9.2 Sub-Saharan Africa

To help identify places discussed in this book, Africa has been divided into regions along traditional boundaries.
Sub-Saharan Africa includes West Africa, Central Africa, East Africa, and Southern Africa.

The cultural geography of Sub-Saharan Africa varies widely from country to country and from one ethnic group to another, but at the same time, there are shared cultural patterns across all Sub-Saharan African regions. For example, colonialism has been a major historical factor in the shaping of the countries. Families are large, and a rapid rural-to-urban shift is occurring in all regions (where people are moving to the cities from the countryside, looking for work).

Sub-Saharan Africa is home to some of the poorest countries in the world. Poverty is evident in the countryside and in the urban slums of the largest cities. Bitter civil wars are a part of every region’s history. Violence and conflicts continue in some areas, while other areas exhibit political stability and thriving economies. The diversity in human geography is the most noteworthy dynamic in Sub-Saharan Africa. There is a huge variety of ethnic groups, a multiplicity of languages, and religious affiliations.

South of the African Transition Zone, the most prevalent belief systems are Christian based and animist, while north of the zone, Islam is widespread. Division and civil unrest can occur where the different religions meet and compete for political control. The cultural mosaic of Sub-Saharan Africa is vast and complex.

Physical Geography of Sub-Saharan Africa

The African Transition Zone divides North Africa from the rest of Africa because of climatic and cultural dynamics. Cultural conflicts and desertification are common in the zone. Dry, arid type B climates, common in the Sahara Desert, are dominant north of the zone. Tropical type A climates prevail south of the zone. The shifting sands of the Sahara are slowly moving southward toward the tropics. Desertification in the zone continues as natural conditions and human activity place pressure on the region through overgrazing and the lack of precipitation. Type B climates resurface again south of the tropics in the southern latitudes. The Kalahari and Namib Deserts are located in Southern Africa, mainly in the countries of Botswana and Namibia.

The Kalahari Desert (shown in maroon) & Kalahari Basin (orange)
The Kalahari Desert (shown in maroon) & Kalahari Basin (orange)
Kalahari in Namibia
Kalahari in Namibia
A location map showing the approximate boundaries of the Namib Desert
A location map showing the approximate boundaries of the Namib Desert
Namib desert meeting the ocean
Namib desert meeting the ocean

For a continent as large as Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa does not have extended mountain ranges comparable to the ranges in North or South America, Europe, Asia, or Antarctica. Click on the image below to see it larger.

Sub-Saharan Africa does not have long mountain chains such as those found in the other continents. The Nile, Congo, and Niger Rivers are the main waterways. The Namib and Kalahari are the main deserts south of the African Transition Zone. The Great Rift Valleys are the longest physical features in East Africa.
Sub-Saharan Africa does not have long mountain chains such as those found in the other continents. The Nile, Congo, and Niger Rivers are the main waterways. The Namib and Kalahari are the main deserts south of the African Transition Zone. The Great Rift Valleys are the longest physical features in East Africa.

There are, however, on the Ethiopian Highlands the Ethiopian Plateau that reach as high as 15,000 feet in elevation. You can see them illustrated on this relief map of Ethiopia:

Mountains in Ethiopia
Mountains in Ethiopia

East Africa has a number of well-known volcanic peaks that are high in elevation. The tallest point in Africa—Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania near the border with Kenya—is 19,340 feet high.

Elephants with Mt. Kilimanjaro in the background
Elephants with Mt. Kilimanjaro in the background

Nearby in Kenya, Mt. Kenya is 17,058 feet high.

A mountain bongo on Mt. Kenya
A mountain bongo on Mt. Kenya

The Rwenzori Mountains on The Congo/Uganda border reach more than 16,000 feet in elevation and create a rain shadow effect for the region. Permanent glaciers exist on these ranges even though they are near the equator.

The terraced steep hillsides of the lower slopes of the Rwenzori Mountain range
The terraced steep hillsides of the lower slopes of the Rwenzori Mountain range

On the western side of the continent, Mt. Cameroon in Central Africa is more than 13,000 feet in elevation.

A shelter in Mt. Cameroon's landscape
A shelter in Mt. Cameroon’s landscape

South Africa’s Cape Fold Mountains are low-lying mountains.

Cape Fold Mountains (in blue)
Cape Fold Mountains (in blue)
The Swartberg mountains (black mountain in Afrikaans) are a mountain range in the Western Cape province of South Africa. It is composed of two main mountain chains running roughly east–west along the northern edge of the semi-arid Little Karoo. To the north of the range lies the other large semi-arid area in South Africa, the Great Karoo. 

The continent of Africa consists of basins and plateaus without long mountain chains. The plateaus can range more than 1,000–2,500 feet in elevation. The only continuous feature is the eastern rift valleys that run along the tectonic plate boundaries from the Red Sea through to South Africa.

Great Rift Valley
Great Rift Valley

The main rivers of Africa include the Nile, Niger, Congo, and Zambezi. The Nile River competes with the Amazon for the status as the longest river in the world; the White Nile branch begins in Lake Victoria in East Africa, and the Blue Nile branch starts in Lake Tana in Ethiopia.

The Niger flows through West Africa; its mouth is in Nigeria.

Map of the Niger River
Map of the Niger River

The Congo River crosses the equator with a large tropical drainage basin that creates a flow of water second only to the Amazon in volume.

Map showing the Congo River drainage basin

The Zambezi River in the south is famous for the extensive Victoria Falls on the Zambia and Zimbabwe border. Victoria Falls is considered the largest waterfall in the world.

Zambezi River
Zambezi River

Other significant rivers exist such as the Orange River, which makes up part of the border between South Africa and Namibia.

Orange River basin
Orange River basin

There are a number of large lakes in Sub-Saharan Africa. The largest is Lake Victoria, which borders several East African countries and is considered to be the second-largest lake in the world in surface area. Only Lake Superior in North America has a greater surface area.

A number of large lakes are located in the rift valleys of the east. Three of the largest lakes along the western rift are Lake MalawiLake Tanganyika, and Lake Albert. (See the map above for all of these).

To the northeast of these in Kenya is Lake Turkana, which reaches to the Ethiopian border. 

Lake Turkana
Lake Turkana

Lake Chad is located in the African Transition Zone on the border between Chad, Mali, and Nigeria. Lake Chad has been severely reduced in size in recent years.

The equator runs through the center of Sub-Saharan Africa, providing tropical type A climates. These regions usually have more rainfall, resulting in lighter, leached-out soils that may not be as productive as regions with richer volcanic soils, such as those found in the rift valleys. Root crops are common in Africa, as are millet and corn (maize).

The savanna regions of the east and south have seasonal rains that affect the growing season. Soils in savanna areas are usually not as productive and cannot be depended on to fulfill the agricultural needs of growing populations. Savannas are usually grasslands or scrub forests with a seasonal precipitation pattern. Cattle and livestock grazing are common in savannas, and migrations are frequent to follow seasonal grazing conditions.

CAtherine Brookes: Life on the African Savanna

In specific areas of Southern Africa, larger farming operations exist in type C climates. However, Sub-Saharan Africa is not blessed with the large regions of rich alluvial soils found in the Northern Hemisphere. The ever-growing agrarian population has always depended on the land for food and sustenance, but these conditions are not favorable for Africa’s future. Populations are growing faster than any increase in agricultural production.

Increasing populations in Sub-Saharan Africa are taxing the natural environment. Where the carrying capacity has been exceeded, the natural capital is being depleted at an unsustainable rate. Deforestation is occurring in areas where firewood is in high demand, and trees are cut down faster than they can grow back.

Africa Uncensored: Deforestation: 48 Years of Kenya’s Unspoken Disaster

Expanding human populations are also encroaching on the natural biodiversity for which the African continent is renowned. Large game animals such as rhinoceroses, elephants, and lions have been hunted or poached with devastating consequences. The creation of game preserves and national parks has stemmed this tide, but poaching remains a serious problem even in these protected areas. Gorilla and chimpanzee populations have also been stressed by human population growth. These animals are being killed by humans for bush meat, and their habitats are being reduced by human activities.

ABC News: Combating Rhino Poaching in Africa with Drones
Note: There is a mild bad word in this video.

Colonialism in Sub-Saharan Africa

Wherever you go in the world, you cannot escape the impact of European colonialism. Sub-Saharan Africa was broadly affected by colonial activities, the legacy of which can be recognized to this day. Colonial powers of Europe ventured into Africa to claim colonies. Slavery impacted Africa in other ways. Many African groups were instrumental in capturing and holding slaves to trade with the European merchants. These groups still exist and have had to live with the fallout of their role in the supply side of the slave trade.

By 1900, European colonial powers claimed most of Africa. Only the Kingdom of Ethiopia and the area of Liberia, which was established as a home for freed slaves, remained independent. In 1884, Otto von Bismarck of Germany hosted the Berlin Conference, which to a great degree determined how Africa was colonized. This conference included fourteen colonial European countries and the United States, and its purpose was to divide Africa and agree on colonial boundary lines. Germany had few claims in Africa; Bismarck was hoping to benefit by playing the other countries against each other. At the time, more than 80 percent of Africa remained free of colonial control. On a large map of Africa, claims were argued over and boundary lines were drawn according to European agreements.

European Colonies in Africa, 1884
European Colonies in Africa, 1884

There was little regard for the concerns of local ethnic groups. Colonial boundaries divided close-knit communities into separate colonies. Ethnic boundaries were disregarded. Often-warring groups were placed together in the same colony. The Europeans, seeking profits from cheap labor and resources, did not consider the local people or culture and often employed brutal measures to subdue the local people. Most of the current borders in Africa are a result of the Berlin Conference, and many of the geopolitical issues that confront Africa today can be traced back to this event specifically and to colonialism in general.

European colonialism remained strong in Africa until the end of World War II, which left many European countries economically exhausted. In 1945, the United Nations (UN) was established. One of the primary UN objectives was to oversee the decolonization of European colonies. Still, colonialism in Sub-Saharan Africa lingered on. It was not until the 1990s that the last colony was finally freed. The transition from colony to independent nation itself caused conflict. Civil wars were fought over who would control the country after the Europeans were pushed out. The transition to full independence has exacted a heavy toll from African countries but has resulted in stronger political structures and greater democratic liberties in many cases. The first country to gain independence in Sub-Saharan Africa was Ghana in 1957.

During the era of independence after World War II, the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union enticed many of the African countries to support one or the other of the superpowers. The political pressure that divided African countries during the Cold War has persisted and is the basis of some of the current political problems. The European countries extracted raw materials and minerals from their African colonies, as well as slave labor. Varying degrees of attention were given to education, medical care, or infrastructure development. The dependency that a colony had had on a European country for economic income in some cases continued long after independence and may still continue today. On the other hand, major technology transfers from Europe to Africa infused greater efficiencies into Africa’s economic activities. The imperial nature of colonialism and the divisive Cold War did bring about, in an unfortunate manner, the benefits of structured governments and greater democratic processes for many of the local areas of the realm.

This is a long video, but it’s worth watching to understand the history of Africa, including colonialism (which greatly affects current-day politics, prosperity (or the lack of) and civil wars).

Overly Sarcastic Productions: History Summarized: Africa

From Colonialism to Independence

The transition from European colony to independent state has not necessarily been a civil transition for African countries; likewise, independent African countries have struggled to create stable governments or peaceful conditions—though stable governments and peaceful conditions have been established in some cases. In nearly all cases, removing the colonial powers from Africa was only half the battle toward independence. The other half was establishing a functional, effective government.

Though each country has taken a slightly different path, most former colonies have endured civil unrest, conflict, or warfare in their push for stable governments. Coups, fraudulent elections, military regimes, and corruption have plagued the leadership in a number of African countries. Civil unrest usually precedes a change in leadership: political power regularly changes hands by a military coup or an overthrow of the current leader.

The realm has had difficulty developing and maintaining effective political systems with democratic leadership. Political leaders have come and gone, many have been replaced before their terms were over, and a few have stayed long after their terms ended. When a leader is elected democratically, it is common to have widespread accusations of corruption, voter fraud, or ballot box scandals. Such government mismanagement and corruption have been common problems.

The vacuum left by retreating colonial powers at times has been filled by authoritarian dictators or by leaders who assumed control of the government and then proceeded to pillage and plunder the state for personal gain or for the enrichment of their clan or political cronies. After the colonial era, it was not uncommon for new leaders to be connected to the old colonial power and to adopt the language and business arrangements of the European colonizer. This gave them an advantage over their competitors and provided a means of income gained by the support of their former European colonial business partners, which often wanted to keep ties with their colonies to continue to exploit their resources for economic profits. Many of these leaders stayed in power because of military backing or authoritarian rule funded by the profits from selling minerals or resources to their former colonial masters.

A few countries are still struggling to bring about some type of order and unity, and in spite of all the negative issues, there have been democratic and relatively stable progressive governments in Africa that have emerged from the transition in recent years, which is a hopeful trend for the long term.

It is important to note that the objective of colonialism was to connect a colony with the mother country, not to connect African countries to each other. As a result, little cooperation occurs between African countries. Each individual country interacts more with its European colonial counterpart with regard to trade, economics, and cultural dynamics. European colonialism has isolated African countries from their neighboring countries and does not contribute to unity within or among African regions. Colonial powers often built new port cities to extract goods and resources from their colonies and transportation systems from the new ports to the interior to collect the resources and bring them to the port. However, the colonial powers did not build a network of transportation systems that connected the region as a whole. Colonial powers were intent on continuing dependence on the mother country so their colonies could be controlled and dominated.

The current wave of globalization based on corporate colonialism continues to encourage the same pattern of discouraging interaction between counties and instead encouraging trade with more economically powerful non-African countries. Most of the interaction between countries is a result of crisis or warfare, in which case large numbers of refugees cross the border into neighboring countries for personal survival or security. To begin to work together and promote trade, common transportation, security, and industry, fifteen West African states came together in 1975 to create the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Since then, additional political and economic agreements have been signed by various African countries. In 2001, the more expansive African Union was created to help African states compete in the international marketplace.

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Next: Human Geography of Sub-Saharan Africa

Additional information and image credtis:

Africa divisions Updated from map courtesy of Andreas 06, https://open.lib.umn.edu/worldgeography/chapter/7-1-introducing-the-realm/
Africa mountains https://open.lib.umn.edu/worldgeography/chapter/7-1-introducing-the-realm/
Colonial Africa Updated from map courtesy of Andreas 06, https://open.lib.umn.edu/worldgeography/chapter/7-1-introducing-the-realm/
Kalahari By Jc86035 – File:LocationKalahari.PNG by Quadell (information, colours) (PD); File:BlankMap-World6-Equirectangular.svg by Citypeek and Kathovo (main map) (CC0); File:World map blank without borders.svg by Phirosiberia (small map) (CC-BY-SA 3.0, 2.5, 2.0 and 1.0; GFDL), CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32146014
Kalahari By Elmar Thiel – photo taken by Elmar Thiel, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=487723
Namib location By Concerto – File:LocationNamib.png, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=85092719
Namib and ocean By Robur.q – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42945720
Ethiopia relief map By Carport – Own work, using map data from administrative map by NordNordWest. The relief was created from SRTM-30 relief data, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9749594
Mountains in Ethiopia By Hulivili – https://www.flickr.com/photos/hulivili/3962440126/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9887249
Niger River By Hel-hama – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27632291
Congo River basin By Kmusser – Own work, Elevation data from SRTM, drainage basin from GTOPO, all other features from Natural Earth, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=75858826
Zambezi River By Hel-hama – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27623948
Orange River By Keenan Pepper – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=66101365
Mt. Kilimanjaro By Amoghavarsha JS amoghavarsha.com – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20761843
Bongo By Chuckupd at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1984742
Rwenzori lower slopes By sarahemcc – Road to Semliki, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8567916
Mt. Cameroon By Visiting tourist – Tourist snap shot, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=79492705
Cape Fold Mts photo By Andresdewet at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60565656
Rift plates By USGS – http://pubs.usgs.gov/gip/dynamic/East_Africa.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37695246
Great Rift Valley By Redgeographics – Map produced from scratch using public domain source data, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57359214
Lake Victoria By Reinhard Kraasch (talk) – Image:Rift.svg derived from Image:Great_Rift_Valley.png made by En rouge. Blank map: Image:Africa map political.svg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=68312695
Lake Turkana By Rudyologist – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42889177
Lake Chad Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=804910
African Union logo By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24938348

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