50 Facts on Africa

A fishing village in Ghana Image source

In the modern-day world the view people are given of Africa is often a narrow one. In this piece we present 50 facts about this continent that people may not readily know.

Ten Great African Thinkers

In the modern-day world the view people are given of Africa is often a narrow one. In this piece we present 50 facts about this continent that people may not readily know.

  1. J.M. Coetzee (1940- )
    J.M. Coetzee is a two-time Booker prize winner, known for his political novels on South Africa. His style has been compared to Kafka and Beckett. He is best known for novels such as the Life and Time of Michael KWaiting for the Barbarians as well as his essays and criticism such as ‘White Writing’. In 2003 Coetzee won the Nobel Prize for Literature, making him only the second South African, next to Nadine Gordimer, to win a Nobel Prize in Literature.
  2. Ngugi Wa’ Thiongo (1938- )
  3. The Kenyan novelist Ngugi Wa’Thiongo is best known for his political satires and magical realist novels such as Devil on the Cross, A Grain of Wheat and Petals of Blood, many of which were written in his native Gikuyu and then translated into English. His writings were powerful enough to lead to his arrest and imprisonment by the Kenyan government in the 1970s.
  4. Chinua Achebe (1930-2013)
    One of Nigeria’s great intellectuals and writers, best known for his novel Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe produced many volumes of political writing, essays and criticism. He died in 2013 after having paved the ground for postcolonial writing worldwide and leaving behind a towering intellectual and political legacy.
  5. Issa Shivji (1946- )
    One of Africa’s greatest left-wing intellectuals, Issa Shivji was one of the leading figures at the University of Dar Es Salaam in the 1960s and 70s. He is known for numerous political essays and works such as The Concept of Human Rights in Africa.
  6. Ken Saro-Wiwa (1941-1995)
    Ken Saro Wira is a political activist and novelist best known for his novel written in pigeon English Sozaboy, about the Biafran war. Saro Wiwa was arrested and eventually executed for his activism by the Nigerian military dictatorship with the complicity of the Shell oil company in 1994.
  7. Ciekh Anta Diop (1923-1986)
    Ciekh Anta Diop was one of Africa’s greatest intellectuals, a polymath writing works on physics, history and anthropology as well as politics and criticism. He died in 1986. He is best known for works such as The African Origin of Civilization, Civilization or Barbarism and Black Africa.
  8. Mahmood Mamdani (1946- )
    Mahmood Mamdani is one of Africa’s leading intellectuals, originating from Uganda, and has worked at Universities across the continent and in the United States. Mamdani is best known for his masterpiece Citizen and Subject, he has also written books on everything from the death of African universities to the Rwandan genocide.
  9. Bessie Head (1937-1986)
    Botswana’s greatest writer despite the fact she was born in South Africa, Bessie Head wrote numerous works of journalism, autobiography, criticism and fiction. She is best known for the three novels When Rain Clouds Gather, Maru, and A Question of Power.
  10. Tsitsi Dangarembga (1959 - )
    One of Zimbabwe’s best known novelists Tsitsi Dangarembga is known for her masterpiece Nervous Conditions. She has also written scripts for, and even directed, several films such as Everyone’s Child.
  11. Sol Plaatje (1876-1932)
    Sol Plaatje was a veritable renaissance man. In addition to being an important political figure instrumental in the early days of the African National Congress, Plaatje was a prolific writer producing both fiction, political essays, and journalism.

10 Great African Inventions

  1. The CAT Scan (South Africa)
    The Computed Axial Tomography Scan is an X-ray using electronic detectors, and was developed by physicist Alan Cormack for use in the data collection of body tissue in the late 1960s. 
  2. Light-Pulse Chips (Ethiopia)
    In 2011, Dr. Solomon Assefa invented chips which communicate using light pulses rather than electric signals, which results in extended power efficiency for computers.
  3. The Heart Transplant (South Africa)
    The world’s first heart transplant was performed by Dr Christian Barnard in 1967, on a patient suffering from heart failure – the transplant was a success.
  4. Engineless Car (Ghana)
    In 2012, Dr Kwadwo Safo of Ghana invented a car which relies on an electric motor powered by rechargeable solar power batteries rather than a combustion engine.
  5. Mathematics (Egypt)
    The invention of mathematics is dated back to Africa’s prehistory.  The Lembombo bone, discovered in Swaziland and dating back to 35,000 B.C. is the oldest known object potentially used for counting.  Additionally, the Ancient Egyptian civilisation already utilised mathematical concepts such as division, multiplication and geometry which are still used today.
  6. Lithium Ion Batteries (Morocco)
    In the 1980s, Rachid Yazami invented lithium ion batteries which are used in mobile electronics such as phones and ipads.
  7. Architecture and Engineering (Egypt)
    The Ancient Egyptian Empire was responsible for designing and constructing vast structures and feats of engineering such as the pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx along the Nile.
  8. The Malaria Test Kit (South Africa)
    This rapid diagnosis test kit is able to test for all strains of malaria and is able to determine the efficacy of malaria treatments in 30 minutes.
  9. Hospitals (Egypt)
    The configuration of hospitals in 9th century Egypt shaped the trajectory of modern hospitals with wards, teaching centres and free healthcare.
  10. Remote Medical Tablet (Cameroon)
    In 2012, Arthur Zang invented the first remotely operated medical tablet PC which allows for remote cardiovascular examinations to be performed and the results to be transmitted to the surgeon, saving patients the trouble of travelling far distances to major cities.  This invention is particularly relevant for patients in rural areas who lack access to infrastructure and logistics.

10 Women African Leaders

  1. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf  (1938 –)   
    Ellen Sirleaf was born in Monrovia, Republic of Liberia. In 2005, she became the leader of the United Party that won the elections in that same year. Sirleaf was the first female president in Africa.
  2. Cleopatra VII (c. 68 BC - 30 BC).
    Cleopatra was the last ruler of the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt, ruling from 51 BC - 30 BC. She was celebrated for her beauty and immortalised in history for her love affairs with the Roman Emperor Julius Ceasar and his close advisor Mark Antony. As Egyptian Pharoah Cleopatra ruled over a mighty civilisation. She was a highly intelligent woman and an astute politician, who brought prosperity and peace to a country that was bankrupt and split by civil war. In 30 BC Cleopatra and her lover Mark Antony found themselves losing a war against Ceasar's son Octavian. Trapped by Octavian's forces in Alexandria Cleopatra chose to take her own life, committing suicide on 12 August 30 BC. After Cleopatra's death Egypt fell into the hands of the Romans and became a Roman province.
  3. Funmiyalo Ransome-Kuti (1900-1978)
    Funmiyalo Ransome-Kuti was born in Abeokuta, Nigeria. Ransome-Kuti was a driving leader and initiator of the Nigerian Women’s Movement in the 1960s. She was the founder of Abeokuta Ladies Club (ALC) in 1946 which expanded and became the Abeokuta Women’s Union (AWU) in 1946.
  4. Mabel Dove-Danquah (1905-1984)
    Mabel Dove-Danquah was born in Accra, Ghana. Dove was a prominent freedom fighter, writer, journalist and political activist. In 1954, Dove was the first female member to be appointed to Ghana’s Legislative Council.
    Nzinga Mbandi (1581-1663)
  5. Nzinga Mbandi was the Queen of Ndongo and Matamba in modern-day Angola. Mbandi was a skilled diplomat, tactician and negotiator. She was also a strong resistor against Portuguese colonialism.
  6. Agathe Uwilingiyimana (1953-1994)
    Agathe Uwilingiyimana was born in Nyarehungeri, Rwanda. Uqilingiyimana was Rwanda’s first female Prime Minister, elected in 1993. She was killed during the Rwandan Genocide of 1994.
  7. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (1949 –)
    Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma was born in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. In 2012, Dlamini-Zuma became the first female Chairperson of the African Union (AU). She is a member of the African National Congress Executive Committee.
  8. Catherine Sama-Panza (1954 –)
    Catherine Sama-Panza was born in N’Djamena, Chad. She was a lawyer and chosen as an interim president of the Central African Republic in 2014, succeeding Michel Djotodia. Samba-Panza was chosen for the role as president as an ideal candidate to deal with unprecedented violence between the Islamic Rebel group, namely Saleka, and Christian militia known as ‘anti-buluka’. 
  9. Nawal El Saadawi (1931 –)
    Nawal El Saadawi was born in Kafr Tahlah, Egypt. El Sadaawi is an Egyptian feminist advocate, author, physician and psychiatrist. She started the Arab Women’s Solidarity Movement in 1982 which was suppressed under the Hosni Mubarak regime, but revived after the revolution of the Arab Spring (2011).
  10. Agnès Monique Ohsan Bellepeau (1942 –)
    Agnès Bellepeau became the Vice President of Mauritius in 2010. The political activist was also a news anchor in the 1960s. From 1993 to 2000 Bellepeau was a junior minister of rural and urban development. 

The five most widely spoken languages in Africa

  1. Arabic
    There are 100 million first language Arabic speakers in Africa, with 54 million in Egypt alone.
  2. Arabic consists of many dialects, more modern dialects are very different from formal Arabic.

    A common greeting in Arabic is ‘Salama alaikum’.

  3. Swahili
    Over 100 million people speak Swahili in Africa.
    It is most commonly used as a second or third language.
    Swahili is predominantly spoken in southeast Africa and is the official language of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.
    A Swahili greeting is ‘Hujambo’ which translates into ‘how are you?’
  4. Hausa
    Hausa is estimated to be used as a first or second language by more than 50 million people.
    The language is written in Latin letters or Ajami which is a particular Arabic alphabet.
    The Hausa constitute the largest ethnic group in West Africa.
    It is spoken as an indigenous language in Niger and Nigeria.
    As with Arabic ‘Salama alaikum’ is a common greeting.
  5. English
    English is the most common official language in Africa, being used in 24 countries.
  6. Amharic
    Amharic is the official language of Ethiopia.
    It is estimated that more than 18. 7 million people speak Amharic in Africa.
    Amharic a Semitic language and belongs to the same family as Arabic.
    It is the second most spoken Semitic language in the world, after Arabic.

The five most common official languages in Africa

  1. English is the official Language in 24 African countries
    Botswana,  Cameroon, Eritrea,  Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Malawi, Mauritius, Namibia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Seychelles, Sierra, Leone, South Africa, South Sudan, Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe.
  2. French is the official language in 22 African countries
    Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Comoros, Democratic Republic of the Congo,  Republic of the Congo, CÁ´te d'Ivoire, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Guinea, Madagascar, Mali, Mauritius, Niger, Rwanda, Senegal, Seychelles, Togo.
  3. Arabic is the official language in 12 African countries
    Algeria, Chad, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Somalia, Sudan, Tunisia
  4. Portuguese is the official language in 5 African countries
    Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, São Tomé and PrÁ­ncipe
  5. Swahili is the official language in 3 African countries
    Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda

Five great natural wonders in Africa

  1. Mount Kilimanjaro
    At a height of 5,895 meters about sea level Mount Kilimanjaro, located in northern Tanzania, is the highest mountain in Africa and the highest free standing mountain in the world. Kilimanjaro is a dormant volcano made up of three volcanic cones, Kibo, Mawenzi and Shira. Kilimanjaro is covered by a continuous ice cap which is believed to be a remnant from the last great period of glaciation during the ice age. Over 85% of Kilimanjaro’s ice cap has disappeared between October 1921 and June 2011.
  2. The Nile River
    The Nile is considered the longest river in the world, running a full length of 6,853 km. The waters of the Nile River are shared by eleven countries, namely Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Congo-Kinshasa, Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, South Sudan, Sudan and Egypt. The Nile is not only the longest river in the world, but also the lifeline for one of the world's greatest ancient civilisations, the ancient Egyptians. With its annual flooding the Nile created rich alluvial plains which made it possible for the ancient Egyptians to cultivate wheat, flax and papyrus, and build their civilisation off of this agriculture.
  3. Victoria Falls
    Victoria Falls, bordering Zimbabwe and Zambia, is considered the largest waterfall in the world, measured by the amount of water that falls off its edge. The Falls form part of the Zambezi River. The Tonga name for the falls is Mosi-oa-Tunya, meaning 'the Smoke that Thunders'.
  4. The Sahara
    Covering a surface area of 9.4 million square kilometres, the Sahara Desert is the largest sand desert in the world. The name Sahara comes from the Arabic, meaning 'Great Desert'. Without almost no precipitation and covered in endless sand-dunes the Sahara is one of the harshest environments in the world.
  5. Serengeti Migration
    Every year, from January until March, millions of wildebeest and zebra cross the great Serengeti in their annual migration to the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. It is estimated that in each migration around 260,000 Zebras move across the plains, followed by 1.7 million wildebeest and more than 470,000 gazelles. It is estimated that around 250,000 wildebeest die during the migration. This great odyssey across the African plains is the largest movement of animals in the world and is considered one of the greatest wonders of nature. 

Five great archaeological wonders in Africa

  1. The Pyramids of Giza
    The Pyramids of Giza are an ancient Egyptian necropolis consisting of three pyramids. The oldest of the Pyramids is the Pyramid of Khufu which is believed to have been completed around 2560 BC, over four and a half thousand years ago. The Khufu pyramid was the tallest manmade structure in the world for well over 3,800 years. It was long believed that the pyramids were built by thousands of slaves, but contemporary archaeological evidence seems to indicate that this was not the case. Rather, there seems to have been a system much like the feudal system, where vassals of lords had to perform obligatory work for a small period of time, implying that the pyramid builders were ordinary labourers doing small periods of contract work for their lords. The pyramids are amongst the oldest manmade monuments in the world and a testament to the greatness of ancient Egpyt.
  2. Timbuktu
    Timbuktu is an ancient African city in Mali, founded in the 5th century AD. Timbuktu is home to one of the oldest universities in the world, the University of Sankore, and multiple ancient madrasas. Timbuktu was an intellectual and spiritual capital of Islam in Africa, and centre for the propagation of Islam throughout Africa, in the 15th and 16th centuries. By the sixteenth century the great city of Timbuktu was home to 100,000 inhabitants and an important trade centre for manuscripts, gold and salt. It constituted a great centre for learning and scholarship, with a vibrant intellectual exchange between Asian and African scholars. The library in Timbuktu holds one of the most extensive collections of old manuscripts on Africa and African thought from the Renaissance period.
  3. Great Zimbabwe
    Great Zimbabwe was the capital of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe during the countries late iron age. Construction in the city began in the 11th century AD and continued into the 15th century. At its height Great Zimbabwe could have housed up to 18,000. The most prominent surviving features of the city are its walls, some of which were up to five meters high, spanning great lengths and lasting centuries, even though they were built without mortar. During the colonial period the Rhodesian government put great pressure on archaeologists to deny that the ruins could come from buildings built by African people, as such a wondrous ancient city did not fit into the colonial constructions of African people as primitive or savage. 
  4. Lalibela
    Lalibela is an ancient holy town in northern Ethiopia believed to have been built in the 12th century AD. Lalibela is famous for its churches, which are square buildings cut out from directly from the rock. It is claimed that each church was cut out of a single piece of rock, to symbolise spirituality and humility. Ethiopia is one of the earliest African countries to adopt Christianity, taking on the religion in the first half of the fourth century AD. Archaeologists believe that Lalibela, which is laid out in a structure mimicking the layout of Jerusalem, was built at some point after the 1187 Muslim capture of Jerusalem in order to create a ‘new Jerusalem’.
  5. The Cradle of Humankind
    The Cradle of Humankind is an archaeological site consisting of ancient limestone caves about 50 kilometres northwest of Johannesburg. The site has produced a very large number of hominin fossils including some of the world's oldest hominin fossils dating back some 3.5 million years. The Sterkfontein Caves at the site alone have produced more than a third of the early hominid fossils ever found. The area's name is derived both from the number of hominin fossils found in area as well as from the idea that southern Africa is the birth place of humankind.

Last updated : 19-May-2017

This article was produced for South African History Online on 20-May-2015