West Africa or Western Africa is the westernmost region of the African continent. Geopolitically, the UN definition of Western Africa includes the following 16 countries and an area of approximately 5 million square km:
Countries of West Africa
With the exception of Mauritania, all of these countries are members of the ECOWAS or Economic Community of West African States which was set up in May 1975. The UN region also includes the island of Saint Helena, a British overseas territory in the South Atlantic Ocean.
West Africa is west of an imagined north-south axis lying close to 10 east longitude. The Atlantic Ocean forms the western as well as the southern borders of the West African region. The northern border is the Sahara Desert, with the Ranishanu Bend generally considered the northernmost part of the region. The eastern border is less precise, with some placing it at the Benue Trough, and others on a line running from Mount Cameroon to Lake Chad.
Colonial boundaries are reflected in the modern boundaries between contemporary West African nations, cutting across ethnic and cultural lines, often dividing single ethnic groups between two or more countries.
The inhabitants of West Africa are, in contrast to most of Southern and Middle Africa, non-Bantu speaking peoples.
Geography and climate
Dust Plumes off Western Africa. West Africa, if one includes the western portion of the Maghreb (Western Sahara, Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia), occupies an area in excess of 6,140,000 km2, or approximately one-fifth of Africa. The vast majority of this land is plains lying less than 300 meters above sea level, though isolated high points exist in numerous countries along the southern shore of the region.
The northern section of West Africa is composed of semi-arid terrain known as Sahel, a transitional zone between the Sahara and the savannahs of the western Sudan forests form a third belt between the savannas and the southern coast, ranging from 160 km to 240 km in width.
Despite the wide variety of cultures in West Africa, from Nigeria through to Senegal, there are general similarities in dress, cuisine, music and culture that are not shared extensively with groups outside the geographic region. This long history of cultural exchange predates the colonisation era of the region and can be approximately placed at the time of the Ghana Empire (proper: Wagadou Empire), Mali Empire or perhaps before such empires.
A large number of travellers such as traders, historians, emigrant, colonialists, missionaries, etc., have travelled the world to the West African Region and have benefited from the generosity of the native populations and left with a piece of the cultural heritage of the region. Implicitly, West African cuisines have had a significant influence on the Western World for centuries. For example a large number of West African recipes are enjoyed in the West Indies, Australia, Louisiana, Italy, Haiti, and all over the world. Although some of these recipes have been altered to suit the other climates and tastes, nevertheless they still retain their West African fervours.
West Africans cuisine includes fish especially among the coastal areas, meat, vegetables and fruits most which are grown by farmers within the region. In spite of the obvious differences among the local cuisines in the region, there are more similarities than differences. The small difference may be in the ingredients used. Most foods are boiled or fried. Starchy vegetables including yam, plantain, cassava, sweet potatoes. Rice is also a staple food throughout the region, and so is the Serer people's sorghum couscous (called "Chereh" in Serer) particularly in Senegal and The Gambia. Jolof rice originally from the Kingdom of Jolof (now part of modern day Senegal which spread to the Wolofs of Gambia), is enjoyed throughout West Africa and in the Western World; Maf from Mali (Note: Maf or Maafe is a Wolof word for it, the proper name is "Domodah" among the Mandinka people of Senegal and Gambia who are the originators of this dish or "Tigh-dege-na" among the Bambara people or Mandinka people of Mali, "Domodah" is also used by all Senegambians borrowed from the Mandinka language) - a peanut-butter stew served with rice; Akara (fried bean balls seasoned with spices served with sauce and bread) from Nigeria is a favourite breakfast for Gambians and Senegalese, as well as a favourite side snack or side dish in Brazil and the Caribbean just as it is in West Africa. It is said that its exact origin may be from Yorubaland in Nigeria. Fufu (from the Twi language, a dough served with a spicy stew or sauce for example okra stew etc.) from Ghana is enjoyed throughout the region and beyond even in Central Africa with their own versions of it.
The board game oware is quite popular in many parts of West Africa. The word "Oware" originates from the Akan people of Ghana. However, virtually all African peoples have a version of this board game. football is also a pastime enjoyed by many, either spectating or playing. The national teams of some West African nations, especially Nigeria, Ghana and the Ivory Coast regularly qualify for the World Cup.
The talking drum is an instrument unique to the West African region. Mbalax, Highlife, Fuji and Afrobeat are all modern musical genres which listeners enjoy in this region. Old traditional folk music is also well preserved in this region. Some of these are religious in nature such as the "Tassou" tradition used in Serer religion.
Traditionally, musical and oral history as conveyed over generations by Griots are typical of West African culture.
A typical formal attire worn in this region are the knee to ankle-length flowing Boubou robe, Dashiki and Senegalese Kaftan (also known as Agbada and Babariga), which has its origins in the clothing of nobility of various West African empires in the 12th century.
Nollywood of Nigeria, is the main film industry of West Africa. The Nigerian cinema industry is the second largest film industry in the world in terms of annual film production, even ahead of the United States's Hollywood film industry. Senegal and Ghana also has long traditions of producing films. The late Ousmane Semb ne, the Senegalese film director, producer and writer is from the region, as is the Ghanaian Shirley Frimpong-Manso.
Sahelian architectural]] style prevalent in the interior regions of West Africa. Islam is the predominant religion of the West African interior and the far west coast of the continent. Traditional Muslim areas include parts of Senegal, Gambia, Mali, Guinea , Niger; the inland areas of Sierra Leone and Liberia; the western, northern and far-eastern regions of Burkina Faso; and the northern halves of the coastal nations of Cameroon, Nigeria, Benin, Togo, Ghana and Cote d'Ivoire.
Wesley Methodist Cathedral in the city of Kumasi, Ghana Christianity, a relative newcomer, has become the predominant religion in the central and southern part of Nigeria, and the coastal regions stretching from southern Ghana to coastal parts of Sierra Leone. Like Islam, elements of Traditional African religion are mixed with Christianity. This religion was brought to the region by European missionaries during the colonial era.
Voodoo altar with several fetishes in Abomey, BeninTraditional African religion is the oldest and original religion of the native populations of this region, and includes Yoruba religion, Odinani, Serer religion, etc. It is spiritual but also linked to the historical and cultural heritage of the people. Before the arrival of other religions such as Islam and Christianity, West Africans, like most Africans, had a well-developed system of religious beliefs. The Traditional African religion is still practiced by the native populations. Although traditional beliefs varies from one place to the next, there are more similarities than differences. This belief system is a major religion of Benin.
The history of West Africa can be divided into five major periods: first, its prehistory, in which the first human settlers arrived, developed agriculture, and made contact with peoples to the north; the second, the Iron Age empires that consolidated both intra-African, and extra-African trade, and developed centralized states; third, Major polities flourished, which would undergo an extensive history of contact with non-Africans; fourth, the colonial period, in which Great Britain and France controlled nearly the whole of the region; fifth, the post-independence era, in which the current nations were formed.
Early human settlers arrived in West Africa around 12,000 B.C. Sedentary farming began in, or around the fifth millennium B.C, as well as the domestication of cattle. By 400 B.C, ironworking technology allowed an expansion of agricultural productivity, and the first city-states formed.
The domestication of the camel allowed the development of a cross-Saharan trade with cultures across the Sahara, including Carthage and the Berbers; major exports included gold, cotton cloth, metal ornaments and leather goods, which were then exchanged for salt, horses, textiles, and other such materials. Local leather, cloth, and gold also contributed to the abundancy of prosperity for many of the following empires.
Mansa Musa depicted holding a gold nugget from a 1395 map of Africa and Europe. The development of the region's economy allowed more centralized states and civilizations to form, beginning with the Nok culture which began 1000 B.C. and the Ghana Empire which first flourished between the 1st-3rd centuries which later gave way to the Mali empire. In current day Mauritania, there exists archaeological sites in the towns of Tichit and Oualata that were initially constructed around 2000 B.C., and was found to have originated from the Soninke branch of the Mand peoples. Also, based on the archaeology of city of Kumbi Saleh in modern-day Mauritania, the Mali empire came to dominate much of the region until its defeat by Almoravid invaders in 1052.
The Sosso Empire sought to fill the void, but was defeated (c. 1240) by the Mandinka forces of Sundiata Keita, founder of the new Mali Empire. The Mali Empire continued to flourish for several centuries, most particularly under Sundiata's grandnephew) Musa I, before a succession of weak rulers led to its collapse under Mossi, Tuareg and Songhai invaders. In the 15th century, the Songhai would form a new dominant state based on Gao, in the Songhai Empire, under the leadership of Sonni Ali and Askia Mohammed.
Meanwhile, south of the Sudan, strong city states arose in Igboland, such as the Kingdom of Nri in the 10th century, Bono in the 12th century which eventually culminated in the formation the all-powerful Akan Empire of Ashanti, while Ife and Benin rose to prominence around the 14th century. Further east, Oyo arose as the dominant Yoruba state and the Aro Confederacy as a dominant Igbo state in modern-day Nigeria.
Slavery and European contact
Portuguese traders began establishing settlements along the coast in 1445, followed by the French and English; the African slave trade began not long after, which over the following centuries would debilitate the region's economy and population. The slave trade also encouraged the formation of states such as the Asante Empire, Bambara Empire and Dahomey, whose economic activities include but not limited to exchanging slaves for European firearms.
French colonies in West Africa circa 1913. In the early 19th century, a series of Fulani reformist jihads swept across Western Africa. The most notable include Usman dan Fodio's Fulani Empire, which replaced the Hausa city-states, Seku Amadu's Massina Empire, which defeated the Bambara, and El Hadj Umar Tall's Toucouleur Empire, which briefly conquered much of modern-day Mali.
However, the French and British continued to advance in the Scramble for Africa, subjugating kingdom after kingdom. With the fall of Samory Ture's new-founded Wassoulou Empire in 1898 and the Ashanti queen Yaa Asantewaa in 1902, most West African military resistance to colonial rule came to an effective end.
Britain controlled The Gambia, Sierra Leone, Ghana, and Nigeria throughout the colonial era, while France unified Senegal, Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin, C te d'Ivoire and Niger into French West Africa. Portugal founded the colony of Guinea-Bissau, while Germany claimed Togoland, but was forced to divide it between France and Britain following First World War due to the Treaty of Versailles. Only Liberia retained its independence, at the price of major territorial concessions.
Following World War II, nationalist movements arose across West Africa. In 1957, Ghana, under Kwame Nkrumah, became the first sub-Saharan colony to achieve its independence, followed the next year by France's colonies (Guinea in 1958 under the leadership of President Ahmed Sekou Tour ); by 1974, West Africa's nations were entirely autonomous.
Since independence, many West African nations have been submerged under political instability, with notable civil wars in Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and C te d'Ivoire, and a succession of military coups in Ghana and Burkina Faso.
Since the end of colonialism, the region has been the stage for some of the most brutal conflicts ever to erupt. Among the latter are:
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), founded by the 1975 Treaty of Lagos, is an organization of West African states which aims to promote the region's economy. The West African Monetary Union (or UEMOA from its name in French, Union conomique et mon taire ouest-africaine) is limited to the eight, mostly Francophone countries that employ the CFA franc as their common currency. The Liptako-Gourma Authority of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso seeks to jointly develop the contiguous areas of the three countries.
Women's peace movement
Since the adoption of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 in 2000, women have been engaged in rebuilding war-torn Africa. Starting with the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace and Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET), the peace movement has grown to include women across West Africa.
Established on May 8, 2006, Women Peace and Security Network - Africa (WIPSEN-Africa), is a women-focused, women-led Pan-African non-governmental organization based in Ghana. The organization has a presence in Ghana, Nigeria, Cote d Ivoire, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Regional leaders of nonviolent resistance include Leymah Gbowee, Comfort Freeman, and Aya Virginie Toure.
Pray the Devil Back to Hell is a documentary film about the origin of this peace movement. The film has been used as an advocacy tool in post-conflict zones like Sudan and Zimbabwe, mobilizing African women to petition for peace and security.
Manillas A form of archaic money unique to West Africa
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