Geography of West Africa
The plains of sub-Saharan Africa, or Africa south of the Sahara, are crossed by mighty rivers. Among the main rivers are the Congo, the Zambezi, and the Niger. Along the Niger River in West Africa great civilizations arose. The role this river played in the development of civilizations is one example of the way the physical geography of West Africa affected history there.
West Africa’s Great River
As a source of water, food, and transportation, the Niger river allowed many people to live in the area. Along the Niger’s middle section is a low-lying area of lakes and marshes. This watery region is called the inland delta. Though it looks much like the area where a river flows into the sea, it is hundreds of miles from the coast. Many animals and birds find food and shelter in the area. Among them are crocodiles, geese, and hippopotamus. Fish are also plentiful.
Regions of West Africa
Four different regions make up the area surrounding the Niger River. These regions, which run from east to west, are like broad bands or stripes across West Africa. The entire area is warm, but rainfall varies from north to south. The amount of rainfall each region gets has an impact on what vegetation, or plant life, exists there.
The northern band across West Africa is the southern part of the Sahara. This huge expanse of sand and gravel is the world’s largest desert. Temperatures can climb above 120°F. Rain is very rare.
The next band is the semiarid Sahel (sah-HEL), a strip of land that divides the desert from wetter areas. Although the Sahel is fairly dry, it has enough vegetation to support hardy grazing animals.
Farther south is a band of savannah, or open grassland with scattered trees. Tall grasses and shrubs also grow there, and grazing animals are common.
The fourth band gets heavy rain. Near the equator are rain forests, or moist, densely wooded areas.
West Africa’s Resources
West Africa’s land is one of the region’s resources. With its many climates, the land could produce many different crops. Among the traditional West African crops are dates raised in desert oases and kola nuts, used for medicines, from the forests’ trees. Along the Niger, farmers could use the water to grow many food crops.
Other resources were minerals. People who lived mainly on plant foods, like many early Africans, must add salt to their diets. The Sahara was a source of this precious mineral. When ancient lakes there dried up, they left salt behind. Workers mined the salt by digging deep into the earth.
Gold was another mineral resource of West Africa. Although gold is soft and therefore useless for tools or weapons, it makes beautiful jewelry and coins. Gold came from the southern rain forests. Miners kept the exact locations of the gold mines a secret. To this day, no one knows exactly where the mines were located, but gold became a valuable trade good.