbolic meanings. In Marcus Garvey's flag, red represents the blood connection between all Africans, black represents their skin color (although it should be noted that this is a generalization, as those from African nations may have any skin color), and green represents the African land. In the Ethiopian flag, green symbolizes land, gold symbolizes hope or peace, and red symbolizes strength.
Countries That Fly Pan-African Colors
Today, the nations whose flags are made up of the Pan-African colors are Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic (with blue), Congo-Brazzaville, Eritrea (with blue), Ethiopia (with blue), Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, São Tomé and Príncipe, Senegal, South Africa, Togo, Uganda, Zambia (with orange), and Zimbabwe. Additionally, some Caribbean and South American nations of African heritage use these colors too. Although the colors generally represent Africa, each country assigns its own meaning to the colors on its flag.
Common Themes in African Flags
In addition to the use of red, gold, green, and black, there are a number of common symbols that appear over and over again on these flags. For example, the flags of Angola, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, São Tomé and Príncipe, Senegal, Togo, and Zimbabwe all have five-pointed stars on them. The stars vary in color and location, but in shape they are identical. Uganda's, Zambia's, and Zimbabwe's flags all display birds of various sorts. Another common theme is weapons, which appear on the flags of Angola, Kenya, and Mozambique.
The Meaning of Stars
On these flags, stars have varied meanings. For example, the yellow star in the center of Burkina Faso's flag symbolizes the guiding light of the country's revolution, whereas, the yellow star in the center of Cameroon's flag stands for unity. Black stars on flags from Ghana and Guinea-Bissau represent African freedom, whereas, Zimbabwe's red star represents the country's own revolution and struggle for independence.
Other Symbols
Other symbols have meanings specific to each country. The flag of Angola displays a cog and a machete, representing the country's workers and peasants, and reminiscent of the Soviet hammer and sickle design. Kenya's shield and spears symbolize defense of the nation. In the center of Uganda's flag is a gray crowned crane, which is the country's national symbol, and is supposed to be a gentile creature.
These various symbols make it clear that each of the Pan-African nations have their own unique history and symbolism, reflected by their flag. The unity of all African nations is represented by the repeated colors and common themes, but if you learn a little bit about each country's past and about the meanings of these various flags, you will begin to distinguish them more easily. And if you still can't tell them apart, at least now you know why.