GEOG101 Study Guide

Unit 7: Sub-Saharan Africa

7a. Identify the basic physical geography of Sub-Saharan Africa

  • What is Sub-Saharan Africa's dominant climate type?
  • Where are the highest elevations in Sub-Saharan Africa?
  • How does the Congo River compare to South America's Amazon River?
  • Where are many of Sub-Saharan Africa's lakes?

Type A (tropical) climates are most prevalent throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. At about 15° S, the tropical climate gives way to dry, temperate (type C) conditions and then predominantly arid conditions (type B) in southern Africa, which includes the Namib and KalahariDeserts. Despite its proximity to the Equator, the Horn of Africa is arid due to the rain shadow effect of the Ethiopian Highlands, which is also known as the Ethiopian Plateau. The Congo River, which is second only to the Amazon River in terms of discharge volume, flows through the heart of Sub-Saharan Africa's tropical rainforest.

As the following map shows, most of the high elevations are in the east-northeast of the Sub-Saharan Africa realm, in the vicinity of the Great Rift Valley

  • The Ethiopian Plateau, a region of tectonic uplift that has since been separated by continental rifting, reaches elevations of 15,000 ft. 
  • There are also points of high elevation along the Great Rift Valley to the south of the Ethiopian Plateau, including Mount Kilimanjaro, a dormant volcano that is over 19,000 ft, and Mount Kenya, an extinct volcano that is just over 17,000 ft. 
  • The Rwenzori Mountains to the southwest of the Ethiopean Plateau and along the west edge of the Great Rift Valley exceed 16,000 ft.

This region of the Sub-Saharan Africa realm also has most of the lakes, many of which are in the East African Rift Zone including, Lake Tanganyika, Lake Malawi, Lake Albert, and Lake Victoria. Depressions that form during the rifting process fill with water to form some of these lakes.

Review Introducing the Realm.


7b. Identify the countries within Sub-Saharan Africa

  • What are the landlocked countries within each region of Sub-Saharan Africa?
  • Where are the Central African and East African countries relative to the African Transition Zone?
  • What countries in Sub-Saharan Africa have coastlines on the Indian Ocean?

There are 48 countries that are considered part of Sub-Saharan Africa. Identifying these countries is best accomplished on a regional basis and by looking for characteristics they share. Below are a few examples.

  • In the region of West Africa, Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso are landlocked. In Central Africa, Chad, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, Rwanda, and Burundi are landlocked. Although some of these countries border lakes, they are still considered landlocked because they do not have territory on an ocean. Uganda is the only landlocked country in East Africa. The landlocked countries in Southern Africa include Zambia, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, and Swaziland.
  • The African Transition Zone intersects the Central African countries of Chad, South Sudan, and the northern tip of Cameroon. It is north of Equatorial Guinea, São Tomé and Príncipe, the Central African Republic, Gabon, Rwanda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Republic of Congo.
  • The African Transition Zone intersects the East African countries of Ethiopia and Somalia. It is south of Eritrea and Djibouti and north of Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya.
  • The regions of East Africa and Southern Africa both have countries with coastlines on the Indian Ocean. The East African countries are Somalia, Kenya, and Tanzania. The Southern Africa countries are Mozambique, South Africa, and the islands of Madagascar, Seychelles, Comoros, and Mauritius.



7c. Identify and explain the African Transition Zone

  • What are the characteristics that separate Sub-Saharan Africa and North Africa?
  • How does the African Transition Zone explain the Republic of South Sudan's independence from Sudan in 2011?

The African Transition Zone is also known as the Sahel, an Arabic term for coast or shore. Thus, this zone is the southern coast or 'shore' of the Sahara Desert.

  • To the north of the African Transition Zone, the climate is arid, dominated by type B climates. To the south, the climate is tropical, dominated by type A climates.
  • There is also a religious change that occurs at the African Transition Zone. Islam dominates to the north; Christianity and animism dominate to the south.

The African Transition Zone divides several countries and regions. In the case of Sudan, this divide was too difficult to overcome. South Sudan separated from Sudan in 2011 because the southern portion of the country no longer wanted to be ruled by the Arab Muslim north. Although border disputes remain, the boundary between the Republic of Sudan and the Republic of South Sudan generally follows the African Transition Zone.



7d. Explain the impact of European colonialism in Africa and the significance of the Berlin Conference

  • What parts of Africa remained independent during the partition of Africa in the 19th century?
  • What was German Chancellor Bismarck's motivation for hosting the Berlin Conference?

With the exception of Ethiopia and Liberia, both of which remained independent, the European powers and the United States began dividing the African continent among themselves.

  • The Berlin Conference, which opened in 1884, was the starting point for the partitioning process.
  • German Chancellor Bismarck hosted the Conference because he was hoping to increase Germany's influence on the continent.
  • Most of Africa's current boundaries reflect the economic interests of the colonizers at the time, with no consideration for the existing physical and human geography.
  • The population, consisting of 3,000 different ethnic groups and more than 2,000 different languages, was forced into 35 colonial territories.

Review Introducing the Realm.


7e. Explain how countries have transitioned from colonies to independent nations

  • What are some of the problems that have plagued countries since gaining their independence?
  • How has European colonialism separated African countries from each other?

Given their colonial history, it is not surprising that these countries face many challenges as they attempt to forge states from boundaries that were imposed on them.

  • These challenges were further compounded by the fact that Africa's population did not follow the nation-state model prior to colonization.
  • Establishing a government that meets the needs of its diverse population is difficult even for older, more established countries.
  • Self-interest and tribalism often win out, resulting in voter fraud, mismanagement, corruption, coups, and civil unrest.

There are, however, some countries, such as Botswana and Namibia, that have been successful in their efforts to increase transparency in government.

In addition to the lack of cooperation often seen within countries, cooperation is also rare between countries and within regions.

  • The former colonizers of these countries have maintained their influence through trade, economics, and cultural dynamics.
  • Furthermore, colonial powers built the existing infrastructure to access interior resources and transport them to the coasts, not to establish a network for moving within the country.
  • As a result, the residents of these countries often are not connected to each other and neither are countries within the same region.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has, however, sought to counter this isolation.

Review the section titled From Colonialism to Independence in Introducing the Realm.


7f. Explain the relationship between family size, urbanization rates, and income levels

  • Why is it difficult for women to get an education or a job outside the home in the realm of Sub-Saharan Africa?
  • Why are most countries on the continent of Africa in subsistence mode?

The countries of Sub Saharan Africa generally have large families and low incomes. Because children make up the majority of the populations of these countries, the options for women are limited. Although not unique to Sub-Saharan Africa, the cultural expectation is that women care for the children. What is different is the large number of children they must care for in addition to their other responsibilities, such as agricultural work to feed their families and caring for ailing and aging family members. 

Although urbanization rates vary, they tend to be high and are expected to increase to accommodate population growth. As family sizes increase, local agriculture will not be able to keep pace, forcing more people to urban areas where there are few industrial or postindustrial activities that would provide jobs. The economy of many Sub-Saharan countries remains structured around agriculture, which is not profitable. Thus, these countries are in a mode of subsistence, supporting themselves at a minimal level.

Review the section titled Incomes, Urbanization, and Family Size in Human Geography of Sub-Saharan Africa.


7g. Describe the diversity of languages and religions in Sub-Saharan Africa

  • How many languages are spoken in the Sub-Saharan country of Nigeria?
  • Describe the pattern of religions on the continent of Africa.

At more than 2,000 the continent of Africa has 30% of all the world's languages, which is slightly less than Asia, which has 32%. In comparison, the Americas have 15% and Europe has 4%. In the Sub-Saharan countries of Nigeria and Ghana, there are 500 and 80 languages spoken, respectively. Imagine if 80 languages were spoken in the United Kingdom, which is about the same size as Ghana.

Religion is one of the cultural factors that define the African Transition Zone. Thus, most of the countries in Sub-Saharan Africa practice Christianity or have traditional animist or tribal beliefs. Islam is the dominant religion north of the African Transition Zone. Some countries, such as Nigeria, that straddle the African Transition Zone allow Islamic law to take precedence over civil law south of the Zone because the seat of government is north of the Zone.

Review the sections titled Languages in Sub-Saharan Africa and Religion in Sub-Saharan Africa in Human Geography of Sub-Saharan Africa.


7h. Explain the origins of some of the lingua francas of Sub-Saharan Africa

  • How many languages are spoken on the continent of Africa?
  • Why will only a portion of Africa's thousands of languages survive?
  • Why is a colonial language often the official language of the independent countries of Sub-Saharan Africa?

More than two thousand languages are spoken on the continent of Africa. Many of these have no written history and are particularly vulnerable to extinction. Globalization makes it difficult for local languages to survive because jobs and educational opportunities often require the country's lingua franca or a world language such as English. Thus, people focus on those languages rather than passing on the language of their ancestors.

When countries have numerous spoken languages, it is difficult to select a language for governing. Even if the most common language is chosen, there will be members of the populace who will feel alienated. Thus, most countries have chosen the language of their colonists as one of their lingua francas. Angola, for example, lists Portuguese as its official language and four native languages as national languages.

Review the section titled Languages in Sub-Saharan Africa in Human Geography of Sub-Saharan Africa.


7i. Identify the geographical pattern of HIV infections in Sub-Saharan Africa

  • Why did Southern Africa have the highest estimated percentages of people with HIV in 2010?
  • What role does rural-to-urban migration play in the spread of HIV?

As shown in the following map from the UNAIDS 2010 Global Report, it was estimated that the countries with the highest percentages of people with HIV are in Sub-Saharan Africa. The region of Southern Africa has been particularly hard hit, with Botswana, Lesotho, and Swaziland (officially the Kingdom of Eswatini) having the highest estimated percentages. Countries that have urbanized more quickly tend to have higher percentages than those that have not. Rural-to-urban migration has facilitated the spread of the disease. Furthermore, people can spread the disease when they return to their rural homes from urban areas.

Review the section titled HIV and AIDS in Subsaharan Africa in Human Geography of Sub-Saharan Africa.


7j. Summarize the main geographic aspects of each country in West Africa

  • Explain the impact of the African Transition Zone on West Africa's climate.
  • How does the topography of West Africa vary?

It is difficult to summarize the region of West Africa because the African Transition Zone divides it. The Sahara Desert intersects the northern part of this region, which includes Mauritania, Niger, and Mali. Moving south, toward the Equator, precipitation increases moving from type B to type A climates. Thus, most of the other countries in West Africa, such as Sierra Leone, Liberia, and southern Nigeria, are predominantly tropical. 

Unlike its climate, West Africa's topography is not as varied. Compared to the rest of Africa, it is relatively flat and low. There are, however, a few exceptions where the terrain rises above the surrounding areas.

  • To the east, the Cameroon Highlands (also known as the Western High Plateau) form the border between Nigeria of West Africa and Cameroon of Central Africa. This forest and grassland area ranges in elevation from approximately 2,500 ft to its highest elevation of 10,000 ft at Mount Oku, a stratovolcano.
  • The Guinea Highlands, located in southern Guinea and extending into Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Ivory Coast (Côte d'Ivoire), are the source of the Niger River. The Guinea Highlands include the Fouta Djallon to the northwest. The Senegal and Gambia Rivers rise here, as does a major tributary of the Niger River.
  • The Jos Plateau of central Nigeria is the source of tributaries to the Niger and Benue Rivers. Rivers that flow into Lake Chad rise in this plateau, which has an average elevation of about 4,200 ft.
  • Northern Niger's Aïr Mountains are located in the Sahara Desert and have an average elevation of 1,600 and 3,000 ft.

Review West Africa.


7k. Compare and contrast mainland Africa and Madagascar

  • Unlike mainland Africa, where were Madagascar's first inhabitants from?
  • What environmental problem is devastating biodiversity on Madagascar and mainland Africa?
  • On what economic activity do Madagascar and many other African countries depend?

The island of Madagascar has not been part of the African continent for more than 100 million years, when it began separating from the supercontinent, Gondwana, during the Jurassic geologic time period. It is estimated that Madagascar's first inhabitants came from the Malaysian and Javanese Islands of Southeast Asia in around 250 CE if not earlier. People from the African mainland did not arrive until around 1000 CE.

Despite the geological and historical differences between Madagascar and mainland Africa, there are similarities between them, such as environmental challenges and economic activity.

  • Deforestation threatens to devastate the biodiversity of both. Although mainland Africa has more protections in place than Madagascar does, the rapid pace of deforestation in both will result in the loss of numerous species and dramatically reduce Earth's carbon sinks.
  • Agriculture, on which both Madagascar and mainland Africa depend, is often the culprit. Forests are cleared to grow crops and raise livestock.

Review Southern Africa.


7l. Discuss the effect of apartheid on South Africa, both culturally and economically

  • Describe South Africa's policy of apartheid.
  • Why will it take generations to overcome the policy of apartheid?
  • How did some countries respond to South Africa's policy of apartheid?

South Africa's legal policy separating its people into racial categories was called apartheid. In Afrikans it literally means "aparthood" or "separateness".

  • Whites had the highest status, followed by Asians (descendents of indentured laborers from India) and people of mixed race, and black Africans had the lowest status.
  • Under apartheid, your race dictated everything from which park bench you could sit on to which job you could hold.
  • The government forced black Africans from their ancestral homelands, making sure the best land went to whites.

International opposition to South Africa's apartheid policy took the form of United Nations Security Council Resolutions, sporting and cultural boycotts, and moral and financial support for the African National Congress, among others.

Although apartheid in South Africa came to an end in the early 1990s, its effects will continue to be felt for generations. Efforts to compensate those forcibly removed from their land, for example, have a low rate of success. The minority White population still owns most of the wealth. Many black Africans live in poverty and are forced into informal housing situations.

Review the section titled South Africa in Southern Africa.


Unit 7 Vocabulary

This vocabulary list includes terms that students need to know to successfully complete the final exam for the course.

  • African Transition Zone (Sahel)
  • Aïr Mountains 
  • animism
  • apartheid
  • Berlin Conference
  • Cameroon Highlands (Western High Plateau)
  • Central Africa
  • Christianity
  • Congo River
  • East Africa
  • East African Rift Zone
  • Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS)
  • Ethiopian Highlands
  • Ethiopian Plateau
  • Fouta Djallo
  • Gambia River
  • Great Rift Valley
  • Guinea Highlands
  • Islamic law
  • Jos Plateau
  • Lake Albert
  • Lake Chad
  • Lake Malawi
  • Lake Tanganyika
  • Lake Victoria
  • lingua franca
  • local language 
  • Madagascar
  • mode of subsistence 
  • Mount Kenya
  • Mount Kilimanjaro
  • Mount Oku
  • national language 
  • Niger River
  • official language
  • Republic of Sudan
  • Republic of South Sudan 
  • rural-to-urban migration
  • Rwenzori Mountains
  • Sahara Desert 
  • Senegal River 
  • Southern Africa
  • Sub-Saharan Africa
  • tributaries 
  • tropical
  • type A (tropical) climates
  • urbanization rates
  • urbanized 
  • West Africa
  • world language