Key facts about Africa. Geographical maps of Africa
Detailed maps of Africa for free use. The region includes 54 independent states. Physical maps regions of Africa with cities, rivers and lakes..
Africa facts file
Africa, the world's second-largest continent, covers 30.3 million sq km (11.6 million sq miles). It is separated from Europe by the Mediterranean Sea and from Asia by the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. It is bounded by the Atlantic Ocean to the west and the Indian Ocean to the east.
Africa can be broadly divided in two based on culture and to some extent climate: North Africa, and Africa south of the Sahara. Arid North Africa includes Morocco, Western Sahara, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, all of which are climatically and culturally akin to the Middle East.
South of them a semiarid zone stretches across Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad, Sudan, Ethiopia, and Somalia. Humid tropical Africa includes Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Cote d'lvoire, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Gabon, Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire), Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Angola, Zambia, Malawi, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique. Southern Africa includes large regions of semiarid and arid land. Namibia is largely desert and there are extensive arid areas in Botswana and South Africa.
Physical features Africa
Africa consists of a number of plateaus, dissected in the east by the Rift Valley. Volcanic eruptions and elongated lakes and valleys are found along this rift. The Atlas Mountains in the northwest of the continent are the only geologically recent mountains in Africa.
Africa has several long rivers. The Nile, around 6,693 km (4,l60 miles) long, arises in the Kenyan highlands, flows north and disgorges in the Mediterranean. The basins of the Congo (around 4,630 km [2,880 miles] long), the Zambeze (around 2,735 km [1,700 miles] long) and the Niger (around 4,100 km [2,150 miles]) cover vast areas.
Climate and vegetation
Africa is a continent of climatic contrasts. Arid North Africa contains the world's largest hot desert, the Sahara. Drought- and fire-resistant shrubs and grasses are found there. To its north lie narrow zones along the Mediterranean coast with cool, wet winters and hot, dry summers.
On the southern border of the Sahara lies the Sahel, consisting of thorny woodlands and grasslands with scattered trees. Rainfall is generally low and variable. The area is prone to severe droughts, such as those in the 1980s in Ethiopia and in the 1990s in Somalia. Injudicious cattle herding and grain farming contributed to desertification.
In central and west Africa, equatorial and tropical conditions prevail, with annual rainfall exceeding 1,270 mm (50 in). Forests and woodlands cover large areas. The forests are layered— shrubs and mosses at lower layers and large tree canopies at higher layers. Each layer possesses abundant and distinct wildlife. East Africa has a monsoon climate, and its forests are less dense. In areas of lesser rainfall (less than 380 mm [15 in]), thorny woodlands and grasslands occur. The forests of Africa harbor chimpanzees and gorillas, and their bird life is profuse.
The vegetation of the semiarid lands of the southernmost part of Africa, notably around the borders of the Kalahari Desert, consists of thorny scrub and grasslands. A greater variety of plants occurs in the wetter coastal and upland areas of the southeast parts of South Africa.
Africa's savannas possess among the richest and most diverse animal populations of the world. Zebras, antelopes, giraffes, elephants, rhinoceros, and wildebeest roam in herds, preyed upon by carnivores such as lions, tigers, leopards, hyenas, jackals, and foxes. Bird life includes ostriches and raptors such as eagles and hawks.
Large-scale hunting of wildlife, begun during the colonial era, has had a major impact on Africa's animals. The most notable example has been the quest for ivory—world bans on the trading of ivory have reduced the threat to elephant populations. Other threatened species are white and black rhinoceros, the pygmy hippopotamus, the black wildebeest and some types of zebra.
Islands off the African coast also have their distinct (and distinctive) plant and animal species, notably the lemurs in Madagascar, and the seas are also rich in animal life, including whales, seals, dugongs, and manatees.
Zebras (left) and elephants (top) are among the most beloved of African animals. These Sudanese people (center) are migrating to Egypt in search of work.
From being the apparent origin of the human species, Africa's population has grown to 795.7 million people (2000). The high rate of population increase between 1985 and 1990 of three percent per annum put pressure on resources and food supplies; currently the growth rate has fallen to 2.2 percent. Life expectancies are low in comparison with other continents: 47.9 years for males and 50 years for females.
In arid North Africa, populations are concentrated along the Mediterranean. In Egypt, ninety percent of the country's people live along the banks of the Nile River and on its delta. In humid tropical Africa, populations are more dispersed.
A lack of employment in rural areas during the twentieth century has caused a drift to the cities, resulting in fringe urban settlements with poor facilities. In 2000, an estimated 37.2 percent of Africa's people lived in urban areas.
More than sixty percent of Africa's people depend upon agriculture for their livelihood. Farming is mostly of the subsistence variety—the Hausa people in the west African savannas grow grains and herd animals, and the Tuareg people in the Sahara practice pastoralism, for example.
Rice, maize, and wheat are grown in several parts of Africa, either where rainfall is adequate or through the use of irrigation (in Egypt and Nigeria). Fruits and vegetables are also grown: bananas and mangoes in humid tropical areas, date palms in arid areas, and citrus fruits, grapes, and olives in areas with a Mediterranean climate.
Plantation agriculture and large-scale farming were established by Europeans in tropical humid Africa and southern Africa. The plantations provide some countries with their main export earnings—tea and coffee in Burundi and Rwanda, peanuts in Senegal, and tobacco in Malawi.
Prolonged droughts in several parts of Africa, especially in the semiarid Sahel, have severely affected food production. Agricultural production has also been disrupted by civil wars and wars between neighboring countries.
In the countries of the Gulf of Guinea, tropical forests are logged for valuable timbers including mahogany, but forest depletion destroys animal habitats and may affect the global climate.
Mineral-rich Africa exports most of the minerals it extracts. Algeria, Libya, and Nigeria are major petroleum producers, and oil is also found in Angola, Benin, Guinea-Bissau, and Egypt; natural gas occurs in Algeria, Libya, and Egypt. A rich metallic ore belt extending from central to southern Africa contains copper, zinc, and lead in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zambia, iron ore in South Africa and Zimbabwe, nickel in Botswana and South Africa, and manganese in South Africa. South Africa is a major gold and platinum producer. Diamonds are mined in Namibia, South Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Angola. Uranium is found in the Central African Republic.
Several African countries obtain more than half their export earnings from a single commodity: Libya, Nigeria, Gabon, Angola, and Egypt from petroleum; Guinea from bauxite. Even South Africa, with its diversified economy, depends on gold for forty percent of its export earnings.
Despite the continent's natural resources, there are no developed countries in Africa. A large proportion of African countries have low indicators for nutrition, education, health, and life expectancy. The United Nations designates these as the world's least developed nations. Several countries, such as Somalia and the Sudan, are not self-sufficient in food production and have during drought and war desperately needed food and aid.
Relatively few African countries have developed significant manufacturing industries. The major exception is South Africa, which now exports machinery and other equipment. During the years of apartheid, however, their racially-based separate development policy created a wide gulf in living standards between the majority black and minority white populations, which will take considerable time to bridge. Egypt and Kenya produce textiles, processed foods, and cement.
A large number of languages are spoken in Africa, but many, such as Tigre and Chadic in northeast Africa and Berber in North Africa, are restricted to small tribal groups. Zulu is spoken by a large group in South Africa. Arabic is the main language of North Africa and the adjoining countries just south of the Sahara. Some languages are widely used, such as Swahili in east Africa and Hausa in west Africa. Malagasy, spoken in Madagascar, is related to Southeast Asian languages.
This traditionally costumed dancer from Malawi (above right) entertains at both funerals and more cheerful festivities.
During the colonial period, several European languages became official languages in various parts of Africa, and French, Portuguese, and English are still spoken over large areas. These languages allow communication between tribal groups which speak different languages.
Boundary disputes and wars in Africa
From the sixteenth century onward, Africa was overrun by colonial powers including France, Britain, Portugal, Spain, and Germany. The colonists had great impact in the areas of language, law, and education. The current borders of the nations of Africa were determined during colonial times, too, and often cut across tribal areas, separating members of the same ethnic groups while bringing together traditionally antagonistic tribes: The Somalis for instance found themselves in Somalia, Kenya, and Ethiopia.
Following decolonization, several tribal conflicts have erupted, such as the genocide of Tutsis by the Hutus in Rwanda in 1994. Nigeria had a lengthy period of insurrection when its southern part seceded to form the short-lived Republic of Biafra. A similar conflict currently rages in southern Sudan. These internal conflicts and military coups have inhibited development in large areas of Africa—the civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo between 1999 and 2003 killed approximately 2.5 million people; war-torn Somalia has, at present, no effective central government; and Zulu demands for greater autonomy are causing tension in South Africa.