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Africa: The Continent

Africa is a land of diversity and contrasts. This is true of its land, climate, people, and wildlife. The continent of Africa comprises one-fifth of the total Earth's land mass. It is the second largest continent and is divided into 53 different countries. In 1994, the population of the continent was estimated to be around 683,000,000 and is comprised of several thousand different ethnic groups.

The Land

Africa's 11,724,000 square miles (30,365,000 sq km) is divided by the Equator almost in the middle. The northern half has more land mass than the southern half. Look at a map and you will notice that western Africa extends much further than any of the land in the southern half of the continent. The southern half of the continent is much narrower than the northern half. In addition to the contiguous land mass there are several island countries that are associated with Africa - Madagascar, the largest and the Seychelles, one of the smaller.

Surrounded by water on all sides, it was once connected to Asia's land mass in the northeastern corner by the Sinai Peninsula, where the Suez Canal now exists.

Africa's coastline is 18,950 miles long, with very few inlets and bays. From north to south the continent measures approximately 5,000 miles ( 8,000 km) in length. From east to west above the Equator it measures approximately 4,600 miles.

Africa's land mass was formed by a rigid platform of rock that serves as the base for the widespread plateaus of the interior. From the higher plateaus in southeastern Africa the land descends into the plains and coastal lowlands of northeastern Africa. The average elevation is 2,200 feet (670 m). Basically the plateau can be divided into two regions. The southeastern portion includes the Ethiopian Plateau, the East African Plateau and the Drakensberg Range.

The northeastern portion contains the Sahara Desert with the Ahaggar Mountains, and in northwestern Africa, the Atlas Mountains.

When viewing a topographical map of Africa you will notice the East African Rift System which runs from the north to the south of the continent. It is made up of the Western Rift Valley and the Eastern Rift Valley. It begins with the Red Sea basin, follows along the Ethiopian Plateau with heights of 15,000 feet (4,600 m) and includes the Virunga Mountains' volcanic formations.

Mt. Kilimanjaro is the most well known of the African mountains with an elevation of 19,340 feet (5,895 m). Other mountains include the Ruwenzori Range with elevations over 16,000 feet (4,900 m). in central eastern Africa.

The Drakensberg Range at 11,000 feet (3,350 m) is on the southeastern coast. Up along the northwestern coast are the Atlas Mountains at 13,000 feet (4,000 m) however, the remainder of this region averages between 500 and 1,000 feet (150-300 m). It is also the region that contains the Sahara Desert.

The world's largest desert is The Sahara. It is a major land feature of the continent since it is one-fourth of Africa's land mass. It is located in the northwestern portion of the continent and divides the continent into three regions - north of the Sahara, the Sahara and Sub-Sahara. In southwestern Africa there are two other notable deserts, the Kalahari and the Namib.

Natural Resources

The following natural resources are found in Africa with an estimated amount of their share of the world's total. Uranium (29%) , bauxite (27%), copper (20%), petroleum (8%), phosphorites (66%). Iron ore, chromium, manganese, cobalt, titanium and platinum are also found in large amounts. Half of the world's supply of diamonds and gold come from Africa as well.


There are two major rivers in Africa, the Nile and the Congo. The Nile is the longest river in the world and plays a vital role in the areas lying north of the Equator. The Congo plays a vital role in the central-western portion of the continent. These two rivers and their basins are responsible for draining almost one-fourth of the continent. The other rivers of importance in Africa are the Niger River (western Africa), the Zambezi River, the Orange River (both in southern Africa). These rivers and their tributaries are responsible for draining a large part of the rainfall in the remainder of the continent.

Southern Africa has several large freshwater lakes. Lake Victoria in South Africa is the largest, it acts as the main reservoir for the Nile River.

Lake Tanganyika, Lake Nyasa are located in deep valleys of the rift system. Two other African bodies of water are also of importance-- in the north, Lake Chad and in the south, Okavango Swamp.


Location on the African continent in relation to the Equator affects each region's climate. The desert regions north of the Equator are known for their extremely high temperatures and dry conditions.

The remainder of the continent also has high temperatures throughout the year but they are influenced by elevation heights and the ocean currents along the southeastern and southwestern coasts. Nearer the Equator there is more rainfall as well as a very rainy season. Further from the Equator, the climate will be drier and hotter during the dry season. Therefore, each country's location - north, on/near or south of the Equator will have the greatest influence on its climate. This in turn directly affects plant life, wildlife, human population and the economy of the region.


Africa is known worldwide for its spectacular and unique wildlife species. The elephant, rhino, hippopotamus, lion, leopard, wildebeest, zebra, countless antelope, gazelle, giraffe, baboon, mountain gorilla, chimpanzee, lemur, hyena, African wild dog, are some of the more well known animals that live in the savanna and tropical rainforest regions. The need to protect some endangered species and to preserve the various habitats of all African wildlife and have resulted in the formation of a number of national parks. The most well known are located in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia, and South Africa. The Serengeti National Park in Tanzania and the Ngorongoro Crater Area are well known for their annual migration of the zebra and wildebeest.


The population in Africa is over 683,021,000 - but the density in some regions is rather low. It is estimated that the peoples of Africa make up only 10% of the world's population. The Sahara Desert occupies one-fourth of Africa's land mass and is virtually uninhabited. In those areas that can support agriculture the population density is higher and is closer to the world average. In those countries with a more developed economic base, the birth and death rate is lower. In less developed countries the birth rate is high, so is infant mortality as well as the death rate. The variations in birth and death rates from country to country have resulted in a 3% growth rate for the continent's population as a whole. Famine and diseases throughout the last few decades have also affected population growth.

The peoples of Africa are from over 1,000 different ethnic groups. The majority of these ethnic groups and their countries are inhabited by peoples of African origin. The remaining ethnic groups have been affected by the migration of Arab peoples into northern Africa. Each ethnic group has its own distinct language, traditions, arts and crafts, history, way of life and religion. With 53 countries on the continent some countries have 10 or more different ethnic groups living within its boundaries.


African countries vary in their levels of economic development, however, the continent as a whole is considered to be a developing region by world standards. The most economically developed country is South Africa. Next are the Mediterranean countries in northern Africa and Nigeria. The following countries are considered to be partly developed - Zaire, Kenya, Cameroon, Ghana, Cote d'Ivoire, Zimbabwe, Gabon, Reunion, Namibia, and Mauritius. The remaining countries are considered to be less-developed.

The economy is based on agriculture in most of the countries and yet only 6 percent of the land mass is arable, while 25 % is covered with forests, and another 25% is used for pasture or rangeland. Approximately 66% of the available work force is involved in farming. Some of the produce raised includes: peanuts, coffee, tea, sugarcane, bananas, oranges, grapes, pineapples, olives, coconut oil, tomatoes, and cacao. They also raise the following crops: corn, wheat, rice, millet, sorghum, cassava, plantains, sweet potatoes, potatoes, onions, barley, dry beans and watermelon. The majority of the crops are raised in Ethiopia, Zaire, Nigeria, South Africa, and Egypt.

Livestock is raised mainly in eastern and northern Africa where you will find goats, sheep, cattle and pigs being raised. There are very few dairy farmers in Africa which results in the need to import dairy products. Some livestock is raised to provide a mode of transportation or to carry out farm work.

Africa has a large wood supply provided by its forested regions. Most of the wood that is cut is used to provide fuel. However, several countries have developed their forestry for export, they include: Cote d'Ivoire, South Africa and Gabon.

Several countries have focused on tourism to provide for a major source of income. These countries are considered to have the best facilities for tourists: Morocco, Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Cote d'Ivoire, Botswana, Kenya, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. The African National Parks featuring spectacular wildlife are a major attraction for tourists throughout Africa. There are numerous commercial safari companies offering a wide variety of experiences.

Gold and diamonds are major sources of revenue for those countries that produce them. Diamonds come from Zaire, South Africa and Botswana.

These three countries alone provide at least half of the world's diamonds. Gold is mined in Ghana, South Africa, and Zimbabwe and are considered to produce half of the world's gold.

Most of the petroleum and natural gas comes from Egypt, Nigeria, Algeria, and Libya. Manufacturing is not a major source of revenue in countries throughout Africa. At this point South Africa, Zimbabwe, Senegal, Mauritius and Swaziland are the only countries to be somewhat industrialized.

Economic trade is primarily with Europe, the United States and Japan. The main exports are petroleum, natural gas, food, tobacco, and raw materials. Imports include manufactured goods, machinery, equipment for transportation, foods, beverages, tobacco, petroleum and natural gas from OPEC.

Health and Education

In the more developed countries and in metropolitan areas, hospitals and doctors are available. In those areas farther away from the cities and in underdeveloped countries, there is a shortage of medical facilities with doctors to treat patients. As a result infant mortality is high in those countries and life expectancy is only 40 years. In the more developed countries such as South Africa, Libya, Algeria, Reunion, and Mauritius the life expectancy is closer to 65 years of age.

Some of the diseases which are present and pose health threats to many include: malaria, tuberculosis, typhoid fever, whooping cough and AIDS.

Education is not compulsory in the majority of African countries.

Unortunately, in the underdeveloped countries teachers and facilities are in short supply. In the metropolitan cities more opportunities for education exist. There are several universities and colleges throughout Africa.

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