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Encyclopedia > Africans
World map showing location of Africa
World map showing location of Africa
A satellite composite image of Africa

Africa is the world's second_largest continent in both area and population, after Asia. At c. 30,244,050 km2 (11,677,240 mi2) including its adjacent islands, it covers 20.3% of the total land area on Earth, and with over 800 million human inhabitants in 54 countries, it accounts for about one seventh of Earth's human population.

The ancient Romans used the name Africa terra — "land of the Afri" (plural, or "Afer" singular) — for the northern part of the continent, corresponding to modern-day Tunisia, where the Roman province of Africa was located. The origin of Afer may be the Phoenician `afar, dust; the Afridi tribe, who dwelt in Northern Africa around the area of Greek aphrike, without cold; or Latin aprica, sunny.



Main article: Geography of Africa

Africa in the Blue marble picture

Africa is the largest of the three great southward projections from the main mass of the earth's surface. It includes within its remarkably regular outline an area, of c. 30,244,050 km2 (11,677,240 mi2), including the islands.

Separated from Europe by the Mediterranean Sea, it is joined to Asia at its northeast extremity by the Isthmus of Suez, 130 km (80 miles) wide. From the most northerly point, Ras ben Sakka in South Africa, 34°51′15″ S, is a distance approximately of 8,000 km (5,000 miles); from Cape Verde, 17°33′22″ W, the westernmost point, to Ras Hafun in Somalia, 51°27′52″ E, the most easterly projection, is a distance (also approximately) of 7,400 km (4,600 miles). The length of coast-line is 26,000 km (16,100 miles) and the absence of deep indentations of the shore is shown by the fact that Europe, which covers only 9,700,000 km2 (3,760,000 square miles), has a coast-line of 32,000 km (19,800 miles).

The main structural lines of the continent show both the east-to-west direction characteristic, at least in the eastern hemisphere, of the more northern parts of the world, and the north-to-south direction seen in the southern peninsulas. Africa is thus composed of two segments at right angles, the northern running from east to west, the southern from north to south, the subordinate lines corresponding in the main to these two directions.


Main article: History of Africa

Africa is home to the oldest inhabited territory on earth, and it is believed the human race originated from this continent.

For most of humanity's history, Africa (and all other continents) had no states, and was instead inhabited by many small, loosely associated tribal groups, kingdoms, and families; while Egypt was probably the first state ever formed, much of sub-Saharan Africa, with the exception of Ethiopia, the Nubian kingdom, and the kingdoms of the Sahel (Ghana, Mali, and Sanghay)remained effectively state-less until recently. In the 14th century European explorers arrived in Africa. By bargaining with some local tribal leaders, Europeans were able to capture millions of Africans, and export them for labour around the world in what became known as the global slave trade. In the early 19th century the European imperial powers staged a massive "scramble for Africa" and occupied most of the continent, creating many colonial states, leaving only two independent nations (Liberia and Ethiopia). This occupation continued until the conclusion of the Second World War, after which all colonial states gradually obtained formal independence. Today, Africa is home to over 50 independent countries, many of which still have borders drawn during the era of European colonialism.


Map showing European claimants to the African continent at the beginning of
Map showing European claimants to the African continent at the beginning of World War I

The vast majority of African nations are republics that operate under some form of the presidential system of rule.

Since independence, African states have frequently been hampered by instability, corruption, violence, and authoritarianism. Until recently, few nations in Africa were able to sustain democratic governments, instead cycling through a series of brutal coups and military dictatorships.

Many of Africa's post-colonial political leaders were very poorly educated or ignorant on matters of governance, which led to great instability. Others were corrupt and dictatorial, outlawing opposition immediately upon assuming office, and suppressing the European-made constitutions and parliaments.

As well, many used the positions of power to re-ignite old tribal conflicts which had been suppressed under colonial rule. In many countries, the military was perceived as being the only group that could effectively maintain order and ruled most nations in Africa during the 70s and early 80s.

During the period from the early 1960s to the late 1980s Africa had over 70 coups and 13 presidential assassinations.

Cold War conflicts between the Soviet Union also played a role in the 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 or Angola and Mozambique aligned themselves with the South Africa sought to contain Soviet influence.

Border and territorial disputes have also been common, with the European-imposed borders of many nations being widely contested through armed conflicts.

Failed government policies and political corruption have also 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. The spread of dangerous diseases is also rampant, especially the deadly HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Despite numerous hardships, there have been some signs the continent has hope for the future. Democratic governments seem to be spreading, though are not yet the majority. As well, many nations have at least nominally recognized basic human rights for all citizens, and have created reasonably independent judiciaries.

As well, under pressure from international financial institutions like the IMF, many African governments have been able to turn their economies around, so that they have started to show positive growth according to conventional economic measurements after decades of negative or zero growth. It remains to be seen if such developments will be able to survive long term, however.

There are clear signs of increased networking among African organisations and states. In the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (former Zaire), rather than rich, non-African countries intervening, about half-a-dozen neighbouring African countries got involved (see also Second Congo War). The death toll has been estimated by some to be 3.5 million since the conflict began in 1998. This might play a role similar to that of Germany would be today.

Political associations such as the African Union are also offering hope for greater co-operation and peace between the continent's many countries.


Main article: Economy of Africa

Africa is by far the world's poorest inhabited continent, and more saliently it is on average poorer than it was 25 years ago.

The United Nations' Human Development Report 2003 (of 175 countries) found that positions 151 (Gambia) to 175 (Sierra Leone) were taken up entirely by African nations.

It has had (and in some ways is still having) a shaky and uncertain transition from colonialism, with the ensuing Cold War and increases in corruption and despotism being major contributing factors to its poor economic situation. While rapid growth in China and now India, and moderate growth in South America, has lifted millions beyond subsistence living, Africa has stagnated, even going backwards in terms of foreign trade, investment, and per capita income. This poverty has widespread effects, including low life expectancy, violence, and instability - factors intertwined with the continent's poverty. Over the decades a number of solutions have been proposed and many attempted, but no improvement scheme has shown much success.


Approximately 80% of Africans live south of the Sahara Desert. The indigenous peoples of sub-Saharan Africa are generally referred to as either Negroes (a term widely viewed as offensive or antiquated in many countries today), black Africans, or simply blacks, due to the generally dark brown skin color of these peoples. However, there is a wide variety of physical types found amongst the sub_Saharan African peoples (two particular extremes are the Masai who are known for their tall stature, and Pygmies who are among the world's shortest adults). Recent genetic studies indicate that the black African population is indeed highly diverse, despite the perceived racial uniformity of the region.

Speakers of Bantu languages predominate in much of western, central, and southern Africa. In the Kalahari Desert of Southern Africa, a distinct people known as the Bushmen (also "San" or "Hottentots") have long been present.

While "African" and "black" are often viewed as synonymous in much of the West, a large minority of Africans, especially in the northern and southern portions of the continent, are not black Africans.

The peoples of North Africa are primarily descended from the speakers of Afro-Asiatic languages. These peoples include the ancient Egyptians, the Berbers, and Nubians who developed civilizations in North Africa during ancient times. The Semitic Phoenicians, and the European Greeks and Romans settled in North Africa as well. In the 600s, Muslim Arabs swept across North Africa from the east and conquered the entire region within a hundred years. The North Africans today are descended from indigenous North Africans such as the Berbers, ancient Europeans, Arabs, and black Africans from south of the Sahara. In general the Arab-speaking population is highly mixed, and individuals in North African countries range in appearance from black Africans to people who resemble many European whites.

Berber peoples remain a significant minority within Morocco and Algeria, and 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.

Peoples such as Ethiopians and Somalis are usually regarded as "black Africans", but historically are of mixed ancestry as well, and have links to both North African and sub-Saharan cultures. Several African nations, such as Sudan and Mauritania are divided between a mostly Arab north and a black African south (though many of the "Arabs" are essentially Arabized blacks or people of mixed origin).

Some areas of Eastern Africa, particularly the island of Zanzibar also received Arab and Asian Muslim settlers and merchants during the Middle Ages. Beginning in the 1500s, 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, are the largest white group in South Africa today.

In the 1800s a second phase of colonization brought a large number of French and British settlers to Africa. The French settled in large numbers in Algeria and on a smaller scale in other areas of North and West Africa. The British settled in South Africa as well as the colony of Rhodesia and in the highlands of what is now Kenya. Smaller numbers of European soldiers, businessmen, and officials also established themselves in administrative centers such as Nairobi and Dakar.

Decolonization during the 1960s often resulted in the mass exodus of European-descended settlers out of Africa, especially in Algeria, Kenya, and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). However in South Africa, the white minority (10% of the population) largely remained in the country after the end of white rule in 1994. South Africa also has a community of mixed-race people (Coloured people).

European colonization also brought sizeable groups of Asians, particularly people from the Indian subcontinent to British colonies. Large Indo-African communities are found in South Africa, and smaller ones are present in Kenya and Tanzania. A fairly large Indian community in Uganda was expelled by the dictator Idi Amin in 1972.

Africans profess a wide variety of religious beliefs. The two most widespread religious groups of Africa, Christianity and Islam, have their roots in Southwest Asia. Approximately 40% of all Africans are Christians and another 40% Muslims. Some Africans (in Ethiopia and Egypt) adopted Christianity in the early centuries of the Christian Era - before most of Europe. However, Christianity was introduced to most of western and southern Africa by European missionaries or settlers during the colonial period.

Islam largely arrived in Africa through the Arab conquest of the north, and later diffusion through the Sahara desert into the interior of Africa. Some Muslim communities were also established by seafarers on the eastern coast of Africa. Muslims were also among the Asian peoples who settled in British-ruled Africa.

Roughly 20% of Africans follow indigenous African religions. A small number of Africans also have beliefs from the Judaic tradition (Falashas, Lemba).


Main article: African language

There are four major language families native to Africa.

Languages of Europe have also acquired prominence; English and French, for example, are official languages in several countries.


Most northern countries, from Egypt to Morocco, have people who largely associate themselves as part of the Arabic culture. To the south of the Sahara, there are many distinct cultural areas, sometimes quite small; a large part of those can be associated to the Bantu linguistic group.

List of African writers
African art
African cinema


Africa is home to a wide variety of different religious groups. Christianity and Islam have a significant presence in many countries, while others retain regionally unique tribal beliefs and customs.


Map of Africa

East Africa

Central Africa

Northern Africa

Southern Africa

West Africa

See also

External links

  • Travel guide to Africa from Wikitravel
  • http://www.francewatcher.org/
  • Scandal of African Poverty (http://www.globalpolitician.com/articles.asp?ID=195)
  • Education in the Quest for Responsible Governance in Africa (http://www.globalpolitician.com/articles.asp?ID=186)
  • Commission for Africa (http://www.commissionforafrica.org/english.htm)
  • Open Directory Project - Africa (http://dmoz.org/Regional/Africa/)
  • An Irish anarchist in Africa (http://flag.blackened.net/revolt/africa/accounts/chekov.html) provides a readable and compelling, but biased, introduction to today's western Africa.
  • The Contemporary Africa Database (http://africadatabase.org/)
  • AllAfrica.Com (http://allafrica.com/), current news/events, information, economy stats, etc.
  • African Anarchism: The History of a Movement (http://www.zabalaza.net/texts/african_anarchism/contents.htm)
  • Guide to Travelling Throughout Africa (http://www.takesomeaction.co.uk/safari.html)
  • http://www.lib.utexas.edu/maps/africa/

Continents of the World
Africa | Antarctica | Australia | Europe | North America | South America

(The Pacific Islands in Oceania are not part of any continent.)

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