The countries that make up this region share a common past shaped by ancient civilizations, European colonization, and the drive for independence. At the same time, the region is incredibly diverse. More than 3,000 African ethnic groups reside in this region. Other groups include Europeans, Asians, Arabs, and people of mixed backgrounds.
Population Patterns Africa south of the Sahara experiences both the world's highest birth rate and its highest death rate. AIDS and other diseases, along with famine and poor nutrition, threaten this population. Most people live in densely populated areas along the coastal belt of West Africa, along the Gulf of Guinea, and along the eastern coast of southern Africa. Fertile soils, abundant water supplies, and mild climates help to support agriculture, industry, and commerce in these areas. While the vast majority of Africans south of the Sahara live in rural areas, the world's fastest rate of urbanization occurs in this region. The promise of better economic opportunities, health care, and public services causes many people to migrate from the countryside to cities.
History and Government Ancient civilizations developed powerful kingdoms that dominated patterns of trade throughout the region. In northeast Africa, the Kush kingdom and later the Axum empire thrived. On the West Coast of the region, the empires of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai traded their abundant gold for scarce salt resources from the Sahara. Europeans began colonizing this region in the 1800s. Their boundaries cut across ethnic homelands; replaced traditional, small-scale farming with plantations; and generally promoted European culture over African ways. After gaining independence in the 1900s, the new countries struggled to set up economies to meet their own needs. Ethnic and religious rivalries continue to trouble the region.
Cultures and Lifestyles More than 2,000 languages are spoken in Africa today, including African dialects such as Swahili and Zulu. English and French serve as a lingua franca. Most Africans in this region are either Christians or Muslims or follow one of the many traditional religions. African traditions often are transmitted through the arts. One art form flourishing today is textiles with patterns that reflect distinct ethnic groups. Music, dance, and oral literature also have strong traditions.