Introduction to Geography of Africa

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.

Physical Geography

Africa is an enormous landmass that connects with Asia at the Isthmus of Suez and almost joins Europe at Gibraltar. Major bodies of water that border the continent are the Mediterranean Sea on the north, the Red Sea on the northeast, the Indian Ocean on the southeast, and the Atlantic Ocean on the west. Arms of the oceans include the Gulf of Aden, the Mozambique Channel, and the Gulf of Guinea.

Lying on the Equator (0° latitude) and the Prime Meridian (0° longitude), Africa is the only continent occupying part of all four hemispheres. It is also unique in that there are no deep indentations and few well-defined peninsulas. The coastline, which measures some 18,900 miles (30,400 km), is nearly everywhere regular. There are few islands. Madagascar is by far the largest island; the Canaries, consisting of 13 islands, are the largest group.

AfricaAfrica is the second largest continent. Only the continent of Asia is larger

Despite its great size, Africa does not have a great variety of physical features. Nearly the entire continent consists of vast plateaus the surfaces of which lie at varying elevations and are generally rolling to flat. Rarely are the plateau surfaces rough. The plateaus' edges, however, especially the eastern and the southern ones, are marked by sharp escarpments (mountainous walls) that descend to narrow plains along the coast. There are few broad coastal plains comparable to those of most other continents. Underlying the continent, and in many areas exposed, is an ancient block of stable crystalline rock.

Most of the wide northern part of Africa is covered by the vast stretches of gravel, rock, shifting sand, and dunes of the Sahara—the largest arid region on earth. Included in the Sahara are such smaller deserts as the Libyan and Nubian deserts in the east and the Great Eastern Erg, Great Western Erg, and Erg Iguidi in the west. Wind-scoured highlands jut above the surrounding surface in several areas. The most prominent are Tibesti and Ahaggar, in the central part of the Sahara. The land is also marked by widely separated depressions, deepest of which is Lake Assal's basin—512 feet (156 m) below sea level.

Along the southern margin of the Sahara are three immense basins: Djouf, through which runs the Niger River; Chad, containing Lake Chad; and Sudan, centered on the junction of the Blue and the White Nile rivers. Flanking all three basins are tablelands. Those inland from the Gulf of Guinea coast, such as the Fouta Djallon in Guinea and the Jos Plateau in Nigeria, have deeply eroded seaward slopes.

The Congo Basin, in central Africa, is almost surrounded by plateaus, the highest being the East African Plateau. The basin contains most of the broad Congo River valley, which narrows abruptly in the Crystal Mountains near the Atlantic coast.

East and south of the Sudan and the Congo basins are the highest plateaus on the continent. There are considerable expanses of almost level tableland in the interior, especially in Tanzania, Zambia, and South Africa. The interior's only large basin, the Kalahari, is in the southwest. Through the eastern part of the plateau region, from northern Ethiopia into Mozambique, runs the Great Rift Valley, a series of deep trenches caused by faulting, or fracturing, of the earth's surface. In several areas, steep sides of the valley appear as mountains, among which are the Ruwenzori Mountains in central Africa. Associated with the faulted valleys are numerous volcanoes, including Africa's two highest peaks—19,340-foot (5,895-m) Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and 17,058-foot (5,199-m) Mount Kenya in Kenya.

Along the east and southeast coast, high plateau edges form a series of escarpments. The loftiest of these, reaching 11,000 feet (3,350 m), is South Africa's Drakensberg. In the southwest, along part of the coast, lies the Namib Desert.


Rivers cut through all parts of the continent except the Sahara, where rains are extremely infrequent. Only the Nile—longest river in the world—survives the desert path to the sea. The well-watered equatorial regions are drained mainly by the Congo River, which carries more water than any river but the Amazon of South America. The chief river of western Africa is the Niger; the Orange, Zambezi, and Limpopo systems drain most of the south.

Many of the rivers have falls and cascades that limit navigation but provide great hydroelectric potential. Most important are Victoria Falls, on the Zambezi River, and Boyoma (formerly Stanley) Falls, a series of cataracts on the Congo River.

The principal lake region is in the Great Rift Valley, where several large, narrow lakes lie between steep valley walls. These include Lakes Albert, Tanganyika, and Nyasa (or Malawi). Lake Victoria, on the broad plateau between branches of the Great Rift Valley, is Africa's largest lake and the chief source of the White Nile. The only large natural lake outside eastern Africa is Lake Chad, on the southern edge of the Sahara. Its size varies, depending on seasonal rainfall.


Since average annual temperatures are high nearly everywhere in Africa, division of the continent into climatic regions is based chiefly on amount and seasonal distribution of rainfall. Seven main types of climate affect the continent. Four are tropical, ranging from arid to extremely wet; they cover at least three-fourths of Africa. The other three are subtropical to temperate.

Tropical Rainy

The tropical rainy climate exists in only a comparatively small part of Africa. It occurs in a band 700 miles (1,100 km) wide along the Equator, ending at the highlands of east-central Africa. There are also narrower belts along the Gulf of Guinea, which has strong monsoonal influences, and along the east Madagascar coast. These areas are extremely humid, though not excessively hot. Temperatures remain near 80° F. (27° C.), with little variation seasonally and from day to night. All months are rainy, some more so than others. Annual amounts of precipitation vary from 60 inches (1,500 mm) inland to 130 inches (3,300 mm) or more along the coasts.

Tropical Savanna

Away from the Equator rainfall decreases and a distinct dry season develops during the cooler parts of the year —the period when the sun is on the opposite side of the Equator. Lasting as long as six months, the dry period is this climate's most distinguishing feature. Rainfall totals 20 to 60 inches (500 to 1,500 mm) a year. There is a slightly greater seasonal range in temperature here than in the tropical rainy regions. Much of eastern and southern Africa has a modified savanna climate, with slightly lower temperatures because of increased elevation. This kind of climate is typical of regions with savanna-type vegetation.

Tropical Steppe

Bordering the tropical savanna is the tropical steppe climate. It is more seasonally extreme in both temperature and rainfall than is the savanna. The warmest month averages more than 85° F. (29° C.), the coolest as low as 60° F. (16° C.). Average annual rainfall varies from 10 to 20 inches (250 to 500 mm).

Tropical Desert

A relatively large part of Africa has a tropical-desert type of climate. In such a climate, temperature ranges are greatest, for the bare to sparsely covered land heats and cools rapidly under cloudless skies. Daytime temperatures during the hotter months often exceed 100° F. (38° C.); occasionally they rise above 130° F. (54° C.). The coolest month averages 50° to 60° F. (10° to 16° C.) during the day, though freezing weather may occur at night. Average yearly rainfall does not exceed 10 inches (250 mm) anywhere; some areas go without rain for years.


Mild average annual temperatures, dry summers, and moderately rainy winters are the chief marks of the Mediterranean climate. It occurs along part of the northern and southern coasts, where climatic influences from the middle latitudes are felt. During the warmest month temperatures average slightly above 70° C. (21° C.) near the coast and about 80° F. (27° C.) inland. Temperatures for the coolest month are roughly 50° F. (10° C.) and 60° F. (16° C.), respectively. The annual rainfall is about 20 to 30 inches (500 to 750 mm.)

Humid Subtropical

Part of the southeastern coast has a humid subtropical climate, which in temperature is similar to the Mediterranean type. Yearly rainfall, however, reaches 40 to 60 inches (1,000 to 1,500 mm) and is concentrated in the summer rather than the winter months.


In the highland regions, especially the loftiest sections of eastern Africa, temperatures are much lower than in areas of comparable latitude at lower elevations. This is particularly true in the Ethiopian Highlands and in some of the Rift Valley mountains. In areas of sharp relief lying in the path of moisture-bearing winds, rainfall is heavy.

Natural Vegetation

There are extensive areas in Africa where few people live and where natural vegetation and wild animals have not been disrupted by such activities as farming or the raising of livestock. In some parts of the continent large forest preserves have been established.

Tropical Rain Forests

Most of Africa's forests are tropical rain forests, or selvas. They cover less than a tenth of the continent and occur where rainfall is heavy throughout most of the year. Such a forest is made up of several layers of vegetation. The top layer consists of the crowns of trees rising 125 to 250 feet (38 to 76 m) in height; the lower layers are made up of the tops of shorter trees, shrubs, and vines. Most of the trees are broad-leaved evergreens, though some are conifers. They yield pulp, timber, and such cabinet woods as mahogany, ebony, and teak. Oil palms, rubber-producing trees and vines, orchids, and lilies are among the numerous kinds of plants found in these forests.

Tropical Savannas

Savannas, which cover probably a third of the continent, consist of areas where the ground cover is mainly grass. They are, however, dotted by woodlands, scattered trees, or shrubs, depending on the length of the dry season. Those bordering the tropical rain forests have coarse grasses up to 12 feet (3.7 m) high and large woodlands of deciduous trees. Trees of these savannas also include many evergreens found in tropical rain forests, such as oil palms, rubber trees, and African ebony trees. There are also shea trees (whose seeds yield an edible fat), baobabs, flat-topped acacias, kapok, and many trees that bear edible fruit.

Where the dry season becomes more pronounced, grass is shorter than in the more humid savannas; seldom is it more than five feet (1.5 m) high. Palms, baobabs, acacias, and such brightly flowering trees as cassias and erythrinas grow in small clumps or are scattered singly over the grassy areas.

Tropical Steppes and Deserts

Bordering the savannas in areas of increased aridity and longer dry seasons are the tropical steppes. These are regions where short grasses prevail and trees are scarce. Among the trees found here are thorny acacias, euphorbias, dwarf palms, and jujube trees. In steppes bordering on deserts—often called subdesert steppes—there are almost no trees, and the grasses grow in widely scattered bunches. After rains a thin carpet of various grasses and flowering plants springs up and thrives for several weeks.

True deserts, such as the Sahara and the Namib, have virtually no vegetation except at oases (places watered by springs or wells). Vegetation at oases includes date palms, fig trees, willows, poplars, and tamarisks.


vegetation occurs along parts of the northern and southern coasts. It consists of many kinds of shrubs and small trees, both deciduous and evergreen. Many of the plants have waxy, leathery leaves and long taproots, which enable them to withstand long, dry summers. Some are scrubby and thorny, especially the deciduous varieties. Characteristic in the north are cork oak, olive trees, cedars, and pines; in the south, laurels, cedars, and ironwood. Grasses and low flowering plants grow only during the rainy months.


In some parts of Africa, vegetation reflects highly localized conditions. Probably the most varied is the montane vegetation of highlands, particularly in Ethiopia and the mountains of the Great Rift Valley. The kind of vegetation that grows there depends on elevation, latitude, and direction of the winds.

Often the slopes are mantled by luxuriant forests, which are predominantly evergreen. Montane forests yield valuable timber and cabinet woods. Bamboo and wild varieties of coffee and banana also grow here. Giant lobelias and tree-groundsels characterize some of the montane forests of eastern Africa. At higher elevations, grasses and colorful, low-growing plants are typical. The High Veld of southern Africa is a temperate grassland between 3,500 and 11,000 feet (1,070 and 3,350 m) above sea level.

Mangrove forests occur along many parts of the African coast, but are most extensive along the Gulf of Guinea. These contain, in addition to mangrove, a variety of other trees adapted to life in muddy estuaries and tidal flats. Relatively large areas of swamp and marsh also occur along the larger rivers and lakes of western and central Africa. Papyrus, tall grasses, and lotus are the most common plants. The Sudd region of the White Nile River is one of the largest marshes in the world.

Wild Animals

Africa is rich in animal life, but the number of large game animals has been rapidly decreasing for many years. In some parts of the continent, few such animals can be found outside game parks. These parks have been established mainly in eastern and southern Africa.

Many kinds of animals are native only to Africa. Among them are such mammals as gorillas, chimpanzees, zebras, giraffes, hippopotamuses, African elephants, aardvarks, and several species of antelopes. Among large native birds are crested cranes, secretary birds, guinea fowl, and numerous species of storks, ibises, herons, and eagles. Madagascar has several kinds of animals that are not found elsewhere, including ayeayes and indris. Lemurs are found only on Madagascar and the nearby Comoro Islands. Among animals of the continent that are not found on Madagascar are elephants, lions, giraffes, and poisonous snakes.

Widely Distributed Animals

Some animals are adapted to life in more than one of Africa's climatic regions. Elephants, buffaloes, and various species of monkeys and antelopes are among mammals that are able to live in all regions but deserts. Birds that are represented by different species in two or more climatic regions include bulbuls, hornbills, francolins, and sunbirds. Some species —such as the fish eagle—are adapted to several regions.

Jackals and hyenas range throughout all regions except the tropical rain forests. Leopards live in forests and savannas. Lions and cheetahs live in various types of grasslands. The hippopotamus is found in lake and river areas in many parts of Africa. The Nile crocodile and the Nile monitor lizard also have a wide range. The rock python, Africa's largest snake, is found throughout much of Africa south of the Sahara.

Numerous kinds of fish are widely distributed off Africa's coasts and in its inland waters. Among commercially important marine life in coastal waters are barracuda, tuna, mackerel, tarpon, eel, marlin, octopus, shark, sole, sailfish, swordfish, sardines, shrimp, and clams. Edible fish found in most rivers and lakes include catfish, perch, barbel, and tilapia.

Among the hundreds of thousands of species of insects found in Africa, the mosquito is perhaps the most widely distributed. It is a major health hazard, especially in tropical Africa. The tsetse fly, which transmits disease to domestic animals and humans, is found in bush country and swamps everywhere except in very arid regions.

Animals of Certain Regions

Mammals found only in forests include chimpanzees, gorillas, okapis, pygmy hippopotamuses, and some species of wild pigs and wild cats. The forests are especially rich in reptiles, amphibians, and insects, with a number of species not found in other climatic regions. Congo peacocks and the brilliantly colored trogons are forest birds. Several colorful species of turacos (or plantain-eaters) are found only in forests.

Savannas and other grasslands are the home of baboons, zebras, giraffes, warthogs, aardvarks, rhinoceroses, and such antelopes as the eland, gnu, kob, Grant's gazelle, and Thompson's gazelle. Among the many birds of the open country are kites, cattle egrets, and most of Africa's species of weaverbirds. The brackish lakes of the plains of eastern and central Africa are frequented by flamingoes.

Ostriches and sand grouse are among birds found in the drier grasslands and steppe regions. Deserts are inhabited by hares, jerboas, foxes, wild asses, and gazelles. Several species of insects and reptiles are found only in desert regions and steppes bordering on deserts.

Economic Activities

African countries vary considerably in size, levels of economic development, rates of economic growth, economic development policies, and amounts of international trade. This variation is a result of unequal distribution of natural resources, variation in political and economic systems, colonialism, and various other historical factors in countries across the continent. South Africa has Africa’s largest economy, followed by Egypt, Algeria, Nigeria, and Morocco.

Agriculture has long been the mainstay of Africa's economy, subsistence farming being the prevailing type. It was not until the colonial period that commercial farming and mining were introduced. Under European control, Africa became a source of agricultural and mineral raw materials. In many parts of Africa, colonialism led to economic development that generally advanced European objectives, which were not necessarily suited to the needs of Africa itself.

Some diversification came with the decline of colonialism in the 20th century. Nevertheless, many countries remain dependent on the export of one or two commodities; for example, Ghana on cacao, Zambia on copper, and Gambia on peanuts. The economies of such countries are strongly affected by fluctuations in the prices of their products in the world market.

Throughout much of the continent, numerous factors hinder economic development. Among them are the pervasiveness of subsistence farming and accompanying poverty, lack of capital to invest, a shortage of skilled workers and managers, poorly developed transportation systems, and, in some areas, political instability.


Though predominantly agricultural, Africa, in comparison to its large size, has little productive farmland. Much of the land consists of deserts, steppes, and rain forests, where unfavorable climate, poor soil, or dense vegetation make cultivation difficult or impossible. Where farming is practiced, much of the land, over time, has become less productive or badly eroded through overuse and poor farming methods. In some areas, the introduction of modern methods and equipment has increased production; however, much of this improvement has been in the growing of commercial crops for export, rather than food crops. Throughout Africa, population growth has outstripped increases in output. As a result, most Africans have barely enough food to sustain themselves and many suffer from severe malnutrition.

Most farmers work small plots of land. They use primitive tools, little fertilizer, and almost no animal power. Crop yields are low and quality is generally poor. Cassava, sweet potatoes, yams, rice, wheat and plantains are among staple food crops. Cash crops include peanuts, cacao, palm nuts, cotton, tea, coffee, and sisal. Some of these crops are also produced on African- and foreign-owned plantations. Many Africans practice a shifting type of agriculture. One plot of land is used until its fertility is exhausted; then the process is repeated on another.

Farming in northern Africa is slightly more advanced than in sub-Saharan Africa, mainly because of European and Arabic influences. Especially in Morocco, Algeria, and Egypt, there is a greater use of machinery, animal power, and tools. Wheat and barley, citrus fruits, grapes, olives, and many kinds of vegetables are grown in much of this region. In some areas irrigation is important—the classic example is the Nile Valley, where cotton and grains are predominant crops.

In parts of southern and eastern Africa, especially South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Kenya, are Africa's most productive farms. Using modern methods and machinery, some farmers produce a great variety of crops, both for local markets and for export. However, even in these countries subsistence farming is the main type.

Livestock is raised in every African country; however, this activity is not prevalent in equatorial regions, partly due to the presence of disease-bearing insects such as the tsetse fly. For the continent as a whole, there are large, and nearly equal, numbers of sheep, cattle, and goats, but few pigs and horses.

Livestock raising varies from nomadic herding on steppes and deserts to commercial ranching on grasslands in southern and eastern Africa. In some savannas, herding is combined with cultivation. Livestock production varies greatly from country to country. Where commercial ranching predominates, large amounts of meat, dairy products, wool, and hides are produced. Among the peoples for whom herding is a major activity, livestock is often considered a measure of wealth and is not used commercially.


The discovery of diamonds in southern Africa in the late 19th century signaled Africa's rise as a major mineral producer. The continent supplies about half of the world's diamonds as well as large quantities of gold, copper, chromite, cobalt, manganese, antimony, phosphate rock, asbestos, and platinum. Bauxite, tin, iron ore, uranium, tungsten, lead, zinc, silver, vanadium, and coal are also mined.

In most African countries, the utilization of mineral resources has proceeded more rapidly than has any other economic activity. But mining on a large scale requires complex machinery, skilled technicians, and heavy financial investment, and few countries can afford to exploit their resources fully. The bulk of Africa's minerals, excluding fuels, is produced by four countries—South Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zimbabwe, and Zambia. From these countries come diamonds, gold, copper, cobalt, and a variety of other minerals.

Other countries that are major world producers of certain minerals include Botswana and Namibia (diamonds), Morocco (phosphate rock), Ghana (gold), Niger (uranium), and Guinea (bauxite). Nigeria, Libya, and Algeria are major producers of petroleum.

Besides its direct benefits, mining has had important secondary effects. It has introduced wage labor; encouraged road and railway building; and stimulated the development of processing industries and hydroelectric power.

Manufacturing and Processing

Industrially, Africa is the least developed of all the continents except uninhabited Antarctica. This situation is slowly changing, however, as many countries obtain financial and technical aid and establish industries. In some areas, development of hydroelectric power has been one of the chief steps toward industrialization. Among the principal power projects are the Cabora Bassa Dam in Mozambique, the Inga Dam in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Aswan High Dam in Egypt, the Akosombo Dam in Ghana, and the Kariba Dam in Zimbabwe.

Except in areas where there is heavy foreign investment, African industry is characterized by small workshops that produce relatively simple products. However, such industries as the processing of foods and beverages, minerals and the making of textiles are developing in many parts of the continent. Traditional handicrafts such as leather-working and weaving have long been major activities in northern Africa, and their importance is slowly growing elsewhere. The growth of urban areas has stimulated production of cement, bricks, and other construction materials.

South Africa is the only African country in which manufacturing is highly developed. Here a wide variety of goods—from processed foods to complex industrial machinery—are produced. Several other countries are in an intermediate stage of development, producing light industrial products mainly for consumer markets. These include Morocco, Algeria, and Egypt in the north; Nigeria in western Africa; and the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zimbabwe in central Africa.


Africa's potential fish catch is enormous; however, most nations lack modern fleets and equipment, and the overall catch is small. Traditional fishing methods predominate in most parts of the continent. South Africa, Morocco, Ghana, and Tanzania land the largest catches by tonnage.


Modern transport is poorly developed throughout most of the continent. In tropical regions, large amounts of goods are still moved by porters, canoes, and small barges. Camels and other pack animals are used in the north.

The continent has few railways. Most of them link coastal areas and ports with inland sources of mineral and agricultural raw materials; few extend far inland. Only in southern Africa are there sizable interconnecting networks. By far the most developed system is in South Africa. Railways that serve the copper-producing districts of south-central Africa provide the only transcontinental route.

Roads are far more extensive than railroads but of less use. The greater part of them are dirt trails, and even the better roads are often unusable during the rainy months. Paved all-weather roads are located almost entirely in and around large cities.

Water routes have long been used. River transport is of local importance, but in many areas is hampered by rapids. Along the coasts, goods and passengers are often transported in small vessels, such as the dhows (Arab sailing boats) of the eastern coast. There are few good natural harbors; nevertheless, numerous ports have developed along parts of the coast. With few exceptions, the principal ports lie along the Mediterranean Sea, the Gulf of Guinea, and the coasts of South Africa and Mozambique. The Suez Canal carries international traffic between the Mediterranean and Red seas.

Almost every nation has at least one domestic airline, but many of these lines are too small to operate efficiently. Most of the principal cities are served by major international carriers.

Africa ’s communication system, despite some rapid expansion in the late 20th century, is still quite underdeveloped compared to other non-African countries. The number of newspapers published in Africa has increased significantly since the 20th century, though the radio is still the most popular form of mass communication. The number of public, private, and community radio stations has also grown dramatically. Television access is concentrated in urban areas and remains unavailable in most rural regions. Motion-picture theaters are found only in cities, and few African countries have even small motion-picture industries.

Telephone service throughout Africa has improved greatly since the early 20th century, though telephone ownership remains largely concentrated in major urban centers. However, cellular telephones are increasingly common in smaller towns and villages. In the early 21st century, Africa saw the fastest growth in the cellular telephone market in the world. Computer and Internet use has also grown. However, Africa still lags behind other regions in the development of this technology. Computer and Internet access and usage is concentrated in South Africa and urban areas of western and northern Africa.


The countries of Africa usually account for about 5 per cent of the world's imports and exports. The Republic of South Africa and the countries of North Africa account for about 25 per cent of the continent's total trade. The most important trading nation of sub-Saharan Africa, after South Africa, is Nigeria. Economic cooperation among African countries is fostered by several international organizations, including the Economic Community of West African States and the Customs and Economic Union of Central Africa.

African oil-producing countries also belong to the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), a group of nations that seeks to regulate the world market for oil.

Africa’s leading merchandise exporters are Algeria, Angola, Nigeria, and South Africa. Petroleum ranks as Africa ’s major merchandise export, followed closely by agricultural products, minerals, and manufactured products.

Africa’s merchandise imports have also grown since the late 20th century, though only three countries— Egypt, Nigeria, and South Africa —collectively account for about one-third of Africa ’s total imports. Food imports are increasingly important as agricultural output has failed to keep up with population growth in many countries. Other key imports include fuel and manufactured goods.

Foreign aid to Africa includes grants, loans, and technical assistance in such areas as agriculture, education, and health care. The grants and loans come from a variety of international sources and are usually referred to as official development assistance (ODA). This aid is important for many African countries as they attempt to face their economic difficulties due in part to declining terms of trade

Foreign aid has helped African countries to promote economic and social development. But it has also had some harmful effects, as the loans have left many African countries with large debt and crippling interest payments. The bulk of Africa’s debt is held by the larger countries, including Algeria, Egypt, Nigeria, and South Africa. But in smaller, poorer African countries, the debt load has the most severe impact. These countries must reduce investment in education, health care, and other economic development to repay debt.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, international lending institutions, led by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, imposed strict conditions on African debtor nations. For example, they required borrowing countries to devalue (lower the value of) their currencies to promote exports and to reduce their budget deficits by cutting government funding of health care and education. Many experts believe that these strict conditions, called structural adjustment programs (SAP’s), hurt a number of African economies. Today, lenders have relaxed the policy of SAP’s, with the hope that African countries will return to economic growth.

The People

Africa is inhabited by members of all races, but most Africans are descendants of indigenous peoples. This group includes thousands of different ethnic groups. In the northern Saharan countries, the dominant groups are the Berbers, Arabs, and Egyptians. In some countries south of the Sahara, there are hundreds of ethnic groups, each with its own language. Some of the larger groups include the Hausa, Yoruba, and Ibo of Nigeria, the Omoro, Amhara, and Tigre of Ethiopia and Eritrea, and the Zulu of southern Africa. Bantu-speaking peoples, who belong to dozens of different ethnic groups, form majorities in several central and southern African countries. Asians and Europeans are found throughout the continent, principally in southern and southeastern Africa. Some ethnic groups in Africa are in danger of disappearing due to industrialization and the disappearance of their traditional lands. The San of the Kalahari desert are one such group.


There are more than 800 African tongues and several Asian and European languages spoken in Africa. African languages are divided into about a dozen large groups. The languages spoken by the greatest number of people belong to the Niger-Congo, Afro-Asiatic (Semito-Hamitic), Nilo-Saharan, and Khoisan groups.

Niger-Congo Languages spoken by most of the Negroid peoples of Africa, are divided into several subgroups. The largest subgroup is Benue-Congo, which includes the Bantu languages. Almost all of the African languages spoken south of the Equator are Bantu languages.

Afro-Asiatic (Semito-Hamitic) Languages spoken mainly in North Africa, but extending into eastern Africa, are divided into five subgroups: Semitic, Berber, Cushitic, Egyptian, and Chadic. (Formerly Berber, Cushitic, and Egyptian were considered part of the same subgroup, which was called Hamitic.) Arabic and Hebrew are well-known Semitic languages.

Nilo-Saharan Languages are spoken in eastern Africa and in a large area north of Lake Chad. This group includes Eastern and Central Sudanic languages and Saharan languages such as Kanuri.

Khoisan Languages are among the few non-Bantu African languages spoken in Africa south of the Equator. They are spoken mainly by the Khoi (Hottentot) and the San (Bushmen). Their most distinctive feature is the presence of a clicking sound.

Hausa, a Chadic language of western Africa, and Swahili (properly, Kiswahili), a Bantu language of eastern Africa, have become lingua francas (languages spoken widely outside their original culture groups). Both Hausa and Swahili have been strongly influenced by Arabic. Afrikaans is a language spoken by South Africans of Dutch descent. A Malayo-Polynesian language is spoken on Madagascar. English and French, the languages of the major former colonial powers. are widely used in business, government, and school.


The oldest and most prevalent religions in Africa are based on animism, ancestor worship, totemism, and other traditional beliefs. Such beliefs are found especially among the Negroid peoples south of the Sahara. Islam prevails in North Africa and much of eastern Africa. Islam was introduced into North Africa in the 7th century, and its influence began to extend south of the Sahara in the 13th century.

Christianity is strongest south of the Sahara. It was introduced into North Africa in the first centuries after the birth of Christ; the Coptic church, in Egypt, and Ethiopian Orthodox Church are the only bodies that remain from that era. Later missionary efforts—especially after the 18th century—made many Christian converts in Africa south of the Sahara. Many churches here combine Christianity with traditional beliefs, notably animism.

There is considerable variation in the traditional beliefs of the Negroid peoples of Africa. Generally speaking, religion is a vital part of everyday life. Most pervasive of the traditional beliefs is animism, the belief that every living thing and inanimate object has a spirit dwelling inside of it. Most followers of African traditional religions believe in a supreme being, who is regarded as the creator of all things.

The individual personality is believed to consist of several parts, and death is not thought to be the end of the total personality. Ancestor worship, common to most African religions, is based on the belief that the ancestors of a group—such as family, clan, or tribe—continue after their death to play an important part in the lives of their descendants.

Totemism—the belief in a mystical relationship between a group and a particular animal or plant—influences the social structure of some groups. Magic, including witchcraft, plays a large part in traditional African beliefs.


Educational opportunities vary greatly from one African country to another as a result of social and geographical influences. For example, education is hampered in Sudan because the country is large and sparsely settled, and the nomadic people speak 30 different languages. In some countries, children are kept out of school because they are needed to help support the family. School attendance is irregular in some areas because children suffer from chronic ill health caused primarily by malnutrition, malaria, and parasitic infestation. Many African peoples are traditionally opposed to formal education for girls. A few groups resist all education that is foreign to their own cultures.

Political differences are also important. Until after World War II, most of Africa was under European rule, and each colonial region reflected the educational policies of the nation that governed it. The effects of these policies have continued after the countries have become independent.

Most African nations emphasize education, and large portions of their national budgets are set aside for educational purposes. They have continued many programs begun by colonial powers and missionary groups, and initiated others. Universal, free, compulsory education at the primary level has been made a goal in virtually all the countries. The number of teacher-training, technical, vocational, and agricultural schools and colleges is continually being increased. Adult education programs stressing literacy and hygiene are expanding.

Financial and technical aid from America, Europe, and Asia has played an important part in African educational progress. In some countries, mission schools provide much of the elementary and high school education. At the university level in most of the countries, foreign instructors are common. The Peace Corps (United States) and the Volunteer Services Organization (United Kingdom) also supply primary and secondary school teachers to various African countries.

Almost every African country has a national university. The countries with the most extensive systems of higher education, each with more than 20 universities and colleges, are Egypt, Nigeria, and South Africa. Most African nations send large numbers of secondary-school, college, and graduate students abroad for their education.

Literature and the Arts

For centuries the art. music, and literature of North Africa have been an important part of world culture.

There was little recognition of the arts of Negroid Africans south of the Sahara until early in the 20th century. At that time the Fauve group of French painters became interested in West African sculpture and were consciously influenced by it. However, since the beginning of the 17th century, African folklore, music, and dance—introduced by slaves—have had an increasing effect upon culture in the Americas.

By the middle of the 20th century, the importance and the uniqueness of the African plastic arts (sculpture, pottery, and the like were widely recognized. African writers, musicians, dancers, and actors were gaining acceptance in other parts of the world. African intellectual and political leaders were interested in preserving African art objects in African museums, and in developing creative expression in schools and other cultural centers.

Traditionally, African literature (mainly in the form of songs, stories, and proverbs), music, and art are interrelated and play a part in almost every phase of life. Special music and dances are used for weddings, initiations, preparation for battle and the hunt, and healing the sick. There are songs for various kinds of work. Stories and proverbs are used to instruct the young. The various literary and art forms are also used purely for entertainment. The use of drums is widespread, although unknown to a few peoples. Other traditional instruments include the lyre, the xylophone, and several kinds of harps and wind instruments.

West African sculpture is considered to be the most important of the African plastic arts. The human body is the usual subject, but the style is seldom representational. Figures are often distorted to give them religious or emotional meaning. In modern times, most sculpture has been of wood, and the most common forms are masks used in various ceremonies. There is some metal-casting and jewelry-making. In the past, there was a considerable amount of fine work in gold, bronze, and ivory.

Among the oldest existing works of art in Africa are the rock paintings and engravings that are found in arid and highland regions from the Sahara to the Kalahari. Some of this rock art dates back to about 13,000 B.C. Terra cotta figurines from as early as 900 B.C. have been found in archeological remains of the Nok civilization in Nigeria. Also from Nigeria are the terra cotta and bronze sculptures of life (12th to 14th centuries A.D.) and the bronze sculptures of the kingdom of Benin (16th and 17th centuries).

Ways of Life

Most educated and well-to-do Africans live in towns and cities and have adopted a European style of life in regard to housing, dress, recreation, and—to some extent—food. Even country people have come into contact with Western customs and products, and their traditional habits have been modified. The return to traditional African names, dress, and customs, however, has been encouraged by rulers in many African countries to instill a sense of nationalism and pride in their peoples.

The great majority of Africans live in rural areas. A few groups—such as the Pygmies and the San (Bushmen)—live by hunting and gathering wild plants, but most Africans are farmers. Many men who work in towns spend part of their time in farming communities where their families live, and eventually return to their farm homes to stay.

Traditional African homes are built of locally available materials. Herdsmen of North Africa live in tents of cloth or skins of goats or sheep, with skins or woven rugs on the sandy floor. In the tropics and subtropics, herdsmen usually live in round huts made of wooden poles, osier (pliable twigs), and hides. Farming people tend to build square, thatched huts of wattle (wooden framework) and clay, or of sun-dried bricks. Floors may be of tamped-down earth, and may be covered with grass mats. A family dwelling usually consists of one or more one-room huts and several small granaries. Some African peoples live in villages, others live in isolated family dwellings.

The family is of great importance in African life. It is usually extended to include near relatives such as grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins. With the exception of the Berber-speaking peoples, the Pygmies, and a few other groups, most African people accept polygyny (more than one wife for each husband) as the ideal form of marriage. However, most Africans are monogamous for economic reasons and because the numbers of men and women are approximately equal. Christian Africans are monogamous for religious reasons. Bridewealth, a gift by the groom to the bride's family, is generally a required part of an African marriage.

At a certain age, often corresponding to puberty, it is common for young people to undergo elaborate initiation rites, which admit them to adult status. All the young men in a community who are initiated at the same time form an age set that lasts through life and whose members have mutual rights and obligations. Young women may have corresponding age sets. In some parts of Africa there may also be initiation into one of the men's or women's secret societies that perform certain traditional functions to keep order in the community.

Governments In Africa

Various forms of government can be found in Africa. Morocco is a monarchy. Virtually all other African countries are republics, at least in name. Their constitutions usually provide for the forms of parliamentary democracy, but many of them are virtual dictatorships. Some of these governments are based on military power; others are one-party regimes that prohibit political opposition.

The reasons for the often undemocratic nature and, even more frequently, unstable character of African governments are many. There is a high rate of illiteracy. Trained leaders are scarce. There is little unity within the countries.

When the European powers carved out their colonial empires, they drew arbitrary boundaries, often without regard for the ethnic makeup of the people. When the colonies became independent, they inherited those boundaries, so that many African countries have populations consisting of members of a number of peoples, with different languages and cultural heritages. And agitation for ethnic unity, which would require the redrawing of national boundaries, is a source of unrest.

Another problem is economic. According to 19th-century economic theory, the purpose of colonies was to provide raw materials for the industries of the colonial power. As a result, little was done to develop industry in the colonies themselves. In addition, many African countries are poor in natural resources. Both these countries and those whose resources are underdeveloped must rely on economic aid from other countries.

Almost all the African countries are members of the African Union. The AU works to promote economic and political cooperation. The AU consists of several administrative bodies, including a Pan-African Parliament and a Peace and Security Council. These bodies are set up to promote good government, justice, and peace across Africa. Almost all the African countries are members of the African Union. (See African Union.) Other inter-African organizations include the African Development Bank, Economic Community of West African States, and Southern African Development Community.