This lesson is an overview of Africa’s rich and diverse geography. The lesson is built around the five themes of geography (as identified by the American Geographical Association) and the three overarching themes of our curriculum.
1. Location and Spatial relations:
Through the use of world maps, students should able to locate Africa in relationship to the rest of the world. Teachers will have already introduced students to the different spatial/map projections. We encourage educators to use an equal area map which demonstrates Africa’s position and size relative to the rest of the world. In the introductory lesson, Why Study Africa: Exploring the Diversity of Africa, we used a map that demonstrated the size of Africa, as the second largest continent in the world, relative to the United States and other major countries and regions of the world. Students should be able to identify where Africa is located (bounded by Atlantic Ocean, Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea) and the impact of location on its history and relationships with Asia, the Americas, and Europe.
Throughout history, Africa’s spatial location has impacted it historical development and its dynamic relationships with other regions. By building on conceptual knowledge, understanding, and skills the students already have, they will be able to understand the spatial location of peoples in Africa and how human location/settlement relates to climate, vegetation, topography, and the historical development of relations (trade, cultural, and political) with other areas of the world (Asia, the Americas, Europe).
2. Place and Regions
This lesson will introduce students to the various geo-political regions of Africa. While some texts divide Africa into four regions: North, West, Southern, and East, we identify five regions: North, East, West, Central and Southern. Each region has specific geo-social characteristics. Moreover, the regional variations demonstrate (reinforce) the reality of the rich geographic diversity of the continent. Indeed, region (and country) can be divided into smaller sub-regions. In later lessons on each of the continent’s five regions, students will learn about the geo-social (land forms, climate, vegetation, natural resources, language, religion, economic activities, political practices, and cultural expressions) characteristics that identify each region.
It will be important (as in the study of other areas of the world) to stress that the shared characteristics that comprise regions are both geographic (land forms, mountains, climate, low rainfall, vegetation, savannah, natural resources, presence of particular mineral) and social-cultural (shared language, shared religion, shared social organization, shared political structures, shared cultural expressions) characteristics). Hence, regions are natural and human/social and historically created constructions that assist people in interpreting and making use of the world (area) in which they live. However, while it is important to stress the geo-social traits that define a region, it is equally important to recognize these traits are not static nor are they uniformly distributed within a given region; that is, even within regions, geo-social diversity will exist. The dynamics of the geo-social connections will be accentuated in the lessons that focus on the five regions of Africa. Thus, although place is a geographic and spatial concept (and empirical reality: e.g. Accra, Ghana), it is also a human/social construction. What brings meaning and reality to “Accra” are the images, representations, practices, and activities of the individuals and groups who live there or who interact with this place economically (trade), politically (as the capital city of Ghana) or culturally (inter alia, through TV, radio, and printed press originating in Accra).
Movement is a central theme in geography, as it is in history and economics (trade). The movement of people, goods, and ideas (religious, cultural, social, and political) is of cardinal importance in the history of all regions in Africa. Future lessons will detail important movements, such as the migrations of the first humans from their origins in East Africa to other parts of Africa (and the world) and the migrations of peoples belonging to the Kongo-Niger language family, generally referred to as Bantu Migrations (from central Africa into East and Southern Africa). The horrific forced movement of people in the Atlantic, North African, and East African slave trades, and the important long-distant trade routes (trans-Saharan, east African) which resulted in the exchange of ideas (for example, the introduction of Islam in north and west Africa) as well as goods (gold, salt, textiles etc.) will also be discussed. Moreover, European colonialism, through the exploitation of Africa’s natural resources, stimulated movement of labor migrants, both within countries (for example, mine workers in Zambia, Congo, plantation workers in Kenya and Mozambique) and between countries (massive labor migrations to South Africa from neighboring countries).
As elsewhere in the world, geographic factors both facilitate and hinder movement. Great river (Nile, Niger, Congo, Zambezi) and lake systems (east/southern Africa), for example, facilitate both trade and in-migration to lacustrine and riverine ecologies (development of settled and centralized polities). Desert and semi-arid areas in the interior of west and central Africa (to give another example) geographically hindered trade, in-migration, and the development of densely populated polities.
Geo-political factors continue to impact, as incentives and deterrents, the movement of people and goods in contemporary Africa. Twelve African countries, for example, are land-locked. Being land-locked has been a central issue in the economic development and political relationships of these countries. This reality has been a major factor, for example, in stimulating out-migration (movement) of substantial numbers of people from the land-locked countries of Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mali to neighboring “coastal” countries, Cote D’Ivoire and Ghana, to their south.
4. Human-Environmental Interaction
One of the central tenants of geography is the active, historically contingent interaction between the natural environment (topography, climate, vegetation, natural resources) and human society.
Topography, climate, vegetation, and natural resources are basic tools necessary for human society. These factors, individually or collectively, impact the formation and articulation of modes of economic production, distribution, and consumption, modes of social and political organization, and in certain conditions, cultural beliefs and expressions. Examples of environmental impact on societal structure are legion in Africa. Most early civilizations in Africa (for example, Egypt), developed along major rivers (as is the case in other regions of the world). The great West African kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai became powerful because of their control over the trans-Saharan salt and gold trade. Colonial cities were spatially located to facilitate the exploitation of natural resources (for example, “copperbelt” cities of the Congo and Zambia). The “favorable” climate and resources of Kenya, Zimbabwe, and South Africa made them attractive targets for European settler populations, who created a peculiar and particularly offensive type of colonialism.
However, it is also most important that the students understand that the human-environmental interaction is not a one-way affair. Human history is the story of human use and exploitation of natural resources, such as land, water, mineral, flora, fauna. In Africa, as elsewhere in the world, individuals and societies have used the environment in ways that have changed the face of the natural environment through cultivation, grazing, erosion, mining, the construction of building, villages, cities, and roads, and countless forms of pollution. In the country case studies, we will revisit this dynamic by investigating both sustainable and environmentally harmful practices.