Friday, December 08, 2006

Climate, fauna, and flora

The climate of Africa ranges from tropical to subarctic on its highest peaks. Its northern half is primarily desert or arid, while its central and southern areas contain both savanna plains and very dense jungle (rainforest) regions. In between, there is a convergence where vegetation patterns such as sahel, and steppe dominate.

Africa boasts perhaps the world's largest combination of density and "range of freedom" of wild animal populations and diversity, with wild populations of large carnivores (such as lions, hyenas, and cheetahs) and herbivores (such as buffalo, deer, elephants, camels, and giraffes) ranging freely on primarily open non-private plains. It is also home to a variety of jungle creatures (including snakes and primates) and aquatic life (including crocodiles and amphibians).

Wednesday, November 08, 2006


Africa is considered by most paleoanthropologists to be the oldest inhabited territory on earth, with the human species originating from the continent. During the middle of the twentieth century, anthropologists discovered many fossils and evidence of human occupation perhaps as early as 7 million years ago. Fossil remains of several species of early apelike humans thought to have evolved into modern man, such as Australopithecus afarensis (radiometrically dated to c. 3.9-3.0 million years BC), Paranthropus boisei (c. 2.3-1.4 million BC) and Homo ergaster (c. 600,000-1.9 million BC) have been discovered.

The Ishango bone, dated to about 25,000 years ago, shows tallies in mathematical notation. Throughout humanity's prehistory, Africa (like all other continents) had no nation states, and was instead inhabited by groups of hunter-gatherers such as the Khoi and San.

At the end of the Ice Ages, estimated to have been around 10,500 BC, the Sahara had become a green fertile valley again, and its African populations returned from the interior and coastal highlands in Sub-Saharan Africa. However, the warming and drying climate meant that by 5000 BC the Sahara region was becoming increasingly drier. The population trekked out of the Sahara region towards the Nile Valley below the Second Cataract where they made permanent or semi-permanent settlements. A major climatic recession occurred, lessening the heavy and persistent rains in Central and Eastern Africa. Since then dry conditions have prevailed in Eastern Africa, especially in Ethiopia in the last 200 years.

The domestication of cattle in Africa precedes agriculture and seems to have existed alongside hunter-gathering cultures. It is speculated that by 6000 BC cattle were already domesticated in North Africa. In the Sahara-Nile complex, people domesticated many animals including the pack ass, and a small screw horned goat which was common from Algeria to Nubia.

Agriculturally, the first cases of domestication of plants for agricultural purposes occurred in the Sahel region circa 5000 BC, when sorghum and African rice began to be cultivated. Around this time, and in the same region, the small guinea fowl became domesticated.

According to the Oxford Atlas of World History, in the year 4000 BC the climate of the Sahara started to become drier at an exceedingly fast pace. This climate change caused lakes and rivers to shrink rather significantly and caused increasing desertification. This, in turn, decreased the amount of land conducive to settlements and helped to cause migrations of farming communities to the more tropical climate of West Africa.

By 3000 BC agriculture arose independently in both the tropical portions of West Africa, where African yams and oil palms were domesticated, and in Ethiopia, where coffee and teff became domesticated. No animals were independently domesticated in these regions, although domestication did spread there from the Sahel and Nile regions. Agricultural crops were also adopted from other regions around this time as pearl millet, cowpea, groundnut, cotton, watermelon and bottle gourds began to be grown agriculturally in both West Africa and the Sahel Region while finger millet, peas, lentil and flax took hold in Ethiopia.

The international phenomenon known as the Beaker culture began to affect western North Africa. Named for the distinctively shaped ceramics found in graves, the Beaker culture is associated with the emergence of a warrior mentality. North African rock art of this period depicts animals but also places a new emphasis on the human figure, equipped with weapons and adornments. People from the Great Lakes Region of Africa settled along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea to become the proto-Canaanites who dominated the lowlands between the Jordan River, the Mediterranean and the Sinai Desert.

By the 1st millennium BC ironworking had been introduced in Northern Africa and quickly began spreading across the Sahara into the northern parts of sub-saharan Africa and by 500 BC metalworking began to become commonplace in West Africa, possibly after being introduced by the Carthaginians. Ironworking was fully established by roughly 500 BC in areas of East and West Africa, though other regions didn't begin ironworking until the early centuries AD. Some copper objects from Egypt, North Africa, Nubia and Ethiopia have been excavated in West Africa dating from around 500 BC, suggesting that trade networks had been established by this time.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Early civilizations and trade

About 3300 BC, the historical record opens in Africa with the rise of literacy in the Pharaonic-ruled civilization of Ancient Egypt, which continued, with varying levels of influence over other areas, until 343 BC. Prominent civilisations at different times include Carthage, the Kingdom of Aksum, the Nubian kingdoms, the empires of the Sahel (Kanem-Bornu, Ghana, Mali, and Songhai), Great Zimbabwe, and the Kongo.

After the Sahara had become a desert it did not present an impenetrable barrier for travellers between north and south. Even prior to the introduction of the camel the use of oxen for desert crossing was common, and trade routes followed oases that were strung across the desert. The camel was first brought to Egypt by the Persians after 525 BC, although large herds did not become common enough in North Africa to establish the trans-Saharan trade until the eighth century AD. The Sanhaja Berbers were the first to exploit this.

Pre-colonial Africa possessed perhaps as many as 10,000 different states and polities characterised by different sorts of political organisation and rule. These included small family groups of hunter-gatherers such as the San people of southern Africa; larger, more structured groups such as the family clan groupings of the Bantu-speaking people of central and southern Africa and heavily-structured clan groups in the Horn of Africa, the Sahelian Kingdoms, and autonomous city-states such as the Swahili coastal trading towns of the East African coast, whose trade network extended as far as China.

In 1414, the Chinese admiral Zheng He visited Africa's east coast. In 1482, the Portuguese established the first of many trading stations along the coast of Ghana at Elmina. The chief commodities dealt in were slaves, gold, ivory and spices. The European discovery of the Americas in 1492 was followed by a great development of the slave trade, which, before the Portuguese era, had been an overland trade almost exclusively, and never confined to any one continent.

In West Africa, the decline of the Atlantic slave trade in the 1820s caused dramatic economic shifts in local polities. The gradual decline of slave-trading, prompted by a lack of demand for slaves in the New World, increasing anti-slavery legislation in Europe and America, and the British navy's increasing presence off the West African coast, obliged African states to adopt new economies. The largest powers of West Africa: the Asante Confederacy, the Kingdom of Dahomey, and the Oyo Empire, adopted different ways of adapting to the shift. Asante and Dahomey concentrated on the development of "legitimate commerce" in the form of palm oil, cocoa, timber and gold, forming the bedrock of West Africa's modern export trade. The Oyo Empire, unable to adapt, collapsed into civil wars.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Pre-colonial exploration

In the mid-nineteenth century, European explorers became interested in exploring the heart of the continent and opening the area for trade, mining and other commercial exploitation. In addition, there was a desire to convert the inhabitants to Christianity. The central area of Africa was still largely unknown to Europeans at this time. David Livingstone explored the continent between 1852 and his death in 1873; amongst other claims to fame, he was the first European to see the Victoria Falls. A prime goal for explorers was to locate the source of the River Nile. Expeditions by Burton and Speke (1857-1858) and Speke and Grant (1863) located Lake Tanganyika and Lake Victoria. The latter was eventually proven as the main source of the Nile. With subsequent expeditions by Baker and Stanley, Africa was well explored by the end of the century and this was to lead the way for the colonization which followed.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Colonialism and the "scramble for Africa"

In the late nineteenth century, the European imperial powers engaged in a major territorial scramble and occupied most of the continent, creating many colonial nation states, and leaving only two independent nations: Liberia, an independent state partly settled by African Americans; and Orthodox Christian Ethiopia (known to Europeans as "Abyssinia"). Colonial rule by Europeans would continue until after the conclusion of World War II, when all colonial states gradually obtained formal independence.

Colonialism had a destabilising effect on a number of ethnic groups that is still being felt in African politics. Before European influence, national borders were not much of a concern, with Africans generally following the practice of other areas of the world, such as the Arabian Peninsula, where a group's territory was congruent with its military or trade influence. The European insistence of drawing borders around territories to isolate them from those of other colonial powers often had the effect of separating otherwise contiguous political groups, or forcing traditional enemies to live side by side with no buffer between them. For example, although the Congo River appears to be a natural geographic boundary, there were groups that otherwise shared a language, culture or other similarity living on both sides. The division of the land between Belgium and France along the river isolated these groups from each other. Those who lived in Saharan or Sub-Saharan Africa and traded across the continent for centuries often found themselves crossing borders that existed only on European maps.

In nations that had substantial European populations, for example Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and South Africa, systems of second-class citizenship were often set up in order to give Europeans political power far in excess of their numbers. In the Congo Free State, personal property of King Leopold II of Belgium, the native population was submitted to inhumane treatments, and a near slavery status assorted with forced labor. However, the lines were not always drawn strictly across racial lines. In Liberia, citizens who were descendants of American slaves had a political system for over 100 years that gave ex-slaves and natives to the area roughly equal legislative power despite the fact the ex-slaves were outnumbered ten to one in the general population. The inspiration for this system was the United States Senate, which had balanced the power of free and slave states despite the much-larger population of the former.

Europeans often altered the local balance of power, created ethnic divides where they did not previously exist, and introduced a cultural dichotomy detrimental to the native inhabitants in the areas they controlled. For example, in what are now Rwanda and Burundi, two ethnic groups Hutus and Tutsis had merged into one culture by the time German colonists had taken control of the region in the nineteenth century. No longer divided by ethnicity as intermingling, intermarriage, and merging of cultural practices over the centuries had long since erased visible signs of a culture divide, Belgium instituted a policy of racial categorisation upon taking control of the region, as racial based categorisation and philosophies was a fixture of the European culture of that time. The term Hutu originally referred to the agricultural-based Bantu-speaking peoples that moved into present day Rwanda and Burundi from the West, and the term Tutsi referred to Northeastern cattle-based peoples that migrated into the region later. The terms described a person's economic class; individuals who owned roughly 10 or more cattle were considered Tutsi, and those with fewer were considered Hutu, regardless of ancestral history. This was not a strict line but a general rule of thumb, and one could move from Hutu to Tutsi and vice versa.

The Belgians introduced a racialized system; European-like features such as fairer skin, ample height, narrow noses were seen as more ideally Hamitic, and belonged to those people closest to Tutsi in ancestry, who were thus given power amongst the colonised peoples. Identity cards were issued based on this philosophy.

Tunisia was the first country in Africa to gain Independence, doing so in 1956. The decades-long struggle for independence from France was led by Habib Bourguiba, founder of the Republic of Tunisia.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Post-colonial Africa

Today, Africa contains 53 independent and sovereign countries, which mostly still have the borders drawn during the era of European colonialism.

Since colonialism, African states have frequently been hampered by instability, corruption, violence, and authoritarianism. The vast majority of African nations are republics that operate under some form of the presidential system of rule. However, few of them have been able to sustain democratic governments, and many have instead cycled through a series of coups, producing military dictatorships. A number of Africa's post-colonial political leaders were military generals who were poorly educated and ignorant on matters of governance. Great instability, however, was mainly the result of marginalization of other ethnic groups and graft under these leaders. For political gain, many leaders fanned ethnic conflicts that had been exacerbated, or even created, by colonial rule. In many countries, the military was perceived as being the only group that could effectively maintain order, and it ruled many nations in Africa during the 1970s and early 1980s. During the period from the early 1960s to the late 1980s, Africa had more than 70 coups and 13 presidential assassinations. Border and territorial disputes were also common, with the European-imposed borders of many nations being widely contested through armed conflicts.

Cold War conflicts between the United States and the Soviet Union, as well as the policies of the International Monetary Fund, also played a role in instability. When a country became independent for the first time, it was often expected to align with one of the two superpowers. Many countries in Northern Africa received Soviet military aid, while many in Central and Southern Africa were supported by the United States, France or both. The 1970s saw an escalation, as newly independent Angola and Mozambique aligned themselves with the Soviet Union and the West and South Africa sought to contain Soviet influence by funding insurgency movements. Some countries were ruled by communist parties that sought to impose Soviet policies resulting in atrocities such as the Ethiopian famine of 1985-89.

AIDS has also been a prevelant issue in post-colonial africa. However, in the last year, AIDS has been reduced about 25% due to new diagnostic and preventative measures.

Monday, May 08, 2006


The African Union (AU) is a federation consisting of all of Africa's states apart from Morocco. The union was formed, with Addis Ababa as its capital, on June 26, 2001. In July 2004, the capital of the African Union was relocated to Midrand, in the AU Constituent Republic of South Africa. However, the AU Commission has its headquarters at Addis Ababa. There is a policy in effect to decentralise the African Federation's institutions so that they are shared by all the states

The African Union, not to be confused with the AU Commission, is formed by an Act of Union which aims to transform the African Economic Community, a federated commonwealth, into a state, under established international conventions. The African Union has a parliamentary government, known as the African Union Government, consisting of legislative, judicial and executive organs, and led by the African Union President and Head of State, who is also the President of the Pan African Parliament. A person becomes AU President by being elected to the PAP, and subsequently gaining majority support in the PAP.

President Gertrude Ibengwe Mongella is the Head of State and Chief of Government of the African Union, by virtue of the fact that she is the President of the Pan African Parliament. She was elected by Parliament in its inaugural session in March 2004, for a term of five years. The PAP consists of 265 legislators, five from each constituent state of the African Union. Over 21% of the members of the PAP are female.

The powers and authority of the President of the African Parliament derive from the Union Act, and the Protocol of the Pan African Parliament, as well as the inheritance of presidential authority stipulated by African treaties and by international treaties, including those subordinating the Secretary General of the OAU Secretariat (AU Commission) to the PAP. The government of the AU consists of all-union (federal), regional, state, and municipal authorities, as well as hundreds of institutions, that together manage the day-to-day affairs of the institution.

Failed state policies, inequitable global trade practices, and the effects of global climate change have resulted in many widespread famines, and significant portions of Africa remain with distribution systems unable to disseminate enough food or water for the population to survive. What had before colonialism been the source for 90% of the world's gold has become the poorest continent on earth, its former riches enjoyed by those on other continents. The spread of disease is also rampant, especially the spread of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and the associated acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), which has become a deadly epidemic on the continent. Despite numerous hardships, there have been some signs the continent has hope for the future. Democratic governments seem to be spreading, though they are not yet the majority (The National Geographic Society claims 13 African nations can be considered truly democratic). Many nations have recognised basic human rights for all citizens and have created independent judiciaries.

There are clear signs of increased networking among African organisations and states. In the civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (former Zaire), rather than rich, non-African countries intervening, neighbouring African countries became involved (see also Second Congo War). Since the conflict began in 1998, the estimated death toll has reached 4 million. Many observers suggest that the conflict played a role similar to that of World War II, after which European countries integrated their societies in such a way that war between them becomes unthinkable. Political associations such as the African Union offer hope for greater co-operation and peace between the continent's many countries. Extensive human rights abuses still occur in several parts of Africa, often under the oversight of the state. Most of such violations occur for political reasons, often as a side effect of civil war. Countries where major human rights violations have been reported in recent times include the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Sudan, Zimbabwe, and Côte d'Ivoire.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006


Due largely to the effects of corrupt governments, despotism, and constant conflict, Africa is the world's poorest inhabited continent. According to the United Nations' Human Development Report in 2003, the bottom 25 ranked nations (151st to 175th) were all African nations.

While rapid growth in China and India, and moderate growth in Latin America has lifted millions beyond subsistence living, Africa has gone backwards in terms of foreign trade, investment, and per capita income. This poverty has widespread effects, including lower life expectancy, violence, and instability -- factors intertwined with the continent's poverty.

Some areas, notably Botswana and South Africa, have experienced economic success. The latter has a wealth of natural resources, being the world's leading producers of both gold and diamonds, and a well-established legal system. South Africa also has access to financial capital, numerous markets, skilled labor, and first world infrastructure in much of the country and the opening of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange.

Over a quarter of Botswana's budget (also a major diamond producer) goes toward improving the infrastructure of Gaborone, the nation's capital, largest city, and one of the world's fastest growing cities. Other African countries are making comparable progress, such as Ghana, Kenya, Cameroon and Egypt.

Nigeria sits on one of the largest proven oil reserves in the world and has the highest population among nations in Africa, with one of the fastest-growing economies in the world.

From 1995 to 2005, economic growth picked up, averaging 5% in 2005. However some countries experienced much higher growth (10+%) in particular, Angola, Sudan and Equatorial Guinea, all three of which have recently begun extracting their petroleum reserves.

Zimbabwe is the only country in Africa experiencing negative economic growth.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006


The last 40 years have seen a rapid increase in population; hence, this population is relatively young. In some African states half or more of the population is under 25 years old.[citation needed]

Speakers of Bantu languages (part of the Niger-Congo family) are the majority in southern, central and east Africa proper. But there are also several Nilotic groups in East Africa, and a few remaining indigenous Khoisan ('San' or 'Bushmen') and Pygmy peoples in southern and central Africa, respectively. Bantu-speaking Africans also predominate in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, and are found in parts of southern Cameroon and southern Somalia. In the Kalahari Desert of Southern Africa, the distinct people known as the Bushmen (also "San", closely related to, but distinct from "Hottentots") have long been present. The San are physically distinct from other Africans and are the indigenous people of southern Africa. Pygmies are the pre-Bantu indigenous peoples of central Africa.

The peoples of North Africa comprise two main groups; Berber and Arabic-speaking peoples in the west, and Egyptians in the east. The Arabs who arrived in the seventh century introduced the Arabic language and Islam to North Africa. The Semitic Phoenicians, the European Greeks, Romans and Vandals settled in North Africa as well. Berbers still make up the majority in Morocco, while they are a significant minority within Algeria. They are also present in Tunisia and Libya. The Tuareg and other often-nomadic peoples are the principal inhabitants of the Saharan interior of North Africa. Nubians are a Nilo-Saharan-speaking group (though many also speak Arabic), who developed an ancient civilisation in northeast Africa.

During the past century or so, small but economically important colonies of Lebanese and Chinese have also developed in the larger coastal cities of West and East Africa, respectively.

Some Ethiopian and Eritrean groups (like the Amhara and Tigrayans, collectively known as "Habesha") speak Semitic languages. The Oromo and Somali peoples speak Cushitic languages, but some Somali clans trace their founding to legendary Arab founders. Sudan and Mauritania are divided between a mostly Arabized north and a native African south (although the "Arabs" of Sudan clearly have a predominantly native African ancestry themselves). Some areas of East Africa, particularly the island of Zanzibar and the Kenyan island of Lamu, received Arab Muslim and Southwest Asian settlers and merchants throughout the Middle Ages and in antiquity.

Beginning in the sixteenth century, Europeans such as the Portuguese and Dutch began to establish trading posts and forts along the coasts of western and southern Africa. Eventually, a large number of Dutch augmented by French Huguenots and Germans settled in what is today South Africa. Their descendants, the Afrikaners and the Coloureds, are the largest European-descended groups in Africa today. In the nineteenth century, a second phase of colonisation brought a large number of French and British settlers to Africa. The Portuguese settled mainly in Angola, but also in Mozambique. The French settled in large numbers in Algeria where they became known collectively as pieds-noirs, and on a smaller scale in other areas of North and West Africa as well as in Madagascar. The British settled chiefly in South Africa as well as the colony of Rhodesia, and in the highlands of what is now Kenya. Germans settled in what is now Tanzania and Namibia, and there is still a population of German-speaking white Namibians. Smaller numbers of European soldiers, businessmen, and officials also established themselves in administrative centers such as Nairobi and Dakar. Decolonisation during the 1960s often resulted in the mass emigration of European-descended settlers out of Africa — especially from Algeria, Angola, Kenya and Rhodesia. However, in South Africa and Namibia, the white minority remained politically dominant after independence from Europe, and a significant population of Europeans remained in these two countries even after democracy was finally instituted at the end of the Cold War. South Africa has also become the preferred destination of white Anglo-Zimbabweans, and of migrants from all over southern Africa.

European colonisation also brought sizeable groups of Asians, particularly people from the Indian subcontinent, to British colonies. Large Indian communities are found in South Africa, and smaller ones are present in Kenya, Tanzania, and some other southern and east African countries. The large Indian community in Uganda was expelled by the dictator Idi Amin in 1972, though many have since returned. The islands in the Indian Ocean are also populated primarily by people of Asian origin, often mixed with Africans and Europeans. The Malagasy people of Madagascar are a Austronesian people, but those along the coast are generally mixed with Bantu, Arab, Indian and European origins. Malay and Indian ancestries are also important components in the group of people known in South Africa as Cape Coloureds (people with origins in two or more races and continents).

Sunday, January 08, 2006


By most estimates, Africa contains well over a thousand languages, some have estimated it to be over two thousand languages (most of African rather than European origin). Africa is the most polyglot continent in the world; it is not rare to find individuals there who fluently speak not only several African languages, but one or two European ones as well. There are four major language families native to Africa.

The Afro-Asiatic languages are a language family of about 240 languages and 285 million people widespread throughout East Africa, North Africa, the Sahel, and Southwest Asia.
The Nilo-Saharan language family consists of more than a hundred languages spoken by 30 million people. Nilo-Saharan languages are mainly spoken in Chad, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, Uganda, and northern Tanzania.
The Niger-Congo language family covers much of Sub-Saharan Africa and is probably the largest language family in the world in terms of different languages. A substantial number of them are the Bantu languages spoken in much of sub-Saharan Africa.
The Khoisan languages number about 50 and are spoken in Southern Africa by approximately 120 000 people. Many of the Khoisan languages are endangered. The Khoi and San peoples are considered the original inhabitants of this part of Africa.
Following colonialism, nearly all African countries adopted official languages that originated outside the continent, although several countries nowadays also use various languages of native origin (such as Swahili) as their official language. In numerous countries, English and French are used for communication in the public sphere such as government, commerce, education and the media. Arabic, Portuguese, Afrikaans and Malagasy are other examples of originally non-African languages that are used by millions of Africans today, both in the public and private spheres.