Africa Overview

  1. Physical Characteristics
  2. Historical development
  3. Human Environment


Physical Characteristics

Africa is the second largest of the continents, containing one-fifth of the earth’s entire land surface. African landscapes and resources vary regionally due to contrasts in relief, geology, and climate. The Southeast is largely high plateau country, the Northwest is mainly plain with shallow river basins, and desert. The Sahara occupies about half of the continent north of the equator. There were also large interior lakes from when there was one large continent that have dried up. A line from Angola to Ethiopia divides the continent into High and Low Africa. High Africa is mainly above 1,000m (3,300 ft) with the exceptions of Somalia, the lowlands on either side of the Mozambique Channel, and narrow coastal plains and river valleys. Even the Kalahari Basin is at more than 1,000m above sea level. Low Africa is largely made up of sedimentary basins and upland plains 150 to 600 m in altitude, with land above 1000m confined mainly to mountains. Another characteristic of Africa is the lack of large mountainous ranges. This is because the other plates have moved away from Africa. The only exception is the Atlas Mountains in the far north. The physical features of Africa are not unchanging. The continent itself is mobile. Tectonic activity is mainly in the East where a separation is occurring around the Great Rift Valley. The other plate is moving to the east, away from Africa. We can also find some volcanic activity (e.g. Kilimanjaro).

The Equator bisects Africa, with Tunis 2,400 miles to the North and Cape Town 2,600 miles to the South. This gives the continent certain symmetry in the pattern of climate, vegetation, and soil. Virtually all classifications of the Koeppen Climate Classification system are found on this continent. The hot and humid equatorial climate varies gradually moving away from the equator, becoming drier and giving way to the grasslands of the Savanna. Moving poleward, we find the tropical steppe and beyond it the desert: The Sahara in the North and the Kalahari in the South. The extreme North and South have Mediterranean types of climate, with winter rain and summer drought. Between the tropics, the rain is concentrated in the summer months. Approaching the Equator the rainy period, occurs in two seasons of the year. Differences in the environment and climate are mainly explained in terms of variation in the amount and seasonal distribution of rainfall. This variation depends on position in relation to the patterns of the atmospheric circulation over the continent, distance to coast, and local topography. The circulation of the atmosphere over Africa is dominated by cells of high pressure centered over adjacent oceans around the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. Those cells produce winds from East to Northeast, over the Sahara and the Kalahari. These regions are arid because they are occupied by dry, subsiding air for most of the year. Moist air moving into Africa, mainly from the South Atlantic and the Indian Ocean, is monsoonal in character. The humid, unstable air moves inland in summer. The seasonality of the rainfall is an extremely important climatic characteristic almost everywhere in Africa. In addition the climate in Africa is not constant. It varies from year to year and on longer timescales. We have been reminded of this variability by the current diminution of rainfall in the Sahel Zone on the South side of the Sahara. At the same time, some equatorial lakes have risen to their highest levels this century. It is somewhat ironic that this continent, plagued with aridity over such great areas, should at the same time have such a magnificent hydroelectric potential. The high rainfall level in the rainforest and other areas, and their high average elevation, combine to explain this wealth. About 18% of the world's total hydroelectric potential is in the Congo Basin.

Historical Development

Africa is the cradle of humanity. Research shows that the first proto-humans appeared three million years ago in what is today Tanzania. Today we know little about Africa prior to the colonial period, but that does not mean that Africa does not have a history before the coming of the Europeans. Rather there were states of impressive strength and durability. The oldest state we know is Ghana.

There was a fairly major society in Ghana. Ancient Ghana had a large capital city, a tax collection system, and an army. In A.D. 1062, Muslims from the North invaded Ghana and it finally broke apart into a number of smaller units. There was also some trading between the forest and desert people. All those ancient states arose in the heart of the continent in deep contrast to the early European influence which remained confine almost entirely to the coastal trading stations, which dealt mostly with slave trade.

Then, after more than four centuries of contact, Europe finally laid claim to all of Africa during the second half of the nineteenth century. The most immediate and apparent effect of colonial conquest was the creation of new political units. Unlike Burma, India, Vietnam and Korea, where colonial states coincided with some earlier political units, the vast majority of African colonies where wholly new creation. Most of these new colonial states incorporated many different peoples and societies that had never before regarded themselves as members of a single nation. In November 1884, the Berlin Conference was convened to settle the political partition of Africa among the colonial powers.

Four main European countries dominated Africa. Great Britain, France, Portugal, and Belgium. Each had its own way of ruling. For example, the British used a system called indirect rule, which used the indigenous ruler class as representatives of the crown. Belgium colonial policy was called paternalism, because that it treated Africans as though they were children who needed to be tutored in Western ways. French colonialism used a system called assimilation, which tried to expand France overseas, by the acculturation of Africans to French ways of life. Finally, the Portuguese colonial rule described as the harshest of all the systems, it was based on a very effective exploitation system.

In 1950, all Africa was divided among the major colonial powers. In 1958, the only free country was South Africa. Slowly the independence movement spread throughout Africa and in 1970, only Angola, Mozambique, and a small British cluster remained as colonies. This situation lasted only a few more years. In today's Africa, the only areas under European domination are the cities of Ceuta and Melilla in Morocco. Those cities are part of the Spanish national territory.

Human Setting

Sub-Saharan Africa has a total population of about 597 million people, about half of the total population of China. The entire continent's population is only 732 million. Much of its area is moderately populated, and large clusters are few. The largest human concentrations occur along the Nile river, in Nigeria, around the Lake Victoria, and in several smaller areas of Southern Africa. The most populated countries are, Nigeria (103.9 million), Egypt (63.7 million), and Ethiopia (57.2 million).

The majority of Africans live today as their predecessors did, depending on subsistence farming for their lives. Their diets are generally not well balanced and medical problems are frequents. Tropical areas are breeding grounds for organisms that carry disease, such as flies, mosquitoes, and even snails. The major problems are in countries just south of the Sahara desert such as Kenya and Uganda. The diseases which striking populations include malaria, African sleeping sickness, yellow fever, river blindness, schistosomiasis, AIDS, and recently, Ebola. However, some of these countries have the highest population growth of the world, and the average population growth rate at 2.9%. They are currently in the third stage of demographic transition.

The main source of income in Africa is agriculture, mostly subsistence farming. Poor soils and inadequate techniques make it less productive than in other parts of the world. In addition most countries came to specialize very heavily in one or few crops. That narrow base for economic development proved a very serious obstacle to balance growth after independence. Furthermore, some African nations devoted so much land and labor to produce luxury crops that they had to rely on imported food to feed their own people. Such deficiencies had become common throughout the continent, caused in part by an overemphasis on export agriculture. Here was one source of the terrible vulnerability to famine that afflicted so much of Africa in the 1970s and 1980s. Today, across the continent, agricultural output per capita is declining while at the same time population is growing. This has also led to a low GNP per capita for most of these countries, with the average only being $550. Most of the industry can be found further south in Africa. There are more natural resources in some of the southern countries including Angola (oil), South Africa (gold and diamonds), Nigeria (Oil), and Zaire (Copper).


Review Questions

1. In the colonial period, which were Portugal's largest colonies in Africa? A. Zimbabwe, Malawi; B. Zambia, Nigeria; C. Tanzania, Mozambique; D. Angola, Mozambique; E. Angola, Uganda.
2. Which one of the following countries had the greatest colonial land- holdings in Africa: A. Spain; B. Great Britain; C. Germany; D. Netherlands; E. Belgium.
3. The African country with the largest population is: A. Nigeria; B. South Africa; C. Kenya; D. Egypt; E. Ivory Coast. 4. The landform term that best describes the African continent as a whole is: A. plateau; B. coastal plain; C. mountain-and-valley; D. desert; E. tropical lowland.
5. Which of the following countries in Africa was not a colony of France: A. Ivory Coast; B. Chad; C. Nigeria; D. Senegal; E. Tunisia.
6. The trenches that contain the large elongated lakes of East Africa, which were formed by huge parallel faults in the earth's crust, are called: A. hanging valleys; B. plate collapses; C. elongated valleys; D. break valleys; E. rift valleys.
7. The 1884 conference of all the major colonial powers that essentially drew the modern political map of Africa, was held in the European city of: A. Berlin; B. Paris; C. London; D. Rome; E. the Hague;
8. The most heavily populated country of the African continent, which today comprises a confederation of the Yoruba, Ibo, and northern Moslem peoples, is: A. Zimbabwe; B. Kenya; C. South Africa; D. Nigeria; E. Egypt.
9. All of the following are major geographic qualities of Sub-Saharan Africa, except: A. the area has a plateau character, variable rainfall and soils of low fertility; B. the majority of the people remain dependent on farming; C. there is a high incidence of disease, including malaria, sleeping sickness and river blindness; D. the area has few raw materials that are vital to industrialized countries; E. the raw-material exploitation and export routes, set up during the colonial period, still prevail in most of Sub-Saharan Africa. Interregional connections are poor.
10. Africa is called the cradle of humanity because of the origins of Man can be traced to this continent. It is likely that all of our ancestors had black skin. White skin is the result of: A. an adaptation to the windy environment of Asia; B. an adaptation to the cloudy environment of Northern Europe; C. societal pressures controlling marriage; D. genetic mutation; E. none of the above.
11. European countries instituted different colonial policies in Sub-Saharan Africa. Which of the following countries was concerned most with exploitation and benefited greatly from the agricultural and mineral wealth of its African colonies? A. Britain; B. Belgium; C. France; D. Portugal; E. Germany.
12. Which of these is incorrect: A. Sub-Saharan Africa has an extremely high population growth; B: There are resources that are found in Sub-Saharan Africa that are rare to the rest of the world, like platinum; C. Population is well under control and increases slowly D. Sub-Saharan There is a large number of diseases found in this region.
13. Which represents the population of Sub-Saharan Africa best: A. It has a high population, twice that of Asia; B. It is the most densely populated area on Earth; C. The population is mostly urban living in cities that are in excess of 10 million people; D. The entire population is about half of China. 14. Which statement is true: A. Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the most industrial areas of the world; B. Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the richest areas on Earth with average GNP's over $40,000; C. Sub-Saharan Africa is poor with an average GNP of around $550; D. Sub-Saharan Africa is the area of land in North Africa that is mostly desert.

Submitted by Charles Schneider on 04-21-1997. Submitted by Jorge Romero on 04-27-1996.