Vegetation and Climatic Zones of Africa


[ Welcome ] [ Assignments ]
I. [ Introduction ] [ Zones ] [ Animals of the Savanna ]
II. [ African Art ] [ African Rituals ] [ Women ]
III. Diaspora [ Slave Trade ]
IV. [ Scramble ]
V. [ South Africa ]
VI. [ Decolonization ]

[ Kingdoms of Gold ] [ Swahili States ]
[ 2014 ] [ 2014 Project ]

Ali Mazuri discusses the role of geography and Africa's Triple Heritage
(Traditional, Islamic, Christian) in African history

< The Africans--Nature of a Continent >

"Climate Zone: are divisions of the Earth's climates into general climate zones according to average temperatures and average rainfall. The three major climate zones on the Earth are the polar, temperate, and tropical zones.* Temperatures in these three climate zones are determined mainly by the location, orlatitude, of the zone." Within the 3 major divisions there are variations influenced, for example, by altitude. I'm not crazy about this climate map because it doesn't allow for or explain some anomalies--see if you can identify some of them. *These links are not live.

image source < >
Go here for a more nuanced and sophisticated climate map
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Or, go here < >
Is Africa "lucky" or "unlucky"? What about Europe? What about continental United States?


The African Studies Center at University of Pennsylvania is a rich source for information on Africa
including many links and maps
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As indicated on the previous page, geography (mountains, desert, rain forest, savanna, sahel) has played an important historical role in African history. A color coded depiction of these zones can be seen, to the right: desert in yellow, savanna in light green, tropical rainforest in dark green. Sahel, mountains, Rift Valley, Mediterranean zones not indicated.

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Tropical rain forests (indicated in dark green above) comprise approximately 8% of Africa; there the temperature hovers between 70 and 90 degrees, and rainfall averages about 60 inches per year. Although tropical plant life flourishes, the steady rainfall and perpetual dampness have the effect of leeching nutrients out of the soil, making it next to impossible to raise non-native species. Horses and cattle cannot survive in the rain forest environment due to the presence of the tse-tse fly. The tropical rain forest sits like an island in a sea of grass, the savanna.The Twa/Pygmies eke out a precarious existence in the rain forest. It was thought for many years that the "pygmies" had disappeared, gone the way of the San, but recently semi-isolated pockets of Twa have been identified. To learn more about the Twa people, visit

Early rain forest dwellers derived their protein from fish and hunting small animals not susceptible to the deadly sleeping sickness carried by the tse-tse fly. They practiced "slash and burn" agriculture, frequently moving their plots and villages; they raised root (manioc/cassava came in the 15th-16th centuries) and tuber (yams) crops. Bananas, which reached Africa from Indonesia and the Indian Ocean trade, thrive in the rain forest. Abundant fruits and nuts also grow in the rain forest, notably the kola nut, whose seed is raised and harvested as a stimulant, with an effect similar to that of caffeine. The oils and saps of various palms provide cooking oil and wine. Readers of Things Fall Apart will recognize and remember the location of Okonkwo's village(present day Nigeria) and the importance of yams, kola nuts, and palm wine.

image source < >


The map (left) indicates other tropical rainforest areas (dark green); "the tropics" lie on or near the Equator between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, hence, "the tropics."

< image source < >

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Like the "rich black dirt" of the Russian steppe or America's Great Plains, the savanna supports a rich and varied plant, animal, and human life. It is on African savannas (the Serengeti--left, in Tanzania) that the zebras, gazelles, giraffes, wildebeests, warthogs, lions, cheetahs, leopards, elephants roam. Parts of the savanna experience sufficient rain to support agriculture for the growth of grains such as millet and sorghum. Corn and manioc, which arrived as part of the Great Exchange, also grow on the savanna. In the background are the migrating wildebeests. The zone (left) on previous page indicates how much of Africa is designated as savanna.


The acacia tree (right) is prevalent in the Serengeti, here festooned with the nests of weaver birds. This image accurately illustrates the aridity of the savanna in an era of drought and global climate change.


The baobab tree is one of the examples of flora that can thrive in arid areas like the dry savanna and the sahel. This one is in Tarangire National Park in Tanzania. It is also a common sight on the Serengeti. "Serengit" means endless plain in Kiswahili. The serengeti is, presently (2014) less like savanna and more like sahel, due to global climate change and drought conditions that have prevailed there in recent years.

image source < >

Even so, the savanna provides a rich habitat for the signature wildlife of Africa; indeed tourism provides the major source of income for Kenya and Tanzania where the"safari" lodges of the Maasai Mara (in Kenya) and Serengeti (in Tanzania) bring much needed hard currency to the two countries. Thomsons' gazelles are one of the antelope species that proliferate on the savanna. Grazers (Cape Buffalo) and browzers (elephants, giraffes) co-inhabit the savanna--see [ animals ] page for the wildlife of the savanna.


Although the zebra has never been domesticated, African herders have been raising and herding cattle and goats for millennia. The Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania, pictured here, and the Bantu-speaking Zulu, Xhosa, Matebele, et. al. of southern Africa, value their livestock above all else. The Maasai are one of the more well-known peoples of East Africa; their distinctive customs, appearance, and dress are somewhat familiar in the West. They are a Nilotic people--tall, slender, with very dark pigmentation, though over time they have mingled or mixed with Bantu. The men boast a strong warrior tradition and pride themselves on their bravery and ability to survive in the bush. Their lives and lifestyle revolve around cattle, the measure of a man's wealth and status in the community.

(TCI 1..2d)

The education and socialization of Maasai boys into manhood center on the rites of passage, such as circumcision, they go through with their age group; at a young age they learn to tend cattle. In recent years, they have added goats to their herds.

image source < "Maasai">

One of the rites of passage required of Maasai boys in their achievement of manhood and warrior status
was to kill a lion. Look at youtube
< >
In recent years, this practice has been outlawed.

Sabore, a Maasai warrior, elder, and chief, described the challenges facing the Maasai in the 21st century as their traditional culture, especially regarding girls and women, clashes with modernization and Kenyan legislation. Look carefully at the map (right) to see where Maasailand lies; Sabore's village is near Narok.

image source < "Maasai" >

Maasai warrior and elder Sabore, spokesman for Blue Planet and good will ambassador for Kenya. Sabore visited Castilleja during Global Weeks 2010, 2012, 2014, 2016. He was a superstar in his meeting with the 6th graders, January, 2016.

Follow link < > to
find out how Sabore's Well, a Blue Planet effort, began in January, 2010, with a
$10 donation from Bridget Meany, Castilleja '10!

Maasai girls and women are also educated and socialized according to their age groups. Two traditional practices, which Sabore is presently working to curtail, are early marriage for girls (as early as 11) and female circumcision. One of the tasks women perform is building the Maasai houses, composed of sticks and plastered with mud and cow dung.

image source < "Maasai" >
slide show of Maasai life and culture, including Sabore

Sabore visited Castilleja again during Global Week, 2014. He made a "rock star" appearance for the 6th graders and African Studies students on January 24, 2014.

Although modernization is making inroads into traditional Maasai customs, many continue in the same rural, pastoral rhythm as their ancestors. Traditional Maasai live in a boma (shown right,) a kraal surrounded or protected by an acacia/thornbush palissade. At dawn, the boys go out with their cattle and goats in search of grass and water. Water--potable or otherwise--is a crucial need. As the boys go out with the livestock, the girls set off, carrying buckets on their heads, in search of water. They may have to walk miles! Sabore's well project began because his sisters had to fetch and carry water instead of attending school.

image source < >

The Maasai and other Nilo-Saharan ( Nilotic) pastoral peoples of East Africa speak Kiswahili.
It is based on Bantu roots with Arabic overlays (resulting from East Africa's long contact with Arab/Indian Ocean traders.)
Swahili refers to the "people of the 'shore'" or sahel. The "ki" prefix means "language of."
It serves as a common vernacular or lingua franca for much of sub-Sahara East Africa.
Some of the words and phrases from The Lion King are Swahili. For a Swahili lesson, visit

< >
Do you want to teach yourself Swahili? Visit < >
an even better site < >

Rinderpest ("Cattle Plague") ravaged African cattle herds in the late 19th century, devastating agriculturists and pastoralists who depended on their livestock for meat, milk, and (as indicated above) social status. The dread disease, which decimated herds, was inadvertently introduced to Africa via cattle imported to feed the Italian army (then trying to conquer Abyssinia.) The pandemic wiped out 95% of African cattle, as well as some wild species (MacNeill). Millions of Africans starved. Shown in the image (left) are Boer farmers, whose lifestyle also depended on cattle; MacNeill speculates that the Rinderpest pandemic aided the Brits in the Boer War.

MacNeill also comments that Rinderpest served to facilitate the European takeover of Africa during
the "Scramble." For more on this topic, visit

< >

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Between savanna and the Sahara to the North and Kalahari/Namib to the South lies the sahel, an Arabic word for "shore of the desert." (TCI, 1.2e) This semi-arid zone comprises a band of harsh, barren, scrubby grassland with very small annual precipitation. The Sahel comprises a "belt," approximately 1000 km wide, stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea ("Sahel").

image source < "Sahel">

In periods of drought, desert encroaches on sahel, and sahel encroaches on savanna. Periods of drought, aside from bringing hardship to savanna farmers, drive pastoral, herding peoples into conflict with them over water, in a cycle that has repeated itself over and over in African history. Oases and wells dry up; conditions of severe drought (2007-2016) have exacerbated ethnic tensions between pastoralists and agriculturalists. This situation has brought hardship, for example, to the cattle-herding Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania, as Sabore told us during Global Week 2010. He told us that there was no great migration that year!

image source TCI

For more on the Sahel, visit < >

And then there are the deserts: the classic sea of sand, the Sahara, and the Kalahari/Namib. These two cover almost 30% of Africa. In the harsh desert conditions, scant rain fall and high temperatures make life difficult. With the introduction of the camel in the first century CE, it became possible for trade and communication to cross the Sahara, as will be shown and described on the Kingdoms of Gold page. Arab merchants called their camels "ships of the desert," as only they could cross the great sand sea. The Sahara, comprising more than three million square miles, is the largest desert in the world; until the arrival of the camel, it effectively cut the Mediterranean off from contact and communication with West Africa.
The Kalahari, a smaller sister of the Sahara, comprises 100,000 square miles in southern Africa (see near right graphic.) Unlike the Sahara, it does have some rainfall and supports some animal and vegetable life. The name, Kalahari comes from the Tswana language (Kalagare) meaning "great thirst" or "a waterless place" ("Kalahari Desert"). The last vestiges of the San people still eke out a precarious existence in the Kalahari. Like the Sahara, which was once lush and tropical, the Kalahari (10,000 years ago) Basin was once dominated by the ancient Lake Makgadikgadi ("Kalahari Desert").

(TCI 1.1i, 1.1g)--center image
"Kalahari Desert."--right image

The San and KhoiKhoi people lived for millennia deep in the Kalahari as foragers (a.k.a. hunters/gatherers.) They and their life style had all but disappeared by the end of the 20th century; now almost none live or practice traditional "KhoiSan" culture, having fallen victim to modernization. Although these peoples are generally considered Africa's oldest inhabitants, they experienced pressure from the Bantu Speakers who absorbed, expelled, or killed them in the Great Bantu Migration. The San and KhoiKhoi fled to the comparative safety of the Kalahari. The distinctive "clicks"(see below) in their language survive vestigially, for example, among the Xosa of South Africa and in parts of Namibia.

image source < >

For a lesson in the San "click language, follow link < >
In the 1980 movie, The Gods Must Be Crazy, you can see and listen to the San "click" language;
alas, the film has been removed from Youtube, but we'll watch an excerpt in class.

Global Climate Change is having a devastating effect on Africa as dessication and desertification have led to expanding deserts, conflict, war over resources and, according to some, a humanitarian disaster.

for more on this topic and image source, <,1518,662887,00.html >


In addition to burning deserts, tropical rainforest, savanna grasslands, and sahel,
other features characterize African geography and influence its climate, for example, mountain ranges or highlands.
The Atlas Mountains stretch for 1500 miles from Southwestern Morocco through Algeria to Tunisia
and separate the Mediterranean climate of the far North from the Sahara (below left.)
The Ethiopian plateau in East Africa is shown below right.
It is thought that the cultivation of coffee originated in this area.


(TCI, 1.1.j, TCI 1.1b)

In addition, Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa rises in present day Tanzania. According to legend, its name comes from ancient kiswahili words for "little mountain," "white," and "shining" ("Mount Kilimanjaro"). If you google Mt. Kilimanjaro, you can learn about the disappearance of its glacial cap and the impact the warming trend is having on desert, sahel, and savanna lifestyles. Not illustrated here are Mt. Kenya (in Kenya) and the Camaroon Plateau in West Africa.

(TCI, 1.1c)

The images of Mount Kilimanjaro indicate the effect of global climate change
on this significant African icon.



for more information on global climate change <,1518,662887,00.html >

The Great Rift Valley comprises a gigantic geologic fault that extends from Mozambique into the Red Sea and on to northern Syria. Some of its cliffs, in present day Kenya, stand six thousand feet high, while the lowest point of the Great Rift, at the bottom of the Dead Sea, is perhaps 1300 feet below sea level.
Finally, a discussion of African geography would not be complete without mention of its three great river systems: Nile, Niger, and Congo. The African continent comprises a gigantic high plateau. The rivers rise in the interior, as you can see from the map, and cascade down over cataracts or waterfalls into the seas. Finding the sources of the great rivers--Nile, Niger, Congo--obsessed explorers in the 19th century.

image source < >


The Nile flows for more than 4000 miles from Lake Victoria to its delta in the Mediterranean Sea; the longest river in the world, it supports agriculture on its banks in Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi. The yearly flood of alluvial soil fosters agriculture on its banks, especially at the delta.

(TCI, 1.1e)
Take a tour of the Nile < >
The Niger (left,) 2600 miles long, meanders from the high Guinea plateau, makes a huge bend at Timbucktu, and finally empties into the Gulf of Guinea in a large mushy delta in present day Nigeria. This mosquito- infested delta defeated European explorers, such as Mungo Park, for most of the 19th century.

image source < >
for more on the Niger, visit < >

The Congo originates deep in the interior of Central Africa and rushes more than 2700 miles to empty into the Atlantic Ocean. Much of the river is fast moving, characterized by cataracts and waterfalls, which almost but not quite stymied first Stanley and then King Leopold in the 19th century. During the Congo's "tumultuous descent, the river squeezes through narrow canyons, boils up in waves 40 feet high, and tumbles over 32 separate cataracts" (Hochschild).

(TCI, 1.1k)
The Congo River at Kinshasa< >
In this youtube video, you can get an idea of the difficulties Stanley faced in his efforts to travel upstream
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background and images as indicated--Teachers' Curriculum Institute.
Empires and Kingdoms of Sub-Saharan Africa.Palo Alto: Teachers Curriculum Institute, 1993.

Blier, Suzanne. "The Baobab Project." Cambridge: Harvard University, 1994. Available Online.

Brians, Paul and Richard Law. "Resources for the Study of World Civilizations." Spokane: Washington State University, 2000.
Available Online.

Hochschild, Adam. King Leopold's Ghost. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

"Kalahari Desert." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Available Online.
< >

kente cloth line--

Lewis, Kirsty. "What If Global Temperature Rose by 4 Degrees Celsius?" Spiegel Online International.
Available Online. <,1518,662887,00.html >

MacNeill, Donald G., jr. "Rinderpest, Scourge of Cattle Is Vanquished."
Science Times--The New York Times. 28 June, 2011. Available Online.
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"Maasai." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Available Online.
< >

"Mount Kilimanjaro." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Available Online.
< >

Rusinek, Carol. "Africa: Namibia and South Africa."
Available Online. < >

"Sahel." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Available Online.
< >