Five Things You Don't Know About Africa

The Northern Stele Park at the town of Axum, Ethiopia
The Northern Stele Park at the town of Axum, Ethiopia. Jialiang Gao / Wikimedia

1. Africa is not a country

Okay. You do know this, but people frequently refer to Africa as though it were a country. Sometimes, people will actually say, “Countries like India and Africa…”, but more often they simply refer to Africa as though the entire continent faced similar problems or had similar cultures or histories. There are, however, 54 sovereign states in Africa plus the disputed territory of Western Sahara.

2. Africa is not all poor, rural, or overpopulated

Africa is an incredibly diverse continent politically, socially, and economically. To get an idea of how people’s lives and opportunities differ across Africa, consider that in 2013:

  1. Life expectancy ranged from 45 (Sierra Leone) to 75 (Libya & Tunisia)
  2. Children per family ranged from 1.4 (Mauritius) to 7.6 (Niger)
  3. Population density (people per square mile) ranged from 3 (Namibia) to 639 (Mauritius)
  4. GDP per capita in current US dollars ranged from 226 (Malawi) to 11,965 (Libya)
  5. Cell phones per 1000 people ranged from 35 (Eritrea) to 1359 (Seychelles)

(All above data from the World Bank)

3. There were empires and kingdoms in Africa long before the modern era

The most famous ancient kingdom, of course, is Egypt, which existed in one form or another, from roughly 3,150 to 332 B.C.E. Carthage is also well known due to its wars with Rome, but there were numerous other ancient kingdoms and empires, including Kush-Meroe in present-day Sudan and Axum in Ethiopia, each of which lasted for over 1,000 years. Two of the more famous states of what is sometimes referred to as the medieval era in African history are the Kingdoms of Mali (c.1230-1600) and Great Zimbabwe (c. 1200-1450). These were both rich states involved in intercontinental trade. Archeological digs at Zimbabwe have revealed coins and commodities from as far away as China, and these are but a few examples of the wealthy and powerful states that flourished in Africa before European colonization.

4. With the exception of Ethiopia, every African country has English, French, Portuguese, or Arabic as one of their official languages

Arabic has long been spoken widely in northern and western Africa. Then, between 1885 and 1914, Europe colonized all of Africa with the exception of Ethiopia and Liberia. One consequence of this colonization was that after independence, the former colonies kept the language of their colonizer as one of their official languages, even if it was a second language for many citizens.The Republic of Liberia was not technically colonized, but it had been founded by African-American settlers in 1847 and so already had English as its official language.This left the Kingdom of Ethiopia as the only African kingdom not to be colonized, though it was briefly conquered by Italy in the lead-up to World War II. Its official language is Amharic, but many students study English as a foreign language in school.

5. There are currently two female Presidents in Africa

Another common misconception is that women are oppressed across Africa. There are cultures and countries where women do not have equal rights or receive respect equal to that of men, but there are other states where women are legally equal to men and have broken the glass ceiling of politics – a feat the United States of America has yet to match. In Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has served as president since 2006, and in the Central African Republic, Catherine Samba-Panza was selected the Acting President leading into the 2015 elections. Previous female heads of state include, Joyce Banda (President, Malawi), Sylvie Kinigi (Acting President, Burundi), and Rose Francine Ragombé (Acting President, Gabon).

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Thompsell, Angela. "Five Things You Don't Know About Africa." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Thompsell, Angela. (2023, April 5). Five Things You Don't Know About Africa. Retrieved from Thompsell, Angela. "Five Things You Don't Know About Africa." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).