West Africa

The Atlantic Ocean borders all but three of the 15 countries that make up West Africa. Much of the area is dominated by the Sahara and the Sahel a vast area of semi–desert which the Sahara is slowly invading. Despite their potential wealth and rich resources, most of the countries are desperately poor. Long–established trade routes across the Sahara link West Africa with the Mediterranean coast to the north. For millions of West Africans, life is a perpetual struggle against hostile climate, the threat of drought and political instability.

Physical Features:

Most of West Africa lies 200-400m (600–1200 ft) above sea–level. The Sahara dominates Niger, Mauritania and Mali and the Sahel extends south into Senegal, Burkina Faso and Nigeria. The rivers Senegal, Gambia, Volta and Niger irrigate the west and south.

River Niger:

Africa’s third longest river, the Niger flows in a great arc for 4,180 km (2,597 miles) from Guinea through Mali, Niger, Benin and Nigeria to a vast delta on the gulf of Guinea. A valuable source of fish and water, it is navigable for more than half its length.


Immediately south of the Sahara desert, stretching all the way across West Africa, is a broad band of hot, arid, semi – desert grassland called the Sahel. In Arabic, the world Sahel means shore of the desert. Rainfall in this region is sporadic and droughts are common.

Regional Climate:

Moving from north to south, there are four main climate regions is West Africa: desert, Sahel, grassland and tropical rainforest. Rain is rare in the northern desert and Sahel regions. Yet the south is humid and tropical with a distinct rainy season that can last for four to six months.


Also called peanuts, groundnuts develop underground. They are widely grown in West Africa as a source of edible oil and as a food stuff that is rich in protein and vitamins. The plants were introduced into West Africa from South America.


The northern two – thirds of Mauritania are desert. The only farmland lies in a narrow, fertile strip along the bank of the river Senegal in the southwest. This area is scattered with small villages and oases. Nomadic Moors of Arab descents, from the north, live in Mauritania. They have often clashed with black farmers in the south.


The waters off Mauritania are said to have the richest fish stocks in the world. They attract many foreign fishing fleets. All catches must be sold through the state fishing company. Fishing provides more than half Mauritania’s export earnings.


Successive years of drought and overgrazing in the Sahel region have caused the desert to expand southwards, killing livestock and forcing many nomads to move into towns.

Mineral Wealth:

The Mauritanian desert contains the largest deposits of gypsum used for making plaster and some of the largest reserves of iron in the world. The country also exports gold. A single rail line connects mines with Nouakchott, the country’s capital and main port.

Mauritania Facts:

Capital City: Nouakchott
Area: 1,030,700 sq km (397, 953 sq miles)
Population: 2,700,000
Main Languages: Arabic, French, Hassaniya, Wolof, Soninke
Major Religions: Islam
Currency: Ouguiya


The flat, semi–desert plains of Senegal are crossed by four rivers, the Senegal, Gambia, Saloum and Casamance, which provide water for agriculture the country’s main source of income. Tourism is also developing. Senegal has a mix of ethnic groups the largest of which are the Wolofs.


Senegal’s capital and major port Dakar is a bustling industrial centre with good restaurants, shops and markets. However, many of the 2, 50,000 people who live here are poor and live in suburban slums.


A festivals and ceremonies or griots, a mix of historians, musicians and poets sing and recite traditional stories often to the accompaniment of a kora.


About 60 per cent of the Senegalese labor force works on the land grown cotton and sugar–cane for export and rice, sorghum and millet for their food. Until droughts in the 1970s damaged yields, groundnuts were the main cash crop. Fish is now the main export.

Senegal Facts:

Capital City: Dakar
Area: 196,190 sq km (75,749 sq miles)
Population: 9,700,000
Main Languages: French, Wolof, Fulani, Seret, Diola, Mandinka
Major Religions: Islam
Currency: CFA Franc


One of the most densely populated countries in Africa, Gambia occupies a narrow strip either side of the river Gambia and is surrounded on three sides by Senegal. With little industry, 80 per cent of the people live off the land. Groundnuts make up 80 per cent of exports. The main ethnic groups are the Mandingo, Fulani and Wolof.


Gambia is an attractive destination for winter sun-seekers from Europe. Tourism, the country’s fastest growing industry, employs one in ten Gambians. About 10,000 of those work on a seasonal basis.

Gambia Facts:

Capital City: Banjul
Area: 11,300 sq km (4,363 sq miles)
Population: 1,340,000
Main Languages: English, Mandinka
Major Religions: Islam, Christianity, Traditional Believes
Currency: Dalasi


Rainfall in Guinea–Bissau is more reliable than in most of the rest of Africa enabling the country to be self sufficient in rice. However, flooding is common along the coast because farmers have cut down mangroves to plant rice fields. Most people travel by boat.

Cashew Nuts:

Farming employs 85 percent of the work–force. Rice, cotton, groundnuts and copra are produced as cash crops as are cashew nuts which made up nearly 60 per cent of the country’s export.

Guinea–Bissau Facts:

Capital City: Bissau
Area: 36,120 sq km (13,946 sq miles)
Population: 1,200,000
Main Languages: Portuguese, Crioulo
Major Religions: Islam, Christianity, Traditional Believes
Currency: CFA Franc


With more than 30 per cent of the world’s known reserves of bauxite and deposits of diamonds, iron, copper, manganese, uranium and gold, Guinea could be a wealthy country. However years of poor government and lack of support from former French rulers have made Guinea’s economic development difficult.


Three–quarters of Guineans belong to one of three main ethnic groups the Malinke and Fulani who live in the north and centre and the Susu who live closer to the coast. Two–thirds live in small rural communities where the standard of living is one of the lowest in the world. Average life expectancy is low at only 45years and only about 35 per cent of people can read.

Fruit Growing:

Bananas plantains and pineapples grow well in the fertile Fouta Djalon hills (Guinea highlands). Farmers cultivate coffee, palm nuts and groundnuts as cash crops and sorghum, rice and cassava for their families.

Guinea Facts:

Capital City: Conakry
Area: 245, 857 sq km (94,925 sq miles)
Population: 8,300,000
Main Languages: French, Pulani, Malinke, Susu
Main religions: Islam, Christianity, Traditional Believes
Currency: Guinea Franc

Ivory Coast:

With 600 km (370 miles) of Atlantic coastline and three main rivers, Ivory Coast is fertile and farming efficient. It is among the world’s top producers of coffee and cocoa. Food accounts for half of all exports. Most people work in farming and forestry. Nearly all the forests have been sold off as timber to pay foreign debts.

Yamoussoukro Basilica:

Although only 29 per cent of the people of the population are Christian, Ivory Coast has one of the world’s largest Christian churches. Able to seat 7,000 people, it dominated the city of Yamoussoukro which replaced Abidjan as the country’s capital in 1983.


Ivory Coast is the world’s leading producer of cocoa beans. Cocoa trees need humid conditions and many cocoa plantations lie in moist, tropical regions where rainforests were felled for timber. Factories have been set up in Ivory Coast to make cocoa butter which is the basic ingredient of chocolate and some cosmetics.

Ivory Coast Facts:

Capital City: Yamoussoukro
Area: 322,460 sq km (124,520 sq miles)
Population: 16,300,000
Main Languages: French, Akan
Main religions: Islam, Christianity, Traditional Believes
Currency: CFA Franc

Sierra Leone:

Sierra Leone was founded by the British in the early 1800s as a colony for freed slaves. Its name is Spanish for Lion Mountains and refers to the constant roar of thunder. Of the 12ethnic groups the biggest are the Mende and the Temne. A ceasefire halted civil war in 2000 .


Mining is the mainstay of Sierra Leone’s economy. The chief exports are diamonds some of which are still mined by hand as well as gold bauxite and titanium ore. Farming employs more than two–thirds of the work – force growing coffee, cocoa, palm kernels, ginger and cassava.


Surrounded by green hills, Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, is a colorful and historic port and home to more than 700,000 people. The name is a reminder of the county’s former status as a haven for freed slaves. Among Freetown’s attraction are a 500–year–old cotton tree and West Africa oldest university built in 1827.

Sierra Leone Facts:

Capital City: Freetown
Area: 71,740 sq km (27,698 sq miles)
Population: 4,600,000
Main Languages: English, Krio, Creole
Main religions: Islam, Christianity, Traditional Believes
Currency: Leone


Founded by the USA in the 1820s as a home for freed black slaves, Liberia has never been colonized. About five per cent of the people descent from former slaves and Americans settlers. The rest are a varied mix of ethnic groups. About 70 percent of Liberians work on the land, growing oil palm, coffee and cocoa, a rubber for export. Civil war has damaged trade.

Civil War:

Since 1990 Liberia has been torn by a chaotic and bloody civil war and its once prosperous economy has collapsed. The war which began as clashes between various ethnic groups has made thousands of people homeless and many are forced to live in large refugee camps where food shortages are a part of everyday life.


Reputedly the world’s wettest capital city with more than 4,560mm (183 in) of rain per year, Monrovia is a sprawling city and major port. Liberal has the world’s largest commercial fleet of ships. Almost all are foreign owned. But registered in Monrovia where taxes are low.

Liberia Facts:

Capital City: Monrovia
Area: 111,370 sq km (43,000 sq miles)
Population: 3,100,000 Main Languages: English, Kpelle, Bassa, Vai, Grebo, Kru, Kissi, Gola
Main religions: Islam, Christianity, Traditional Believes
Currency: Liberian Dollar


Desert and semi desert cover the northern two–thirds of Mali and only two per cent of the land can be cultivated. Most people live in the south in farming settlements close the rivers Niger and Senegal. Droughts, poor food and an average life expectancy of only 51 years make Mali one of the world’s poorest countries. Some gold is mined but cotton is the biggest export.


Mali’s main people are the Bambara, Fulani, Tuareg and Dogon with smaller numbers of Songhai and Bozo. Bozo artists, mostly women, are noted for their mud cloth made by painting abstract designs on to rough cloth using different colored soils.


Lying on the edge of the desert Tombouctou is a city of sand still visited by camel caravans carrying salt from mines in the north for shipping up the river Niger to Mopti. This historic city is a centre of Islamic learning.

Mali Facts:

Capital City: Bamako
Area: 1,124,000 sq km (478,764 sq miles)
Population: 11,700,000
Main Languages: English, Bambara, Fulani, Arabic, Senufo, Soninke
Main religions: Islam, Traditional Believes
Currency: CFA Franc


Once called the Gold Coast by Europeans who found gold here 500 years ago, Ghana still has reserves of gold which has recently replaced cocoa as a the country’s major source of income. The country is a still one of the world’s largest cocoa producers. Lake Volta formed by a dam on the river Volta is the world’s largest artificial lake.


A popular food in Ghana is banku a mixture of maize dough and cassava. Ghanaians mix leaves of eseye a type of spinach with palm oil to make a sauce that is eaten with boiled fist or vegetables.


Family ties are strong in Ghana and the extended family is important. About half of Ghanaians are Ashanti people whose ancestors developed one of the richest and most famous civilizations in Africa. Other groups include the Mole–Dagbani, Ewe and Ga. About 38 per cent of the people live in cities and towns.

Ghana Facts:

Capital City: Accra
Area: 238,540 sq km (92,100 sq miles)
Population: 19,700,000
Main Languages: English, Mossai, Akan, Ewe and Ga, Twi, Fanti, Gurma
Main religions: Islam, Christianity, Traditional Believes
Currency: Cedi


Land locked in the arid shell region and threatened by the Sahara which is expanding southwards, Burkina (Formerly Upper Volta) is one of West Africa’s poorest and most overpopulated countries. Faced with droughts and lack of work, many young people are forced to leave to find jobs abroad.


The Fulani are nomadic cattle herder who roams West Africa with their animals. In Burkina where they number about 75,000, they are one of more than 60 ethnic groups. Fulani herders traditionally tend cattle for local farmers in exchange for sacks of rice.


Burkina’s most valuable cash crop is cotton which brings in about 25 per cent of its export earning. However, the country’s farming is threatened by the mass emigration of young workers who send money home to their families. The country has deposits of silver and manganese and exports gold.

Burkina Facts:

Capital City: Ouagadougou
Area: 274,200 sq km (105,869 sq miles)
Population: 11,900,000
Main Languages: French, Mossi, Mande, Fulani, Lobi, Bodo
Main religions: Islam, Christianity, Traditional Believes
Currency: CFA Franc


A long, narrow country just 110 km (68 miles) at its widest point, Togo has central forested plateau with savannah to the north and south. Nearly half the population is under 15 years of age and few people are more than 45. Although most people are farmers, Togo’s main export is phosphates used for making fertilizers.


Togolese farmers produce cocoa, coffee, cotton, copra and palm kernels mainly for export. New products include herbs tomatoes and sugar for the own use. They grow millet, cassava and maize. Fishing is important in coastal areas.

Market Women:

Although politics and formal employment remains the domain of men, many Togolese women work informally in part–time jobs. Wealthy women traders are called by the term The Nana Benz because they all seem to own Mercedes Benz cars. They dominate Togo’s markets and taxi businesses. Based in the market at Lome, these formidable women fight hard for business and have a legendary capacity for haggling.

Togo Facts:

Capital City: Lome
Area: 56,785 sq km (21,924 sq miles)
Population: 4,700,000
Main Languages: French, Kabye, Ewe
Main religions: Islam, Christianity, Traditional Believes
Currency: CFA Franc


With large reserves of oil, natural gas, coal, iron ore, lead, tin and zinc and rich, fertile farmland, Nigeria looked set to prosper when it gained independence from Britain in 1960. However, the country’s economy has experienced difficulty due to falling oil prices, ethnic conflicts and corrupt government. After 16 years of military dictatorship, civilian rule was restored in 1999.


Nigerian society consists of an uneasy Mix of more than 250 ethnic groups. Two–thirds of the population belongs to one of three groups: the Hausa in the north, the Ibo in the east and the Yoruba in the west. About 57 per cent of people live in small tight – knit villages where communal life is important.


Begun in 1980, the new, purpose built city of Abuja replaced Lagos as Nigeria’s capital in 1991. Because the government believed Lagos was too influenced by the Yoruba people. By the late 1990s much of Abuja was unfinished as money ran low during construction.


Agriculture employs more than 40 per cent of all Nigerian workers. Although most farmers work on small plots with simple tools, vast plantation have been established to cultivate cash crops on a commercial scale for export using modern machinery. Crops include cotton, coffee, cocoa beans and oil palms.


Nigeria’s production which ranks first in Africa and highly in the world accounts for 95 per cent of all its exports. Almost totally dependent on this new industry which began in the 1960s Nigeria is venerable to changes in world oil prices.


Nigeria’s Yoruba and Hausa peoples produce many attractive pattered produce many attractive patterned textiles, hand – dyed using natural plant colours. In the Hausa town of Kano in the north men dye the cloth in ancient dye pits.

Nigeria Facts:

Capital City: Abuja
Area: 923,768 sq km (356,667 sq miles)
Population: 116,900,000
Density: 128 per sq km (332 per sq mile)
Main Languages: English, Hausa, Yoruba, Ibo
Major Religions: Islam, Christianity, Traditional Believes
Currency: Naira
Life Expectancy: 52 years
People per Doctor: 5,000
Government: Multiparty Democracy
Adult Literacy: 64%


A former French colony Benin took its name from an ancient empire in 1975: 15 years after becoming independent. It is a long, narrow country with a short coastline on the Gulf of Guinea. Most of the land is flat and forested with a large marsh in the south. Most people live off the land, producing yams, cassava and maize. Cotton bringing in about three–quarters of the country’s export income


Every year, fishermen catch about 39,000tonners (42,990 tones) of fish in the lagoons along the coast of Benin.


Of five main ethnic groups in Benin, the Betamaribe or Somba live in the northwest near the Atakora Mountains. One of the first peoples to settle in Benin, they have lived free from western influence for hundreds of years and have managed to keep many of their traditions intact.

Benin Facts:

Capital City: Porto-Novo
Area: 112,620 sq km (43,483 sq miles)
Population: 6,400,000
Density: 128 per sq km (332 per sq mile)
Main Languages: Yoruba, French, Fon, Bariba, Adja, Fulani
Major Religions: Islam, Christianity, Traditional Believes
Currency: CFA Franc


Although it is the largest country in West Africa, Niger is two thirds desert. The people who are very poor live in the dry Sahel region or in the southwest close to the Niger River where they plant Crops and herd animals. The country is one of the world top producers of uranium.

Fighting The Desert:

The people of Niger are waging a battle against the advance of the desert into the dry Sahel where they live. They plants trees and grass in an attempt to stop the soil eroding.

Male Beauty Contest:

Every year in a festival known as the gerewal young Wodaabe men make themselves up to try and attract a wife in unusual beauty contest. After much dancing the women make their choice. If a marriage proposal results, the man kidnaps the woman and they set off into the desert for a nomadic life together.

Niger Facts:

Capital City: Niamey
Area: 1,267,000 sq km (489,188 sq miles)
Population: 11,200,000
Density: 128 per sq km (332 per sq mile)
Main Languages: French, Hausa, Djerma, Fulani, Tuareg, Teda
Major Religions: Islam
Currency: CFA Franc

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