Module Nineteen, Activity Two

The Geography of East Africa




East Africa can be divided geographically into three subregions. The first, the Great Lakes Region, includes Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi. The second, the Horn of Africa, includes Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, Djibouti, and Somalia. And the last subregion is the Indian Ocean islands of Comoros and Seychelles. These distinctions are made based on different types of vegetation, availability of water, and topography in the three regions. We will look at each of these one by one.


Take a look at the map below on vegetation in East Africa. Notice the immense diversity that exists both within and between countries! On the chart below the map, list the types of vegetation that exist for each country listed. Seychelles and Comoros have been excluded because they are not shown on the map; we will discuss them separately later.

Vegetation of East Africa Map

Vegetation in EA

(Click on chart for printable resource) In general, what kinds of similarities and differences of vegetation did you notice between the Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes Region? You may have observed that the Horn of Africa has more desert and semidesert regions and the Great Lakes Region has more forests. Both subregions have some mountains, savanna land, and steppe. The following pictures will also give you some idea of the diversity of vegetation that exists throughout East Africa.

Jamma River
Aerial View of Jamma River Gorge, Ethiopia
(Used with permission of the Africa Focus website- University of Wisconsin)
Isolated Homesteads Burundi
Isolated Homesteads (Rugos) in the Highlands of Burundi
(Used with permission of the Africa Focus website- University of Wisconsin)
Samburu National Forest Samburu National Forest, Kenya
(Used with permission of the Africa Focus website- University of Wisconsin)
Clove Trees and Cassava Clove Trees and Cassava on Zanzibar, Tanzania
(Used with permission of the Africa Focus website- University of Wisconsin)
Desert and Agriculture Meet Desert and Agricultural Land Meeting in an area in Northern Sudan
(Used with permission of the Africa Focus website- University of Wisconsin)

Learning more about the availability of water and topography in the region will further help you understand why these particular types of vegetation are present in different parts of East Africa.


One way that people find water is from lakes and rivers. However, there are some regions of East Africa with a lot of lakes and rivers, and others where they are scarce. Where are most of the lakes and rivers located on the map below?

East Africa Waterways Map

You can see from comparing this map with the vegetation map, that the regions where there are few or no lakes and rivers are the drier regions with desert, semidesert, and steppe vegetation.



Hippos Lake Tanganyika Hippopotamuses Approach Shore of Lake Tanganyika, Burundi
(Used with permission of the Africa Focus website- University of Wisconsin)
The Nile River at Mayo The Nile River at Mayo, Uganda
(Used with permission of the Africa Focus website- University of Wisconsin)
White Nile and Blue Nile Meet The White Nile and Blue Nile Meet Near a Bridge in Khartoum, Sudan
(Used with permission of the Africa Focus website- University of Wisconsin)

The pictures below are photographs of two of the major waterways in East Africa—the Nile River and Lake Tanganyika. Lake Tanganyika is one of the Great Lakes of East Africa. This group of lakes includes Lake Victoria, Lake Tanganyika, and Lake Nyasa (also called Lake Malawi). They are accompanied by many other smaller lakes in the region.

Another factor in water availability is rainfall. The amount of rainfall varies a lot throughout East Africa, and it also varies from season to season. The seasons are commonly called the “rainy season” and the “dry season” according to the amount of rain received during a certain time of year. However, as is the case in other regions of Africa (for example see Module 17: Activity Two: Geography of West Africa), rainfall has declined overall in East Africa since the 1960’s. This has caused periodic drought and famine, such as happened in the well-known Ethiopian famines of the 1970s and 1980s.


East Africa is the most topographically diverse region on the African continent. Topography means comparing the physical lay of the land across a region—the mountains, valleys, and other natural or human-made features. Much of the East African landscape is defined by the Great Rift Valley, which runs Ethiopia down to Mozambique. The valley was created by the movement of two fault lines in the earth, and it is responsible for creating mountains, valleys and lakes found throughout this area. In fact, the highest point on the African continent is found in the Great Rift Valley—Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, which reaches 19,340 feet above sea level.


Great Rift Valley Map


Zebras and Mount Kilimanjaro
Zebras and Mount Kilimanjaro
Rift Valley Scene
Rift Valley Scene, Kenya. (Used with permission of the Africa Focus website - University of Wisconsin)

Environments of Seychelles and Comoros


We are discussing Seychelles and Comoros separately from the other countries in East Africa due to the fact that they are not a physical part of the continent Africa, even though they are part of Africa culturally, politically and economically. They are islands off the East African shoreline in the Indian Ocean. Their climates and environments are quite different from the other East African countries we have just discussed.


Seychelles Map
From CIA World Factbook 2002

Seychelles is made up of a group of 115 islands. The Mahe group of 32 islands is the main group, and it contains all of the principle islands where people live. Most of the other islands are uninhabited. The climate is humid and tropical, and the islands are covered with lush vegetation. Fresh water is scarce on some of the islands, but these are the ones that few people live on. The more populated islands have surface streams that people can get fresh water from. Only about 18% of the land on the islands is used for permanent crops. This is due partly to the fact that many of the islands are rocky and hilly.


Comoros Map
From CIA World Factbook 2002

Unlike Seychelles, Comoros is made up of only three islands. It also has a somewhat different climate, as it receives monsoons, heavy rains, and cyclones during part of the year (November to March). The rest of the year (April to October) is the dry season. Some of the land in Comoros contains tropical rain forests, and some of the land is used for cultivating sugar cane, ylang-ylang trees (used in perfume), vanilla, cloves, and tropical fruits and flowers. The Comoros islands were formed by volcanoes and are quite mountainous.

Clove Trees Photo of Clove Trees, a primary crop on Comoros (Used with permission of the Africa Focus website - University of Wisconsin)
Bananas Photo of Bananas, a primary crop on Seychelles (Used with permission of the Africa Focus website - University of Wisconsin)


The following map indicates how population density is currently distributed throughout East Africa. Using the map and the key next to it, answer the questions that follow.


Population in East Africa


  1. Red indicates a population density of above 500 people per square mile. Which countries have red areas within their borders?
  2. Which country has an uninhabited region?
  3. Why do you think that each country shown on the map has such a wide range of population density?

This map is helpful to give us a general idea of where people tend to live and not live in East Africa. Much of this depends on the geography of a certain region. For example, a desert climate can only support a few, if any, people. But an area with high rainfall and rich soil can sustain a larger population. Rainfall, vegetation, and topography are all important factors in understanding the population density of an area. However, there are other forces at work as well that determine population density, such as politics and economics.

Also politics, economics, and environmental conditions are in a constant state of change throughout East Africa. The map above does not tell us much about population mobility and change. Population mobility refers to people moving from one place to another. In some cases, this is to look for jobs or education. Sometimes a certain region has suffered from drought or deforestation so that it cannot sustain its population for a time. In other cases, people are forced to move from their homes by the government or because of a violent conflict in their home area.


People who flee to another country from a violent or unsafe situation in their home country are called refugees. Here is the definition of refugee from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees:

A refugee is a person who ‘owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country...'

The 1951 Convention relating to
the Status of Refugees

East Africa has a large number of refugees. Sudan is the country that has produced the most (about 500,000) as a result of its 20-year civil war. Burundi, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Uganda and Somalia have also all produced large numbers of refugees in recent years.

Ariel View of Refugee Camp
Aerial view of refugee camp with 35,000 inhabitants in Somalia in 1981. Nearly a million Somalis living in Ethiopia fled to their homeland in the late 1970s and 1980s. By the 1980s, one-fifth of Somalia’s population were living in refugee camps as victims of drought or war. (Used with permission of the Africa Focus website - University of Wisconsin)


Another phenomenon that is occurring in East Africa is migration to urban areas. More and more people are going from the countryside to the cities in search of work, education, and sometimes a new way of life. However, Africa is the least urbanized continent in the world with only 34% of the population living in urban areas. And East Africa is the least urbanized area of the African continent with only 21% of the population living in urban areas. Nevertheless, the rate of urban growth in East Africa is one of the highest in the world, and it is bringing with it quick and substantial changes for people’s ways of life and the environments in which they live. People who migrate to the cities sometimes find it difficult to obtain decent housing, clean water, and a good paying job. Yet in some cases, people are able to earn a good deal of money and have a comfortable life. Cities are places of extreme wealth and poverty, and East African cities are no different.

Nairobi Skyline
Nairobi Skyline, Kenya (used with permission for the Africa Focus web site - University of Wisconsin)
Dar es Salaam University
View of Dar es Salaam University in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania (used with permission for the Africa Focus web site - University of Wisconsin)


Major cities in East Africa and their populations:

Dar Es Slaam, Tanzania: 1,651,000

Nairobi, Kenya: 1,504,000

Khartoum, Sudan: 925,000

Addis Ababa, Ethiopa, 3,500,000


East Africa has seen tremendous growth in its population over the past few decades. People have had more access to medicines and improved hygiene, which has decreased mortality rates. The average East African woman also gives birth to more children than the average woman in the United States. In some East African countries, however, the number of children people are having is actually decreasing from what it used to be as people use family planning methods. But in all East African countries, the population is still growing overall. The rate of population growth for countries in East Africa is shown on the chart below.

PopGrowth in EA
Giraffe Giraffe, Kenya (used with permission of the Africa Focus website - University of Wisconsin)
Lion Kenya Lion, Kenya (used with permission of the Africa Focus website - University of Wisconsin)

To help you better understand what these growth rates mean, let’s take Comoros as an example over a ten year period. The rate of population growth in 1998 was 3.10% for Comoros. Let’s imagine that this is the growth rate consistently from 1998 to 2008. The population in 1998 is estimated at 545,528. Just look at the chart below to see the projected population growth over those ten years at 3.10% per year.


Comoros Projected Population Growth Rate

Remember that this is only an example to illustrate how quickly populations can grow. In reality, population growth rates do fluctuate from year to year according to a number of factors—war, migration, disease, family planning, and so on. If we were to do a comprehensive study of Comoros, we may find that the population growth rate would change to more or less than 3.10% from year to year.
Population growth is a concern for many in East Africa, who believe that people will have more resources to share if there are fewer people. But there are also some people who see many children as a source of security—more family members to help provide for one another in times of need. Some people also argue that population growth in much of Africa is not a problem because Africa is still the least densely populated continent.


Many places in East Africa are popular tourist destinations. You may have already heard about the safaris that people can take in East Africa to see lions, giraffes, cheetahs, elephants, and other wild game. There are also beautiful beaches, magnificent mountains, historical sites, and exciting cities for tourists to visit throughout East Africa. People come from all over the world to see these attractions. Just take a look at some of the beautiful sites in these photographs!

Diani Beach Diani Beach on the Indian Ocean, Kenya (used with permission of the Africa Focus website - University of Wisconsin)
Mombasa Port Mombasa Port, Kenya (used with permission of the Africa Focus website - University of Wisconsin)
Zanzibar Museum Zanzibar Museum, Tanzania (used with permission of the Africa Focus website - University of Wisconsin)
Gondar Palace Gondar Palace, Ethiopia (used with permission of the Africa Focus website - University of Wisconsin)

Some of the most popular tourist spots in Africa are in East Africa. Take a look at the chart below that names the top 20 revenue earners in Africa for earning money from international tourism.

Top Revenue Earners for International Tourism in Africa (1997)

Top Revenue Earners Table

List the countries in this list which are found in East Africa:


Thinking about visiting these beautiful and interesting places may sound very appealing to you as an American who would like to take a vacation. But let’s take a moment to try to see the situation from some different points of view.

Look at the four photographs below which were all taken in a place called Ngorongoro Crater in northern Tanzania. This area has abundant wild game, extraordinary scenery, important fossil remains, and is home to cattle-herding people called the Maasai. Many foreign tourists like to go to this place when they visit Tanzania. After you have looked over the photographs, write a sentence for each photograph about what you see.

Photo 1
Ngorongoro Crater
Photo 2
Photo 3
Photo 4
click on each image for a larger view
(all photos used with permission of the Africa Focus Website - University of Wisconsin)

What do You See
click image for the printable resource

Now imagine that you are seeing it from someone else’s point of view. Write one sentence about how you think the following people might see the same photos from their own points of view.

PERSON 1: David, an employee of an American professor who is leading a research expedition to excavate animal fossils and bones in Ngorongoro Crater. David’s work is physically intensive—lots of digging and spending long hours out in the sun. He has to be away from his wife and children for weeks at a time in order to work on these expeditions. The money that he makes is just enough to buy food for his family and pay for his children’s school fees.
Photo 1:
Photo 2:
Photo 3:
Photo 4:

PERSON 2: Martha, a tourist from the United States. She and husband Evan have gone to Tanzania for a vacation. They booked their trip with a big tourist enterprise that is taking them on a safari through Ngorongoro Crater. They are very excited as either of them has even been to East Africa or seen big game up close in the wild.
Photo 1:
Photo 2:
Photo 3:
Photo 4:

PERSON 3: Kakuta, an elderly Maasai man who lives with his family in Ngorongoro Crater. He has seen more and more tourists coming into his home area throughout his life time. Back in the 1950’s, the crater became part of Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA), a government protected area for wildlife. He is concerned because he knows of many other Maasai throughout Tanzania and Kenya who have been pushed off of their native lands where they graze their cattle to make room for tourists and wild game hunters. He is not sure how much longer he will be able to live where he is, and he’s not sure where he would move to if he were forced off the land that he has known his whole life.
Photo 1:
Photo 2:
Photo 3:
Photo 4:

PERSON 4: Mariamu is a distinguished politician in Tanzania. She has been elected a member of the National Assembly and wants to find better ways of generating income for the country through the tourist industry. Tourism comprises a large portion of Tanzania’s gross domestic product. Unfortunately, most of this money does not stay in the country to reach the hands of every-day Tanzanians. Hotels, airlines, and foreign tourism companies end up claiming much of the money paid by tourists in Tanzania. Mariamu is a strong advocate that tourism can help her country, but she believes that Tanzanians need to take ownership and management of more tourist enterprises.
Photo 1:
Photo 2:
Photo 3:
Photo 4:

We can see from this exercise that situations can be seen from many different points of view. Ngorongoro Crater is famous as a tourist attraction in Tanzania, but it is also a homeland to the Maasai people, a source of employment for Tanzanians, and an important natural resource for the nation. The impact of tourism on the environment must be considered from all of these perspectives. How can Tanzanians benefit from the money that tourism brings into their country while also protecting the rights of Maasai people and the well-being of the local environment? After all, having large numbers of tourists come into a delicate plant, animal, and human habitat is bound to bring about environmental and social change. Roads and housing have to be build, trash and human waste have to be put somewhere, electricity and large amounts of water are needed, and people living in the region will be constantly disturbed in their daily lives by tourists. How then can the impact of tourism be minimized?


Ecotourism has recently become a popular term, meaning tourism that is environmentally and culturally sensitive. It is supposed to be educational so the tourists learn about the environment and lives of people in the region they are visiting. And the local people should have some control over and benefits from the tourism in their home area. While this is a good idea in principle, it has been hard to implement in many cases. Some tourist groups call themselves “ecotourism” because it is a popular idea, but they really do not allow the local people much say in what they do. Also, there may be conflicting ideas about what is actually beneficial or destructive to the local environment. The struggles between different people’s interests and perspectives will always be present, and it remains a challenge for Tanzanians as well as others around the world to keep working towards solutions.

Go on to Activity Three or choose one of the other activities in this module