Chapter 7: Subsaharan Africa

Identifying the Boundaries

Subsaharan Africa includes the African countries south of the Sahara Desert. The African Transition Zone cuts across the southern edge of the Sahara Desert at the most comprehensive portion of the continent. Many of the countries in the African Transition Zone are included in the realm of Subsaharan Africa. The realm can be further broken down into regional components: Central Africa, East Africa, West Africa, and Southern Africa. At the eastern end of the African Transition Zone is the Horn of Africa, which is often included in the region of East Africa. Maps vary in terms of which countries are included in each region, but this general geographic breakdown helps identify country locations and characteristics. Madagascar is a large island off the southeastern coast of Africa and is usually not included with the other regions because its geographic qualities and biodiversity are quite different from the mainland.

The continent of Africa is surrounded by salt water. The Indian Ocean borders it on the east, and the Atlantic is on the west. The southern tip of the continent—off South Africa—is often referred to as the Cape of Good Hope, where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Indian Ocean. The continent of Africa has several small island groups that are associated with the realm and are independent countries. Approximately 350 miles off the coast of West Africa in the North Atlantic are ten islands that make up the independent country of Cape Verde. Just south of Nigeria on the eastern side of the Gulf of Guinea near the equator are the two islands that make up the independent country of São Tomé and Príncipe, a former Portuguese colony. The small country of Equatorial Guinea also includes an island off the coast of Cameroon where its capital is located. Three island groups in the Indian Ocean around Madagascar include the independent countries of the Seychelles, Comoros, and Mauritius.

imageThere is considerable variation concerning how the regions of Subsaharan Africa are delineated or identified on maps. The debate is not about what regions are in Subsaharan Africa but rather about which countries are to be included within each region. The regions have both similarities and differences. The cultural geography 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 Subsaharan African regions. For example, colonialism has been a major historical factor in the shaping of the countries. Families are large, and the rapid rural-to-urban shift is occurring in all regions. Every region has large urban centers—often port cities that act as central core locations supported by a vast peripheral rural hinterland.

Globalization has entered into the dynamics connecting these once-remote regions with the rest of the world. Advancements in communication and transportation technology have created networks connecting Africa with global markets. Subsaharan Africa has a young population that is on the move, seeking to gain from any opportunities or advantages it can find. The political arena is dynamic: changes in political leadership through coups or military takeovers are frequent, as is authoritarian rule. Subsaharan Africa is home to some of the poorest countries in the world. Poverty is evident in the countryside and 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 Subsaharan Africa. The variety of ethnic groups, along with the multiplicity of languages and religious affiliations create strong centripetal and centrifugal forces that interact in a thriving sea of cultural diversity.

Most of the population live an agrarian lifestyle, but some people are developing the skills necessary to adapt to the rapid globalization wave that is importing new technology and new ideas to the continent. The urban core areas of the continent are the main focus of global trends in technology and communication. These urban core areas exhibit the typical dynamics of the core-periphery spatial relationship. Subsaharan Africa has many core areas and many peripheral areas. The core urban centers have political power thanks to the social elites who have connections to the global economy and often dominate political activities.

These core urban areas are often magnets for people from large families in rural peripheral areas seeking employment. Millions of people in Africa who seek employment are willing to migrate to the cities or even other countries to find work. The rural immigrants are often not of the same ethnic group as those in power, which sets up the basis for discriminatory policies that disadvantage the many minority groups that are not affiliated with the government. These dynamics can fuel protest activities to overthrow the powerful elite. Various ideas have been proposed to help level the socioeconomic playing field. One of the more prominent options is the implementation of a democratic government, where most of the people have a stake in electing those that hold positions of leadership and power.

Broad patterns and dynamics of people and places are replicated throughout the Subsaharan realm. The regions share common demographic trends of large family sizes, agrarian lifestyles, and low-income levels. The patterns of an economy based on agricultural production and mineral extractive activities as well as disruptive changes in political leadership are common throughout the continent. Each region has diverse ethnic groups and an array of different languages. South of the African Transition Zone, the most common 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. These concepts will bear repeating throughout the chapter. The cultural mosaic of Subsaharan Africa is vast and complex, and this chapter will outline the underlying trends and patterns with specific examples that will help place it all in perspective.


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Introduction to World Geography by R. Adam Dastrup, MA, GISP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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