In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Geography and the Study of Africa

  • Introduction
  • General Resources
  • Textbooks and Dictionaries
  • Blogs
  • Cartographic Resources
  • Atlases, Maps, and Satellite Images
  • Journals
  • Memoirs
  • Using Remote Sensing and GIS to Understand Africa’s Geography

African Studies Geography and the Study of Africa
Heidi G. Frontani
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 May 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0090


All geographers, including those with regional interests in Africa, study the earth via inquiries related to the most basic geographic question: “Why there?” Geography is a broad discipline. There are geographers that focus their studies on people, including their cultures and modes of thought; and there are physical geographers who examine aspects of the physical world, including its air and water quality, soil and climate types, the weathering and nature of landforms, and more. Many geographers combine human and environmental interests. Geography, like other disciplines, has changed over time. For centuries, geographers as a whole were perhaps most closely associated with geographical societies, exploration, and the mapping of coastlines, interior locations, and the home regions of different ethnic groups. Geographers sought to solve mysteries such as the Nile River’s source and how it was possible that such a large river flowed through otherwise dry Egypt. In the case of Africa, it was not until the 19th century that traders and raiders made their way more regularly and successfully into the continent’s interior. The rise of technology in the 20th century allowed much location-based (or “spatial” data) that had been mapped and analyzed by hand to be supported by computers and software for undertaking spatial analysis, via digitized maps, satellite images, and databases in geographic information systems (GIS). Improved technology and interest in climate change has encouraged greater use of spatial data to study of natural hazards, including earthquakes, floods, and other phenomena that impact human lives. Methodologically, there is no single correct approach to answering geographic questions. A human geographer interested in regional differences in cuisine within an African country or subregion might travel there to observe families preparing meals, collect oral histories about changes in meal content and preparation over time, examine menus, interview cooks in restaurants and family homes, or obtain pollen, bone, or stool samples via soil cores, depending on the time frame of interest. There are a growing number of subdisciplines of geography, many with their own professional journals in areas such as historical geography, political geography, economic geography, feminist geography, biogeography, and cartography. Frequently geographers attempt to answer questions collaboratively, with other geographers or experts from other related disciplines. A development geographer might join with one or more development economists to answer why so many of the world’s “bottom billion” in terms of material wealth are found in African countries. The results of geographic inquiry include policy papers, action plans, and books and articles in academic journals and the popular press.

General Resources

Larger universities, especially ones with notable geography and African Studies programs, such as the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Cambridge University, may have specialized libraries, such as the Earth Sciences Libraries, University of Wisconsin–Madison and the Geography Library of the University of Cambridge have a wealth of maps and other geographic materials of value to those with interest in the geography of Africa. A member of a university community interested in materials from these collections may be able to get them via interlibrary loan. If interested in searching more topically based references, DeGeorges and Reilly 2008 is a seven-volume set addressing conservation and development in sub-Saharan Africa that may be of interest. Similarly, the United Nations Agencies and collections (including the Food and Agriculture Organization and United Nations Vital Climate Graphics Africa), the World Bank, and (especially in wealthier countries) specialized government agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the US Central Intelligence Agency, gather information and generate maps and charts on air traffic, troop, wildlife, ship, and other movements, as well as global climate, soil, and other data (see also Atlases, Maps, and Satellite Images). Similar administrations and government offices in African countries, such as the Republic of Kenya’s Ministry of Lands, contain maps and charts that may be of interest to geographers, but, due to security concerns, may require special research permits to access. Although somewhat dated, Bederman 1974 may also serve as a starting point if seeking to understand the range of print resources available.

  • Bederman, Sanford Harold. Africa, A Bibliography of Geography and Related Disciplines: A Selected Listing of Recent Literature Published in the English Language. Atlanta: Georgia State University, 1974.

    Previous editions were published under the title A Bibliographic Aid to the Study of the Geography of Africa.

  • DeGeorges, Paul Andre, and Brian Kevin Reilly. A Critical Evaluation of Conservation and Development in Sub-Saharan Africa. 7 vols. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 2008.

    A big-picture look at conservation, development, human rights, and foreign policy in Africa, including the history of conservation initiatives and their impact on policy formulation into recent times.

  • Earth Sciences Libraries, University of Wisconsin–Madison.

    The university’s three earth sciences libraries are the Geography Library, the Geology and Geophysics Library, and the Robinson Map Library. The first two contain monographs, serials, government publications, and related materials of potential interest to Africanists. The map library contains maps and aerial photographs and has more of a US focus.

  • Food and Agriculture Organization.

    FAO State of the World publications include statistical information and overviews globally, by region, or by country and can be a good starting point for researchers interested in placing Africa or particular African countries in a broader context in terms of deforestation, fisheries production, and other areas related to resource management, conservation, food security, and land use.

  • Geography Library, University of Cambridge.

    Having between 30,000 and 40,000 books, periodical volumes, offprints, reports, and pamphlets, it is one of the largest geography libraries in the UK, a country known for its long tradition of geographic studies. The library also contains a small number of CDs and videos.

  • Republic of Kenya’s Ministry of Lands.

    Official pages of the agency containing several services and departments related to land administration, adjudication, surveying, and mapping.

  • United Nations Vital Climate Graphics Africa.

    A portal to access climate-related data on the African continent presented via maps, tables, and text.

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