April 6, 2009
This chapter introduces a complex region riddled with poverty, economic crises, resource
scarcity, and political and ethnic conflict. More than 500 years ago, Europeans began colonizing
sub-Saharan Africa, affecting culture, society, agriculture, industry, and human well-being.
Although colonization has officially ended, the deep influence of colonization poses many
difficult challenges for the future. Despite all these problems, there is also the promise of future
Although the population is distributed unevenly and sparse in relation to the land area, it is
growing rapidly. Population pressures and disease are obstacles to raising the extremely low
standards of living in this region; people’s basic human needs often are not met. The greatest
public health concern is the HIV-AIDS epidemic, which threatens to affect population growth and
life expectancy across the region.
Economically, sub-Saharan Africa is in crisis. It is still primarily an exporter of agricultural
products and raw materials, both with low and unstable prices – this role is a legacy of
colonization. Political instability has added to this economic crisis; the region is plagued by
decades of dictatorships, ethnic strife, corruption, and elite dominance.
In addition to profound poverty and economic and political troubles, the harsh and fragile
environment of this region makes it difficult to raise standards of living. Soils are poorly suited
for cultivation and water is scarce, so agriculture is difficult to sustain. Alternatives have changed
ecological relationships, promoting desertification, reducing forest resources, diminishing
wildlife, and rapidly reducing clean water supplies.
This region is facing many challenges, and the role of Africans themselves is increasing in
defining problems and designing solutions. This is a major step for a continent that for hundreds
of years has been under direct as well as indirect control by other countries.
THE GEOGRAPHIC SETTING
The African continent continues to break its connection to the Arabian Plate at the Red Sea.
Africa’s landforms are exceptionally uniform because it has been rather geologically stable
Despite a lack of complexity, Africa’s landforms – coastal escarpments and a coastline with