More than four million years ago, humankind originated in Africa. Our appearance and the way our bodies function are evolutionary adaptations to the African environments. Since the beginning, Africans have struggled to survive against the difficult living conditions of the continent. While civilizations rose and fell around the world, most African communities remained rather small.

European powers began conquering and dividing the continent centuries ago, and the influence of the foreign nation exists to this day. The colonial period was brutal for Africa, and the legacy of its devastating past continues to trouble its people. It influenced all aspects of African society and culture.

Modern Africans are arguably the most diverse people in the world. More than 3,000 unique ethnic groups are recognized in Africa. The customs, languages, and cultural mores of people on the continent are quite different from country to country and from region to region.


More than 1,000 different languages are spoken in Africa. Although most countries in Eastern and Southern Africa have adopted colonial European languages for official government business, most people speak indigenous or local languages.

In Namibia, people may speak English, Afrikaans, German, Oshivambo, Herero, or Nama. In Tanzania, people can speak English or Swahili.

Due to their colonial pasts, the majority of the countries in West Africa have adopted French, English, Spanish, or Portuguese as national languages. The majority of each countries’ inhabitants, however, also speak one or more indigenous languages. Cameroonians may speak one or more of 24 different languages, in addition to French or English.

Yoruba, Hause, and Igbo are some of the nearly 400 native languages of Nigeria.

Most people in the North African countries speak Arabic and follow Islam. In some parts of North Africa, however, people are multilingual and speak several languages. For example, the official languages of Chad and Djibouti are Arabic and French.

In Ethiopia, people may speak one or more of 70 unique languages or 200 different dialects. A dialect is a form or variety of a spoken language.

Most people in the fourteen independent countries in North Africa are Muslim. The religion they believe in is called Islam. Muslims pray to their god Allah and his prophet Muhammad five times a day facing the city of Mecca. A prophet is someone who is believed to speak for a god. The Koran is the Muslim holy book.
In African countries south of the Sahara Desert, people follow many different religions. Some are Muslim, although the majority of the people are Christian. Missionaries from other parts of the world brought Christianity to many countries in Africa. Some people, however, choose to follow ancient religions and believe that natural spirits and ancestors affect everyday life.


The music, art, literature, and cultural practices of Africa have provoked interest and respect throughout the world. The old belief that Africa is somehow childlike in its cultural development has been denounced as people become more familiar with the rich traditions of the continent.

The material and inherent value of African art steadily increases in the world market. The music and literature of these peoples have found their way into houses and classrooms around the globe. We are beginning to learn through the works of scholars, film makers, and writers that Africans can teach us much more than we can show them.

In general, Africans live in rural areas, particularly those people who live in western, eastern, and southern Africa. Many villagers are subsistent farmers, which means that they live almost entirely off of the food that they grow themselves. Fast food restaurants and supermarkets, as we know them, do not exist in most of Africa. People sell clothing, food, and other supplies at outdoor markets.

In Egypt, many people enjoy a popular bean dish called ful. Couscous is common in countries like Morocco and Algeria. This steamed grain is served with a stew of meat and vegetables.

In Western Africa, people grow cassava, maize, millet, and plantains for food. Cameroonians may eat beans and plantains accompanied by baton de manioc, or manioc sticks. In Gabon, fish is prepared in a spicy sauce and served with rice. Most cultures in Africa remain very traditional–women and girls do most of the cooking.
Visitors to Kenya may be surprised to discover how the Indian culture has influenced the menu. Chicken curry may be enjoyed with a glass of chai tea. Mandalas, a type of donut, may finish off the meal. Kenya's colonial past has also influenced the menu. The British brought the practice of drinking tea which continues to this day.

In Botswana, millet and sorghum porridge are primary sources of nourishment. Millet and sorghum are both types of grains that must be pounded into flour and cooked.

3Bells, drums, guitars, likembes (thumb pianos), strung bows, trumpets, and xylophones are just some of the many instruments played by people in Africa. The music of Africa is a part of all aspects of life. All forms of instruments, such as string, wind, and percussion, originated in Africa.

Drums are a common instrument, but some parts of Africa have few trees, so you will find flutes and trumpets in treeless areas.

Many African songs are work chants that are sung while the seeds are being planted or the crops are being harvested. The smallest children are taught to sing and dance. They may be taught to play music and even build their own instruments.

The radio of Africa is known for both traditional roots as well as modern instruments playing western classical, jazz, rock and reggae.

Many cultures in Africa have traditions of oral story telling. Skilled storytellers would memorize folktales and captivate audiences with their stories of adventure. Many African folktales have morals, or lessons, for the young audiences. Kofi Opong-Mensah retells the following tale from the West African country of Ghana.

Why the Praying Mantis Still Shakes
Anansi is often a character in Ghanaian folktales. He is a mischievous spider.

Long ago, Oyankopon (“god”) had a large farm full of yams. Everybody talked about it in every corner of the world. It was the most beautiful and the largest of all the farms in the world. Everyday people came from everywhere to admire it.

As harvest time was approaching, Nyankopon announced to the inhabitants of the whole world the day the harvest would take place. Upon hearing this, men and women, from north to south and east to west, were full of joy. Not a single day passed without people talking about this great event.

However, there was one person who was jealous of Onyankopon and who wanted to spoil his fortune. He was no other person than Anansi the Spider. He was so jealous that he decided to steal all the yams.

Every evening Anansi the Spider went to uproot a large quantity of the yams and send them to his own farm. Nobody detected the theft. His wife and children did not know. Onyankopon himself did not know. Days passed. Night turned into day. Weeks passed. The harvest day was fast approaching. Preparations for the great event were underway.
One day, Onyankopon decided to go and visit the farm for the last time before the great event. He saw that nearly all the yams have been uprooted. Onyankopon ordered the search for the thief. “Bring him dead or alive,” he said.

The search for the thief started immediately. A week passed, two weeks passed. Weeks turned into months. The thief was not identified and the yams continued to disappear from the farm. Finally, Onyankopon decided to lay traps in the farm. Old Anansi the Spider knew nothing about the traps until one evening he fell into one.

Anansi became sad. He knew that people were going to find him trapped in the farm and identify him as the thief before daybreak. The sun began to rise and Anansi lost all hope. His eyes were full of tears. What a misfortune!

Then he saw the first person coming from far away. Who could this be? He wiped off his tears to see properly. And what did he see? A friend, the praying mantis! Anansi the Spider signaled to him.

When the praying mantis was within earshot, Anansi shouted, “Oh, it's you who is coming to replace me?”

“To replace me? How?” demanded the praying mantis in astonishment.

“So you are not the one? But when is my replacement coming? My god. Why do they let me suffer like this?” said Anansi.

“What is this about?” inquired the praying mantis.

“What? Don't you know that were keeping watch for Onyankopon? Are you not aware that we are searching for the thief who has been carrying away Onyankopon's yams? It has been three days now since I have been keeping watch for this dangerous thief,” the sneaky Anansi replied.

“Oh, good, I don't know anything about this,” said the praying mantis.

“It doesn't matter, my dear friend. Come near here, please. Come and give me a little help. I'm very hungry. Three days without food – ah,” said Anansi.

“What could I do for you, Anansi? You must be suffering a lot. What do you need?” replied the praying mantis.

“If it would be okay, come and replace me for a little while I go down to the village to find something to eat,” Anansi the Spider said in his friendly tone.

“I will do that for you, but please don't keep long,” replied the praying mantis.

“You can count on me, my friend. Come and put your leg here,” said the cunning Anansi.

“What, is that not a trap?” the praying mantis questioned.

“A trap? What an idea. You don't trust me?” replied Anansi.

“But that looks like a trap,” the praying mantis questioned.

“You take me to be a fool then?” Anansi replied.

The praying mantis allowed himself to be duped. He helped Anansi to remove his leg from the trap putting his in its place. What an unexpected chance for Anansi the Spider. As soon as Anansi was freed, he ran quickly towards the village shouting at the top of his voice, “I have see him, I have seen him. I've seen the thief, the thief who has been stealing the yams of Onyankopon. I've seen him at last. He is there at Onyankopon's farms, trapped by a trap.”

A large crowd soon gathered. There were curses and threats everywhere. Everyone wanted to vent his anger on the one who had caused much suspicion among them. In no time at all, the villagers were in the farm. In front of them was Anansi the Spider who led the way to the praying mantis.

“There he is, the thief,” he said, pointing to the praying mantis. The praying mantis had wanted to escape but it was in vain. The villagers rushed on him beating him brutally until he became unconscious. When they thought that he was dead, they left him in the farm. But the praying mantis did not die. He regained consciousness. But when he got up his whole body was shaking, and what was more, he could not see well.

He felt dizziness and to this day, the praying mantis still feels dizzy whenever he walks.

One of the greatest contributions Africa has made to the cultural heritage of mankind is sculpture. African sculpture is a highly developed art form with thousands of years of history behind it. Traditional art has mostly social purposes.

Early humans created painting and engravings on rock walls. Some Saharan rock engravings represent animals now extinct in the area, such as elephants, rhinoceroses, hippopotamuses, and buffaloes. Pictures of domestic cattle and of animals still found in the Sahara today, such as the camel, the horse, and the moufflon (a large-horn sheep), have also been discovered.

The earliest sculptures outside of Egypt are found in Nigeria. A great variety of masks from different materials was worn with elaborate costumes and mimicked the human or activities of nature and forces in the different seasons. Some of the masks were used in cults. On occasions where masks are worn in some communities, others paint their bodies. Some wear no masks but their faces are hidden in their costumes, which are designed to allow free movement in dances. Masks, though similar in appearances, are used in different ways. Often masks are worn at the initiation rites to symbolize cult heroes, royalty, the political structure and arts and crafts.

A relationship exists between ancient Egypt and its influence on the rest of Africa. In the history of African art, there are strong influences of Islam and Christianity.


People who belong to a common ethnic group may share customs, languages, or a common history. Tribal affiliations are a source of unity and pride for many Africans.

In Mauritania, the Moors are one distinct ethnic group. Moors are people of mixed Arab and Berber heritage. Citizens of Senegal may belong to one of the following tribes: Wolof, Fulani, Serer, Toucouleur, Diola, or Mandigo, among others.

Over 60 ethnic groups co-exist in Burkina Faso. One of these groups, the Fulani, also live in Senegal and Cameroon. Some of the 70 tribal groups that live in Kenya are the Kikuyu, Luhya, and Kalenjin. The Masai people are perhaps the best known to non-Europeans. On the island of Madagascar, 18 different tribes speak Malagasy and French. In Swaziland, Swazi, Zulu, Tsonga-Shangaan, and Europeans live side by side.


In addition to being known for its beautiful environments, exotic wildlife, and diverse cultures, Africa has the dubious distinction of having some of the poorest nations, largest populations, and harshest living conditions in the world.

Despite its trove of natural resources, the yearly incomes of Africans are some of the lowest in the world. Nearly half of its people live on less than a dollar a day. Conflicts, harsh environments, and corrupt governments have devasted economies, forcing countries to borrow for goods and fuel.

Ironically, better health care in recent decades has caused further problems in Africa. The population of the continent is approximately 800 million, and these increasing numbers have endangered the environment and strained already weakened governments.

map_big_peop_5_2_1_health_t In developed countries where people enjoy better health care, education, family planning, and nutrition, women tend to have healthy babies. In Africa, however, few people have access to medicine and malnutrition is a constant problem. Lack of clean water and other basic necessities, disease, and human conflicts make survival difficult for most on this continent.

Besides lack of appropriate health care and nutrition, HIV/AIDS is a major health issue in Africa. Due to sufficient educational programs and financial resources, the number of HIV/AIDS cases has risen to tragic heights in Africa. In some countries, such as Zambia and Botswana, 20% or more of the adult population is believed to be infected with HIV. Tragically, the children of Africa suffer the most from this epidemic. Millions of children have been left orphaned because of the disease.

map_big_peop_5_2popul_t Africa has a rapidly growing population of 500 million people, yet 75% of the continent is sparsely inhabited. Most people still live a traditional rural lifestyle, though many Africans move to cities in search of employment. Most people live where water is available, in the Nile Valley, the coasts of North and West Africa, along the Niger, in the eastern highlands, and in South Africa.

With the highest birthrate of any continent, Africa is projected to grow to two billion by 2050. Women in sub-Saharan Africa bear an average of 6 children each. Life expectancy is low (Sierra Leone: 34 years, Zambia: 37 years, other countries: 40–49 years) compared to the developed countries.

The fastest growing region on earth, Africa faces the most serious shortages of food and water.

Political instability and the lack of infrastructure make distribution of supplies difficult. Since the 1960s most countries have seen improvements in life expectancy, health care, and education. However, the continent lies well behind the rest of the world in many basic human needs.

map_big_peop_5_2_3wealth_t Africa is home to one eighth of the world’s population. The most populated areas are along the Nile, Niger, Congo and Senegal rivers. The population is growing quickly due to increasingly better health care. Birthrates are very high, and families are often large. Many people have moved from countryside to cities, because of the poverty and lack of work, or to escape civil wars, droughts, and famines.

Most countries rely on the export of coffee, cocoa, or oil. In recent years, the prices have fallen. The amount that African countries earn from exports is often less then what they have to spend on imports. These factors, along with the growing population and effects of wars and droughts, mean economic difficulties for many African countries.