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Africa is a land of vast spaces and infinite variety. Across its great length and breadth are found tropical rain forests, savannas teeming with wildlife, sun-scorched deserts, sprawling modern cities, and a kaleidoscope of peoples and cultures. The Sahara, largest of the world's deserts, dominates the northern half of the continent. Reaching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea, the Sahara covers an area nearly as large as the entire continent of Europe. Few people inhabit this inhospitable landscape of shifting sand dunes, gravel-covered plains, and bare mountains, where rain seldom falls and hot, dust-laden winds blow relentlessly.

Southern Africa also contains large arid regions, most notably the Namib and Kalahari deserts. Along the equator, however, rain falls in abundance. Verdant rain forests blanket much of this region, alive with monkeys, gorillas, wild pigs, and countless species of birds and insects. Between the deserts and the rain forests lie the broad swaths of grassland known as savannas. Herds of zebras, wildebeests, giraffes, elephants, and many other animals graze on the savannas, always on the alert for lions, hyenas, and other predators. Poaching and destruction of habitat have decimated animal populations in many parts of Africa, but enormous concentrations still exist in places such as northern Botswana and the Serengeti Plain of Tanzania.

Africa's greatest rivers are the Congo, the Zambezi, the Niger, and of course the Nile, the longest river in the world. From its headwaters in Burundi, the Nile flows northward more than four thousand miles-through rugged mountains and highlands, the beautiful lake country of East Africa, and the wide marshy plain known as the Sudd-before spilling into the Mediterranean Sea.

Humans have farmed the fertile land of the Nile Delta from time immemorial, and it was here that the great civilization of the ancient Egyptians sprang up more than five thousand years ago. The marvelous archaeological legacies of this civilization include the Pyramids, the Sphinx, and the temples of Karnak and Luxor.

Among Africa's seven hundred million people there is tremendous ethnic and cultural diversity. More than eight hundred languages are spoken across the continent, and scores of distinct ethnic groups can be identified-groups such as the Tuareg and Berbers of Saharan Africa, the Masai and Kikuyu of the eastern savannas, the Fang and Bateke of the rain forests. Not surprisingly, few African countries are ethnically homogeneous.

Tremendous change has swept through Africa in the twentieth century. As recently as the 1940s, nearly the entire continent was controlled by colonial powers. In the wake of the Second World War, independence movements gathered strength, and by the end of the 1970s all of Africa's countries had shaken off their colonial shackles. For the first time in centuries, the continent was free to seek its own identity and destiny.

Africa at a Glance

Land Area: 11.7 million square miles (30.3 million square kilometers)
Continental rank (in area): 2nd
Estimated population: 722.2 million
Poulation density: 62/square mile (24/square kilometer)
Highest point: Kilimanjaro, Tanzania, 19,340 feet (5,895 meter)
Lowest point: Lac Assal, Djibouti, 515 feet (157 meter) below sea level
Longest river: Nile, 4,145 miles (6,671 kilometer)
Largest island: Madagascar, 226,658 square miles (587,041 square kilometers)
Largest lake: Lake Victoria, 26,820 square miles (69,463 square kilometers)
Number of countries and dependencies: 61
Largest country: Sudan, 967,500 square miles (2,505,813 square kilometers)
Smallest country (excluding dependencies): Seychelles, 175 square miles (453 square kilometers)
Most populous country: Nigeria, 102.9 million
Largest city: Cairo, metropolitan area population, 13.4 million


Africa, the second-largest continent, comprises about one-fifth of the world's land area. From the Equator, Africa extends roughly the same distance to the north as it does to the south. A high plateau covers much of the continent. The edges of the plateau are marked by steep slopes, called escarpments, where the land angles sharply downward onto narrow coastal plains or into the sea. Many of the continent's great rivers plunge over these escarpments in falls or rapids, and therefore cannot be used as transportation routes from the coast into the continent's interior. Among Africa's most significant mountain systems are the Atlas range in the far north and the Drakensberg range in the far south. A long string of mountain ranges and highlands running north-south through eastern Africa marks the course of the Great Rift Valley.


Africa's most prominent climatic region is the vast Sahara desert which spreads over much of the northern half of the continent. The Sahara experiences scorching daytime temperatures, minimal rainfall, and hot, dry, dust-laden winds that blow nearly continuously. South of the Sahara, the climate becomes increasingly humid, moving through zones of semiarid steppe and tropical savanna to the tropical rain forest that stretches across equatorial Africa from the Atlantic Ocean to the Rift Valley. The climate patterns of northern Africa are repeated in reverse south of the Equator. The rain forest gives way to zones of decreasing humidity, and desert regions cover western South Africa and Namibia. Africa's mildest, most temperate climates are found along its Mediterranean coast, at its southwestern tip, and in eastern South Africa.

Population Density

About one-seventh of the world's people live in Africa. It is the second most populous continent. The population is almost evenly divided between the sub-Saharan countries and those bordering the Mediterranean. Large tracts of the Sahara are uninhabited. Despite recurring famines, disease, and warfare, the population is rapidly increasing. The largest concentrations of people are generally found in regions in which one or more of the following conditions exist: moderate temperatures, ample water supply, and arable land. These regions include Egypt's fertile Nile Valley, the northern coast of the Gulf of Guinea, the highlands of East Africa, and the coastal regions of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, north of the Atlas Mountains.

Environments and Land Use

Deserts account for one-third of Africa's land area, and they claim new land every year. Drought, over-farming, and over-grazing can quickly turn marginal land, such as that of the Sahel region (also known as the Sudan), into barren wasteland. The huge Sahara desert has itself only existed a short time, in geological terms: cave paintings and other archeological evidence indicate that green pastureland covered the area just a few thousand years ago.

Most Africans are subsistence farmers, growing sorghum, corn, millet, sweet potatoes, and other starchy foods. Commercial farms, most of which date from the colonial period, can be found throughout central and southern Africa, producing cash crops such as coffee, bananas, tobacco and cacao. One-quarter of the continent's land is suitable for grazing, but disease and drought have made raising animals difficult. Although three out of four Africans work in agriculture, Africa is the only continent that is not self-sufficient for food.

The great rain forests that cover much of equatorial Africa produce mahogany, ebony, and other valuable hardwoods. However, only limited areas of the forests are suitable for logging, and the lack of developed road networks makes it difficult and costly to transport the wood.

Vast mineral reserves are spread throughout the continent. Most are unexploited, but notable exceptions include the diamond mines of South Africa and Namibia, the copper mines of Zambia and Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the oil fields of Nigeria, Libya, and Algeria.

The great concentrations of wildlife for which Africa is famous can still be found in places such as Tanzania's Serengeti Plain and Botswana's Kalahari Desert. In many other parts of the continent, however, wildlife is quickly disappearing as humans encroach on habitat and poachers decimate entire species.

Africa: From Colonial Rule to Independence

The origin of Europe's colonization of Africa can be traced back to the 1500s, when a lucrative slave trade developed to supply European settlers in the New World with laborers. Africa became the primary source for slaves: between the mid-1500s and the mid-1800s, 11 million Africans were captured and sold into slavery.

When the slave trade was banned across Europe in the early 1800s, commercial trade with Africa continued. In the second half of the century, competition for Africa's minerals and other raw materials intensified, and between 1880 and 1914, France, Britain, Italy, Portugal, Belgium, Spain, and Germany annexed large areas of Africa. Colonial rule was often characterized by racial prejudice and segregation.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Egypt, Ethiopia, and South Africa began to break free from colonial influence. For most of Africa, however, colonial rule persisted through the mid-1900s, although it faced growing bitterness and nationalist sentiment. As the colonial powers struggled through two world wars, and as their international dominance declined, it became increasingly difficult for them to maintain their empires.

In 1951, Libya gained its independence, following a UN resolution that ended British and French control. Sudan peacefully won independence from Britain and Egypt in 1956. A year later, Britain granted independence to the Gold Coast, which became the new country of Ghana. Guinea separated from France in 1958, followed by all of the other French colonies in 1960. Anti-colonial movements gathered strength across Africa, and by the end of the 1970s, a total of 43 countries had become independent.

The end of colonial rule, however, has not brought peace and prosperity. Many of the newly freed countries were ill-prepared for independence. Their economies were oriented to fit the needs of the now-departed colonists, few transportation networks existed, and dictators and rival despots fought for power in civil wars.

Further, most Africans identify themselves primarily with the tribe to which they belong. The political delineations established by the European powers have little meaning and often conflict with traditional tribal boundaries.

In some cases, enemy tribes found themselves pushed together in a single country; in others, single tribes were divided among several countries. These conditions have already brought much warfare and hardship. Still Africa is a land of promise and opportunity. The rich diversity of its people and abundance of its resources should inevitably enable the continent to realize its full potential.

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