Human Geography of Sub-Saharan Africa

An Overview of Sub-Saharan Africa | World101

Economic Geography

The interesting part of studying Sub-Saharan Africa is the many ethnic and cultural groups in each country that bring to the surface a wide array of global diversity in our human community. Within each and every country are microcosms of human societies that hold particular customs that may be thousands of years old. Globalization and technological advancements challenge every cultural group to adapt and innovate to make a living yet provide continuity in their heritage.

Most of the population in Sub-Saharan Africa works in subsistence agriculture to make a living and feed their families.

Farming in Ethiopia
Farming in Ethiopia

Families are large. In recent decades, there has been enormous rural-to-urban migration to large cities, which are extremely overcrowded. Sub-Saharan Africa has more than 750 million people, and most earn the US equivalent of only $1–3 per day.

As much as 70 percent of the people still work in agriculture, leaving little time to develop a large educated group of professionals to assist with social services and administrative responsibilities. The realm depends heavily on outside support for technical and financial assistance. Computers, medical equipment, and other high-tech goods are all imported. African states have formed trade agreements and have joined the African Union to assist each other in economic development and trade.

The photo on the left is of side-street vendors in Senegal, who might contribute to the informal market system that is prevalent in many Subsaharan African countries. Cash and bartering are the main methods of payment. The photo on the right is of a shopping mall in Zimbabwe, which is part of the formal market system that is regulated and taxed by the government.
The photo on the left is of side-street vendors in Senegal, who might contribute to the informal market system that is prevalent in many Sub-Saharan African countries. Cash and bartering are the main methods of payment. The photo on the right is of a shopping mall in Zimbabwe, which is part of the formal market system that is regulated and taxed by the government.

Sub-Saharan Africa has nearly forty urban areas of more than one million people. At the center of the central business districts (CBDs) are modern high-rise business offices well connected to the global economy. Outside the CBD are slums with no services and miserable, unsanitary conditions. The informal sector of the economy—that which is not regulated, controlled, or taxed—has become the primary system of doing business in most of the cities. The informal sector comprises trading, street markets, and any other business without financial records for cash transactions.

Drew Binsky: Inside Africa’s Biggest Slum (Kibera) – Nairobi, Kenya

The lack of government regulation and control prevents taxes from being assessed or collected, which in turn diminishes support for public services or infrastructure. The formal sector of the economy—that which the government can regulate, control, and tax—is forced to foot the bill to operate the government and support public services such as education, security, and transportation. In spite of the misery and unhealthy conditions of the slums where millions of people already live, more migrants from the countryside continue to shift to the city in search of jobs and opportunities. African cities are growing rapidly, many without organized planning.

Incomes, Urbanization, and Family Size

Family sizes in rural countries are some of the largest in the world. The average fertility rate for much of Africa is about 5; in Mali and Niger, the rate is higher than 7. One-third to half of the populations of these countries are under the age of fifteen. Children make up most of the population in many areas—an indication that heavier burdens are placed on women, meaning that women are not easily able to get an education or work outside the home.

A happy African family
A happy African family

The populations of West African countries are increasing rapidly and is expected to surpass India and China. This trend places an extra burden on the economy and on the environment. Personal income levels in West African countries are among the lowest in the world; as far as standard of living is concerned, these are poor countries. Few economic opportunities exist for the millions of young people entering the employment market.

Is Africa ready for its population boom? | CNBC Explains
Note: This video mentions contraception.

Languages in Sub-Saharan Africa

Sub-Saharan Africa covers a large land area more than 2.3 times the size of the United States. Thousands of ethnic groups are scattered throughout the realm.

Maasai in Kenya
Maasai in Kenya

There is immense diversity within the 750 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa, and within each country are cultural and ethnic groups with their own history, language, and religion. More than two thousand separate and distinct languages are spoken in all of Africa. Forty are spoken by more than a million people. The map below shows less than 20% of the languages found in Africa. You can click on the names to learn more about each language shown on the map. Use the bar at the bottom to scroll to the right.

Many local languages are not written down and have no historical record or dictionary. Local languages without a written history are usually the first to be lost as globalization affects the realm. Nigeria, with more than 130 million people, is the most populous country in Africa. It is about the size of Texas and Oklahoma combined, and the African Transition Zone cuts through the country’s northern portion. More than five hundred separate languages are spoken in Nigeria alone. Three of the six dominant languages in Sub-Saharan Africa—spoken by at least ten million people or more—are spoken in Nigeria: Hausa, Yoruba, and Ibo. The three remaining major languages of Sub-Saharan Africa are Swahili, Lingala, and Zulu. You can hear the Zulu language in the following clip from the Lion King, the only Disney movie to have ever been dubbed in a native African language.

Lion King – Circle of Life (Zulu)

You can listen to Swahili in the following video:

Baba Yetu (By Christopher Tin) Lord’s Prayer in Swahili – Alex Boyé, BYU Men’s Chorus/ Philharmonic

Translation of the song featured in the video above:

Baba yetu, yetu uliye (Our, our Father who are)
Mbinguni yetu, yetu, amina (In heaven, our, our, amen)
Baba yetu, yetu, uliye (Our, our Father, who are)
Jina lako litukuzwe (Let’s glorify your name)
Baba yetu, yetu uliye (Our, our Father who are)
Mbinguni yetu, yetu, amina (In heaven, our, our, amen)
Baba yetu, yetu, uliye (Our, our Father, who are)
Jina lako litukuzwe (Let’s glorify your name)
Utupe leo chakula chetu (Give us today our food)
Tunachohitaji utusamehe (We need you to forgive us)
Makosa yetu, hey (Our errors, hey)
Kama nasi tunavyowasamehe (As we do forgive those)
Waliotukosea, usitutie (Who did us wrong, don’t put us)
Katika majaribu, lakini (Into trials, but)
Utuokoe, na yule, milele na milele (Save us, with him, forever and ever)

Colonial activity changed much of how the African countries operated economically, socially, and politically. Language is one aspect of culture that indicates a colonial relationship. Many African countries today speak a European language as the official language. Mauritania is the only country that has Arabic as its official language. Nigeria has English plus other local languages. The official languages of most of West Africa are either French or English, and Guinea-Bissau’s official language is Portuguese.

This vestige of colonial power would seem inconsistent with the desire to be free of foreign domination. However, because often dozens to hundreds of local languages are spoken within the country, choosing the colonial language as the official language produces less of an advantage for one group wishing to dominate the political arena with its own local language and heritage.

For example, a language problem arises when a government needs to print material for the country. What language do they use? In Nigeria, there would be more than five hundred possible languages. What if the leadership used a language only spoken by a few people? The language of those in power would provide an advantage over those that could not understand it. What if there were more than five hundred separate languages in Texas and Oklahoma? How would they function? This is why many African countries have chosen a colonial language as their country’s lingua franca, or national language. Ghana, which is the size of Minnesota, has more than eighty spoken languages. Ghana and Nigeria have both chosen English as their national language to provide a cohesive and inclusive method of addressing the language dilemma.

A portion of the two thousand languages spoken on the African continent will not survive. A large number of the languages are spoken by a small number of local groups that may or may not have a written text or alphabet. The influence of globalization causes the country’s lingua franca to overshadow local languages, which are relegated to the older generations that may not be fluent in the languages of global business and commerce. Young people often learn the lingua franca and may or may not pass their local language on to the next generation. This is how languages become extinct. Similar dynamics can be applied to local religious beliefs.

Religion in Sub-Saharan Africa

Islam is prominent north of the African Transition Zone, and Christianity is more prominent south of the African Transition Zone.
Islam is prominent north of the African Transition Zone, and Christianity is more prominent south of the African Transition Zone.

The people of Africa have followed traditional animist beliefs for thousands of years. The diffusion of Christianity and Islam to the African continent convinced many African people to abandon their animist beliefs. African religions spread with the slave trade. Examples can be found in the Santeria religion in Cuba, Umbanda followers in Brazil, and Vodou (Voodoo) practitioners in Haiti. Many of these examples indicate a high rate of mixing between traditional religions and Christianity.

Drew Binsky: What is VOODOO? (West African Religion)
Note: A nude female statue is shown. A dead snake is shown.

The current religious trends in Africa follow the pattern of the African Transition Zone. Most of the population north of the zone follows Islam, and most of the population living south of the zone follows Christianity. Large percentages of people in the region follow a wide array of traditional or animist beliefs. For example, as of 2010, more than 50 percent of the people of Togo still followed local religions not affiliated with Christianity or Islam. Only about 29 percent of the population claimed to be Christian, and even fewer claimed to follow Islam.

Dogon Dama | National Geographic
olu omishore: Yoruba Religion of Southwestern Nigeria
Note: Animal sacrifice is mentioned.

Along the African Transition Zone, followers of one religion will clash with followers of the other. Countries such as Nigeria have a history of this type of social division, and Nigeria’s government allows Islamic Sharia law to take precedence over civil law in the country’s northern regions. For example, in 2002, the Miss World beauty pageant was to be held in Nigeria’s capital. At the same time, Nigerian news reported a case of a young woman charged with adultery in Muslim-dominated northern Nigeria. The woman was to be stoned to death for her crime. Northern Nigeria is north of the transition zone and is staunchly Islamic. Southern Nigeria is mainly Christian or animist. The northern Muslims were protesting the “decadent” Miss World beauty pageant, and riots spilled over into the streets. Buildings were burned, cars were overturned, and more than one hundred people were killed. Meanwhile, people in the south were protesting the death sentence of the woman charged with adultery. Contestants for the Miss World contest began to pull out of the competition, some in protest and some for personal safety reasons. In the end, the woman sentenced to death was smuggled out of northern Nigeria to the safety of the south. The Miss World contest was moved to London.

Al Jazeera English: Nigerian ethnic violence: Conflict amplifies religious divide

Both Islam and Christianity have been on the rise in Africa. As the local beliefs are replaced with monotheistic religions, there is more integration with either the West (Europe and America) or the Middle East. Religious activity through Christian missionaries or the advancement of Islam sometimes coincides with economic support being brought in through the same channels, which is often welcome and enhances the global relationships that occur.

However, Africa is still full of traditional religions with rich spiritual histories. Deities of all kinds are worshipped throughout Africa. Christianity and Islam are latecomers to the region but have made deep inroads into the African culture. Both compete for the souls of the African people.

Ethnic Divisions and Civil Wars

Sub-Saharan Africa is home to thousands of ethnic or traditional groups. Each has a separate identity and history, and often one group is in conflict with another. The slave trade and the establishment of colonial political boundaries or policies exacerbated historical ethnic hostilities. Major civil wars have been fought throughout the history of Sub-Saharan Africa and continue at the present time. Central Africa has endured ongoing brutal conflict in the past decade, with no solution in sight.

 In Kinshasa, UNHCR facilitated the voluntary repatriation of some 500 Angolan refugees who had been for many years living in the DR Congo due to the long civil war that ravaged their country of origin until 2002. They traveled to Angola by train .
In Kinshasa, UNHCR facilitated the voluntary repatriation of some 500 Angolan refugees who had been for many years living in the DR Congo due to the long civil war that ravaged their country of origin until 2002. They traveled to Angola by train.

More than five million people have died as a result of the civil war in The Congo (Zaire). Fighting continues between various factions over political control or control over natural resources, such as diamonds or gold. Civil wars are devastating some African countries. Many other countries, such as Zimbabwe, Chad, and the Central African Republic, have also suffered economic disintegration as a result of severe political unrest.

Rwanda’s Tutsi-Hutu conflict has been historic in its violence and in the senseless killing of innocent people. In 1994, the centuries-old conflict erupted into violence of unprecedented proportions. Hutu militias took revenge on the Tutsis for years of suppression and massacred anyone who did not support the Hutu cause. Tutsi rebels finally gained strength, fought back, and defeated the Hutu militias. More than a million people were killed, and more than a million defeated Hutus fled as refugees to neighboring countries, where many died of cholera and dysentery in refugee camps.

A woman in Rwanda
A woman in Rwanda

The civil war in Rwanda and the many refugees it created destabilized the entire Central African region. The shift in population and the increase in military arms along the Zairian border resulted in an extensive civil war in The Congo (Zaire) that has resulted in the deaths of more than five million people, many by disease or starvation. Over three million deaths are estimated to have been related directly to the war and another two million by the harsh conditions in the region. The civil wars in The Congo from 1996 to 2003 changed the cultural and political landscapes and destroyed valuable infrastructure. One of the driving forces in these wars is the control of valuable mineral resources found in the Great Rift Valley along the eastern boundary of The Congo. Diamonds, gold, copper, zinc, and other minerals are abundant in this region, and wealth that can be gained from the mining of these products attracts political forces to compete for their control.

Civil wars have wreaked havoc on the countries of Angola, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Somalia. All have experienced some amount of serious conflicts in the past decade. Many of the civil wars are not reported by the news media worldwide, even though the number of people affected, injured, and killed is deplorable. In places such as Ivory Coast, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe, the streets have become a battleground.

Witch doctor of the Shona people close to Great Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe
Witch doctor of the Shona people close to Great Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe

Creating stability in parts of Africa has been challenging, as civil unrest and political corruption continue in many African countries. The core industrialized countries have been hesitant to step in or invest in the peace and stability of Africa. Governments of more than a few African countries have been unable to bring stability or to provide for their people. For example, Somalia, until 2012, had no central government; rather, it was ruled by warlords and village chiefs. Corruption, dictatorial rule, and military force have been major components of government rule in these cases.

Disease in Sub-Saharan Africa

As if Sub-Saharan Africa did not have enough to work through to achieve stability, it must also cope with high numbers of people infected with HIV and AIDS. From South Africa to Kenya, there is a line of countries with some of the highest percentages of HIV-infected people in the world. The HIV virus has infected more than 24 percent of adults in Botswana, and some villages have lost an entire generation of adults to AIDS. The AIDS pandemic has become a major health crisis for Sub-Saharan Africa. According to the World Health Organization, as many as thirty million people in this realm are HIV-infected.

Sign: Know your HIV status in Zambia, Africa
Sign: Know your HIV status in Zambia, Africa

It’s possible to live with HIV for years before dying of AIDS. HIV-infected individuals can pass the virus to others without knowing they have it, and millions of people die of AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa without ever knowing they were infected. The lack of education, HIV testing, and medical services hinder progress toward stopping this deadly disease. Prevention is an ideal that has not materialized yet. Many people do not want to be tested out of fear of rejection by their families and friends if they are infected. AIDS will surely kill millions more in Africa before a solution is found.

Many other diseases are common in Sub-Saharan Africa. Some are spread by vectors in the environment. Mosquitoes spread illnesses such as malaria and yellow fever, which are common throughout the realm.

Seeker: What Does Malaria Do to the Human Body?

Sleeping sickness is spread by the tsetse fly, which can also infect cattle and livestock.

Animal Planet: Death by Tsetse Fly

Hepatitis is widespread. Schistosomiasis, tuberculosis, and typhoid are also common.

arasites in motion: Schistosomiasis | Natural History Museum

Unsanitary conditions and polluted water are breeding grounds for microbes that cause diseases. Guinea worms are also an issue in some areas.

The Guinea Worm Slayer – 2013 | The New York Times
Warning: If you are easily grossed out, skip this video.

Ebola outbreaks have also been an issue.

Ebola 101 | National Geographic

If you are interested in learning more about Ebola, here are a couple books:

The Hot Zone: The Terrifying True Story of the Origins of the Ebola Virus

A highly infectious, deadly virus from the central African rain forest suddenly appears in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. There is no cure. In a few days 90 percent of its victims are dead. A secret military SWAT team of soldiers and scientists is mobilized to stop the outbreak of this exotic “hot” virus. The Hot Zone tells this dramatic story, giving a hair-raising account of the appearance of rare and lethal viruses and their “crashes” into the human race. Shocking, frightening, and impossible to ignore, The Hot Zone proves that truth really is scarier than fiction.

Crisis in the Red Zone: The Story of the Deadliest Ebola Outbreak in History, and of the Outbreaks to Come

Crisis in the Red Zone makes clear that the outbreak of 2013–2014 is a harbinger of further, more severe outbreaks, and of emerging viruses heretofore unimagined—in any country, on any continent. In our ever more interconnected world, with roads and towns cut deep into the jungles of equatorial Africa, viruses both familiar and undiscovered are being unleashed into more densely populated areas than ever before.

People living in less-than-sanitary conditions are more likely to come in contact with and become infected with these diseases and are also less likely to obtain medical attention at an early stage of the disease.

Tourism Potential

Sub-Saharan Africa has great potential for the development of tourism. Tourism is considered a postindustrial activity with mixed income opportunities. If Africa can manage its resources and provide a safe environment for travelers, tourism will have a strong impact on Africa’s economic growth and will play a significant role in its future.

Sub-Saharan Africa has a strong supply-side potential to attract tourists. Beach resorts alone create a large draw for tourists. The coastal waters of the Indian Ocean boast some of the finest beaches in the world, with plenty of opportunities for sailing, diving, or other water sports. South Africa is proud of its secluded beaches and beautiful coastline. Other well-known coastal tourist destinations include Zanzibar-Tanzania, Benguerra Island in Mozambique, and the Seychelles.

Things To Do In SEYCHELLES, A Tropical Paradise In Africa | UNILAD Adventure

Other areas with tourism potential are the wildlife parks and game preserves. Cultural locations with a rich heritage of historical significance are growing in their attractiveness to and accessibility for world travelers.

Viator Travel: Aquila Game Reserve Wildlife Safari from Cape Town
Note: The narrator says OMG several times.

There are many positive and negative aspects to tourism, and a trade-off is usually needed. Heavy tourism traffic might have a negative impact on the environment, cultural stereotypes tend to be exploited, and the disparity between wealthy tourists and service workers earning a modest wage may lend itself to divisions and social friction.

Tourism demands higher levels of security and public health at all levels. Money spent on tourism development is money not spent on schools or clinics. On the other hand, without the tourism income, there are no jobs. 

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Next: West Africa: Niger, Mali, Senegal & Gambia, and Nigeria

Additional information and image credits:

Side-by-side comparison Radoslaw Botev; Gary Bembridge – Zimbabwe Harare Eastgate Shopping Mall – CC BY 2.0.,
language families Map courtesy of Mark Dingemanse and Pmx – CC BY-SA 3.0.
Religions map Updated from map courtesy of Andreas 06 – public domain
African family By Lolovishnya – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,
Maasai By Jaipatova – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,
Farming in Ethiopia By Mintsnot – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,
HIV sign By Jonrawlinson –, CC BY 2.0,
Refugees By MONUSCO Photos – Le HCR a facilité le rapatriement volontaire de 500 réfugiés angolais, CC BY-SA 2.0,
Rwanda woman By Joachim Huber, CC BY-SA 2.0,
Witch doctor By © Hans Hillewaert, CC BY-SA 3.0,

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