Text Bill Torbitt
IN A NUTSHELL
Africa probably derives its name from the Afri people, known to the Romans. Interestingly, the Greek word aphrike means ‘without cold’. Africa and Arabia are moving apart at a rate of 1 to 2 centimetres per year. It is the place where the earliest hominid (Lucy – 3.5 million years old) was discovered.
The most populous capital city on the continent is Cairo, with perhaps 17 million people in the metropolitan area. With about 15 000 people, Maseru in Lesotho is the smallest African capital. Some 2 000 distinct languages are spoken in Africa. Africa (mainly Namibia and Niger) produces 16% of the world’s uranium, about 10% of its gold and 80% of its platinum (nearly all from South Africa).
The Sahara, usually referred to as the world’s largest desert, is not a desert, at least not in the sense of being empty. It is home to many indigenous peoples such as the Berbers and Tuaregs. It has towns, villages and oases; it is dotted with oil and gas installations vital to modern civilisation; it is crossed with good roads; it has mountains and caves adorned with cave paintings; and it even rains there! Namibia, even with a growing population, is the least densely populated country in Africa, and the second in the world (beaten by Mongolia!).
SOMALIA, SOMALILAND AND SAHARA
Somalia is not the same as Somaliland. Somalia is the country that has remained the longest without a central authoritative government (since 1991).
Somaliland is the breakaway northern region, formerly British Somaliland, which is relatively stable and self-administered, but unrecognised by the world community. Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony, is the only territory remaining in the world whose sovereignty was supposed to be sorted out by the UN, but has not yet been resolved.
LAND OF THE PHAROAHS
Pharaoh Necho of Egypt, who ruled around 600 BC and is mentioned in the Bible, tried to join the Nile River to the Red Sea as an early Suez Canal and probably sent a fleet of ships to circumnavigate Africa. The Nile, at 6 600 kilometres, is the longest river in the world. Without the Nile, Egypt and the Sudan would not exist.
Apart from the rivers defining African colonial boundaries, many African countries are themselves defined by them. The Congo River gives two countries their name. There are two countries named after the Niger, a river with one of the world’s most unusual courses, and without which Mali would also not exist.
Gambia is the smallest country in mainland Africa, and is simply the course of the Gambia River. Gabon is basically the course of the Ogooué River. At 5 895 metres Mount Kilimanjaro is Africa’s highest point. Although it lies on the equator, it still has glaciers, despite global warming. Lake Assal in Djibouti at 155 metres below sea level is the lowest point in the continent.
It is also one of the hottest places in the world. Lake Turkana in Kenya is the world’s fourth-largest salt-water lake, but you are not advised to swim in it, due to the presence of the largest population of Nile crocodiles in the world! The Afar depression between Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti is the place where three tectonic plates meet, and is one of the most active geological points on earth.
FROM GABON AND GUINEA TO SUDAN AND TIMBUKTU
Port Gentil in Gabon is the only principal port in the world that is inaccessible by road or rail from the rest of the country. Equatorial Guinea is in theory the richest country in Africa, with a GDP per capita of US$33 000. Sudan has nearly twice as many pyramids as Egypt.
Timbuktu in Mali is one of the world’s oldest centres of learning. In the 12th century it had not one but three universities, in which 25 000 students were studying! Timbuktu has a priceless collection of mediaeval Islamic manuscripts – which thankfully appear to have been saved in the recent troubles.
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This article was originally published in the April 2013 Flamingo magazine.