Return to Resources

History of Africa

Africa is the second-largest continent after Asia. It is approximately four times larger than the United States and is comprised of some 54 countries and states and islands. Africa’s population numbered some 720 million in 1995. The most populous states are Nigeria, Egypt, Ethiopia, Zaire, and South Africa. If Africa’s population continues to increase at its present rate, it will double by the year 2019.Many of the challenges faced by missionaries working in Africa can be traced to the history of the continent and the impact of European colonization.


The modern European colonization of Africa was begun by the Portuguese, who established trading stations on the coast in the 15th and 16th centuries. The interior of what Europeans called “the Dark Continent” was not explored or colonized until the 19th century. By the early 20th century nearly all of Africa had been subjected to European rule. Since World War II, 49 nations have gained their independence, but the colonial experience left Africa with arbitrarily defined boundaries, a diversity of political systems and problems, and economies dependent upon the industrialized world.

Africa’s peoples remain sharply divided by race, language, religion, and politics in a complex cultural mosaic. In 1995, Africa contained about 13 percent of the world’s population and was the second most populous continent after Asia. Few of its states are ethnically homogeneous, and only a few have developed a strong sense of national unity. For centuries traditional values prevailed. Africans identified first and foremost with members of their own tribe or nation and avoided or competed with those who spoke a different language or were of a different culture. The imposition of colonial boundaries without regard for the indigenous cultural mosaic exacerbated divisions among the African people.


The number of languages spoken in Africa has been variously estimated at between 800 and 1,700. Five major stocks are generally recognized. Afroasiatic languages, dominant in North Africa and the Horn, include Berber, Kushitic, Semitic, Chad, and Coptic languages. Superimposed on this linguistic mosaic are English, French, Italian, Portuguese, German, and languages of the Indian subcontinent. English is the official language, or one of the two official languages, in all ex-British colonies, excluding Tanzania, where Swahili has been adopted. French is the official language of most former French possessions south of the Sahara. Arabic is the official language of seven Saharan states. Numerous lingua francas, such as Lingala in Zaire and Mandingo in West Africa, are used for commerce and in mixed-language areas. The multi-linguistic nature of most states has hindered nationalism and perpetuates tribal and local identities.


The dominant religion of northern Africa is Islam, which replaced Christianity in the 7th century and spread west and south across the Sahara and into the equatorial zones. With an estimated 155 million believers, Islam is the fastest-growing faith in Africa. The Christian churches claim a membership of some 140 million Africans of whom 55 percent are Protestants. Many denominations are present, including a number of indigenous churches. Christianity’s earliest hold in Africa was in Egypt and Ethiopia, home of the Coptic church. European missionaries introduced Christianity into sub-Saharan Africa during the 19th century. Approximately two-fifths of the African population follows traditional religions and animism.


Educational standards, facilities, and programs vary considerably and reflect differences in class, ethnicity, sex, and location. In all countries literacy rates for women are lower than those for men, more males than females attend primary school, and urban education is superior to rural. The richest countries invest more in education than the poorest, and in most states, secondary school enrollments are less than half the primary school enrollments. Only a small fraction of Africa’s young people attend universities. Adult literacy rates range from 11 percent in Niger and 19 percent in Mali to 94 percent in Tanzania and 84 percent in Seychelles. Due to the lack of prestigious universities in many African countries, qualified students often attend U.S. and European universities.


There is an urgent need to improve general health and nutritional standards in Africa. A significant number of persons in every country suffer from chronic malnutrition due to poverty, ignorance, and poor agricultural practices. On a per-capita basis, food production declined from the 1970s into the 1990s, and malnutrition rates are the highest in the world. In several countries of the Sahel, Guinea Coast, and equatorial Africa, as much as 40 percent of the population are malnourished and suffer from such diseases as malaria, dysentery, schistosomiasis, and yaws. Most of the doctors and general hospitals are situated in the capitals and towns, whereas the more populated rural areas have few health facilities and high incidences of disease, malnutrition, and infant mortality. Since World War II, national and international efforts to control mosquitoes, locusts, tsetse flies, and other pests have increased, but AIDS is a growing problem, especially in central Africa.

Urban Landscape

Africa is the most rural and least urbanized of the continents. Less than a third of the population live in cities, although several countries, including South Africa, Egypt, Nigeria, and Morocco, have large urban-industrial areas. In most countries the largest city is the capital, which is often also the only city of significant size. Urban-population growth rates exceed rural growth rates as more and more Africans migrate to the cities in search of jobs, education, and security. Slums are growing, and urban living conditions are deteriorating in most countries. Between the 1970s and the mid-1990s civil strife and political upheaval displaced millions of people in Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, Uganda, Angola, Liberia, Rwanda, Mozambique, and other areas. Few countries have been willing or able to accommodate the refugees despite United Nations assistance.


Despite Africa’s great natural resources and energy potentials, industrialization is in its infancy. Africa contributes only 1 percent of worldwide industrial production. South Africa is the only modern industrial state, although manufacturing is becoming increasingly strong in Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Egypt, and Algeria. Handicaps to rapid industrialization are weak agricultural economies, inadequate and poorly integrated transport facilities, insufficient capital technology, political instability, a poorly trained workforce, a small purchasing power, and economic policies and practices determined outside of Africa.


-Beckwith, C., and Fisher, A., African Ark (1993)
-Best, A. C. G., and deBlij, H. J., African Survey (1977)
-Europa Publications, Africa South of the Sahara (annual)
-Gordon, A. A. and D. L., eds., Understanding Contemporary Africa (1992)
-Harding, J., The Fate of Africa (1993)
-Martin, P. M., and O’Meara, P., Africa, 2d ed. (1987)