Africa, a continent, second in size only to Asia. For centuries it was known as the “Dark Continent,” since except for its coastal regions little was known of the land. Penetration of the interior was long hampered by Africa's vast deserts, dense tropical forests, and rivers that are difficult to navigate near the coast.

Not until the latter half of the 19th century did foreign explorers reach deeply into the interior. About the same time, Africa was being carved into colonies by various European powers, notably Belgium, Germany, Great Britain, France, Italy, Portugal, and Spain.

Though national control and boundaries of colonies changed from time to time, the continent remained under colonial rule until roughly the middle of the 20th century. Many new African nations then emerged.

With independence came many internal problems. One of these is how to achieve governments and economies that are stable, productive, and efficient. A second problem is that of handling racial, tribal, or socioeconomic differences. A third is how to raise health and education standards. In many parts of the continent development has proceeded slowly; in others, with unexpected speed. Independence in many countries has been marked by strife and overthrow of constitutional government.

Facts in brief about Africa
Area: 11,675,000 mi2 (30,238,000km2). Greatest distances—north-south, 5,000 mi (8,047 km); east-west, 4,700 mi (7,564 km). Coastline—22,921 mi (36,888 km).
Population: Current estimate—958,772,000; population density, 82 per mi2 (32 per km2).
Elevation: Highest—Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, 19,340 ft (5,895 m) above sea level. Lowest—Lake Assal in Djibouti, 509 ft (155 m) below sea level.
Physical features: Chief mountain ranges—Ahaggar, Atlas, Drakensberg, Ruwenzori, Tibesti. Chief rivers—Congo, Limpopo, Niger, Nile, Orange, Zambezi. Chief lakes—Albert, Chad, Nyasa, Tanganyika, Turkana, Victoria. Largest deserts—Kalahari, Namib, Sahara.
Number of independent countries: 53.