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When kids think of Africa, a lot of people think of our good ol' friends Simba, Timon, and Pumba. But there is a lot more to it than just furry creatures. There are many rivers, deserts, people, and religion located throughout Africa. Simply scroll down to learn more!

Important People

Tunka Manin (ruled c.2068) - King of Ghana Empire; visited by Muslim writers

Sundiata (died 1255) - Founder of Mali Empire

Mansa Musa (died c.1332) - Mali's greatest and most famous ruler; Muslim who made the pilgrimage to Mecca (see picture below)

Sunni Ali (died 1492) - Emperor of Songhai who conquered Mali

Askia the Great (c.1443-1538) - Songhai who overthrew Sunni Baru; reigned at the point of Songhai's power


rifts - long, deep valleys formed by the movement of the earth's crust

sub-Saharan Africa - Africa south of the Sahara

Sahel - a strip of land that divides desert from wetter areas

savannah - open grassland with scattered trees

rain forests - moist, densely wooded areas

extended family
- household that included the father, mother, children, and close relatives (such as grandparents and cousins)

- belief that water, animals, trees, and other natural objects have spirits

silent barter
- a process in which people exchange goods without ever contacting  each other directly

oral history
- a spoken record of past events

- African storytellers

- short sayings of wisdom or truth

kente - a hand-woven, brightly colored fabric


Africa is huge - the second largest continent on earth. Home to the largest desert (Saharah) and the world's longest river (Nile), Africa is certainly an interesting place. It has many physical environments, such as rain forest, mediterranean, savannah, and desert. (Sadly, some of these environments aren't lasting. The rain forests, for example are being used for logging and farming. This has a major impact of the environment, and all of the animals living there.) Anyway, back to the vegetation. The Sahara desert is located in North Africa, and can reach temperatures above 120°F. The Niger River was the North Western Africans' main source of food, water, and transportation.

If you are having trouble reading the key on the picture, click here for a bigger view. To zoom, simply click on the picture once.


Religion in Africa varied from village to village, but it held many of the same beliefs. Like that families are important, and that the spirits of their ancestors stayed nearby. They offered food and news to the spirits, in return for safety.

Another common religion is animism - the belief that all natural objects have spirits. This includes water, trees, and animals. This honoring nature showed African's dependence on nature for survival.

Islam also spread throughout the Mali and Songhai Empires, helped along by Mansa Musa and Askia the Great.


Sculpture - Statues made out of wood, brass, clay, ivory, and stone; Used for religious rituals and gifts for the gods. (Many African sculptures inspired great artists, such as Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso)

Masks - Made of wood; Faces of hyenas, lions, monkeys, antelopes, and other animals; Worn for festivals

Cloth - Kente - brightly covered fabric that was woven in narrow strips and then sewn together; Wove baskets

Music - Kora - Instrument that often came from griot families, (pictured at right)

Dance - Different dances celebrated specific ceremonies, like weddings and funerals.


People traveled in caravans all across Africa. Camels were often used with the caravans, because they can go long distances without water and carry heavy loads. Africa offered gold, salt, and slaves for other area's resources.  They were very successful, for salt was used to preserve food and add extra taste to their bland meals. Gold was valuable for jewelry and decorations. (On the map above, the red lines represent some of the trade routes in Western Africa.)

-- Salt was found in the Sahara
-- Those in West Africa offered gold for salt
-- Silk and spices came from Asia across the Silk Road         and were traded for gold and ivory

Great Cities

Koumbi Saleh - Ghana's largest city and great trading center

Timbuktu - Major trading city at height of Mali's power; learning center of Songhai Empire

Djenne - Other successful trading city under power of Mali; captured by Sunni Ali

Gao - Capital of Songhai Empire

Village Society

The village society of Africa included:
families - basic group
extended families - grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and their families
village chiefs - male leader of extended family
council of elders - a group of village chiefs who led the village together

Ghana Empire

Most of Ghana's power came from trade. They traded gold, salt, food, ceramics, glass, ivory, slaves, and copper in exchange for goods like wheat, honey, and sheep. Koumbi Saleh was a popular oasis for travelers and became a great trading center. The early people were farmers, herding cattle for meat and milk along the Niger River. They also learned to work with iron, opening new possibilities for farming and weapons. This gave them an advantage at war, but they were still better off with trading. They started taxing traders to cross through their land, and made those they captured pay tribute. They soon had quite a bit of land under their control. The Ghana Empire reached it's height under the rule of Tunka Manin, who had a court built just to show off Ghana's power and wealth.

But by the end of the 1200s, this empire had collapsed. This was mainly due to three factors: invasion, overgrazing, and internal rebellion.

Mali Empire

Legends say that the Mali Empire began its rise to power under Sundiata. After conquering Ghana, he took over the salt and gold trades, adding kola, ebony, silk, spices, oil lamps, and beads to the trading system. He cleared land for farming, so that onions, rice, and even cotton could be in abundance. After rising to power, Sundiata took power away from local leaders and took the title mansa for himself.

Years after Sundiata died, a man called Mansa Musa took over. He was Muslim, and helped spread Muslim ideas throughout Africa. He even made the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. He supported education and urged people to learn to read so that they could read the Qu'ran.

After this leader died, his son took over, and the Mali Empire went downhill from there. The empire was so large that a novice could not control it. Invaders also took over most of their lands. By 1500, what was once the Mali Empire had only a tiny bit of land.

Songhai Empire

Songhai started off as part of the Mali empire. As Mali got weaker, however, the leaders of Songhai rallied against it and regained their freedom. They soon became rich from trade, just like all the other empires. They improved the trade, adding things like pepper, horses, swords, cloth, brass, textiles, and fish. But another man helped the Songhai rise to power- Sunni Ali. Starting in 1464, he unified all of Songhai's lands and strengthened it. He then began taking over new land, participating in both Muslim and local religions. After Sunni Ali died, his son Sunni Baru became emperor. People rebelled against him, so Muhammad Ture took over, later to be known as Askia the Great. He was often compared to Mansa Musa, and they both shared a lot of actions and ideas. Askia the Great also supported education and built universities, schools, libraries, and mosques. He even made the pilgramage to Mecca, just like Mansa Musa had done 200 years previously.

Shortly after Askia the Great's death, Songhai fell to a neighboring city, Morocco. They brought arquebus, one of the earliest forms of guns, ad even a few canons. Moroccans wanted Songhai's power, and also their salt and gold mines.
Trade decreased, and the great empire of Songhai came to an end, being one of the last great West African empires.

        Animal of the Day: Lions! Raawr! It's Simba's, um, great-great-great-great grandfather! Anyway, these
        lions live most places in Africa, and hunt antelopes, zebras, wildebeests. Um, here he is! And it's
        lunchtime! So I'd suggest getting out of the way...

Just for Kids!
One more thing. Check out this website! Great for young ones! Print out a mask, play thumb piano, and much more! Click here!