East Africa is a region that begins in Tanzania in the south and extends north through the great grasslands and scrub forest of the savannas of Kenya and Uganda and then across the highlands of Ethiopia, including the Great Rift Valley. The region also comprises the countries of Somalia, Djibouti, and Eritrea, which are located in the African Transition Zone between North Africa and Subsaharan Africa. Rwanda and Burundi are physically in East Africa but are covered in the lesson about Central Africa because of their border activities with the Congo.
The world’s second-largest lake by surface area is Lake Victoria, which borders Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya. (Lake Superior, on the border between the United States and Canada, is considered the lake with the largest surface area.) Lake Victoria provides fish and fresh water for millions of people in the surrounding region. The White Nile starts at Lake Victoria and flows north to the city of Khartoum in Sudan, where it converges with the Blue Nile to become the Nile River. The source of the Blue Nile is Lake Tana in the highlands of Ethiopia.
The highest mountain in Africa, Mt. Kilimanjaro (19,340 feet), is located in Tanzania near the border with Kenya.
The second highest peak, Mt. Kenya (17,058 feet), located just north of the country’s capital of Nairobi, near the equator, is the source of Kenya’s name.
Both mountains are inactive volcanoes and have permanent snow at their peaks. They provide fresh water, which flows down their mountainsides, to the surrounding areas. Mountain ranges in the Western Highlands of the Congo have a greater effect on climate than these two massive peaks. For example, the Rwenzori Mountains on the Congo–Uganda border have permanent snow and glaciers and reach elevations of more than sixteen thousand feet. These ranges create a rain shadow effect that cuts off moisture for the region from the westerly equatorial winds.
This same effect is created by the highlands of Ethiopia, which reach as high as fifteen thousand feet in elevation and restrict precipitation in areas to the east. The lower level of rainfall transforms much of the region from a tropical rain forest into a savanna-type landscape with few forests, more open grasslands, and sporadic trees. Dry desert-like conditions can be found in a number of places along the Great Rift Valley.
The Great Rift Valley
The Great Rift Valley provides evidence of a split in the African Plate, dividing it into two smaller tectonic plates: the Somalian Plate and the Nubian Plate. The Great Rift Valley in East Africa is divided into the Western Rift and the Eastern Rift. The Western Rift runs along the border with the Congo. A series of deepwater lakes run along its valley. On the western edge of the Western Rift are the highlands, which have a series of high-elevation mountain ranges, including the Rwenzori Mountains, the highest in the series. The Virunga Mountains on the Congo–Uganda border are home to endangered mountain gorillas.
The Western Rift includes a series of deepwater lakes, such as Lake Tanganyika, Lake Edward, and Lake Albert. Lake Victoria is located between the Western Rift and the Eastern Rift.
The Eastern Rift does not have deepwater lakes; rather, it is a wide valley or basin with shallow lakes that do not have outlets. The lakes have higher levels of sodium carbonate and mineral buildup because of a high rate of evaporation. The differences in water composition of the lakes along the Eastern Rift vary from freshwater to extremely alkaline. Alkaline water creates an ideal breeding ground for algae and other species of fish, such as tilapia, which thrive in this environment. Millions of birds feed off the abundant supply of algae and fish. Birds attract other wildlife, which in turn creates a unique set of environmental ecosystems. The eastern edge of the Eastern Rift is home to the inactive volcanic peaks of Mt. Kilimanjaro and Mt. Kenya. A number of other volcanic peaks are present in the Eastern Rift, such as Ol Doinyo Lengai, an active volcano.
Serengeti and Game Reserves
The Great Rift Valley and the surrounding savannas in Kenya and Tanzania are home to some of the largest game reserves in Africa, with a broad variety of big game animals. One of these large regions is the vast Serengeti Plain, located in northern Tanzania and southern Kenya.
The governments of Tanzania and Kenya maintain national parks, national game reserves, and wildlife sanctuaries in their countries, most notably in the Serengeti Plain. Legal protection for as much as 80 percent of the Serengeti has been provided. The protections restrict hunting and commercial agriculture and provide protection status for the wildlife. The word Serengeti means “Endless Plains.”
The Serengeti Plain is host to an extraordinary diversity of large mammals and fauna. The largest migration of land animals in the world occurs in the Serengeti. Every fall and spring, as many as two million wildebeests, antelope, and other grazing animals migrate from the northern hills to the southern plains in search of grass and food.
The average family size in East Africa is about 5.5, which is typical of the entire continent of Africa and translates into exploding population growth. In many areas of Africa in general and East Africa in particular, most of the population (as much as 80 percent) makes its living off the land in agricultural pursuits. Large families in rural areas create the conditions for the highest levels of rural-to-urban shift of any continent in the world. The large cities are an attractive draw for people seeking greater employment opportunities. In East Africa, each of the three largest cities—Nairobi, Dar es Salaam, and Addis Ababa—is more populous than Chicago, the third-largest US city. In West Africa, the city of Lagos, Nigeria, is more populous than New York City and Chicago combined.
Cities heavily affected by a high level of rural-to-urban shift often cannot build infrastructure fast enough to keep up with demand. Self-constructed slums and squatter settlements, which lack basic public services such as electricity, sewage disposal, running water, or transportation systems, circle the cities.
All the large cities of Africa are expanding at unsustainable rates. Traffic congestion, trash buildup, higher crime rates, health problems, and air pollution are some of the common results.
During colonial times, the British considered the land area now called Kenya to be a Crown protectorate area. The coastal city of Mombassa has been an international shipping port for centuries and is now the busiest port in the region.
Persian, Arab, Indian, and even Chinese ships made port in Mombassa during its earliest years to take part in the lucrative trade of slaves, ivory, and spices. Portugal sought early control of the trade center but eventually lost out to Britain. Arab and Middle Eastern shippers brought Islam to the region; Europeans brought Christianity. Hinduism and Sikhism from India found their way into the country with workers brought over by the British to help build a railroad to Uganda. Kenya gained independence in 1963 and has worked throughout the latter part of the twentieth century to establish a stable democratic government.
Kenya’s climate and geography varies by location. The climate along the coast is tropical. The further inside Kenya, the more arid the climate becomes. Snowfall occurs on the highest mountains.The Kenyan Highlands are one of the most successful agricultural production regions in Africa. Tea is one of its most valuable exports.
Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, has become a central core urban area that serves the greater East African region as an economic hub for development and globalization. The largest city in the region, Nairobi is an ever-expanding city that draws in people from rural areas seeking opportunities and advantages. It also has become a destination for international corporations planning to expand business ventures into Africa.
Kenya has no one culture that identifies it. There are more than forty different ethnic groups in Kenya, each with its own unique cultural history and traditions. Of the many ethnic groups in Kenya, the Maasai have gained international attention and are often given wide exposure in tourism information.
The Maasai are a small minority of Kenya’s population but are known for wearing vivid attire and unique jewelry.
Their historical lands have been the border region between Kenya and Tanzania. Cattle, a sign of wealth, have been at the center of Maasai traditions and culture and provide for their subsistence and livelihood. The following video is how the Maasai practice polygamy, but also gives insight into their culture (nothing inappropriate is discussed). It’s a long video (almost 30 min.), but interesting.
You can read a great book about a Maasai boy (my children and I read this book and enjoyed it):
Facing the Lion: Growing Up Maasai on the African Savanna
Joseph Lemasolai Lekuton gives American kids a firsthand look at growing up in Kenya as a member of a tribe of nomads whose livelihood centers on the raising and grazing of cattle. Readers share Lekuton’s first encounter with a lion, the epitome of bravery in the warrior tradition. They follow his mischievous antics as a young Maasai cattle herder, coming-of-age initiation, boarding school escapades, soccer success, and journey to America for college. Lekuton’s riveting text combines exotic details of nomadic life with the universal experience and emotions of a growing boy
Another ethnic group is the Samburu who are semi-nomadic pastoralists who herd mainly cattle but also keep sheep, goats, and camels. Milk is a valued part of Samburu contemporary diet when available, and may be drunk either fresh or fermented; “ripened” milk is often considered superior. Meat from cattle is eaten mainly on ceremonial occasions, or when a cow happens to die. Blood is both taken from living animals, and collected from slaughtered ones.
Kenyans generally have three meals a day plus tea at 4 p.m. Of course different ethnic groups’ meals and traditions vary.
With more than 114 million inhabitants, Ethiopia has the second-largest population in Africa; Nigeria has the largest population. Ethiopia was never colonized by the Europeans in the scramble for Africa, but during World War II, it suffered a brief occupation by Italy (1936–41). From 1930 to 1974, Emperor Haile Selassie ruled the country until he was deposed in a military coup. Many Rastafarians in Jamaica consider Selassie to be the second coming of Christ and a messiah for the African people. According to Rastafarian traditions, Ethiopia was the biblical Zion. After Selassie was deposed, the government shifted to a one-party Communist state. Successive years in Ethiopia were filled with massive uprisings, bloody coups, and devastating droughts, which brought about massive refugee problems and civil unrest. Famine in the 1980s caused the deaths of more than a million people. The Communist element in Ethiopia diminished when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. The country’s first multiparty elections were held in 1995.
The region of Eritrea had been a part of a federation with Ethiopia. In 1993, Eritrea declared independence, sparking a boundary war with Ethiopia that eventually concluded in a peace treaty and independence in 2000. The final boundary is still disputed. The breaking off of Eritrea left Ethiopia a landlocked country with no port city.
The capital and largest city in Ethiopia is Addis Ababa, which is the center for various international organizations serving East Africa and Africa in general, such as the African Union and the United Nations (UN) Economic Commission for Africa. This city is the hub of activity for the country and for international aid for the region.
The Great Rift Valley bisects Ethiopia. Highlands dominate the northwest, and minor highlands exist southwest of the rift. The Ethiopian Plateau encompasses the Northwest Highlands and is home to Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile. Elevations on the Ethiopian Plateau average more than 5,000 feet, and the highest peak, Ras Dashan, reaches up to 14,928 feet. The Ethiopian Highlands cover most of the country and have a climate which is generally considerably cooler than other regions at similar proximity to the Equator.
The climate includes sporadic rain in early spring. The typical rainy season extends from June to September, but the rest of the year is usually dry. The high elevations of the highlands cause a rain shadow effect in the deep valleys or basins on the dry side of the region. Eastern Ethiopia is arid, with desert-like conditions.
Ethiopia has been inhabited by divergent kingdoms and civilizations, giving rise to a rich heritage and many cultural traditions—so much so that Ethiopia is home to eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites. More than 60 percent of the population claims Christianity as its belief system; about 30 percent of the population is Muslim. Many traditional religions prevail in rural areas. In contrast to other African countries, Christianity came to Ethiopia directly from the Middle East rather than from European colonizers or missionaries from Western countries. In Ethiopia, Christianity was structured into the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, a church that has endured through centuries.
Religious tradition claims that the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is in possession of the lost Ark of the Covenant, which once rested in the holy of holies in the great temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. However, no direct evidence supports this claim. Ethiopia does not use the Gregorian calendar, which is the calendar used in the most of the Western world; rather, Ethiopia uses a calendar based upon the calendar of the Coptic Christian Church, which is about eight years behind the Gregorian calendar because of differences in how the year is calculated and in differences in the dating of the life of Jesus.
The large and growing population of Ethiopia is made up of an array of ethnic groups. The three largest ethnic groups are Oromo (35 percent), Amhara (27 percent), and Tigray (6 percent).
A number of minority ethnic groups make up the remaining 32 percent. The dominance of the Oromo, Amhara, and Tigray groups provides advantages when it comes to determining which language to use for primary education or in community politics in a region.
At least eighty-four separate local languages are spoken in Ethiopia. The lingua franca for higher education and for common use is English. The tradition in many elementary schools is to use Amharic as the primary language for instruction, but this is breaking down as other languages increase in usage because of population increases. Ethiopia uses the Ge’ez script in addition to English letters.
The best-known Ethiopian cuisine consists of various types of thick meat stews, known as wat in Ethiopian culture, and vegetable side dishes served atop injera, a large sourdough flatbread made of teff flour. Teff is a type of grass. This is not eaten with utensils, but instead one uses the injera to scoop up the entrées and side dishes. Almost universally in Ethiopia, it is common to eat from the same dish in the center of the table with a group of people. It is also a common custom to feed others in your group with your own hand. Traditional Ethiopian cuisine employs no pork or shellfish of any kind, as they are forbidden in the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian, Islamic and Jewish faiths.
The country presently called Somalia resisted the forces of European colonizers scrambling for African land in the 1800s. The various kingdoms and their powerful leaders kept the colonial forces out well beyond World War I. Somalia’s close vicinity to the Arabian Peninsula and the prevalence of Arab trade provided a direct connection through which Islam was quickly diffused from Arabia to Africa.
It was not until 1920, as a direct result of the use of airplanes in warfare, that the northern region of Somaliland buckled under to the British colonial forces. The eastern and southern regions were soon dominated by Italy. Britain finally withdrew from British Somaliland in 1960. The country then joined with the Italian portions of the region to form a new nation, Somalia. An authoritarian socialist regime established power in 1969 and lasted until 1991. The socialist regime in Somalia initiated a territorial war in 1978 in an attempt to gain back territory in the eastern parts of Ethiopia’s Ogaden region, which was once part of the various Somalian kingdoms. The war only intensified the divisions in the region. After 1991, the country descended into political chaos, economic turmoil, and factional fighting.
Northern clans who opposed the central government broke away in a move toward independence, and the old British Somaliland became the Republic of Somaliland in 1991.
Somaliland operates independently from the rest of Somalia and prints its own currency. The northeast region of the country referred to as Puntland also broke away from the central government.
Somaliland sought total independence, while Puntland was in favor of belonging to a national union but wanted to maintain autonomy. Both autonomous regions have their own governments and are relatively stable, but they have had conflicts regarding the territory between them. Neither is recognized by outside entities as independent countries.
Southern Somalia has been broken down into regions ruled by warlords who have pillaged the country and control vital transportation links. A total government breakdown occurred in 1991, leading to a meltdown in all areas of society. Food distribution was hampered through pillaging and a lack of fuel and structured transportation. Electrical power was lost and clan warfare became the rule of law. A famine subsequently caused an estimated three hundred thousand deaths. The UN stepped in with food and peacekeeping troops, and in 1992, the United States dispatched marines in Operation Restore Hope, which stabilized the distribution of food but was unsuccessful in stabilizing the political situation and establishing a legitimate government.
In 1993, nineteen US soldiers were killed in a battle in the capital, Mogadishu, after of which the US withdrew its troops. That incident is portrayed in the movie Black Hawk Down.
The UN withdrew its peacekeeping troops in 1995.
Despite a lack of effective national governance, the informal economy in Somalia continues to thrive. Trading through personal transactions and the private marketplace continues to provide for the needs of the people. The main sources of revenue are agricultural goods and livestock, as well as money sent by people from outside the country to their families in Somalia. Income from piracy on the high seas has brought in millions to the private warlords that manage the operations. Stabilizing the country and showing economic progress will remain a difficult task for whoever leads Somalia.
The cuisine of Somalia, which varies from region to region, is a mixture of diverse culinary influences. It is the product of Somalia’s rich tradition of trade and commerce. Despite the variety, there remains one thing that unites the various regional cuisines: all food is served halal. There are therefore no pork dishes, alcohol is not served, nothing that died on its own is eaten, and no blood is incorporated. Somalis serve dinner as late as 9 pm. During Ramadan, the evening meal is often presented after Tarawih prayers; sometimes up to 11 pm.
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Additional information and image credits:
East Africa map Updated from map courtesy of University of Texas Libraries.https://open.lib.umn.edu/worldgeography/chapter/7-5-east-africa/
Rift USGS – public domain.
Somalia map CIA – public domain.
Kilimanjaro By © Sergey Pesterev / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54046333
Virunga By Nickolayvladim – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20763602
Silverback By Judithcomm – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31582041
Lengai By Clem23 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2027089
Migration gif By Afripot – http://www.afripotsafaris.com/, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15800230
Giraffes By Harvey Barrison from Massapequa, NY, USA – Eastern Serengeti_2012 05 31_2866Uploaded by Elitre, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21466153
Topi By Charles J Sharp – Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54592937
Warthog By Charles J Sharp – Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=55512532
Kenya map By OCHA, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34011958
Diani Beach By Łukasz Ciesielski – kontakt: Facebook – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18873129
Hindu temple By FredD – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25865458
maasai By Brutere – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12114798
Maasai woman By Author:Jack-z, Description:Maasai Woman Meeyu Sale Wearing her Finest by our Request, Attribution, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32699085
Ugali By Paresh Jai from Nairobi, Kenya – Ugali & Sukuma WikiUploaded by Common Good, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19729825
Gourd By Stephenwanjau – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17442771
Githeri By Mukuba – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35832769
Ethiopia map By OCHA, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34854908
Eritrea By OCHA, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32293939
Addis Ababa By Laika ac from UK – Addis Ababa, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49199986
Semien CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?
Cattle herd in river bed By Sonjamariavienna – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=88544724
Oromo By Mekonnen B.Gedefa – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44498496
Tigray women at a wedding By CharlesFred – https://www.flickr.com/photos/charlesfred/42252717/sizes/z/in/photostream/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18362788
Ethiopian script By Plate XII. The S.S. Teacher’s Edition: The Holy Bible. New York: Henry Frowde, Publisher to the University of Oxford, 1896., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36978
Ethiopian dish By Rama – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.0 fr, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63036
Puntland By Jamamd – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36228112
Somali camel meat dish By Richard Faulder – Flickr, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11187077
Halwo By Middayexpress – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8290614