● Heart of the world, cradle of humanity ● Africa’s rich and varied cultures ● Why Africa remains in the grip of poverty ● South Africa: Engine of its region, beacon for the realm ● Nigeria: Cracking cornerstone of West Africa ● The Islamic Front looms over the north

In This Chapter

W here

w as this photo taken? Find out at

olleg e/d

ebl ij

1 Human evolution 2 Rift valley 3 Continental drift 4 Medical geography 5 Endemic 6 Epidemic 7 Pandemic 8 Land tenure 9 Land alienation

10 Green Revolution 11 State formation 12 Colonialism 13 Multilingualism 14 Apartheid 15 Separate development 16 Landlocked state 17 Exclave 18 Desertification 19 Periodic market 20 Islamic Front 21 Failed state

Photos: © H. J. de Blij

FIGURE 6-1 © H. J. de Blij, P. O. Muller, and John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

deblij_c06_280-337hr.qxd 3-09-2009 12:26 Page 281

L OOK AT A GLOBE, or at a map of the physicalworld (such as Fig. G-1 in this book), and it is clear that Africa is the core while the rest of world is the pe- riphery. Africa lies centrally positioned in the Land Hemisphere, with the Americas to the west, Eurasia to the north, Australia to the east, and Antarctica to the south.

In the economically globalizing world of today Af- rica may not be the functional core, but make no mis- take: for most of human history, Africa was indeed the core, the very source of humanity. This is where the great saga of human evolution began. Here in Africa we formed our first communities, created our first art, and fashioned our first weapons. After tens of thou- sands of years of adaptation to constantly changing en- vironments, we followed our ancestor hominids out of Africa in fateful migrations that were to change the world.

This was in effect the first great wave of globalization. Modern humans crossed the narrow strait at the south- ern end of the Red Sea, skirted the South Asian coast, traversed the Indonesian archipelago, and reached Aus- tralia more than 40,000 years ago. Others went north, in- vading Europe and confronting the Neanderthals who had preceded them. The wide Pacific Ocean delayed their arrival in the Americas, but eventually, apparently less than 15,000 years ago, the migration’s vanguard crossed the Bering Strait and started southward along North America’s west coast, making South America the last continent they reached.

We tend to forget that this globalizing wave was also the Africanization of the world. Wherever hu- mans migrated, their ancestors had started from Africa and carried their genetic and cultural baggage with them. Time, distance, and environment diversified the human map of the world, but at the source we are all Africans.

Cradle and Cauldron

For millions of years, therefore, Africa served as the cra- dle for humanity’s emergence. For tens of thousands of years, Africa was the source of human cultures. For thousands of years, Africa led the world in countless spheres ranging from tool manufacture to plant domes- tication.

But in this chapter we will encounter an Africa that has been struck by a series of disasters ranging from

environmental deterioration to human dislocation on a scale unmatched anywhere in the world. When we assess Africa’s misfortunes, though, we should re- member that these have lasted hundreds, not thou- sands, or millions, of years. Africa’s catastrophic interlude will end, and Africa’s time and turn will come again.

The focus in this chapter will be on Africa south of the Sahara, for which the unsatisfactory but convenient name Subsaharan Africa has come into use to signify not physically “under” the great desert but directionally “below” it. The African continent contains two geo- graphic realms: (1) the African, extending from the southern margins of the Sahara to the Cape of Good Hope; and (2) the Northern, consisting of the western flank of the realm dominated by the Muslim faith and Islamic culture, whose heartland lies in the Middle East and the Arabian Peninsula. The great desert forms a for- midable barrier between the two, but the powerful in- fluences of Islam crossed it centuries before the first Europeans set foot in West Africa. By that time, the African kingdoms in what is known today as the Sahel had been converted, creating an Islamic foothold all along the northern periphery of the African realm (see Fig. G-2, p. 7). As we note later, this cultural and ideo- logical penetration had momentous consequences for Subsaharan Africa.

Peril of Proximity

In the three previous chapters on the Americas, we made frequent reference to the forced migration of Africans to Brazil, the Caribbean region, and the United States. The slave trade was one of those African disasters alluded to above, and it was facilitated in part by what we may call the peril of proximity. The north- eastern tip of Brazil, by far the largest single destina- tion for the millions of Africans forced from their homes in bondage, lies about as far from the nearest West African coast as South Carolina lies from Ve- nezuela, a short maritime intercontinental journey in- deed (it is more than twice as far from West Africa to South Carolina). That proximity facilitated the forced migration of millions of West Africans to Brazil, which in turn contributed to the emergence of an African cul- tural diaspora in Brazil that is without equal in the New World. It is therefore logical to focus next on the African realm.



deblij_c06_280-337hr.qxd 3-09-2009 12:26 Page 282

A F R I C A ’ S P H Y S I O G R A P H Y 283

The African continent may be partitioned into two human- geographic realms, but the landmass is indivisible. Before we investigate the human geography of Subsaharan Africa, therefore, we should take note of the entire continent’s unique physical geography (Fig. 6-1). We have already noted Africa’s situation at the center of the planet’s Land Hemisphere; moreover, no other landmass is positioned so squarely astride the equator, reaching almost as far to the south as to the north. This location has much to do with the distribution of Africa’s climates, soils, vegetation, agri- cultural potential, and human population.


Africa accounts for about one-fifth of the Earth’s entire land surface. The north coast of Tunisia lies 7700 kilo- meters (4800 mi) from the south coast of South Africa. Coastal Senegal, on the extreme western Bulge of Africa, lies 7200 kilometers (4500 mi) from the tip of the Horn in easternmost Somalia. These distances have environ- mental implications. Much of Africa is far from maritime

sources of moisture. In addition, as Figure G-7 shows, large parts of the landmass lie in latitudes where global atmospheric circulation systems produce arid conditions. The Sahara in the north and the Kalahari in the south form part of this globe-girdling desert zone. Water sup- ply is one of Africa’s great problems.

Rifts and Rivers

Africa’s topography reveals several properties that are not replicated on other landmasses. Alone among the conti- nents, Africa does not have an Andes-like linear moun- tain backbone; neither the northern Atlas nor the southern Cape Ranges are in the same league. Where Africa does have high mountains, as in Ethiopia and South Africa, these are deeply eroded plateaus or, as in East Africa, high, snowcapped volcanoes. Furthermore, Africa is one of only two continents containing a cluster of Great Lakes, and the only one whose lakes result from power- ful tectonic forces in the Earth’s crust. These lakes (with the exception of Lake Victoria) lie in deep trenches called

1. Physiographically, Africa is a plateau continent with- out a linear mountain backbone, with a set of Great Lakes, variable rainfall, generally low-fertility soils, and mainly savanna and steppe vegetation.

2. Dozens of nations, hundreds of ethnic groups, and many smaller entities make up Subsaharan Africa’s culturally rich and varied population.

3. Most of Subsaharan Africa’s peoples depend on farming for their livelihood.

4. Health and nutritional conditions in Subsaharan Africa need improvement as the incidence of disease remains high and diets are often unbalanced. The AIDS pandemic began in Africa and has become a major health crisis in this realm.

5. Africa’s boundary framework is a colonial legacy; many boundaries were drawn without adequate knowledge of or regard for the human and physical geography they divided.

6. The realm is rich in raw materials vital to industrial- ized countries, but much of Subsaharan Africa’s pop- ulation has little access to the goods and services of the world economy.

7. Patterns of raw-material exploitation and export routes set up in the colonial period still prevail in most of Subsaharan Africa. Interregional and inter- national connections are poor.

8. During the Cold War, great-power competition mag- nified conflicts in several Subsaharan African coun- tries, with results that will be felt for generations.

9. Severe dislocation affects many Subsaharan African countries, from Liberia to Rwanda. This realm has the largest refugee population in the world today.

10. Government mismanagement and poor leadership afflict the economies of many Subsaharan African countries.

Subsaharan Afr ica


Defining the Realm

deblij_c06_280-337hr.qxd 3-09-2009 12:26 Page 283

284 C H A P T E R 6 ● S U B S A H A R A N A F R I C A

rift valleys, which form when huge parallel cracks or faults appear in the Earth’s crust and the strips of crust between them sink, or are pushed down, to form great, steep-sided, linear valleys. In Figure 6-2 these rift valleys, which stretch almost 10,000 kilometers (6300 mi) from the Red Sea to Swaziland, are indicated by red lines.

Africa’s rivers, too, are unusual: their upper courses often bear landward, seemingly unrelated to the coast to- ward which they eventually flow. Several rivers, such as the Nile and the Niger, have inland as well as coastal

deltas. Major waterfalls, notably Victoria Falls on the Zambezi, or lengthy systems of cataracts, separate the upper from the lower courses.

Finally, Africa may be described as the “plateau con- tinent.” Except for some comparatively limited coastal plains, almost the entire continent lies above 300 meters (1000 ft) in elevation, and fully half of it lies over 800 me- ters (2500 ft) high. As Figure 6-2 shows, the plateau surface has sagged under the weight of accumulating sediments into a half dozen major basins (three of them in the Sahara).


Tropic of Cancer

Tropic of Capricorn

Canary Islands

D jouf

Bas in

Libyan Desert

S u d a n

B a s i n S a h e l

Futa Jallon Highlands

Ethiopian Highlands

Bas in

B ihe P la teau

Ka l aha r i Bas i n

Cape Ranges

Dr ak

en sb

er g

Cape of Good Hope

Nam ib

D esert


Atla s M




0° 20° 40°





Congo Mt. Kenya 5,199 m. (17,058 ft.)

20° Longitude West of Greenwich Longitude East of Greenwich

Mt. Cameroon 4,069 m. (13,351 ft.)

Jos Plateau

Ad am

aw a

Hi gh

la nd


Okavango Delta

H ighve ld

Great Karoo


Horn of Africa

Mt. Kilimanjaro 5,895 m. (19,340 ft.)


Chad Bas in

Ahaggar M t s .

T ibes t i M t s .

Strait of Gibralta r

Mediterranean Sea



Persian Gulf

R e



Gulf o f Adan

W hite

N il e

R .

Blue N

ile R


Shavi R.

Lake Chad

Lake Turkana INDIAN


Ku ne

ne R. Cuban


R .

Ka fu

e R .

Rufij i R.

K asai R


Congo R.

Lake Victoria


Lake Malawi

M oç

am bi

qu e

Ch an

ne l

Orange R. Vaa l


Li m


po R.

Z am

be zi R.



Gulf of Guinea

Lake Volta

Nige r R


Senegal R .

Niger R.

Ben ue


Ub angi R .

Rovuma R.




0 1600 Kilometers

0 1000 Miles

400 1200

250 750



© H. J. de Blij, P. O. Muller, and John Wiley & Sons, Inc.FIGURE 6-2


deblij_c06_280-337hr.qxd 3-09-2009 12:26 Page 284

A F R I C A ’ S P H Y S I O G R A P H Y 285

The margins of Africa’s plateau are marked by escarp- ments, often steep and step-like. Most notable among these is the Great Escarpment of South Africa, marking the eastern edge of the Drakensberg Mountains.

Continental Drift and Plate Tectonics

Africa’s remarkable and unusual physiography was one piece of evidence that geographer Alfred Wegener used to construct his hypothesis of continental drift. The pre- sent continents, Wegener reasoned, lay assembled as one giant landmass called Pangaea not very long ago geo- logically (220 million years ago). The southern part of this supercontinent was Gondwana, of which Africa formed the core (Fig. 6-3). When, about 200 million years ago, tectonic forces began to split Pangaea apart, Africa (and the other landmasses) acquired their present config-

urations. That process, now known as plate tectonics, continues, marked by earthquakes and volcanic erup- tions. By the time it started, however, Africa’s land sur- face had begun to acquire some of the features that mark it today—and make it unique. The rift valleys, for exam- ple, demarcate the zones where plate movement contin- ues—hence the linear shape of the Red Sea, where the Arabian Plate is separating from the African Plate (Fig. G-3). And yes, the rift valleys of East Africa probably mark the further fragmentation of the African Plate (some geophysicists have already referred to a “Somali Plate,” which in the future will separate, Madagascar- like, from the rest of Africa).

So Africa’s ring of escarpments, its rifts, its river sys- tems, its interior basins, and its lack of Andes-like moun- tains, all relate to the continent’s central location in Pangaea, all pieces of the puzzle that led to the plate- tectonics solution. Once again, geography was the key.














Djouf Chad Sudan





N ile

N iger

Co ngo

Ka fu




M ad

ag as

ca r

A m

az on

Sã o

Fr an

ci sc

o Ri


Ad am

aw a

Hi gh

lan ds


Basin areas

Direction of plate movement

African Rift Valley system

Dwyka Ice Limit

© H. J. de Blij, P. O. Muller, and John Wiley & Sons, Inc.FIGURE 6-3

deblij_c06_280-337hr.qxd 3-09-2009 12:26 Page 285

286 C H A P T E R 6 ● S U B S A H A R A N A F R I C A


Only the southernmost tip of Subsaharan Africa lies out- side the tropics. Although African elevations are compar- atively high, they are not high enough to ward off the heat that comes with tropical location except in especially fa- vored locales such as the Kenya Highlands and parts of Ethiopia. And, as we have noted, Africa’s bulky shape means that much of the continent lies far from maritime moisture sources. Variable weather and frequent droughts are among Africa’s environmental problems.

It is useful at this point to refer back to Figure G-7 on page 17. As that map shows, Africa’s climatic regions are distributed almost symmetrically about the equator, though more so in the center of the landmass than in the east, where elevation changes the picture. The hot, rainy climate of the Congo Basin merges gradually, both north- ward and southward, into climates with distinct winter- dry seasons. “Winter,” however, is characterized more by drought than by cold. In parts of the area mapped Aw (savanna), the annual seasonal cycle produces two rainy seasons, often referred to locally as the “long rains” and the “short rains,” separated by two “winter” dry periods. As you go farther north and south, away from the moist Congo Basin, the dry season(s) grow longer and the rainfall diminishes and becomes less and less dependable.

Crops and Animals

Most Africans still make their living by farming, and many grow crops in marginal areas where rainfall vari- ability can have catastrophic consequences. Compare Fig- ures G-6 and G-7 and note the steep decline in annual rainfall from more than 200 centimeters (80 in) around the equator in the Congo Basin to a mere 10 centimeters (4 in) in parts of Chad to the north and Namibia to the south. Millions of farmers till the often unproductive soils of the savanna, and many mix livestock herding with crop-raising to reduce their risk in this difficult environ- ment. But the savanna’s wildlife carries diseases that also infect livestock, which makes herding a risky proposition, too. Even where the savanna gives way to the still drier steppe, human pressure continues to grow, and people as well as animals trample fragile, desert-margin ecologies.

End of an Era

Africa’s shrinking rainforests and vast savannas form the world’s last refuges for wildlife ranging from primates to wildebeests. Gorillas and chimpanzees survive in dwin-

dling numbers in threatened forest habitats, while millions of herbivores range in great herds across the savanna plains where people compete with them for space. European col- onizers, who introduced hunting as a “sport” (a practice that was not part of African cultural traditions) and who brought their capacities for mass destruction to animals as well as people in Africa, helped clear vast areas of wildlife and push species to near extinction. Later they laid out game preserves and other types of conservation areas, but these were not sufficiently large or well enough connected to allow herd animals to follow their seasonal and annual migration routes. The same climatic variability that affects farmers also affects wildlife, and when the rangelands wither, the animals seek better pastures. When the fences of a game preserve wall them off, they cannot survive. When there are no fences, the wildlife invades neighbor- ing farmlands and destroys crops, and the farmers retaliate. After thousands of years of equilibrium, the competition between humans and animals in Africa has taken a new turn. It is the end of an era.

Farmers’ Problems

And yet it would seem that there could be room for hu- mans as well as wildlife in Subsaharan Africa. As the Data Table inside the back cover confirms, all the coun- tries of this realm combined have a population little more than half that of China alone. Indeed, Africa does have some areas of good soils, ample water, and high produc- tivity: the volcanic soils of Mount Kilimanjaro and those of the highlands around the Western Rift Valley, the soils in the Ethiopian Highlands, and those in the moister ar- eas of higher-latitude South Africa and parts of West Africa yield good crops when social conditions do not disrupt the farming communities. But such areas are small in the vastness of Africa. Ominously, a 2006 study by the International Center for Soil Fertility and Agricultural De- velopment reports that the overall situation is deteriorat- ing, and that it is worst in East Africa. Soils in Subsaharan Africa are losing nutrients at the highest rate in the world through erosion, exhaustion, and lack of fertilizer. The Center cites an example: in southern Somalia, soils are losing 88 kilograms (200 lb) of nutrients per hectare (2.5 acres) per year, compared to 9 kilograms (20 lb) in over- stressed Egypt. And according to the journal Science, “African farmers desperate for fresh soil are clearing frag- ile forestlands and wildlife habitats.”

The map of Subsaharan Africa’s population distribution (Fig. 6-4) shows few major clusters and many sparsely peopled areas, so that the destruction of natural habitats still has decades, perhaps generations, to go. Nigeria, the realm’s most populous state, has the largest numbers in

deblij_c06_280-337hr.qxd 3-09-2009 12:26 Page 286

E N V I R O N M E N T A N D H E A L T H 287

West Africa; a second large cluster occupies the Great Lakes region in East Africa; and the third well-defined population concentration centers on the Ethiopian High- lands in the northeast. Referring once again to Figure 6-4, compare these prominent population clusters to the sparsely peopled expanses of the interior from Namibia in the far southwest to the Central African Republic on the Saharan margin in the north: Subsaharan Africa has just one-tenth the population density of South Asia.

One major reason for this is that Subsaharan Africa has nothing to compare to the huge river basins of India or China and their fertile soils. In fact, this realm does not even have anything comparable to Egypt’s teeming lower Nile Valley and Delta, where relatively small areas of fer- tile, irrigated soils can support tens of millions of people. Except for limited, often experimental patches of rice and wheat, Africa is the land of corn (maize), millet, and root crops, far less able to provide high per-hectare yields. Africa’s natural environment poses a formidable chal- lenge to the millions who depend directly on it.


From birth, Africans (especially rural people living in A climates) are exposed to a wide range of diseases spread by insects and other organisms. The study of human health in spatial context is the field of medical geography, and medical geographers employ modern methods of analysis (including geographic information systems) to track dis- ease outbreaks, identify their sources, detect their carriers, and prevent their repetition. Alliances between doctors and geographers have already yielded significant results. Doc- tors understand how a disease ravages the body; geogra- phers understand how climatic conditions such as wind direction or variations in river flow can affect the distribu- tion and effectiveness of disease carriers. This collabora- tion helps protect vulnerable populations.

Tropical Africa, the source of many serious illnesses, is the focus of much of medical geography’s work. Not only the carriers (vectors) of infectious diseases but also




Tropic of Capricorn

Equator0° 0°


Longitude East of Greenwich


One dot represents 50,000 persons

0 3200 Kilometers

0 2000 Miles

800 2400

500 1500



© H. J. de Blij, P. O. Muller, and John Wiley & Sons, Inc.









deblij_c06_280-337hr.qxd 3-09-2009 12:26 Page 287

288 C H A P T E R 6 ● S U B S A H A R A N A F R I C A

cultural traditions that facilitate transmission, such as sex- ual practices, food selection and preparation, and personal hygiene, play their role—and all can be mapped. Com- paring medical, environmental, and cultural maps can lead to crucial evidence that helps combat the scourge.

In Africa today, hundreds of millions of people carry one or more maladies, often without knowing exactly what ails them. A disease that infects many people (the hosts) in a kind of equilibrium, without causing rapid and widespread deaths, is said to be endemic to the popula- tion. People affected may not die suddenly or dramati- cally, but their health deteriorates, energy levels fall, and the quality of life declines. In tropical Africa, hepatitis, venereal diseases, and hookworm are among the public health threats in this category.

Epidemics and Pandemics

When a disease outbreak has local or regional dimen- sions, it is called epidemic. It may claim thousands, even tens of thousands of lives, but it remains confined to a certain area, perhaps one defined by the range of its vector. In tropical Africa, trypanosomiasis, the dis- ease known as sleeping sickness and vectored by the tsetse fly, has regional proportions. The great herds of sa- vanna wildlife form the reservoir of this disease, and the tsetse fly transmits it to livestock and people. It is endemic to the wildlife, but it kills cattle, so Africa’s herders try

to keep their animals in tsetse-free zones. African sleep- ing sickness appears to have originated in a West African source area during the fifteenth century, and it spread throughout much of tropical Africa (Fig. 6-5). Its epi- demic range was limited by that of the tsetse fly: where there are no tsetse flies, there is no sleeping sickness. More than anything else, the tsetse fly has kept Subsaharan Africa’s savannalands largely free of livestock and open to wildlife. Should a remedy be found, livestock would replace the great herds on the grasslands.

When a disease spreads worldwide, it is described as pandemic. Africa’s and the world’s most deadly vec- tored disease is malaria, transmitted by a mosquito and killer of as many as one million children each year. Whether malaria has an African origin is not known, but it is an ancient affliction. Hippocrates, the Greek physi- cian of the fifth century BC, mentions it in his writings. Apes, monkeys, and several other species also suffer from it. Recurrent fever attacks, anemia, and enlargement of the spleen are its symptoms.

Malaria spread around the world, not only in tropical but also in temperate areas (the United States did not con- quer this disease until the mid-1950s), but Africa was hardest hit. Even today, 90 percent of tropical Africa’s approximately 700 million inhabitants live with the threat or effects of malaria. Medical geographers Melinda Meade and Robert Earickson in 2005 wrote that ma- laria’s “mosquito vectors are resistant to all the major in- secticides, the agent is resistant to all the major drugs, and the ancient scourge is upon us again.” For those at risk, this means that protection is the best course of ac- tion: millions of African children sleep in dwellings without windows or screens, and their best hope is in- secticide-treated mosquito netting. Many organizations, governmental and private, are engaged in a massive cam- paign to distribute mosquito netting to even the most remote villages, but even its widespread use can only mi- tigate, not eradicate, the scourge. And now there are re- ports that global warming is causing malaria to again encroach on higher altitudes as well as higher latitudes, lending even greater urgency to this battle for children’s lives. When you see the shockingly low life expectancies for tropical African countries in the Data Table at the end of the book, malaria is one of the leading causes, dramat- ically reflecting infant and child mortality.

Another mosquito-vectored pandemic disease with African origins, yellow fever, is also making a comeback in tropical Africa as well as in South America, again be- cause its mosquito vector seems to be reinvigorated. And keep an eye out, too, for reports on the spread of dengue fever, still another growing threat. Africa’s inventory of serious disease seems to have no limit.




ca. 1400 ca. 1850 1901






Diffusion of African sleeping sickness

After Willett.

© H. J. de Blij, P. O. Muller, and John Wiley & Sons, Inc.



deblij_c06_280-337hr.qxd 3-09-2009 12:26 Page 288

L A N D A N D F A R M I N G 289

Living with wildlife has its dangers as well, and mil- lions of Africans still share their habitat with wild an- imals. “Bush meat” is common fare in such areas, and many an African epidemic had its origin in the forest. During the 1970s, AIDS appears to have erupted in the equatorial rainforest in western Equatorial Africa, and rapidly evolved from an epidemic into a global pandemic (see box titled “AIDS in Subsaharan Africa”). Monkeys may have activated this terrible malady in humans, but whatever the source, Africa was and remains most se- verely afflicted. In 2009, there were an estimated 34.3 million cases of AIDS in the world, at least 24.5 million of them in Subsaharan Africa, further reducing the life expectancies of this realm’s inhabitants.

Challenges to Improving Health Conditions

The great incubator of vectored and nonvectored diseases in humid equatorial Africa continues to threaten local pop- ulations. Sudden outbreaks of Ebola fever in Sudan dur- ing the 1970s, in The Congo* in the 1990s, and in Uganda in 2000–2001 projected the risks that many Africans live with onto the world’s television screens. But Africa’s woes are soon forgotten. Only the fear that an African epidemic might evolve into a global pandemic mobilizes world at- tention. Africans cope with the planet’s most difficult en- vironments, but they are least capable of combating its hazards because their resources are so limited.

Even when international efforts are made to assist Africa, the unintended results may be catastrophic. Among Africa’s endemic diseases is schistosomiasis, also called bilharzia. The vector is a snail, and the transmitted parasites enter via body openings when people swim or wash in slow-moving water where the snails thrive (fast-moving streams are rel- atively safe). When development projects designed to help African farmers dammed rivers and streams and …