After Asia, Africa is the largest and most populous of the seven continents. It is perhaps the most diverse in terms of cultures, languages, and people groups, some of which are still untouched by Westernization and modernity. Paleoanthropologists believe that humans originated in Africa and that from there, they migrated throughout the rest of the world. Africa has historically been the home of many great civilizations, such as those of Ancient Egypt, Timbuktu, and Abyssinia.
Today, there are 55 sovereign states in Africa, though there are thousands of people groups, many of which speak their own languages, have their own traditions and cultures, and consider themselves to be nations.
Today, Africa is best understood as being divided into two regions. North Africa is north of the Sahara desert; its countries are predominantly Muslim, and most of the people speak Arabic. Sub-Saharan Africa lies south of the Sahara desert, and while it includes many Muslim populations, it also has significant communities of Christians and other religions.
Of all the seven continents, Africa suffered the worst effects of colonization. The slave trade led to many Africans being kidnapped and sent to North America to work on plantations. Countries like Belgium, France, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom governed countries in such a way that the people were forced into servitude. The colonial governments created countries whose borders were so arbitrary that people groups became separated from each other. The effects on traditional, indigenous culture were disastrous.
Many of the long-standing conflicts in Africa today, such as the wars in the Congo, are the legacy of colonialism. The governments of many African countries are notoriously corrupt, and sadly, genocides, such as those in Rwanda and Sudan, continue to occur.
However, one success story is that of South Africa. Following the end of Dutch colonial rule, a policy of apartheid ensured that black Africans had few rights and that whites who lived there enjoyed lifestyles of privilege and prestige. Thankfully, the fall of apartheid and the election of Nelson Mandela showed that African countries could heal from the ravages of colonialism. Today in South Africa, though, there are still significant disparities between whites and blacks, and many blacks remain in dire poverty.
Today, countries in Africa have some of the lowest human development indexes (HDIs) in the world. Nearly all of the 30 countries with the lowest HDIs, as reported by the United Nations, are in Africa; missing from the list is Somalia, in the horn of Africa, which is considered to be a failed state and is one of the most impoverished and dangerous places in the world. However, Africa is abundant in natural resources and hard-working people; what is holding the continent back is the corrupt governments and longstanding conflicts that came to dominate the scene following the withdrawal of colonial governments. Africa is not poor but rather poorly managed.
Africa’s geography is dominated by the Sahara desert, which is the world’s largest desert and is growing due to the environmental crisis. The Nile River is possibly the longest river in the world (though some believe that the Amazon may actually be longer), and it provides water to the countries of Sudan and Egypt. Africa has vast savannahs and woodlands, but the continent is being deforested at twice the global average. Giant land animals, such as elephants, giraffes, and rhinoceroses, are endangered because of poaching. Given that much of the continent is impoverished and under corrupt governments, addressing the environmental crisis in Africa requires international action.
The African Union, which formed in 2001 and includes all 55 African countries, can be seen as a corollary to the European Union. It has strengthened relations among nations in Africa and hopes to work to decrease poverty and end human rights violations. One notable sign of success in Africa is that during the civil war in the Congo, neighboring African countries, rather than Western countries, have been intervening and attempting to promote peace and reconciliation. With assistance from international organizations, countries all across Africa will become even more empowered to lift themselves out of poverty and address the environmental crisis.