West Africa: Geography Part 1

Geography-Physical environment and how it may influence an economy and culture.

The region known as West Africa takes up part of the northwestern portion of the African continent. In the north, West Africa is bordered by the Sahara Desert; in the south it is bordered by both the Atlantic Ocean and a forest region. The Atlantic Ocean provides the western border, while the mountainous region of modern-day Cameroon acts as West Africa’s eastern border.

The West African region is home to four separate vegetation zones. A vegetation zone is an area characterized by climate, physical terrain, and soil type. West Africa’s vegetation zones include forest, savannah, desert, and semi-desert regions. The Sahara Desert is an inhospitable environment with high daytime temperatures, low nighttime temperatures, rocky soil, and very little rainfall or vegetation. Despite the challenging terrain, the Sahara is the home to valuable natural resources, including salt, gold, and copper mines. The Sahel, or West Africa’s semi-desert vegetation zone, has more rainfall than the Sahara, which allows for the growth of grasses and low shrubs. The savanna has more annual rainfall than the Sahel; as a result, tall grasses and trees are able to grow in the area. Thanks to the Niger River and the savanna’s rainy season, inhabitants of West Africa are able to grow crops like sorghum, rice, and millet, and raise livestock such as camels, goats, and cattle. In addition to providing fertile soil for farming, the Niger River offers regional transportation for trade.  Other regional natural resources include yams, oil palms, and iron ore.


West Africa: Geography Part 2

Geography-Physical environment and how it may influence economy and culture.

Kingdom of Ghana (500 CE – 1203 CE)

The Kingdom of Ghana was located in the Sahel, contained by the Senegal and Niger Rivers. Despite its name, the Kingdom of Ghana did not exist in the same place as the modern country of Ghana. Instead, the empire existed in modern-day Mauritania and Mali.

Kingdom of Mali (1240 CE  – 1400s)

The Kingdom of Mali gave rise south of the Kingdom of Ghana’s capital city at Kumbi. Mali grew rapidly and at its peak covered parts of modern-day Mauritania, Mali, Senegal, the Gambia, Guinea Bissau, and Guinea. The Kingdom of Mali extended north into the Sahara Desert where they benefited from salt and gold mines.

Kingdom of Songhai (1400s-1600s)

The Kingdom of Songhai broke away from the Kingdom of Mali around 1460. As the small kingdom grew increasingly powerful, their influence spread across the region. Ultimately, the Songhai conquered the Kingdom of Mali, extending their empire from the Atlantic Ocean well past the Niger River. At its peak, the Kingdom of Songhai spanned across modern-day Burkina Faso, Benin, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Nigeria.




Economy-How a civilization makes money through the buying and selling of goods and services.

Kingdom of Ghana (500 CE—1203 CE)

The Kingdom of Ghana became a powerful empire as a result of trans-Saharan trade. Ghana was located between salt mines in North Africa and the gold mines located along West Africa’s southern forest. Ghana acted as an intermediary between the north and south, collecting heavy taxes for all goods that entered or left the kingdom. Around 300 CE, camels became an important part of trading caravans traveling through the Sahara. Camels are adapted to the harsh environment; they are able to travel for several days without having to drink water, and their thick eyelashes allow them to see in the sandy desert. Northern traders traded salt, cowrie shells, and copper while southern traders provided gold. People living in the southern part of West Africa relied on valuable salt to preserve and flavor their food, as well as restore their natural pH balance from sweating. Much of North Africa’s salt came from Taghaza, while the mines of Wangara to the south of the Kingdom of Ghana produced gold. Kumbi, Ghana’s most important and wealthiest city, benefited from the trans-Saharan trade and provided many of its own commodities as well, including slaves, jewelry, and ivory. The taxes collected from the salt-gold trade in Ghana allowed the kingdom to grow increasingly powerful.

Kingdom of Mali (1240 CE-1400s) and Kingdom of Songhai (1400s-1600s)

Like Ghana, the Kingdom of Mali was very wealthy thanks to trade and agriculture. One of its kings, Sundiata, supported agriculture in the empire. Farmers grew rice, onions, beans, and cotton. The trading economy grew thanks to the help of the Berbers, a group of northern African people that led desert caravans through the Sahara. In addition to caravans and over-land trade, the Kingdom of Mali turned to the Niger River as an important source of travel. Located just below the former Kingdom of Ghana, the Kingdom of Mali discovered more gold mines that made the empire more powerful and wealthy. 


The Kingdom of Songhai had a similar economy to Mali. As Islam continued to spread throughout the kingdom, the cities of Timbuktu and Djenne became centers of learning and commerce that attracted Muslim merchants from across Africa and the Middle East.



Achievements-The lasting contributions of a civilization.

Kingdom of Ghana (500 CE-1203 CE)

Although Ghana profited greatly from the taxes it collected from the salt-gold trade, the people of Ghana boast other important achievements. The Nok people, who resided in modern-day Nigeria, were the first to use iron to make farming tools and weapons. The iron technology spread throughout Ghana and contributed to its ability to conquer neighboring tribes along the Niger River. Iron farming tools also made farming along the Niger River more efficient. Food surpluses, or an excess supply of food, supported Ghana’s growing population.

Kingdom of Mali (1240 CE-1400s) and Kingdom of Songhai (1400s-1600s)

One of Mali’s greatest achievements was its fabulous wealth. The empire inherited much of Ghana’s former glory, however, Mali’s discovery of additional gold mines increased its wealth and power. Mansa Musa, one of Mali’s most famous leaders, is responsible for making Timbuktu an important center of learning. Mansa Musa was a devout Muslim; after his hajj, or trip to Makkah (Mecca), Mansa Musa’s wealth became renowned throughout Africa and the Middle East. He hired architects to build large mosques, or places of Islamic worship, many of which still stand in West Africa, and sent scholars to study in Morocco. The University of Sankore, located in Timbuktu, was one of the most important centers of Islamic study that persisted through both the Kingdoms of Mali and Songhai. Areas of study included medicine, chemistry, math, astronomy, history, philosophy, and art.



Social Classes

Social Class-How a civilization is divided into classes that have different roles, responsibilities, and privileges.

Kingdom of Ghana (500 CE-1203 CE)

The king of Ghana was at the top of the social hierarchy. Below the king, vassal kings, or lesser rulers of territories conquered by Ghana, paid tribute to the king. Governors and ministers played an important role in government. The middle class was comprised of merchants, traders, and farmers. The people of Ghana showed respect to the King by kneeling and covering their heads with dust as a sign of reverence. At the bottom, slaves were captured or conquered peoples who were sold as laborers.

Kingdom of Mali (1240 CE-1400s) and Kingdom of Songhai (1400s-1600s)

The Kingdoms of Mali and Songhai were greatly influenced by Islam. The king was the most powerful person in the kingdom, while sultans or emirs were less powerful local rulers. Gadis, or judges, played an important role because they administered justice within the kingdom. Imams also had a special place in the kingdom because they were both religious leaders and scholars. Like the Kingdom of Ghana, the Mali and Songhai had a similar middle and slave class.




Religion-A belief system that influences the development of a civilization.

Kingdom of Ghana (500 CE –  1203 CE)

The people of the Kingdom of Ghana practiced a polytheistic religion, meaning they believed in many gods. The spirits of ancestors also played an important role in their religion. The king of Ghana was not just a political leader, but a religious one as well, who performed different rituals and ceremonies to please the gods. In the mid-600s CE, Muslim invaders entered the Kingdom of Ghana; though Ghana defeated their advances, many Muslims settled in the kingdom. The Kingdom of Ghana practiced tolerance towards the Muslims, and Islam continued to spread throughout the region. The city of Kumbi became the home of twelve different mosques, or places of Muslim worship. In 1076 CE the Almoravids, a group of Muslim invaders, captured Kumbi and increased the influence of Islam.

Kingdom of Mali (1240 CE – 1400s) and Kingdom of Songhai (1400s – 1600s)

Islam played a much greater role in the Kingdoms of Mali and Songhai. The Mande people of Mali accepted Islam but retained many of their traditional practices, including ancestor worship, seeking guidance from and holding the spirits of deceased ancestors in high esteem. Islam is a monotheistic religion, meaning there is only one god. Before the king Mansa Musa, the leaders of Mali restricted some of the teachings of Islam. Mansa Musa, however, was a devout Muslim. As part of his faith, Mansa Musa went on the hajj to Makkah (Mecca); on his trek, he passed through Egypt. Tales of his wealth and power spread across Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. Mansa Musa commissioned mosques and turned Timbuktu into an important center of culture, religion, and education. At the beginning of the Kingdom of Songhai, its first leader Sunni Ali was not a devout Muslim. Eventually, Askia Mohammed Toure or Askia the Great was placed on the throne. Askia strictly enforced Islam and even went to war to convert non-believers. People of Mali and Songhai followed the Five Pillars of Islam and embraced the Muslim way of life.



Leadership/ Government- How a civilization creates an organized way of leadership.

Kingdom of Ghana (500 CE-1203 CE)

The Kingdom of Ghana was a dominating force in West Africa. Through a strong government and military, Ghana conquered neighboring kingdoms and spread its influence throughout the region. The king, called the “ghana,” was the head of government and had supreme authority. He held court on a daily basis to listen to the problems of his people. Below the king, governors oversaw cities and territories in the kingdom, while ministers oversaw various aspects of the empire, like the military and tax collection. Ministers also served as advisors to the king. The Kingdom of Ghana was very wealthy due to the salt-gold trade; while Ghana traded many goods of its own, most of its wealth came from taxes on trade. The taxes were used to build and maintain a large army used for self-defense and to conquer other peoples. All men were required to complete military training. Vassal kings, or local rulers conquered by Ghana, paid tribute to the king. Unlike many other societies, the son of the king did not become the ruler after his father passed away. Instead, the bloodlines for ruling were matrilineal, or through the mother’s side; the son of the king’s sister would take the throne.

Kingdom of Mali (1240 CE-1400s) and Kingdom of Songhai (1400s-1600s)

Islam played a much greater role in the governments of Mali and Songhai. The king was still the supreme leader of the empire, however, the government became much more centralized. Power was taken from the lesser local rulers, and placed in the hands of the central government instead. Shari’ah, or Muslim law interpreted from the Qur’an, replaced many traditional local laws; gadis, or judges, administered justice. The government still maintained a powerful army and continued to collect taxes on trade. Instead of the matrilineal line of succession followed by Ghana, Mali and Songhai adopted the Muslim custom of patrilineal succession. The male heir of the king assumed the throne after the king died.


Decline of the Kingdoms

Decline – How each kingdom lost strength and regional influence.

Decline of Ghana (500s CE-1203 CE)

Ghana reached its peak around 1000 CE. However, this strength and regional dominance was relatively short-lived. A group of strict Muslims living in the Kingdom of Ghana, known as the Almoravids, believed it was their destiny to take over Ghana. In 1076 CE, the Almovarids sacked the capital of Kumbi and overthrew the king. Although the king of Ghana was reinstated in 1087, the Kingdom of Ghana was severely weakened after fourteen years of fighting.  Other factors contributed to Ghana’s decline as well. The Almoravids brought herding animals to Ghana; the herds overgrazed, or ate the grass and left the ground exposed to the sun. As a result, the soil became hard and infertile, making it difficult to farm or grow crops. Internal rebellion continued to weaken Ghana, and external attacks by neighboring peoples led to its eventual fall in 1203 CE.

Decline of Mali (1240 CE-1400s CE)

The Kingdom of Mali enjoyed over a century of dominance in West Africa. Mansa Musa was a powerful and impactful ruler. However, after his death, the Kingdom of Mali suffered under weak leadership. Invaders, hungry for Mali’s vast resources and wealth, weakened the empire and burned schools in the kingdom’s most important city, Timbuktu. The Kingdom of Mali, roughly twice as large as its predecessor, Ghana, was so vast that it became difficult for its leaders to manage; as a result, outlying areas began to break off from the empire, including the Kingdom of Songhai. Mali’s kings were no longer able to protect their territory. Songhai eventually defeated the Kingdom of Mali, and made it a part of its own extensive empire in West Africa.

Decline of Songhai (1400s – 1600s)

Under the leadership of Sunni Ali, Songhai was able to break away from the Kingdom of Mali and establish its own separate and unified kingdom. The small kingdom rapidly grew and eventually absorbed the Kingdom of Mali as part of its empire. Due to its exceptional wealth and prosperity, the Kingdom of Songhai was appealing to external forces. In the late 1500s, Moroccan troops, armed with guns, captured Songhai’s valuable salt mines and sought to take over the prosperous gold mines as well. Songhai would stay around for another 150 years, but not as a well-organized empire. The kingdom broke into a series of military camps.