Module Nineteen, Activity One

The Region Called East Africa

  East Africa Map


East Africa is a vast area encompassing the countries of Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Djibouti, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Seychelles, and Comoros.



This first activity will introduce you to some of the history and contemporary regional relationships of East African countries. How have East African countries been connected to one another throughout history? How have they been connected to other regions of Africa and the world?


I. Pre-history: The Origins of Modern Humans

East Africa is a region with some of the most significant and oldest paleoanthropological finds in the world. Paleoanthropology is the study of early hominids (primates belonging to the Hominidae family, including modern humans and their ancestors). Paleoanthropologists such as Mary and Louis Leakey, and Donald Johanson have made important discoveries of hominid skeletons and artifacts in East Africa that have helped scientists to piece together how human beings may have evolved.

Olduvai Gorge
Olduvai Gorge in Ngorongoro Crater Used with permission of Africa Focus Website - University of Wisconsin

The Leakey’s found remains of hominids belonging to earlier species of the genus Homo (the same genus that modern humans belong to—Homo sapiens) in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. One of these hominids was named Homo habilis, and its remains are dated at 1.85 to 1.6 million years ago.




Skeleton of Lucy
Skeleton of Lucy

Johanson also made some extraordinary discoveries at Hadar, Ethiopia. One is the skeleton of a female Australopithecus afarensis nicknamed “Lucy,” a hominid that is now extinct but believed to be an ancestor of modern humans. This is the earliest hominid known to date. Australopithecus afarensis pre-dates and has a considerably smaller cranial size than the Homo genus. Australopithecus afarensis is estimated to have lived between 3 and 4 million years ago. While the details of human evolution are being constantly debated and revised by scientists as new evidence emerges and is interpreted, the fact remains that East Africa is a site that has been inhabited by human-like beings for millions of years. You can read more about Lucy and hear Donald Johanson explain his work in a brief video at the following link:


Paleo Discoveries

II. Early East African Kingdoms and Trade Networks

East Africa has a rich history of kingdoms and trade networks that are known to historians. In fact, it is home to one of the earliest known kingdoms in the world—Nubia (also known as Karmah and Kush). Other kingdoms that developed in East Africa include Aksum (about 1st to 10th century CE), the Buganda Kingdom (14th to 20th century CE), Rwanda (15th to 19th centuries), and the Swahili coast city-states (11th to 16th century CE). You can locate these on the map below.

East Africa Ancient Kingdoms
Ancient Kingdoms of East Africa

Nubia, located in the Sudanese Nile river valley, is the earliest of these kingdoms, dating back to 5,000 years ago. It was a region well-known to the Egyptians, rivaling the early Egyptian civilizations in power and wealth. See Module 7A: Activity Two: History of Africa during the time of the great Egyptian civilization-- Explore for more specifics on the history of this region. Aksum and the Swahili Coast were first mentioned in the written historical record in a document called Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, a Greek trading guide dating to the 1st century CE. This document is evidence that the East African coast has long been a part of extensive trade networks throughout the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. Historians say that Arab commerce with the East African coast could go back as far as the 2nd century BCE. East African trade with India came later, around the 7th century CE. As a consequence of the international trade that developed in this region, markets became focused on urban centers along the coast with concentrations of wealth and power. Some of the most prominent market towns that developed are Mogadishu, Shanga, Kilwa, and Mombasa. The merging of African, Arab, and Indian peoples along the East African coast (from southern Somalia to northern Mozambique) produced a unique language (Kiswahili) and culture (Swahili), which still exist today. Swahili is spoken today throughout East and Central Africa, but the majority of Swahili speakers reside in Kenya and Tanzania.Aksum was a large empire that was located in what is today Ethiopia and Eritrea. It is remembered for its splendid gold coins, stone monuments (some surpassing those of the Egyptians’ in size), and elaborate palaces. During the 4th century, King Ezana adopted Christianity as the religion of the empire. Later in the 6th century, Aksumite kings extended their empire as far as southern Arabia for a time. Aksum was an important part of extensive international trade networks.

Goods from Africa that were traded internationally along the Swahili coast included gold, ivory, and slaves. The slave trade in this region of Africa was conducted by both Arabs and Europeans. Arabs had been trading African slaves for over 1000 years, taking them to the Arabian Peninsula, Persian Gulf, and other regions of Asia. European slave traders came later in the 17th century, taking African slaves to various islands in the Indian Ocean and the Americas. In total, an estimated 7 to 10 million Africans were taken as slaves across the Indian Ocean. In comparison, around 12 million are believed to have been taken as slaves across the Atlantic Ocean (See Module 7B: Activity One: The Atlantic Slave Trade-Engage for more information on the history of the Atlantic slave trade). The impact of the slave trade on Africa overall was devastating—depopulating certain regions, causing social disruption, and increasing violence through trading firearms. Ending the slave trade also later became a justification for European colonization of East Africa.

III. European Colonialism

As you may remember from Module 7B: Colonial Exploration and Conquest: Activity Two, European explorers began scouting out the African continent in the 15th century. The Portuguese were the first explorers, initiated by Prince Henry the Navigator. They sought to monopolize trade with Africa. The first European explorer to sail around the Cape of Good Hope to reach East Africa was Vasco de Gama in 1498 (see map below). He and other early Portuguese explorers were the beginnings of a connection between the African Coast and Europe that would eventually lead to centuries of trade and European domination of Africa.

British, Dutch, and French followed later with expeditions to Africa, and they ended up dominating former Portuguese trading posts in many cases. As knowledge of Africa spread throughout Europe and North America, Christian missionaries were also sent out in addition to explorers and traders. Some of these traders were involved in the Atlantic Slave Trade, which lasted roughly from 1450 to 1850. By the time that the slave trade had been deemed illegal, Europe was becoming more and more interested in a different kind of trade. The industrial revolution in Europe produced a need for cheap raw materials in its factories, which became a major force behind the colonization of Africa. East African colonies were used to provide mass quantities of precious minerals, agricultural goods through plantation agriculture, rubber, animal skins, ivory, cotton, and many other raw materials cheaply to Europe. In addition to seeking economic gain, some Europeans also felt it was their mission to “civilize” and “Christianize” Africans, which in their minds meant becoming more like Europeans. They failed to recognize the rich cultural and religious heritages that existed in Africa. This left much of Africa in the ironic position of being economically exploited so that much of its capital was drained from the country, while at the same time being told they should imitate Europe 'progress.'
Exploration Routes to East Africa Exploration Routes East Africa

The British, Belgians, Italians, French, and Germans were involved in the colonization of East Africa during the latter 19th and early 20th centuries. Of course, all of them already had networks of traders and missionaries from their countries throughout East Africa. But they now were attempting to set up formal colonial governments to administrate the region. Europeans were not entirely successful in colonizing all of East Africa, however. For example, Ethiopia was able to fend off formal colonial rule. And many groups within colonies organized resistance movements against colonial powers as well.

Colonialism in 1914 Colonialism East Africa 1914
Colonialism in 1945 Colonialism East Africa 1945
East Africa Colonialism Key

IV. East Africa Since Independence

The colonial period in East Africa lasted until 1976/1977, when Seychelles and Djibouti officially gained their independence from European colonizers (although other East African colonies had gained independence from Europe by the early 1960’s). Upon gaining their independence, East African countries were left with the challenge of finding an effective way of governing themselves, often with little national unity nor strong economic prospects. The national borders and many of the governing bodies of these countries had only been created during the last several decades of colonialism. Colonialism often lumped together groups of people who had not formerly shared a government or sense of nation. People in a colony spoke different languages, practiced different religions, had different cultural traditions, and sometimes had internal conflicts between them. Also, certain ethnic groups often gained a more privileged position than others in the colonies, provoking tension between groups.

Furthermore, colonial economies were set up to benefit the colonizers, not the colony. This, unfortunately, did not change much when East African countries gained independence. Their economies still focused on the exportation of cheap raw materials to Europe. Module Nine: African Economies discusses Africa’s economic relationship to Europe in more detail.

Also during the period following independence of East African states, the US and USSR were involved in the Cold War. Many countries in East Africa became recipients of aid as allies of the US or USSR. In many cases, this ended up often supporting undemocratic regimes in East Africa. Module 10: African Politics and Government: Activity Six: International Affairs discusses the Cold War in Africa further.

Overall since independence was gained in East Africa, this region has seen numerous violent conflicts, coup d’etats (violent overthrown of a government), and political corruption.

East African States with Coup Detats

EA Countries Civil Wars

These lists highlight the political instability in the region. However, there are also important accomplishments to be acknowledged for East African countries who have been able to turn difficult situations around for a more peaceful and prosperous life. Each country in East Africa, of course, has a unique history. Some of the countries mentioned above have found periods of peace and stability even though they have also had coups and civil wars. And Tanzania and Kenya are examples of countries have not had a coup or civil war. Both of these countries had strong nationalist movements while gaining independence under the leadership of Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya and Julius Nyerere in Tanzania.

Used with permission of the Africa Focus Website - University of Wisconsin

Kenyatta Jomo: Kenyatta, Kenya’s first prime minister, was a key figure in the Kenyan nationalist movement for independence from British colonial rule. He headed a multiethnic political party called the Kenya Africa Union, and helped negotiate Kenya’s independence at the London Conference in 1962. The next year he became prime minister and held that position until his death in 1978.

Photo taken from

Nyerere: Julius Nyerere, named first prime minister of Tanzania in 1961, was instrumental in the transition from colonial rule to independence. He is known for his efforts to build a self-reliant socialist economy for Tanzania and a sense of nationalism for Tanzanians.

Vocabulary to Define:You can refer back to Module 10: Activity Four, Post-colonial Governments or Module 7B: Activity Four, African Resistance, Nationalism, and Independence for more information on African history in general following independence.

1. Paleoanthropology:

2. Hominid:

3. Homo habilus:

4. Australopithecus afarensis:

5. Periplus of the Erythraean Sea:

6. Coup d’etat:

7. Jomo Kenyatta:

8. Julius Nyerere:


You may have already read about some of the African regional organizations in other modules. For example in Module Seventeen: Activity One we discussed ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States), and in Module Twenty: Activity Four we discussed SADC (Southern African Development Community). Also, Current Events in Africa: The Birth of the African Union accounts the formation of a new Pan-African organization called the African Union, which facilitates political and economic relations across the African continent. What kinds of regional organizations are specific to East Africa?

East African states belong to many different regional organizations. Some of these may even span into regions outside of East Africa. For example, Tanzania and Seychelles are both members of SADC (Southern African Development Community), even though they are generally categorized in East Africa. Other states have economic and political alliances with Central African, Asian or North African countries. This again illustrates the difficulties of truly defining what a region is, as was discussed in the Introduction to Unit Three: Regional Perspectives.

There is, however, one important regional organization in East Africa that we want to mention here. It incorporates membership from most East African states as well as some Southern African states and Egypt. It is called COMESA (Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa).

COMESA (Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa) WHAT? COMESA’s aim is to help member states achieve economic and social progress. It envisions free trade and a common market for the region. COMESA’s treaty says that it was established “as an organisation of free independent sovereign states which have agreed to co-operate in developing their natural and human resources for the good of all their people.” To read up on COMESA, go to their website at

WHO? Member States include:
Democratic Republic of Congo

South Sudan

Sort through the member countries to classify them as East African (according to the definition in this module) or otherwise, and put them in the correct category in the chart below:

East African Countries Chart

WHEN? COMESA was established in December 1994 when it formally succeeded another regional organization—the PTA (Preferred Trade Area of Eastern and Southern Africa).


Think for a minute about the different connections that East Africa has had throughout its history to other regions of Africa and the rest of the world, based on what you have read in this activity. Then write your responses in the graphic organizer circles below:

East Africa Graphic Organizer Click images for the printable resource.

Go on to Activity Two or select from one of the other activities in this module