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African Unit 12

Geography of Africa

Name: Judith Namanya, Dan Wanyama, Nafiseh Haghtalab, Ida Nadia Djenontin, Thomas Bilintoh, and Leah Mungai

College: Michigan State University

Discipline: Geography

Module Title: “Geography of Africa”

Narrative Description of the Module: Globally, Africa is the second largest region after Asia, and it is more than three times the size of the United States of America. Africa is the recognized origin of Homo sapiens approximately 2.5 million years ago, and is rich in cultural diversity, a renowned home to great civilizations including Ancient Egypt, Meroe, Great Zimbabwe, Ghana, Mali and Songhai, and had universities that pre-dated universities in Europe and the Americas. Its rich human and natural resources, including minerals, played a major role in the economic ascendancy of Europe and America. After several decades of challenges and decline, there are growing signs of social and economic re-emergence or renaissance of Africa in the new millennium. Geographers use five main themes of geography to explore areas of interest, there are Location, Place, Human-Environment interaction, Movement and Regions. In this learning session we will also introduce spatial organization as a way to describe natural phenomena and understand interactions between people and the environment through map visualization.

Theme 1. Location

The continent of Africa is located to the south of Europe and to the west of the Middle East on longitudes 20 degrees west and 60 degrees east, and latitude 35 degrees north and 35 degrees south. Africa is surrounded by two oceans and two seas. While the Atlantic Ocean and Indian Ocean can be located on the western and eastern corridors of African respectively the Mediterranean Sea boarders Africa in the north and Red Sea to the northeast. The description of Africa above means that Africa is located in all four hemispheres (no other continent shares this unique feature). Specifically, the equator runs almost directly through the middle of Africa, which means that it is both in the southern and northern hemispheres, and although a substantial portion of Africa is located in the eastern hemisphere, a small portion of it is located in the western hemisphere.

Map of the world showing Africa

Figure 1: Map of the world showing Africa
Links and Discussions used to Implement this section
  1. More on absolute location for Africa Geography here
  2. Africa Wikipedia
  3. Britannica Map of Africa
Evaluation/testing - Homework activity for student to participate or give feedback on how they understood this section
  1. Students listen to the link below, then identify areas in Africa where the Tropic of Cancer and Capricorn transverse.
    1. Tropic of Cancer/Capricorn and Equator Explained
  2. Africa countries fun map quiz game for stedents
    1. Africa: Coutries - Map Quiz Game
Theme 2. Place

Places are locations with meaning, and focuses on the combination of location (an objective, definable point in space) and its meaning. Place encompasses physical and human characteristics. Examples of physical characteristics are landforms (mountains, plains, hills), water bodies (rivers, lakes, oceans), climate/weather and their events e.g. flooding, animals and plant life, and natural resources. For example, Kinshasa is a place with humid tropical climate, and has a high rainfall of 1,359mm. Human characteristics of place include people’s identity -Ethnic groups, language, religion, the foods, customs and holidays celebrated. The uniqueness and specificity of a place flows from the experiences that individuals and groups associated with it. Additionally, differences and similarities between these above characteristics also play an important role of the meaning of place. Influences from other places may impact a place both positively or negatively. For example: Historic colonial land policies and practices has impacted land acquisition and ownership in rural areas of Kenya.

Image of rural Kinshasa, Congo. Image shows rolling green hills, the Congo River, and some small houses.
Figure 2: Congo - Kinshasa
(source: expatWoman)
Lectures and Discussions used to Implement this section

Stock, R. (2012). Africa South of the Sahara: a geographical interpretation. Guilford Press. (See References)

Student Activity

Have each student identify characteristics of place in the Gambia from the link and state why these characteristics are important to the location.

Suggested student reading

Cresswell, T. (2004) Place: A short introduction. Oxford: Blackwell.

Resources referenced
  1. Agnew, J. (1987) Place and Politics: The geographical mediation of state and society. Boston: Allen and Unwin.
  2. Tuan, Yi-Fu. (1977) Space and Place: The perspective of experience. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press
  3. Cresswell, T. (2004) Place: A short introduction. Oxford: Blackwell.
  4. Cresswell, T. (2008). Place: encountering geography as philosophy. Geography, 93(3), 132-139.
  5. Young, T. (2001). Place matters. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 91(4), 681-682.
  6. ( Reference to Figure 2)
Evaluation/testing - Homework activity for student to participate of give feedback on how they understood this section.
  1. Student to write a 250 word reaction to the interesting aspects of the Gambia from this link

Theme 3. Movement

Movement focuses on how people, goods and ideas (culture, religion) get around from one place to another, and how this impacts the places and people. Local and regional movement will be discussed below. Recently movement of ideas through communication is very common. Such as use of internet, physical or mobile phones, public radio, postal services are assists in sharing information and business transactions that influences business and social exchange.

Movement in Africa

Africa has a long history of movement of people, ideas, and trade goods that dates back almost 3,000 years beginning with the Kush empire, and other empires that later developed in Ethiopia and West Africa. The history of mobility in Africa over the centuries is evident from diffusion of particular cultural practices and languages across Africa. This link has been provided to explore more on history of movement in Africa.

Populations migrate from one place to another for different reasons as quest for new opportunities and better livelihood, flight from war or ecological disaster, observance of custom or religious customs. Seasonal movement of agricultural or pastoral communities is common across Africa. Farming communities in some areas moved from farms to riverine areas while pastoralists move to have access to adequate water and fodder for their livestock. Mobility associated with trade and crafts production existed before the European rule was enforced.


Development of physical infrastructure has accelerated movement by use of modern transportation by air or road to transport goods (imports or export of materials), and services is considered. In regional movement, points of entry known as ports (shipping, airport) are used to manage traffic, human and goods flow into the destinations. Development of infrastructure in many regions of Africa commenced during the colonization period. The railway and road systems were used to connect administrative centers and boosted trade centers. Some regions of Africa have improved the infrastructure systems, however for many countries poor infrastructure connects main cities, leaving the rural areas relatively less connected and thus under developed. To date, according to World Bank, only South Africa has a modern railway system that runs in its main cities and peripheral areas. Investing in infrastructure is challenging, as many African governments depend of external funding. Recently, the Chinese government assisted to finance the Kenya -Mombasa-Nairobi railway line at a cost of $4 billion, while offers to rehabilitate the Addis Ababa-Djibouti line at $4 billion . Currently, the Chinese government’s net foreign assistance model for Sub Saharan African governments is unlike any other foreign investment. Tremendous investments have been poured towards infrastructure development by the Chinese experts, as specialist skills and technology remain limited in many regions in Africa. Current debates from onlookers are on Africa’s rising debt burden and future unsustainable environmental development.

Image of Likoni Ferry in Mombasa, Kenya shows ferry with many people and cars leaving the dock.
Figure 3: Likoni Ferry in Mombasa, Kenya
(Source: Citizen Digital, August 22, 2015)
Lectures and Discussions used to Implement this section (References)
  1. Stock, R. (2012). Africa South of the Sahara: a geographical interpretation. Guilford Press.
  2. Flahaux, M. L., & De Haas, H. (2016). African migration: trends, patterns, drivers. Comparative Migration Studies, 4(1), 1.
  3. Gostin, L. O. (2018). China's" new" silk road. BMJ: British Medical Journal. Accessed March 2019
  4. –Theme of movement
  5. – Likoni Ferry updates
  6. De Bruijn, M., van Dijk, R. A., & Foeken, D. (Eds.). (2001). Mobile Africa: changing patterns of movement in Africa and beyond (Vol. 1). Brill.
  7. Citizen Digital, Ngetich Daisy, published August 22, 2015, Accessed February 8 2019
  8. - Exploring Africa Geography’s history of movement
  9. Gostin O. 2018. China’s “new” silk road Promise or peril for health, development, and human rights?
Student Activity
  1. Students to read through this link about historical and contemporary Africa movement themes and complete Graphic Activity Five located on the fourth section titled Movement in Post-Colonial Africa.
Evaluation/testing - Homework activity for student to participate or give feedback on how they understood this section
  1. Student to write a 250-word reaction of the interesting aspects of migration in Ghana as highlighted in this article on this link

Theme 4. Human-environment interaction

Human-environment interaction or more generally nature-society interaction is the subfield of geography that examines the complex interlinks between human social systems (social, economic, and institutional factors) and ecological systems (environment and natural resources processes).

In relation to Africa, the studies of human-environment interactions investigate the complex interactions between African physical landscapes or "nature" (soils, lands, trees, forests, water, and climate) and African "culture(s)" over time. In doing so, these studies put emphasis on the meanings that African people attach to their natural world and how their landscapes affect their livelihoods and their cultural history and vice versa. Thus, Africa, as a place and a space of different cultures, has been and continues to be one of the main subjects of the bulk of works of human-environment interactions.

More specifically, the studies of human-environment interactions debate several questions and the causal relationships among them. These questions or topics include:

  1. Agriculture and Food Systems
  2. Natural Resources and their use – Land-use Systems
  3. Environmental Degradation (land degradation, deforestation, and desertification)
  4. Biodiversity Conservation, including Wildlife Conservation
  5. Population and Demography
  6. Socio-economic Development and Globalization
  7. Environmental Health
  8. Urban planning/Urbanization (built environments)

Throughout these questions, critical dimensions of culture, gender, poverty, and justice come into play.

In geography, one of the major theoretical perspectives that lends several analytical lenses to grasp the inquiries of human-environment interactions is Political Ecology. Political ecology perspective provides an adequate lens to capture the different ways in which one can understanding the processes leading to the observed transformations of environmental landscapes in Africa. Political ecology is the framework that puts forward the role of institutions governing the access and control over resources in understanding of human-environment interactions.

Lectures and Discussions used to implement this section

  1. Brondízio, E. S., & Moran, E. F. (2013). Human-Environment Interactions: Current and Future Directions. Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands.
  2. Mearns, Robin and Melissa Leach. 1996. The Lie of the Land: Challenging Received Wisdom on the African Environment. Heinemann.
  3. Bassett, Thomas J. and Donald Crummey. 2003. African Savannas: Global Narratives and Local Knowledge of Environmental Change. Heinemann.
  4. Blaikie, P., & Brookfield, H. (2015). Land degradation and society. Routledge.
  5. Gray, L. C., & Moseley, W. G. (2005). A geographical perspective on poverty–environment interactions. The Geographical Journal, 171(1), 9-23.
  6. Luginaah, I. N., & In Bezner, K. R. (2015). Geographies of health and development.
  7. Robbins, P. 2012. Political Ecology: A Critical Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers. Second Edition.
  8. Himley, M. (2008). Geographies of environmental governance: The nexus of nature and neoliberalism. Geography Compass, 2(2), 433-451.
  9. Bryant, R. L. (1998). Power, knowledge, and political ecology in the third world: a review. Progress in physical geography, 22(1), 79-94.

Audio-visual used and electronic links to sites accessted

  5. Darwin’s Nightmare - The Movie

Suggested readings for students about human-environment interactions in Africa

(Most of the readings here are provided in the folder. For the others, students can access them via google scholar.)

  1. McCann, Part I: Patterns of History - 2. Africa's Physical World and 3. Environment and History in Africa
  2. Lee, ‘The Ecology of a Contemporary San People’
  3. Turnbull, “The Lessons of the Pygmies”
  4. Bassett and Crummey, “Contested Images, Contested Realities: Environment and Society in the African Savannas” in Bassett and Crummey
  5. Parker Shipton. 1994. ‘Land and Culture in Tropical Africa: Soils, Symbols, and the Metaphysics of the Mundane’.
  6. Paul Richards. ‘Ecological Change and the Politics of African Land Use’.
  7. Brockington, D., & Homewood, K. (1996). Wildlife, pastoralists, and science: debates concerning Mkomazi Game Reserve, Tanzania.
  8. Netting et al. 1989. ‘Kofyar Cash-Cropping: Choice and Change in Indigenous Agricultural Development’
  9. Elias, Marlene, and Judith Carney. 2007. ‘African shea butter: A feminized subsidy from nature.’ Africa: 37-62.
  10. Swift, “Desertification: Narratives, Winners, & Losers”
  11. Neumann, “Nature-state-territory: Toward a Critical Theorization of Conservation Enclosures”
  12. Homewood and Rogers, 1987. ‘Pastoralism, conservation and the overgrazing controversy’.
  13. Collett, 1987. ‘Pastoralists and wildlife: image and reality in Kenya Maasailand’.

Evaluation/testing - Homework activity for student to participate or give feedback on how they understood this section

  1. Choose two or three of the suggested readings. Read them in detail and write a 500-word essay about what you have grasped from the readings.
  2. Select a topic of your choice among those that are usually studied in human-environment interactions in Africa. Find five other research works that address such topic from different places or locations or culture in Africa
Theme 5. Region

Regional geography of Africa explores Africa broadly in terms of its position in the world, its size, but more importantly in terms of its divisions whether political, economic, physical, and human. In that line, several approaches can be applied to distinguish African regions. The regionalization of Africa can be based on political boundaries according the United Nations (UN) perspective or on economic cooperation dimension according the African Union (AU). Other subdivisions of Africa have also been done from physical features according to the National Geographic Society and also from a linguistic approach. First, the UN recognizes five sub-regions of Africa, including Northern Africa, Eastern Africa, Central Africa, Western Africa, and Southern Africa (Figure 4).

Image of the Africa divided into sub regions by the United Nations: North Africa, West Africa, Central Africa, East Africa, and Southern Africa.
Figure 4: United Nations' subdivision of Africa sub regions

Similarly, the AU recognizes five sub-regions along the political dimension, but this comes slightly different from the UN perspective. The difference lies in the demarcation of some countries, which fall under the Southern African region rather than under the Eastern African region (Figure 5). In addition, putting emphasis on people, the AU acknowledges the African diaspora as a regional entity of the African continent.

Image of the Africa divided into sub regions by the African Union: North Africa, West Africa, Central Africa, East Africa, and Southern Africa. Lines are drawn in slightly different places than in the previous image.

Figure 5: African Union's categorization of African sub regions

Second, the African Union (AU) endorses eight Regional Economic Communities (RECs) as backbones for Africa’s economic development and integration (Figure 6a-b). The RECs have the accountability and challenge of working to raise the living standard of Africans and contribute towards the progress and development of the continent through economic growth and social development. As such, the RECs stand as the cornerstone for the success of the transformative programs of AU, including the latest Agenda 2063 and its flagship programs, at particularly the regional levels. The eight RECs do not present clearly-distinct geographic boundaries, as they are integrated and fold in one another (Figure 3). They include the:

  1. Arab Maghreb Union (UMA)
  2. Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA)
  3. Community of Sahel–Saharan States (CEN–SAD)
  4. East African Community (EAC)
  5. Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS)
  6. Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS)
  7. Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD)
  8. Southern African Development Community (SADC).
Figure 6a: The Regional Economic Communities of Africa
Figure 6b: The Regional Economic Communities of Africa

Third, using physical features, the National Geographic Society categorizes Africa in eight major regions (Box 1). These are: The Sahel, Sahara, Savana, Ethiopian Highlands, Rainforest, African Great Lakes, Swahili Coast, and Southern Africa.

A physiographic approach to Africa regionalization

  1. The Sahel Region: is a narrow band of semi-arid land that forms a transition zone between the Sahara to the north and the savannas to the south. It is made up of flat, barren plains that stretch roughly 5,400 kilometers (3,300 miles) across Africa, from Senegal to Sudan. The Sahara: is the world’s largest hot desert, covering 8.5 million square kilometers (3.3 million square miles), about the size of the South American country of Brazil. Defining Africa's northern bulge, the Sahara makes up 25 percent of the continent.
  2. The Savana Region: Savannas, or grasslands, cover almost half of Africa, more than 13 million square kilometers (5 million square miles). These grasslands make up most of central Africa, beginning south of the Sahara and the Sahel and ending north of the continents southern tip. Among Africa’s many savanna regions, the Serengeti (or Serengeti Plains) is the most well-known. The Serengeti is a vast, undulating plain that stretches 30,000 square kilometers (11,583 square miles) from Kenya's Maasai-Mara game reserve to Tanzania's Serengeti National Park.
  3. The Ethiopian Highlands: began to rise 75 million years ago, as magma from Earth’s mantle uplifted a broad dome of ancient rock. This dome was later split as Africa's continental crust pulled apart, creating the Great Rift Valley system. Today, this valley cuts through the Ethiopian Highlands from the southwest to the northeast. The Ethiopian Highlands are home to 80 percent of Africa’s tallest mountains.
  4. The Swahili Coast: stretches about 1,610 kilometers (1,000 miles) along the Indian Ocean, from Somalia to Mozambique. The nearby coral reefs and barrier islands protect the coast from severe weather. The Rain forest Region: Most of Africa’s native rain forest has been destroyed by development, agriculture, and forestry. Today, 80 percent of Africa’s rain forest is concentrated in central Africa, along the Congo River basin.
  5. The African Great Lakes: The Great Lakes are located in nine countries that surround the Great Rift Valley. As the African continent separated from Saudi Arabia, large, deep cracks were created in the Earth’s surface. These cracks were later filled with water. This geologic process created some of the largest and deepest lakes in the world.
  6. The Southern Africa: The region of Southern Africa is dominated by the Kaapvaal craton, a shelf of bedrock that is more than 2.6 billion years old. Rocky features of Southern Africa include plateaus and mountains, such as the Drakensberg range.

Finally, Africa can be divided in regions according to the official languages spoken by each of its countries or following their main indigenous language family. In this humanistic perspective and along the first dimension, one can distinguish mainly Anglophone Africa, Francophone Africa, Lusophone Africa, and Arabophone Africa. Few countries such as Ethiopia, Somali and Eritrea represent some exceptions to this linguistic regionalization given that they, each, have specific official languages including Afro-Asiatic Amharic, Somali, and Tigrinya languages, respectively.

Electronic links to sites used to implement this section

  1. Information on the RECs on African Union’s website at

Suggested readings for students about human-environment interactions in Africa

  1. Cole, R. (2008). The regionalization of Africa in undergraduate geography of Africa textbooks, 1953 to 2004. Journal of Geography, 107(2), 61-74.
  2. Good, P. R., Derudder, B., & Witlox, F. J. (2011). The regionalization of Africa: Delineating Africa's subregions using airline data. Journal of Geography, 110(5), 179-190.
  3. Stock, R. (2012). Africa South of the Sahara: A geographical interpretation. Guilford Press.
  4. Grant, R. (2015). Africa: Geographies of Change. New, York: Oxford University Press. (ISBN: 978-0-19992056-3)
  5. Moseley, W.G. (2012). Taking Sides: Clashing Views on African Issues (4th Edition). McGraw-Hill. (ISBN: 9780078050084)
  6. Carmody, P. (2016). The New Scramble for Africa, 2nd Edition. (ISBN-13: 978-1-5095-0708-5)

Evaluation/testing - Homework activity for student to participate or give feedback on how they understood this section

  1. Select 5 countries of Africa that you have heard about. Classify each of these countries using the four different regionalization approach explained above.
  2. Select an African sub-region according to the categorization of the United Nations. Use the National Geographic Society sub-regionalization and write about the physical features of your selected sub-region.

Spatial Organization in Geography

Geography discipline has shifted its paradigm by using approaches that capture the placement or arrangement of objects (human and physical) at different levels on earth surface to improve interpretation and visualization of information. Information can be visualized from two dimension to multidimensional form see visualization examples . Over the years, critical spatial thinking skills are taught to students in their early age in many developed countries. The use of advanced cartographic tools and the geospatial technologies (geographic information science programs) improves the spatial analysis methods in understanding interactions on the earth surface. There are numerous spatial pattern examples such as national population census maps, weather maps, yield maps.

Figure 7: Malawi Pigeon Pea Production and Yield by Extension Planning Areas 2012
(Source: 2019 Cartoscience by Brad G Peter)

Electronic links to sites used to implement this section

  1. Taaffe, E. J. (1974). The spatial view in context. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 64(1), 1-16.
  2. Bodzin, A. M., Fu, Q., Kulo, V., & Peffer, T. (2014). Examining the effect of enactment of a geospatial curriculum on students’ geospatial thinking and reasoning. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 23(4), 562-574.