Did you learn fuck-all about world geography in school? Or did you learn it and forget most of it? Then this series is for you! We’re going to take a continent-by continent look at some very basic geography—where everything is, what it’s called, and a few little facts about it. So let’s start with…
The Continent of Africa
First off, let’s correct a common issue with naming: The name Africa refers to the whole continent. Saying someone is from Africa or is going to Africa is the same sort of thing as saying someone is going to Europe—you’re just giving the reader a very general geographic range and it doesn’t really tell them anything. Africa is currently divided up into 56 countries, which in some places may also be called sovereign states, which of course is probably contributing to the continent vs. country confusion for some people.
Africa is the second largest continent on the planet, comprising 20% of Earth’s land area. It also has the second largest number of people at 1.38 billion, or just under 17% of the world’s total population. It is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the west, the Indian Ocean to the southeast, the Mediterranean Sea to the north, and the Red Sea to the northeast. and it is the only continent which extends across both the northern and southern hemispheres’ temperate zones.
Africa is divided up into regions, which are sometimes referred to as subregions just to make things more confusing. There are five regions, and they’re fairly standard: North, East, West, Southern, and Central. You’ll notice in the table below that while the region names as used by the United Nations (est. 1945) and the ones used by the African Union (est. 1999) are the same, the list of sovereign states they recognize as being within each region is not. The Confédération Africaine de Football (CAF) also has its own somewhat different region map, but you only need to know that if you’re writing about African football (that’s soccer, if you’re American). You’ll also note that the table lists a sixth region, the African Diaspora—diaspora just means ‘the dispersion of people who are from here across the planet’, which means the African Diaspora is not so much a geographical region as it is a state of mind unless you’re talking about the African Union. And not everyone connected to the African Union is in agreement about it either, so make of that what you will.
Angola, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, São Tomé and Príncipe
Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo Republic, DR Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, São Tomé and Príncipe
Not recognized by the United Nations
Defined by some in the African Union (AU) as any people of African descent who live outside the continent, whether through voluntary or involuntary emigration.
Contains both the largest city land-wise (Algeria) and the largest population-wise (Nigeria), as well as the Nile River, the Atlas Mountains, and the Sahara Desert—which covers over 3/4 of the region and is the largest non-polar desert in the world. The mountains separate the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts from the desert, and also contain valleys which along with the Nile Valley, Nile Delta and Mediterranean coastal area provide fertile farmland. The Canary Islands are part of this region as well.
Bordered to the west and south by the Atlantic Ocean and to the north by the Sahara desert. The semi-arid transitional region known as the Sahel separates the desert from the West Sudanian savanna, and forests separate the savanna from the southern Atlantic coast, but most of West Africa is plains. This region is the worst affected by deforestation and poaching, and in the north of the region the country of Mauritania is regularly devastated by plagues of locusts.
Don’t call it South Africa, that’s a country! The southern region of the continent includes the island of Madagascar with all of its can’t-be-found-anywhere-else wildlife species, the Kalahari Desert (actually a semi-desert savanna where every animal you remember from The Lion King lives), and Victoria Falls, the largest waterfall in the world. South Africa is the wealthiest country in this region, and has the second largest economy in Africa.
Borders the Indian Ocean and also shares part of Lake Tanganyika, the world’s longest, second deepest, second largest-by-volume lake. This ancient lake is approximately 31 miles wide, 420 miles long and 4800 feet deep. The world’s second longest freshwater lake, Lake Victoria, is also located in East Africa, as is the Horn of Africa—the easternmost projection of the continent—and Mt. Kilimanjaro. The Cape Buffalo, your favorite lion-flipping bovine, lives here, and so do critically endangered black rhinoceri.
May occasionally be referred to as Middle Africa. Desert lies to the north and the Atlantic Ocean to the west, but more notable are the nearly 400,000 miles of dense tropical rain forest where the equator runs through the region. This is where the much-romanticized Congo River basin is located, as well as a portion of Lake Tanganyika, which holds 16% of the world’s available fresh water. Central Africa’s wet, heavily forested mountains are home to the endangered mountain gorilla, while the Congo area is infamous for its gold and diamond mines. (Such mines can also be found in the Southern and Eastern regions. Africa has a great variety of mineral resources—you name it, they’re probably mining it somewhere on the continent.)
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