Western Africa

Western Africa


      region lying south of the Sahara and east and north of the Atlantic Ocean. It is latitudinally divided into two parallel belts of land: the western portion of the Sudan, a geographic area that stretches across the entire width of Africa, and the coastal region, or Guinea Coast. Each belt has its own geography, cultures, and history.

      The nations of the western Sudan include Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta), Cape Verde, Chad, The Gambia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Senegal. The nations of the Guinea Coast are Benin, Cameroon, Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Equatorial Guinea, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Togo.

      Western Africa is a term used in the Encyclopædia Britannica to designate a geographic region within the continent of Africa. The term West Africa is also often used to refer to this part of the continent. As conventionally understood, however, West Africa comprises all of the areas considered here except Cameroon, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, and the Saharan parts of Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. West Africa is primarily a political and economic designation; these countries joined to establish the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in 1975.

The land


       Western Africa is underlain by crystalline rocks that outcrop over about 55 percent of the subcontinent, elsewhere being buried under sedimentary rocks. Volcanic rocks constitute a third, small group of surface rocks.

      The crystalline rocks, collectively referred to as the West African shield or craton, comprise three main types of rock assemblage. The basement complexes are highly deformed and contorted gneisses, migmatites (metamorphosed and banded mixed rocks), quartzites, and amphibolites. The supracrustal formations of phyllites, schists, banded ironstones, quartzites, and greenstones were originally laid down upon preexisting basement complexes as sedimentary and volcanic formations, but they have been folded, faulted, and metamorphosed during one or more episodes of orogenic deformation. The granitic intrusions, varying from several to hundreds of square miles in area, were intruded into basement complexes and supracrustals at the end of major tectonic events.

      The West African shield consists of three age provinces. The oldest part, whose assemblages are Archean with reactivation ages older than 2.5 billion years, lies in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea and is called the Liberian Craton. The central part—in Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, and Burkina Faso—is dominated by the Birimian supracrustals, which were deposited during the Proterozoic era and tectonized in the Eburnian event of 1.8 to two billion years ago. In the east, beneath Benin, Togo, Nigeria, Chad, and Niger, the shield contains Archean-age basement complexes and Proterozoic supracrustals, which were deformed and the basement reactivated between 650 and 500 million years ago during the Pan-African thermotectonic event (see below). In the far west, the Rokelide and Mauritanide metamorphosed and deformed rocks of Guinea and Sierra Leone show ages of 550 to 350 million years. As elsewhere in Africa, the shield rocks contain abundant and diverse mineral resources including iron ore, gold, rutile, bauxite, chromite, manganese, diamonds, copper, lead, zinc, and uranium, though many occurrences are small and low-grade.

      The sedimentary rocks lie on the shield in broad, shallow (a maximum of three miles [five kilometres] thick) basins to the north and in narrow, deeper (a maximum of 7.5 miles thick) basins along the coast. The rock types include shales, sandstones, conglomerates, and limestones, which were originally deposited in vast lakes, deltas, and shallow seas. There were three long periods of sedimentation, although each period contained phases of erosion.

      The oldest formations span the later Proterozoic to Paleozoic eras, from about one billion to about 350 million years ago, and include sediments of two glaciations, for during parts of this time the western African region lay close to the South Pole. These older formations were laid down in the Volta and Taoudeni basins (the latter one of the largest sedimentary basins in the world), and parts were involved later in the Pan-African orogenesis. The sandstones and conglomerates are now very hard and resistant and form prominent escarpments, such as the Volta and the Bandiagara, and plateaus, such as the Fouta Djallon and the Manding.

      The second major period of sedimentation was during the Mesozoic and the early Cenozoic eras, from 200 to 65 million years ago, when the vast inland basins of Iullmedan and Chad and the narrower Benue basin developed. During this period the Atlantic Ocean began to open, and the sedimentary coastal basins of Senegal, Sierra Leone, Côte d'Ivoire, and southern Nigeria formed along the continental margins. Sedimentation has continued to the present—albeit with interruptions due to vertical tectonic movements and sea level changes—on the Niger delta, in the Chad basin, and in the coastal basins. These vast sedimentary basins contain a wide range of mineral resources, including petroleum and natural gas (the Niger delta being among the largest fields in the world), coal, phosphates, gypsum, uranium, and zinc.

      Generally less resistant or thinner than the older sedimentary rocks, the Mesozoic and Cenozoic rocks do not form striking topographic features or underlie vast plains. Some of the sandstones, however, produce extensive scarps, such as the Tegama and Awka.

      Since the Pan-African event, igneous activity has been spatially limited. Four occurrences of volcanic rocks are worthy of note, however. First, intrusions of basic and ultrabasic magma occurred as sills, plugs, and dikes in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea, and Côte d'Ivoire during the early stages in the breakup of the ancient supercontinent of Gondwanaland (see below) and the opening of the Atlantic Ocean (200 to 175 million years ago). Today the thicker intrusions produce bold cliffs and small plateaus. Second, approximately 92 million years ago kimberlite dikes and plugs were intruded from the upper mantle, also in Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia. Now deeply eroded, they were the source for the diamond placer deposits in those countries. Third, between 340 and 145 million years ago large caldera volcanoes were built in Niger and Nigeria along a distinct north–south axis. Most of the volcanic carapaces have since been eroded, and the distinctive circular and ring-shaped granite plutons that fed the volcanoes have been exposed as mountain and hill massifs. They are rich in cassiterite, and their erosion has generated tin placer deposits that are mined in Nigeria. Fourth, extensive volcanicity produced lava plateaus, volcanoes, plugs, craters, and fumaroles along the mountain belt extending northeast from Mount Cameroon, itself a complex of active and extinct volcanoes, through the beautiful Bambouto, Adamaoua, and Mambila Songola highlands, toward the Chad basin. Although starting about 25 million years ago, this volcanicity has been particularly active during the past one million years.

      The last in the series of orogenic and crustal reactivation (deformation and metamorphism of preexisting rocks) phases of the West African shield, the enigmatic Pan-African event, involved convergence between the West African Plate and the Central Saharan Plate (which included the shield rocks of Togo, Benin, Niger, and Nigeria), with rock deformation, granitization, and mountain building. Since then the subcontinent has undergone only slow vertical tectonic movements; these have caused profound erosion and the gradual exposure of the deeper parts of the shield assemblages. Sediments from this erosion accumulated in the sedimentary covers described above. After the Pan-African event, Africa was part of a supercontinent called Gondwanaland (Gondwana), which also included South America, peninsular India, Antarctica, and Australia. About 175 million years ago Gondwanaland began to break up along the lines of the present continental coasts. Sedimentary basins and rift valleys developed along future separation zones. There were several extensive marine transgressions across the low-lying eastern parts of the West African region during the Cretaceous period, at the same time slow uplift dominated the western parts of the shield. Gradually the Atlantic Ocean widened and during the past 65 million years intensive weathering and erosion processes dominated most of the subcontinent.

Relief and drainage
      Virtually the whole of western Africa lies below 5,000 feet (1,500 metres); most of the region lies below 1,500 feet and is dominated by plains. Isolated high plateaus and mountains are found in Nigeria, Togo, Guinea, Liberia, Côte d'Ivoire, Cameroon, and Sierra Leone. Smaller hills and ridges abound, especially on the crystalline craton rocks.

      The river system is dominated by the Niger (Niger River), which, rising barely 310 miles from the Atlantic coast in Guinea, flows northeast toward the desert before looping southeast and south through Niger and Nigeria. Other large systems include the Sénégal, Volta, and Benue. Numerous short rivers flow to the Atlantic, and the Chad basin is the focus for inland rivers. River discharges are highly seasonal, especially in the northern areas.

      The extensive erosional plains (planation surfaces), usually underlain by completely weathered rock (saprolite) 15 to 300 feet thick, are the result of long periods of weathering and erosion following pulses of tectonic uplift and subsidence. Four main planation surfaces have been recognized, each separated by rocky escarpments or hilly dissected country. The oldest and highest plains, well preserved in northern Nigeria, began forming at the beginning of the Cenozoic era and are underlain by the thickest saprolites, which often include a layer of iron and sometimes aluminum-rich duricrust. Most of western Africa, however, is made of younger planation surfaces that have formed during the past 25 million years. Depositional plains in areas of tectonic subsidence characterize the western and southwestern coastlands, the Niger delta and its lower valley, the Chad basin, and the subhumid lands bordering the Sahara desert.

      Particularly resistant rock types give rise to isolated hills (inselbergs) whose prominence is enhanced by the monotony of the surrounding plains. Certain granite intrusions produce the striking dome-shaped bare hills called bornhardts; others are the more blocky koppies. Schists, banded ironstones, and quartzites are carved into steep-sided linear ridges, and hard sandstones and duricrusted saprolites produce escarpments, plateaus, and mesas.

      In the humid rain forest belt, the plains are dominated by low, rounded hills and narrow, swampy valley floors eroded from thick porous saprolites. Landslides and deep, narrow ravines characterize the saprolite-blanketed higher hillslopes. In the drier savanna lands, valley floors tend to be wider and flatter and occasionally broken by ledges and low mesas capped by duricrust.

      Two types of coasts dominate western Africa's ocean shoreline. Low, muddy coasts, with mangrove swamps and interconnecting tidal creeks, are found along major river deltas and along coasts where the offshore current is weak. Elsewhere are long, smooth, sandy beaches often backed by older, sandy barrier ridges and lagoons.

      During the past 1.6 million years, the Quaternary period, global climates have changed frequently. In the colder periods western Africa was characterized by reduced rainfall, longer dry seasons, expansion of arid zones, and reduction in the extent of forested land. In the far north of the subcontinent are fossil sand dunes, relicts of these drier periods when desert aridity extended south by up to 300 miles. The last of these arid periods was from 22,000 to 14,000 years ago. Virtually all the rain forests were then replaced by open savannas. The alluvial floodplains in the region were built when climates returned to present-day levels of humidity during the past 10,000 years.

      Western African soil types are strongly controlled by their parent materials, topographic position, and climate. Consequently, the spatial distribution of the major soil types reflects the north–south climatic zonation, the distribution of the major geologic formations, and, at the local scale, their topographic conditions.

      There are four primary regional soil classes. In the rain forests, where rainfall exceeds 60 inches annually, are deep, red and yellow-red ferrallitic soils. They show little horizoning (distinct layers of soil) and are friable and very porous. Composed of kaolinitic clays and dispersed iron oxides, they contain no weatherable minerals, have a low cation exchange capacity (CEC), or ability to hold and exchange cations (important to plant growth), and are inherently infertile. Any fertility comes from the organic matter content, and this is almost totally leached within two years of clearance for agriculture.

      Associated with the savanna woodland zone and the zones with about 20 to 50 inches of rainfall, and occupying the greater part of the region, are ferruginous soils. These are usually less than six feet deep, and horizons are well developed with prominent iron oxide mottles and concretions and clay textures in the B horizons below the organic-rich topsoil. They contain a moderate-to-high reserve of weatherable minerals and have textural properties that vary with the parent material from which they developed, being generally sandy and free-draining over most of the crystalline and sedimentary formations.

      Between the ferrallitic and ferruginous soils are a broad belt of ferrisols. These are less leached and slightly more fertile than the ferrallitics but less fertile than the ferruginous. They developed in association with the drier margins of the rain forests.

      In areas with less than 20 inches of rainfall and associated with the northern Sudan savanna and the Sahel (Arabic sāḥil: “shore,” referring to the region bordering the Sahara) savannas are the brown and reddish brown semiarid soils. Little leached, they contain free carbonates and chemically active clays and have a moderate to high CEC. Their fertility has supported many centuries of cultivation when supplemented by organic manure.

      In addition to these four, several less extensive soils may be found. Eutrophic brown soils are developed on basaltic lavas and limestone rocks in the savanna regions. Their surface area is not great, but they are capable of sustained high yields when protected from erosion and supplemented by manure. The broad floodplains and coastal swamps contain immature hydromorphic soils. Although often high in their CEC, they are usually gleyed and seasonally waterlogged. In the Sahel within large depressions and formed from clay-rich materials are black vertisols. These are among the most fertile in western Africa, but they are difficult to till as they dry to a concretelike hardness in the dry season and turn into sticky, heavy muds in the wet seasons. Iron oxide crusts and pisolitic parent materials are also found in the savannas, and the soils found above them are thin, gravelly, and infertile.

      Lying entirely within the tropics and sandwiched between the Sahara to the north and the equatorial Atlantic to the south, western Africa displays a gradual change in climate from hot, wet, and humid in the south to very hot and dry in the north. The climate is dominated by two air masses. One is derived from the quasi-permanent high-pressure cell generally located over the Sahara, from which are derived the hot, dusty northeast trades, or harmattans (harmattan). In the winter months these winds occasionally extend over all of western Africa south to the coastlands. The other air mass is derived from a similar cell located over the tropical Atlantic. It is characteristically very humid and brings cloud cover, heavy rainfall, and high humidity to western Africa, which it progressively dominates from January to September. Separating these two air masses is the intertropical convergence zone (ITCZ), and along it the denser humid southerly air penetrates beneath the dry easterly air.

      Using these two air mass systems, western African weather can be described in terms of five north–south zones. The northernmost zone, zone A, lies beneath the dry easterlies and north of the ITCZ. Temperatures, insolation, and evaporation are high; humidity is low; skies are clear, but dusty. Next south is zone B, immediately south of the ITCZ, with high humidity, clear skies, high temperatures, and small, puffy cumulus clouds but no rain. Zone C has a thicker moist air system, and in it develop thunderstorms and line squalls caused by air pressure variations in the dry easterlies aloft and by excessive convective heating over uplands. The thunderstorms and line squalls move westward, covering hundreds of square miles and bringing high winds, intense rainfall and, occasionally, hailstones, and exciting lightning displays. Zone D, in the thickest part of the moist southwesterly air system, exhibits deep cloud cover, persistent and often heavy rainfall, high humidity, and lower temperatures. Zone E is characterized by high humidity and cumulus clouds but little rain. Subsiding dry air above the moist surface winds suppresses convective rainfall, and at the height of the wet season the southern coast of western Africa experiences a “little dry season.” This weather zonation moves northward from January to September and retreats southward from September to December. The climate of any spot depends upon this seasonal migration of the weather zones.

      Most areas in western Africa experience a single wet season, whose duration decreases northward from 11 to 12 months along the southwest coast to three months in the north. Annual total rainfall similarly decreases northward from more than 120 inches (3,000 millimetres) between Monrovia (Liberia) and Conakry (Guinea) on the southwest coast to about 20 inches between Dakar (Senegal), Mopti (Mali), and Niamey (Niger) in the north. Mount Cameroon (Cameroon, Mount) exhibits the greatest total annual rainfall (greater than 150 inches) because of its orographic effect on the moisture-laden southwesterly winds. Along the southern coastlands there is a double wet season separated by the “little dry season” of July to September, and annual rainfall ranges from about 30 inches at Accra to more than 120 inches along the coast of Cameroon.

       Rainfall and Temperature Patterns in Western AfricaLargely because of the decreasing extent and duration of cloud cover, regional patterns of daily temperature maxima and diurnal ranges increase northward. At specific locations temperature characteristics vary with the seasonal passage of the ITCZ and its associated weather zones. Zones A and B bring higher and more extreme ranges, whereas zones C, D, and E are accompanied by lower and more even temperatures. These rainfall and temperature contrasts are illustrated in the Table (Rainfall and Temperature Patterns in Western Africa) using data for three towns—Freetown, Sierra Leone, on the southwest coast, with a single long and exceptionally wet season; Lagos, Nigeria, on the south coast, with a double wet season; and Niamey, Niger, in the drier, hotter north.

Plant and animal life
      Vegetation in western Africa has been so strongly modified during centuries of cultivation, grazing, and burning that there are now few areas of untouched primary vegetation. Traditionally, most western African agriculture has involved abandoning cultivated ground after several years to enable soil fertility to be rebuilt by naturally regenerating vegetation. Fires—to clear land for cultivation, to bring on a new grass flush for cattle, to drive animals during hunts, or started by lightning—also have affected the composition of virtually all the vegetation north of the rain forests. Indeed, the extensive savanna woodlands are regarded as fire climax communities, and vegetation in small sites protected from fire and cultivation is quite different in morphology and composition from the bulk of the surrounding vegetation. Consequently, in the more sparsely populated regions there are vegetation communities that may be not unlike the original ones, but elsewhere the landscape is a mosaic of farmland, fallow land, grasslands, grasslands with bushes and trees, open woodlands with grassland, coppices of dense woods, and forest blocks.

      The progressive northerly reduction in rainfall, humidity, and length of wet season, and increase in evaporation is associated with clear vegetation changes characterized by species composition and community morphology. Rain forest in the south is replaced in the north by several types of savanna woodland.

      The tropical lowland rain forest is a species-rich community dominated by broad-leaved trees up to 200 feet high with slender unbranched, buttressed trunks. Saplings and ferns are numerous but the undergrowth is thin. The canopy carries climbing giant lianas and epiphytes. Many of the forest trees are commercially useful—e.g., mahoganies, sapele, guarea, African walnut, iroko, utile, and obeche. This vegetation lies along the southern area between Cameroon and Sierra Leone, with the exception of a gap in southern Ghana. Large areas, however, have been cleared for agriculture. An impoverished but often denser secondary forest colonizes abandoned farmland. The brackish, muddy, tidal creeks of the coastlands support distinctive mangrove communities, and tall swamp forests or grasses, shrubs, ferns, and raphia palms grow in the freshwater swamps of the deltas and lagoons.

      Originally the evergreen rain forest gradually merged, through an ecotone (transitional area) of mixed deciduous and evergreen forests, into the deciduous woodlands of the seasonal tropics. Today, however, the boundary between the rain forest and the savanna woodlands is very sharp and maintained by annual burning. The southernmost of the savanna woodland communities, called the Guinea savanna woodlands, is dominated by trees such as Lophira, Terminalia, and Anogeissus; fan palms; and tall tussocky grasses (Hyparrhenia, Andropogon, Pennisetum species) in the south. Isoberlinia, Monotes, and Uapaca characterize the northern parts. This formation extends into eastern Africa, where it is colloquially called Miombo woodland. Today the zone is a mosaic of grasslands with and without isolated trees and palms, riparian rain forest, and dense coppices of deciduous forest.

      Farther north, where the dry season is six to eight months long, are the Sudan savanna woodlands, characterized by shorter grasses and fire-resistant but agriculturally useful trees with wide spreading crowns growing 25 to 50 feet tall, such as Acacia albida, shea butter, locust bean, kapok, red iron wood, and baobab. This belt has been densely populated for centuries, and the natural woodlands have been replaced by extensive grasslands with occasional trees. In both the Guinea and Sudan savannas most of the trees are contorted from repeated fire damage.

      North of the Sudan zone are the more sparsely populated Sahel savanna woodlands, where the dry season is more than eight months and cultivation is restricted to valley floors. Low, umbrella-shaped deciduous thorn trees (such as the Acacia seyal) and shrubs (such as Commiphora africana), succulents, and short, tussocky grasses give a distinctive vegetation strongly modified by burning for seminomadic cattle grazing.

      The rain forests and the savanna woodlands are ecologically very different. The savannas have far less biomass, slower rates of nutrient cycling, fewer species and life-forms, and harsher microclimates than the forests. Nutrient cycling is accomplished mainly by burning and macrofauna (termites and ants) in the savanna woodlands and by bacteria, fungi, worms, and termites in the rain forests.

      Long settled, and in some areas densely populated, western Africa is famed not for its wild animals but for its large flocks and herds of sheep, goats, and cattle, primarily in the savannas. Most of the indigenous larger wild animals—lions, leopards, cheetahs, serval, crocodiles, rhinoceroses, giraffes, elephants, antelopes, gazelles, bushbucks, buffaloes, and oryx—have been hunted to, or almost to, extinction during the past 200 years, and the wild dogs, hyenas, and jackals that were dependent upon them have also largely disappeared. Most countries now have conservation policies, and in national wildlife or game parks, such as at Yankari, Nigeria, some of the formerly more common species can be observed. Smaller species—monkeys, chimpanzees, baboons, wildcats, duikers, hogs, cane and great rats, hyraxes, lizards, iguanas, and snakes—have not been so severely affected. Bird life, both resident and migrant species, is diverse and abundant, often to the extent of being an agricultural pest. Ants, termites, and insects are ubiquitous and play a fundamental role in plant nutrient cycling. Termite mound nests are a common and distinctive sight in the savanna areas.

Martin B. Thorp

Traditional cultures

The western (Western Africa) Sudan
 The major ethnic groups today, as shown on the accompanying map—>, are the following: the Wolof of Senegal, the Serer to the south, and the Mande-speaking (Mande) peoples to the east, comprising such subgroups as the Malinke, the Khasonke, the Bambara (Bamana), the Wasulunka, the Dyula, the Marka, and the Soninke (Serahuli). The Songhai are located largely in the region south of Timbuktu along the Niger, the Mossi are in the Volta basin, and a variety of smaller groups, such as the Dogon, Lobi, and Bobo, survive within the great bend of the Niger. Other small groups, such as the Diola (Jola), Landuma, and Baga, are to the southwest. The Hausa are concentrated largely in northern Nigeria, though they are scattered in all the major trade centres of western Africa. The Fulani (Fulbe, or Peul) are distributed widely from the west Atlantic coast to Chad and Cameroon, though particularly concentrated in Senegal, Guinea, and northern Nigeria.

      The continuous movements of people over the centuries have led to a complicated pattern of languages, but most authorities consider these languages to be branches of one great Niger-Congo family (Niger-Congo languages). These branches are the Mande, Kordofanian, Gur, Kwa, Ijoid, Adamawa-Ubangi, Benue-Congo, Kru, and Atlantic. The last includes such varied languages as Wolof, Serer, Fulani, and Diola. The Kordofanian languages are spoken in the area of the Nuba Hills. Other major language families that have been distinguished are the Nilo-Saharan languages, which include Songhai, and the Afro-Asiatic languages, which comprise Ancient Egyptian, Berber, Cushitic, Oromo, and Hausa, among others. French is the language of communication among the elite of most nations of the western Sudan—namely, Senegal, Mali, Niger, Chad, and Guinea—but English is used in The Gambia, Ghana, and Nigeria.

Traditional culture patterns
      Natural conditions in the Sudanic zone—drought, crop failures, epidemics of human and animal diseases—cause a great deal of uncertainty in peoples' lives, and they turn to the supernatural either in traditional rituals or in the Islamic faith for reassurance and hope in time of trouble and the possibility of a greater reward in the next world. Life is also affected by the rhythm of the seasons, with a great contrast between the rainy season, the time of intense work on the farms, and the dry season, when the pace of life is slower. People must adjust their pace to natural conditions to gain the best advantages from them and must also be in harmony with the unseen powers behind them. Conditions may often be harsh, but farm work, though hard, is an honourable occupation, and the average inhabitant remains surprisingly optimistic and enjoys life to the full. Some of this feeling derives from the fact that a person does not face trouble alone but as a member of a group, linked to others by a complicated system of obligations—to kinsfolk, neighbours, and members of the same age group—maintained by constant visits, economic exchange, and mutual help at ceremonies. Everyone also feels links with the ancestors of the tribe. In general, the philosophy is one of bearing troubles patiently.

      In the period from about AD 500 to 1470 the Sudanic zone was characterized by the rise and fall of a series of states and empires. The first to achieve eminence was Ghana (not to be confused with the modern state of that name), situated between the Sénégal and Niger rivers. It derived great wealth from trade in gold from the south and salt from the mines of the Sahara to the north. Ruins excavated at Koumbi Saleh (Kumbi) are believed to be its capital, a town that could have contained 20,000 inhabitants. Ghana's power declined during the 11th century after nearly 20 years of attacks from the Almoravids, a Berber military and religious order from the Sahara, devoted to converting nonbelievers to Islam. The Mande-speaking people of Mali, on the Niger, developed the next great state, expanding rapidly in the mid-13th century, absorbing Ghana, and then gaining power over the trading cities of Timbuktu and Gao at the end of the major trans-Saharan trade routes. In the early 14th century the emperor of Mali, Mansa Mūsā, visited Egypt and Mecca. A large number of Arab scholars—teachers, lawyers, architects, doctors—established themselves in Mali at this time. After the death of Mansa Mūsā the empire began to break up. The city-state of Gao, under the Songhai (Songhai empire), broke away toward the end of the 14th century and by the early 16th century had taken over control of the central region of the western Sudan. The power of Gao was extended over Timbuktu and Djenné, which were then at their height as centres of trade, learning, and religion. The power of the Songhai, however, was broken in 1591 by an invading army from Morocco, whose firearms provided a great advantage over the swords and spears of the Songhai.

      Farther east, the Chad region received various waves of immigrants—hunters, fishermen, and farmers who introduced weaving, bronze work, and pottery. They came under the influence of two states: that of Kanem (Kanem-Bornu), north and east of Lake Chad, which was powerful between the 11th century (when Islam began to make itself felt) and the 15th; and that of Bornu, to the west of Lake Chad, the dominant state in the 16th and 17th centuries. Bornu's army had a strong cavalry force, wore chain mail, quilted armour, and iron helmets, and retained its medieval splendour down to the 19th century, with something of its former pageantry still to be seen at Islamic festivals.

      Society in all of these states was highly stratified, with a powerful ruling class controlling the wealth. A central ruler appointed regional governors or obtained the allegiance of outlying vassal chiefs, who were obliged to pay annual tribute and supply labour as needed. Well-organized armies both suppressed rebellion within the state and defended the boundaries against external enemies. War captives became slaves and performed much of the physical labour, carrying loads and working on farms. Islamic religious teachers often formed part of the ruler's court, and gradually the people were converted to Islam. The ruler himself often filled a sacred role, as it was believed that the vital forces of the kingdom—rain, good harvests, and fertility—depended on him. The rulers were patrons of various arts and crafts, and the courts included musicians, praise singers, storytellers, goldsmiths, leatherworkers, and so on. Men of slave origin could rise to high rank as court officials and enjoy power over the freeborn.

      Traditions reflecting the greatness of the former states have been handed down in songs and legends, and traces of old social patterns are to be seen in the behaviour of present-day chiefs. But the average person's primary allegiance is to the village rather than to a larger unit, and people are concerned with the ruler only when they have a court case or must pay taxes.

      Villages are divided into wards or quarters, the nucleus of each ward being the descendants of an original settler, though as time goes by later settlers are absorbed. Often there is a meeting place for the men of the ward. Disputes within the village are commonly settled by the village head and the elders at a general meeting, or moot, in which the aim is to permit the parties to a dispute to state their grievances freely. The elders then arbitrate and seek to restore harmony and achieve a settlement, the meeting concluding with the group either praying together or sharing food or kola nuts imported from the south.

      The village head is drawn from the clan that was the first to settle in an area and clear land. In general, rights of land ownership are determined in the first place by the act of clearing, and then the descendants of this person have the right of usage. Land is held in units large enough to support a family and is not fragmented. Where land is short, people break away and found new settlements; and migration also tends to occur under political pressure.

      The pattern of descent since the coming of Islam has generally emphasized the male line (patrilineal descent), though links with relatives on the mother's side are also important—the mother's brother, for example, always giving help and support to his nephews and nieces. In families of slave origin, ties through the female line remain strong because the owner of the mother also owned the children born to her. In pre-Islamic times, rights to rule could be transmitted through the female line, though the incumbent had to be male. People recognize kin groups in which they know the exact blood relationships (lineages) and that share rights over land and other privileges and obligations; but they also feel themselves related to larger groups (clans), descended from remote ancestors who bear the same name or observe the same ritual prohibitions.

      In arrangements for marriage the family of the groom pays the family of the bride a sum of money known as the bride-price (bridewealth), which is returnable if the marriage fails through the fault of the wife. Ordinarily parents use the money received for a daughter to pay for a wife for a son. Households are normally larger than the nuclear family of husband and wife, for polygyny is permitted. The general pattern, however, is for each wife to have her own house, in which she cooks for herself and her children, taking her turn to cook for and sleep with her husband (though when a woman is pregnant or suckling a child she refrains from intercourse with her husband). A young widow will remarry, usually the brother of her deceased husband (the institution of the levirate), thus maintaining the link between the two families. If a marriage payment has been made and the fiancée dies, then a sister will replace her (the sororate). A widow who is old will often nominally remarry, but in practice be supported by her children, and often will stay with a son. The strongest emotional ties are not so much between husband and wife as between mother and children. An affectionate type of joking prevails between grandparents and grandchildren, and at weaning time small children are often sent to stay with maternal grandparents. A joking relationship also holds between cross-cousins (children of siblings of the opposite sex), and a cross-cousin has specific roles at naming, marriage, and burial rites.

      In African cultures ties between mother and child are extremely close. From birth to 15 months the child is carried on the mother's back; the child is fed at the slightest demand; and the mother plays with, sings to, and cuddles the child at every opportunity. Adults in general like children, hold them, protect them, and play with them. Grandmothers, in particular, are indulgent. The result is that the child grows up feeling valued and loved. There is, however, the very real threat of illness and death. Infant mortality, caused mainly by malaria, is high, and childhood illnesses—measles, whooping cough, influenza, pneumonia, and meningitis—take a heavy toll up to the age of five.

      Children begin to take part in the work patterns of the community at an early age and are not as a rule kept separate from adults. Small children imitate adult activities in their games and then begin to undertake the lighter tasks. Girls help to pound grain with pestle and mortar, draw water, use winnowing baskets, fetch firewood, and so on. Boys drive off birds and monkeys from the farms and then help in weeding as they become older, until finally they are able to undertake a young man's share of cultivation. Among cattle-keeping groups, boys learn their adult roles by handling calves.

      Initiation ceremonies mark the transformation from the status of child to that of adult. For males the ceremonies are generally associated with either circumcision (though many Muslims now have their sons circumcised in infancy) or, in some areas, scarification; in the past, death through infection was not uncommon, though now modern antiseptics may be used. The ceremonies involve both a physical separation, the initiates living outside the village in the bush, and a ritual death, followed by rebirth when they return to village life. During initiation they are harshly punished for their faults (sometimes for crimes committed before initiation, such as stealing); they are instructed in the traditions of their society and learn secret means of male communication, unknown to women or children. The initiates remain in seclusion for a period varying from several weeks to several months, and those who have gone through initiation together, irrespective of their age, retain close ties throughout life. In many societies there is also female initiation involving clitoridectomy. While in seclusion the initiates receive training for their future marital role.

      There is a marked division of labour between the sexes: the women are concerned with preparing food, caring for the children, drawing water, washing clothes, making pottery, dyeing cloth, gathering leaves, fruits, and firewood, and so on, whereas men are concerned with looking after large animals such as cattle, horses, donkeys, and large sheep and with hunting, clearing land for agriculture, fishing, butchering, house and fence building, woodcarving, leatherworking, and smithing. Carding cotton and spinning are women's work; weaving is men's. Women have their own meeting place at the well or stream; men have a place in a village square. The farming tools used are often different for men and women.

Social stratification in the western Sudan
      Although egalitarian relationships are found in many non-Islamic groups, such as the Diola and some pastoral Fulani, a system of social stratification is characteristic of most western Sudanic peoples. The essential pattern consists of such categories as (1) the royal families, often deriving from foreign conquering elements; (2) the nobles, members of high-ranking lineages who constitute the military leaders or provincial governors and who may have the power of electing the ruler from among suitable royal candidates; (3) the freeborn, who are landowners and farmers and sometimes traders; (4) the people of slave origin, who are objects of social discrimination or differentiation despite official abolition of the slave trade; and (5) the casted craftsmen, which include musicians, praise singers, professional storytellers and entertainers, smiths (whether blacksmiths, goldsmiths, or silversmiths), leatherworkers, and certain types of woodworkers. These craftsmen can marry only within their own category, cannot lose their status even if they abandon their trade, and are looked down upon by the freeborn, even though they may be richer and perform crucial services. The women of various caste groups are often expert hairdressers and tattooers. Islamic scholars and their families are accorded high prestige.

      Officials appointed by rulers could be either freeborn or of slave origin, with the result that “slaves” often came to enjoy greater power than the freeborn. Today there is also differentiation based on wealth acquired by trade and on status in positions of government service. Since independence from colonial rule, those who have attained prominence in political parties or the military have reached the chief positions of power.

      The characteristic settlement is a concentrated village consisting of fenced-off clusters of houses (compounds) occupied by members of a lineage and their spouses. Because for hundreds of years villagers led an uncertain life, liable to ravage by invaders and slave traders, many villages were built on sites afforded some protection by rivers or fortified by earthen walls. These old fortifications have almost all disappeared except for the great walled cities of northern Nigeria. The general trend during the 20th century has been for smaller and more widely dispersed villages, as people have cleared more land for agriculture, but as a result of periods of drought in the 1970s and '80s many people have resettled in the larger urban centres.

      Among the Wolof the average population of a village is only about 100, and the compounds are built around an open village square. In the past the houses were generally circular, with walls of either millet stalk or reed, but now a rectangular form is more common, with mud walls and roofing often of imported zinc or aluminum sheeting. Fulani settlements tend to be even smaller and consist of temporary huts with walls of reed or of matting woven from grass. Malinke villages, on the other hand, tend to be larger, with some 1,000 to 2,000 people; the houses are generally mud-walled with a conical roof thatched with grass. In the north the Tuareg are tent dwellers. In general, the most common western Sudanic house is circular, but the square or rectangular form is not necessarily recent, for excavations of old towns in ancient Ghana have revealed rectangular houses.

      In addition to the farming villages, the western Sudan is characterized by very large towns, either the capitals of the old states or trading towns at the southern end of the various trans-Saharan trade routes, such as Kano, Nigeria, and Timbuktu, Mali. There, architecture is often influenced by North African forms, mosques and fortresses in particular being designed after Arab patterns. At present, with the availability of imported sheeting for roofs and locally manufactured cement, richer people are building more permanent houses that are square or rectangular.

      Few traces are now to be found either of purely hunting and gathering groups or of fishing communities, except for such peoples as the Somono and Bozo fishermen of the Niger. Most inhabitants are agriculturalists, dependent on the cultivation of such crops as millet and sorghum for food and peanuts (groundnuts) for cash. The system is one of shifting cultivation: (slash-and-burn agriculture) the savanna land is cleared by ax and cutlass, the residue burned, and the crops planted. The hardest work is the continuous backbreaking struggle against weeds, the principal tool being a small hand hoe, and when the crops are ripening, they need to be protected against swarms of birds. Crop rotation is customary, but the soil nevertheless becomes exhausted after several years of cultivation and is then allowed to revert to bush. Only patches around the villages, fertilized by household rubbish, animal manure, and so on, can be kept under continuous cultivation. In such patches tomatoes, peppers, beans, eggplants, maize, and condiments can be grown. On good soils cotton cultivation is possible.

      The single rainy season demands a considerable amount of extremely hard work in a very short period of time, and irregularities in the rainfall, whether drought or cloudburst, can cause crop damage and a food shortage. Farmers suffered losses through plagues of locusts, and despite international efforts at control these plagues still occur. People supplement the cultivated crops, particularly in times of shortage, with wild fruits and roots. The fruits of the baobab (Adansonia digitata), nete (Parkia biglobosa), and tamarind (Tamarindus indica) are particularly important, while over much of the more northern zone the shea-butter tree (Butyrospermum parkii) is a source of vegetable oil. In regions with a more abundant water supply, like the Gambia and Casamance valleys, rice is the dominant food crop.

      The dry season is a period devoted to visiting friends, trading, building houses and making repairs, engaging in arts and crafts (pottery, mats, textiles, basketry), and participating in such ceremonial events as marriages and initiation ceremonies.

      Another important lifestyle is that of the pastoralists. The central region of the western Sudan, with its extensive grasslands, provides opportunities for raising large herds of cattle. The Fulani are the main cattle owners and are found from the west Atlantic coast to Chad and Cameroon. Some are entirely nomadic, living in temporary shelters and moving between wet-season and dry-season grazing areas. Others stay in fixed villages, build more permanent houses, engage in farming—producing excellent crops because of the cattle manure—and still maintain large herds of cattle. The men are concerned with the care of animals, determining the time for movement, selecting grazing areas, and seeing that the animals are watered. Women's occupations include domestic tasks, drawing water for household use, collecting firewood, cooking, and processing and selling milk. Both the watering places and markets in the towns are important meeting places where the Fulani exchange vital information about the state of pastures, water, animal diseases, and politics. The cattle population has increased rapidly as the result of inoculations against such diseases as rinderpest, but the Fulani feel personally attached to their cattle, in which their wealth and well-being are involved, and are reluctant to sell animals for slaughter.

      The western Sudan has always been a highway and crossroads for long-distance trading. Today, manufactured goods entering the Atlantic ports, including cloth, medicines, and transistor radios, are taken inland. Sudanese traders travel to Sierra Leone, Ghana, and the Congo basin to deal in diamonds, which eventually find their way to the Middle East. Gold still crosses the Sahara to North Africa, and salt from the Saharan mines comes by camel caravan to the Niger River. Caffeine-containing kola nuts from the Guinea Coast rain forests are transported north in large quantities; they are in great demand among the farmers for assuaging hunger and thirst and for use in ritual and sociable contexts. Hausa leatherwork is widely traded.

      The major trade routes across the Sahara are supplemented by lateral routes along the Niger and along the Sénégal and Gambia river valleys. For certain commodities a system of direct barter prevailed; Fulani herdsmen, for example, exchanged milk and butter for grain. Along the Niger is a substantial trade in dried fish, either bartered for grain or sold for cash.

Belief systems
      Indigenous systems of belief unaffected by Islam involved the concept of the essential unity of the visible and invisible worlds, humanity being accorded the dominant position in the system. Forces in plants, animals, and minerals (animism) are made known to humans through ancestors and can be used for either good or evil, humans having the moral responsibility for making the choice. Living persons are a continuation of the life stream of the first beings. Ancestors watch over the living and act as intermediaries between them and the creator of the universe, who is now remote from humans, even though his power is supreme. The ancestors indicate their wishes through dreams sent to the elders, while the living communicate with the ancestors through prayer and sacrifice, the blood of sacrificed animals setting in motion certain latent spiritual forces. The spirit world is also evoked by persons wearing carved masks during special ceremonies; associated dances and drumming cleanse, reinvigorate, and protect the community. The masks themselves are the abode of spirits, and carvers feel inspired by supernatural powers.

      Religious beliefs reinforce the traditional values of society, for it is believed that lack of harmony in the community and breaches of traditional law and custom are followed by such disasters as drought, disease, and crop failure. Society is threatened by forces outside the community—evil spirits that are believed to cause mental disorders and physical abnormalities—and by people inside the community in whom evil grows—witches, who can cause harm to both human beings and crops through a witch substance inside them, and sorcerers, who perform deliberate acts of evil magic. Charms are worn and protective devices set up to guard against such dangers, while diviners seek to detect both witches and sorcerers. Diviners are consulted by individuals with problems; it is their role to trace the causes of troubles, using such techniques as casting cowrie shells or reading patterns in sand to see into the spiritual world, and then to indicate the proper measures to be taken. Diviners provide treatment at the physical level by prescribing herbs and medicines, at the psychological level by listening to confessions and providing reassurance, and at the social level by trying to disperse tensions between individuals.

      Islam (Islāmic world) has spread widely throughout the western Sudan, and between 60 and 70 percent of the people are nominally Muslim. Most attend services at the mosques, observe Ramadan (the month of fasting), say the daily prayers, and give alms generously; and a few are able to make the pilgrimage to Mecca. Wherever Islam is the dominant faith, Muslim religious teachers have taken over the role of traditional diviners in determining the causes of troubles, and they provide remedies in conformity with Islamic patterns. Children are given religious instruction in which they learn the prayers, recite long passages from the Qurʾān, and acquire the rudiments of Arabic writing. The traditional ritual dances and masked performances are gradually disappearing or have been greatly modified as a result of opposition from Muslim teachers. Nevertheless, many of the traditional beliefs about spiritual beings still remain relatively unchanged in people's minds. Christianity has had little effect in the western Sudan, except marginally in the coastal cities of Senegal and The Gambia.

Oral literature
      The region is extremely rich in oral literature (African literature): proverbs; myths of origin; animal stories in which the lion, hyena, and hare play prominent parts; epics; and tales about people (neglected orphans, disobedient children, the rivalry of co-wives, jealous husbands, deceitful wives, unjust rulers) and about supernatural forces (encounters with good and evil spirits, the terrible deeds of witches and sorcerers). Narration involves both entertainment and education, for the young learn something of the values of the community and acquire knowledge of approved and disapproved behaviour. There is always a high degree of audience involvement, the listeners either replying to the narrator's questions or singing the rhythmical choruses that form part of the narrative style. Storytellers act the roles of the various characters with great effectiveness, and the narration becomes a highly rhythmical performance leading up to a dramatic climax.

Evolution of the cultures
      In general, the western Sudan has been slow to change, largely because of long distances and problems of communication and because of the generally low level of income throughout the area. Migrants from the interior have gone south to work in the mines and cocoa plantations of Ghana or in the coffee, cocoa, and banana plantations of Côte d'Ivoire or to cultivate peanuts in the Sénégal and the Casamance river valleys; but for the most part they revert to traditional ways when they return home.

      In moving to the cities and towns of the coastal zone, migrants who are from the same ethnic group or village have a tendency to live in the same area of town and tend to spend their leisure time together. Disputes that arise between people of the same ethnic group are ordinarily settled by the elders of that group according to traditional law and custom and are not taken to the state court. Voluntary associations are formed for mutual aid and entertainment.

      In general, Islamic influence has continued to spread slowly and steadily among animistic groups, for a Muslim has higher status than an animist outside his own community.

      Change in agriculture has been slight. Mechanized agricultural projects have usually been unsuccessful because of the high costs of maintaining machinery. In Senegal, The Gambia, Mali, and Niger, light plows and weeding equipment drawn by donkeys, horses, and oxen have become popular and have led to an increase in the production of the cash crop, peanuts (groundnuts). The growth of cooperative societies has enabled farmers to receive greater cash benefits, and the improvement of roads and the increase in motor transport have made the marketing of produce easier. Gains have been offset by years of low rainfall, however.

      In Niger and Chad, spectacular success has followed programs of water prospecting. Artesian water is now tapped by boreholes, and artificial water holes have been created, designed to store water during the dry season. This has enabled the seminomadic cattle owners to settle and make use of the rich pastureland available, the limiting factor previously being the lack of water for cattle. In the 1970s and '80s, however, recurring droughts caused heavy loss of livestock and led to desertification of overexploited marginal lands.

David P. Gamble

The Guinea Coast
 Guinea is a term used originally for the coastlands and adjacent forests of western Africa between the Republic of Guinea on the west and Equatorial Guinea on the east, including the whole, or the southern parts, of Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, and Cameroon (see map—>). There have been conflicting accounts of the derivation of the name Guinea, but it would seem to be a version of the Berber word aguinaw, or gnawa, meaning “black man,” or “Negro.”

The environment and the people
 In western Africa, in the general absence of major mountainous areas, natural regions are determined primarily by climate and vegetation, and the Guinea Coast societies are those that have in the past been associated with the equatorial forest zone. This forest has long been cleared for agriculture in some areas and has been subject to increasing and widespread threat over recent decades, but it is the natural vegetation of most districts within 100 miles of the coast. In the east, heavy forest formerly extended from the borders of the Cameroon highlands to the area west of the Niger River. In the west, forest stretched from Sierra Leone to western Ghana. Between these two belts of forest there is a drier region, where for centuries tree cover has been thin; once cleared for farming the forest does not regenerate, and even areas left fallow for long periods remain as grassland. Societies in this area, while culturally similar to true forest societies, have historically been different in significant ways.

      The forest greatly influenced the cultural development of the Guinea Coast by affecting the movements of peoples and the development of agriculture and commerce. People occupied the forest areas relatively late because farming there had to await the development of suitable tools and crops. Iron axes are needed to clear equatorial forests and only with the introduction of the shade-tolerant crops—the plantain and the cocoyam (taro and eddo), brought from Asia in the 9th century AD—could forest farming become an economic alternative to hunting and gathering. Moreover, until recently forest farming did not include animal husbandry, for the forest harboured species of tsetse fly that are particularly dangerous to cattle and horses. This had advantages for the forest people, however, because the tsetse fly and the dense vegetation protected them from marauding cavalry. Gradually the forest gave its inhabitants commercial advantages: kola nuts and, later, palm oil were so highly desired by distant peoples that traders by sea, and overland from the north, were drawn to the Guinea Coast.

      The cultural significance of the original forest environment is shown even today in the linguistic map of western Africa. In detail there are many different languages in the forest area, some spoken by millions, some by a few thousand people. What is striking, however, is that the boundaries between the major language families roughly coincide with the old boundaries of the forest. Only in the extreme east does this clear division disappear. The linguistic division between the forest societies and the hinterland is good evidence for the long historical distinctiveness of the Guinea Coast cultures.

Cultural patterns
      This section cannot deal individually with all the groups in the area but only the more important or better-studied groups, for Guinea Coast societies vary enormously. Today many similarities are due to patterns of development in the colonial and postcolonial periods; nevertheless, precolonial variations still show themselves. This is true even in such obvious ways as population densities and types of settlement away from modern cities. Even within a small area, such as southeastern Nigeria, great variations exist. Prior to the Biafran war (1967–70) in certain Igbo (Ibo) areas there were 700 or more people per square mile (270 or more per square kilometre), whereas in the equally fertile forest hinterland of the Cross River densities were well under 100 people per square mile. Moreover, the Igbo settlements were characteristically spread out through their cultivated lands, whereas the Cross River peoples to the east of the Igbo lived in large nucleated villages. To the west of the Igbo, the Yoruba built in precolonial times some of the largest indigenous towns in Africa.

      Such differences are usually caused by the complex interplay of environmental and cultural factors and historical contingency. Even in the choice of crops, which might seem to be more or less dictated by physical conditions, culture is very significant. It is true that in the eastern, tuber-growing areas the choice between one tuber and another may be determined ultimately by environmental factors. For example, the modern selection of cassava rather than yams is usually the result of the greater ability of cassava to tolerate depleted soils. There is a major crop boundary, however, roughly corresponding to a linguistic boundary along the Bandama River in Côte d'Ivoire; to the west rice is the staple crop but to the east tubers are the staple. This seems clear evidence of the significance of cultural choice. The importance of culture has also been shown by recent work on the agricultural skills of local peasants that has shed light on the ingenuity with which indigenous farmers develop new strains of preferred crops and adapt their techniques in order to get reasonable yields even under adverse conditions. Their techniques are often clearly superior to those advocated by official development agencies.

Historical background of trade and politics
      The more complex the cultural patterns the more complex is the interplay of environmental factors and historical contingency behind them. The evidence is to be found in the political variations of the indigenous units of the Guinea Coast societies. At the end of the 19th century there existed tiny, independent political groups whose inhabitants had, for many purposes, solved the Hobbesian puzzle of how to avoid the “warre” of all against all without having recourse to the development of the state. At the same time there also existed powerful kingdoms. Some were of medieval foundation, and some had been developed in recent centuries, but the rulers of the largest held sway over hundreds of thousands of people. Environmental factors were obviously of significance in influencing political growth. The authority of a central government depends on the “message-delay” time involved in conveying commands to the periphery of the state. In the forest, where riding horses could not be kept and passage on all but the largest rivers was repeatedly blocked by huge fallen trees, political power might depend, as in 19th-century Asante (Asante empire) (Ashanti), on enormous efforts put into keeping roads open for runners. The success of some of these states is particularly notable for the triumph of human ingenuity over adverse natural conditions.

      Before the end of the 15th century, most of the region's external contacts were made through the savanna kingdoms to the north, whose merchants wanted slaves, gold, and kola nuts (a stimulant lawful for Muslims). From the end of the 15th century, however, the interests of the Guinea Coast peoples were partly reoriented toward trade with European merchants, who sought successively gold, slaves, and palm oil. European trade was significant partly because, unlike the northern trade, it was controlled within the Guinea area entirely by local people. Europeans were prevented from penetrating inland by climate, disease, and the express action of African authorities. The merchants at the coast provided inducements to sell; how their wants were supplied was a matter for local traders. These overseas merchants were also significant because of the nature of the goods they brought to sell. They were mainly consumer goods, but they also included such capital goods as iron, guns, and gunpowder, and these gradually introduced a crucial new factor into local warfare. Political authorities were forced into trade because it became militarily vital to acquire the new weapons. Even imported consumer goods had a political significance, for it was normally the political authorities, able to tax European merchants and the local traders, who could acquire most goods. They thus had the best resources with which to exert general influence; consequently new power was put into their hands with important political consequences.

      The development of Guinea Coast societies was radically influenced by the nature of their exports, especially the slaves. Slave trading did not everywhere lead to raiding, but where it did it led to changes in military and political organization. In Dahomey a strong government sent its army to raid slaves in every dry season; in Yoruba areas one factor in the violent relations between the city-states in the 18th and 19th centuries was probably their involvement in the trade, and new political forms were bred in response to this situation. Wherever war captives were traded as slaves, those central authorities who controlled captives developed an economic advantage over their rivals.

      In the 19th century palm oil gradually became the most important Guinea Coast export because of its increased use as an industrial lubricant and because European humanitarians were successful in applying political pressure on their governments, especially the British, to end overseas transport of slaves. Nevertheless, slave dealing and raiding remained important internally throughout the century. Even when slave exports declined, the growing palm-oil traffic in itself stimulated these activities, for the transport of the bulky oil required slaves to paddle the canoe transports or to headload the oil to the ports. Moreover, a trader using many men to transport oil needed others, often slaves, to produce food for them; thus, slaves were important economically and politically to the Mende of Sierra Leone in the west and the Fante (Fanti), Dahomean, Yoruba, Niger delta, and Efik peoples in the south.

      The growth of the palm-oil trade brought other economic and political changes. African traders exporting palm oil needed more capital than slave traders did, because slaves transported themselves and worked while awaiting shipment, whereas oil was expensive to transport and constituted idle capital while at the ports. An unanticipated result of the change to the oil trade was, therefore, that the exporters, needing capital, became increasingly reliant on European firms that advanced them goods on credit and therefore took increasing interest in local political affairs. This was one factor leading to colonialism. Paradoxically, in the rural areas many men who could never have been slave traders could easily gather and sell palm produce. Apart from the exceptional case of Dahomey, where most palm oil came from large government-fostered plantations, oil was drawn mainly from the fruit of trees growing naturally in the bush. In the eastern forest areas especially, participation in this production and trade was very general.

      By the end of the 19th century a network of local markets had been developed over much of the hinterland of the Guinea Coast. The great centralized kingdoms were naturally associated with great trade routes, but there is evidence that traders were protected by the common interest of many people—and almost all political authorites—that the routes should be kept open. It is remarkable that for the most part, even in the absence of strong governments and in areas where adjacent peoples might be regarded as fair game for attacks, the accredited trader passed unharmed; appropriate punishment was dealt out by local authorities to any person who robbed or injured them.

Kingdoms and chiefdoms of Guinea
      Although trade could flow across political boundaries, the political development of western African societies was much influenced by the growth of trade and through the warfare and the struggle for trade routes that accompanied it. Where trade was limited, most political units seem to have remained weak and small in scale. This was true in the earlier part of the 19th century in much of the area of Sierra Leone and Liberia and is a major reason that it was possible to settle freed slaves there without their being dominated by indigenous powers. Later, however, hinterland Mende tribes, located in rich oil-palm areas, fought for the control of trade routes and developed into more centralized groups under warrior chiefs. At the other end of the western forest, and at the other extreme as regards trade, the Asante Confederation of kin-based states developed much earlier and quite differently. The area had early commercial importance in the northern trade as a source of gold and of the best kola nuts. From the 17th century the Asante (Asante empire) exploited their gold resources, which were easily made a government monopoly, in order to gain local control over the import of firearms. Extending their influence over their immediate neighbours by diplomacy and over those more distant by warfare, they eventually subjugated peoples as far southeast as Accra, on the coast, and as far north as the savanna. It has been shown that in the 19th century the authorities—with remarkable insight into their own social structure, which was based on matrilineal clans—created a semiprofessional civil service in which offices were passed from father to son; this ensured that new officials were trained but that the offices escaped the clutches of the major kin groups.

      In the eastern forest, northwest of the Niger delta, was the kingdom of Benin, whose rulers claimed to have come originally from the Yoruba area. It was of medieval origin and was so well established in the late 15th century that the king of Benin sent an emissary to the king of Portugal, who in turn sent missionaries to Benin. Its internal political development from that time involved complex power struggles between the party of the ruler, the oba, and the nobles. In theory there existed a complex balance between different interest groups, but that balance shifted in different generations. Interestingly, it seems that the central authorities were so well aware of the dangers of allowing power to pass to locally based kin groups that much ingenuity was exerted in creating structures that ensured that commoners' kin groups did not develop and that politically ambitious individuals had to seek advancement by moving to the capital of Benin and could not create power bases in their home areas. In this the social structure of Benin was almost the reverse of the adjacent Yoruba areas.

      To the east of the city of Benin lies the Niger delta, one of the greatest mangrove swamps in the world, an area without land for farming or any resources needed for the development of large states (until the discovery and exploitation of petroleum in the mid-20th century). In the 18th and 19th centuries, in that area and farther east at the mouth of the Cross River, there developed small, independent trading settlements. At first most were villages exchanging fish for agricultural produce; later, wherever deepwater anchorages existed—suitable for European ships and close to rivers giving good access to the interior—these settlements became large trading centres interested in exerting commercial control over the palm-oil-rich and slave-rich hinterlands.

      Throughout much of the Guinea Coast the king or chief was the keystone of the political system because, although his actual powers varied enormously, his ritual relation to his predecessors and, usually, the gods provided the ideological framework for that system. In some cases he was the only appropriate intercessor with his deceased ancestors who were believed to exercise a controlling influence over group affairs. In other cases he was transformed, by his installation rites, into a person so sacred that all his actions had to be circumscribed lest, by breaking taboos, he brought disaster on his people.

      In Oyo (Oyo empire), one of the best-described Yoruba kingdoms, the king, at the culmination of his installation rituals, ate the heart of his predecessor and was transformed into a personification of his ancestors. Thereafter, on his only public appearances, at rituals held three times a year, he appeared veiled, his face hidden by a beaded fringe. Those who formally represented him in judicial, religious, military, and administrative capacities were slave eunuchs, chosen because, having neither kin nor affines, they were presumed to have no interests to serve but their master's. Although secluded, it appears that the king was involved in important political maneuverings, playing one group of hereditary chiefs off against a second and trying to avoid the great danger that would ensue if both groups were to unite against him.

      Such political structures can be described as if they were frictionless systems of checks and balances persisting unaltered for generations, but modern research suggests that these structures were changed in detail whenever the balance of political power shifted. Points of particular struggle were the rules for choosing the successor to king or chief. In polygynous societies even a rule of inheritance by the eldest son does not necessarily indicate the true heir as there is room for dispute over the status of the mother. Any rule that widened the choice—e.g., to any member of a lineage—gave increased powers to the selectors. Furthermore, military success could bring great problems, for if new territories were conquered there might be great competition between king and barons over claims to control the offices essential for the administration of these areas.

      These structures, based on similar beliefs in the ritual powers of chiefs, are to be found in many chiefdoms of the Guinea Coast, even very small ones. Nevertheless, there were some political units that might be called essentially secular. Mende chiefs, for example, were explicitly leaders whose rule was based on military prowess. In Niger delta and Efik towns senior priests had ritual headship but lacked any political importance, for power was held by rich traders. Leadership in many Igbo villages often lay de facto with wealthy men who were members of influential societies; there were few formal political offices, and decisions were reached through public discussions at village meetings. It is not coincidental that even in modern times attitudes to social hierarchy are markedly different between the Yoruba and Igbo and that the latter adopted with particular enthusiasm the patterns of “democratic” politics.

Kin groups and other associations
      Kinship ties are almost invariably of great significance in all traditional African societies, and the Guinea Coast is no exception. For the individual, ties through both the father and the mother are significant, but for inheritance and for political and legal purposes kin groups were commonly organized by singling out a particular line of descent. Such kin groups still exist in this area, but they have lost much of their former importance; in the past, however, they were of great significance. Their bases might be patrilineal or matrilineal, or both these lines of descent might be recognized simultaneously in different contexts. Most Yoruba kin groups are patrilineal, the Asante groups are matrilineal, and along the Cross River there exist a number of variations of “double unilineal” descent, a system in which each individual belongs to both a patrilineage and a matrilineage that share areas of authority. Kin structures such as clans were usually of great significance in the administration of groups even in large and complex kingdoms although, as in the case of the Benin kingdom, there were exceptions. Even in matrilineal societies almost all important offices were held by men but, because women in such groups determined the group affiliation of their children and were of great formal significance in establishing a man's rights (as he claimed political office through his mother), women commonly attained a freedom of action and a degree of public significance that was difficult for them to acquire in patrilineal kin groups.

      The rights of women in marriage varied considerably from group to group, but in many Guinea Coast societies, even patrilineal ones, it would generally be a mistake to regard women as having been particularly downtrodden in the past. Even when this superficially appears to have been the case, careful research reveals that, as very active economic partners of their farmer husbands, wives might exercise much influence over the allocation of crops and even of patrilineally inherited land. Among the double unilineal Mbembe of the Cross River, although the land a family used was normally given to the husband by his patrilineal kin, the wife's labour was clearly recognized as entitling her to part of the crops. The husband had an absolute obligation to retain enough of the crops to provide her and her children with food, and his wife was regarded as justified in divorcing him if he were irresponsible in his use of any money he had gained through their sale. The specific duties of husbands and wives in relation to different types of plots were detailed with great care, and a wife was entitled both to an area of her own for raising cash crops and to her husband's labour on it for certain tasks. Among the Yoruba the husbands and their sons did almost all the farm work, and the women were responsible for marketing. Today sons move to the towns and husbands may employ labourers, but the old pattern remains and women continue to sell the produce. In an era when commercial marketing is much more important than formerly, many wives derive greater profit from the family's activities than do their husbands. Even in the modern urban environment the tradition of financial independence between husband and wife continues, but there the balance of advantage between husband and wife is less clear-cut.

      In most tribal societies age (age set) is an important basis for group formation, and in some there exist “age-sets”—compulsory groupings of individuals of roughly similar age who advance through life together. No society in western Africa attached the same political significance to age as did some East African societies, where age stratified the male population into groups with markedly different levels of rights and authority. In the Guinea Coast, age groups tended to be more important in societies with weakly developed formal political structures; Igbo groups, for example, attached considerable importance to status given by age-set membership. In the Benin kingdom groups structured by age were, similarly to most other aspects of life, subjected to manipulation from the centre. If a man remained in his village his age-status was determined solely by his birth; if he went to Benin City and served in one of the so-called palace societies he might return home after a period and be entitled to promotion to an age-set beyond his years. This was a distinct inducement to go to work at the capital, and, since ultimately elders held sway in the village, the effect was probably that the most vigorous and, therefore, leading elders were relatively young men who had been influenced by the Benin City “establishment.” Quite apart from the political significance of age-sets, however, they might provide very significant personal ties for individuals who existed independently of any kin group organization to which they were attached. Among the Mbembe of the Cross River, for example, women as well as men derived great personal support from their age-mates. While kin-group membership established formal rights and obligations both between members and as collectivities in relation to the rest of society, age-sets provided friends who supported the individual through thick and thin. Age-mates were the witnesses called in when husbands and wives quarreled; age-mates would continue to find money to help the chronically sick even after kinsfolk gave up trying to aid; and in cases in which it was believed that a sick person was the victim of a sorcerer, always believed to be a kinsman, it was the age-mates who as a body would demand that he desist. The links between age-mates there, and elsewhere where they united individuals in different kin groups, did, however, have a political aspect, for they were of great value when kin-group elders met to deal with intergroup arguments; often the elders were age-mates and had the closest personal ties with one another.

      One of the most characteristic of Guinea Coast institutions, especially in areas in which central government was weakly developed, was the so-called secret society. Such societies had a significance similar to that of age-sets because they cut across kin-group lines and united people in different settlements or of different political groups. Moreover, the fact that membership was often graded and the higher grades were open to those who could pay the fees meant that in societies where new wealth from trade became important it was often through these societies that wealthy men (few were open to women) achieved political influence to which they might not otherwise have had access. In two major areas—in Sierra Leone and Liberia, and in the area east of the Niger delta—these associations achieved such power that they were crucial to the precolonial systems of law and order. Among the tribes in the former area, there was a women's society, Sande, but Poro, for men, was the major organization responsible for punishing such serious offenses as incest and homicide. There were local Poro councils composed of members of the highest grade, and a chief's authority often rested on his Poro rank. Poro spread among the Gola, Kpelle, and Mano of Liberia and the Mende of Sierra Leone. Sometimes its members forged links between autonomous chiefdoms, and in 1898 the Mende Poro even organized a general uprising to try to oppose British expansion into Sierra Leone.

      The most interesting example of the politically powerful secret society, however, was probably that of Ekpe in 19th-century Calabar, the Efik capital at the mouth of the Cross River. There the Ekpe society was the main instrument of the governing oligarchy of wealthy traders. There was no strong central government to ensure that traders honoured their commitments either to one another or to European traders, but the threat of Ekpe action usually ensured compliance. The power of Ekpe is credited with having made Calabar society one of the most stratified on the Guinea Coast. Its membership was reserved almost exclusively for freemen, and its power was used to subordinate the large slave population. In the neighbouring delta area many able slaves who escaped exportation were eventually incorporated into local groups and became almost indistinguishable from the local population. In Calabar, perhaps because there was more agricultural land available, unexported slaves were kept as serfs. A few became prosperous and had slaves of their own (no one who had any pretensions did his own manual work). Ekpe members, however, banded together to maintain the free–slave distinction. Not surprisingly perhaps, Calabar was a place of bitter friction and saw slave uprisings in the middle of the century. In general, secret societies were institutions for translating slight advantages of wealth into political influence, and wherever they occurred they indicated the existence of a measure of social stratification greater than that which commonly distinguished the successful elder from his junior kinsmen. The idea that small-scale tribal societies were essentially egalitarian has become much less tenable with recent research. It is recognized that, even in apparently unstratified societies, successful men usually depended for their position on their ability to control the labour of junior male kin and wives. Often they used their positions to increase their control over both at once, for by marrying polygynously while keeping young men wifeless they ensured an excellent labour supply for themselves. This was crucial because, until the mid-20th century, the densities of population were so low that land was not really scarce; what was scarce was the labour with which to work it. It is significant, for example, that even among the apparently unstratified societies of the Cross River, the Yako (Yakö) and the Mbembe, one of the most important of their secret societies was that used to punish young men who failed to work adequately for their fathers. Land was freely available, and for various reasons it was difficult to prevent young men from marrying and setting up their own households; the main sanction the elders could use was to call on members of this society to beat any recalcitrant junior who showed his face in the main settlement.

      Stratification was most obvious among wealthy and centralized states. However, because wealthy men were always polygynous and usually had many offspring, the wealth of one generation was commonly dispersed in the next, so that class formation was limited—the hereditary basis of high status was lacking.

      In the 19th century new forms of stratification emerged in Sierra Leone and Liberia when freed slaves educated in North America were settled in these areas to become the “Creoles,” shopkeepers and white-collar workers—an elite vis-à-vis the natives. Some Sierra Leonians moved to other British West African possessions on the coast, where they joined with tiny indigenous elites drawn from wealthy, educated coastal families to form with them a new bureaucratic class. In the 20th century access to good education has done much to confer hereditary advantage on the children of the elite.

Belief systems
      There are, at least in outline, similarities between the various belief systems on the Guinea Coast. Most systems contain these features: belief in a withdrawn high god; belief in lesser gods that are useful because easily manipulated; concern with the dead, usually but not necessarily ancestors, who are thought to exercise influence over the groups to which they belonged in life; and belief in witches and sorcerers, whose existence explains undeserved misfortune. Finally, there is common acknowledgment of the power of diviners who can determine the cause of a particular misfortune. Beliefs as to what constitutes the basis of diviners' powers vary widely, but there is such a pragmatic attitude that what matters is the apparent success of the divination, not its conceptual foundation. Diviners in the past traveled widely between societies. They often advertised the power of distant cults, and sometimes priests were brought long distances to establish new local shrines. In this way famous cults spread widely, and this fact may help to account for the existence of broadly similar beliefs between societies that have had apparently rather little contact with one another. In general, however, these religious beliefs are broadly compatible with the type of society in which they are found, so that there tended to be complex pantheons of gods in hierarchical and stratified kingdoms such as Dahomey, but small-scale, stateless societies lacked that kind of complexity among their deities.

      These beliefs accounted not only for misfortune but also for individual success. There was a widespread belief that individuals, in an existence before birth, had to choose whether their earthly lives should be fortunate or unlucky, and consistent lack of success might be ascribed to wrong choices—so-called prenatal fate. In some societies particularly fortunate individuals were presumed to have established a relationship with a luck-bestowing supernatural being—for example, the water spirit of the Niger delta. In other societies undue prosperity was suspect and might be ascribed to membership in a sorcerers' society, which was believed to give wealth to its initiates in return for a sinister fee: the life of a relative. In such societies the implication was that the individual could get ahead only at the expense of his kin.

      Throughout the Guinea Coast the influence of Christian (Christianity) missionaries has been prolonged and considerable, and in many areas there are flourishing and orthodox locally run churches. This does not mean that all traditional religious explanations of the events in a human life have disappeared. Sometimes they continue to constitute a kind of fall-back position, so that local diviners may be consulted in cases of illness where modern medicine seems powerless. Sometimes they are blended into complex new sects with Christian and Muslim (Islāmic world) elements, as in the Yoruba-centred (Yoruba) Church of the Cherubim and Seraphim. This has spread into distant areas because it combines many of the characteristics of the churches—comparable buildings and forms of worship—with a traditional concern for healing and the explanation of untoward events. In general, however, Guinea Coast cultures have come under significant Christian influence, and this distinguishes them from the northern hinterland that is predominantly Muslim. Insofar as Islam has been spread by the sword, it is not a matter of chance that the old forest zone, inimical to cavalry, formed a barrier beyond which this faith has been slow to penetrate. European colonialism subsequently protected the southern peoples from further forcible conversion by jihad. Thus the natural vegetation zones described at the beginning of this section have continued, for complex reasons, to be distinct cultural zones, particularly because education has depended very much on the activities of Christian missions, so that until recently the new educated elite of much of western Africa has been drawn predominantly from the southern Guinea Coast area. This elite has staffed the state bureaucracies and the modern commercial enterprises, giving southerners many advantages but also increasing the political problem of regional jealousy.

Modern relationships
      When the present-day states of the Guinea Coast are considered in the context of the modern world, it is important to be aware of the ethnic diversity within nations whose boundaries have been dictated by colonial powers that paid scant regard to indigenous ethnic divisions. Despite the many changes that have taken place, old loyalties to these divisions sometimes remain strong. Ethnic patriotism may lead to a reassertion by the educated elite of the value of their particular local culture.

      Ethnic divisions may, however, be less ultimately divisive than the new patterns of economic stratification. There are now vast differences in income and power between the rural population and the urban poor on the one hand and the politically and economically successful minority on the other. This is particularly noticeable in Nigeria, where a devastating war was followed by massive inflation, partly related to petroleum development, and where new laws have allowed powerful men to expropriate the land of peasant farmers.

      Modernization has brought political and economic problems, but the Guinea Coast continues to be an area rich in cultural tradition. The region has produced not only scholars of high quality in many academic fields but also many imaginative writers, the best of whom are among the outstanding contemporary novelists and playwrights writing in French and English.

Rosemary Lois Harris

Additional Reading

Physical and human geography
Profiles of the western African countries are found in Africa Contemporary Record (annual); West Africa Annual; and Donald George Morrison, Robert Cameron Mitchell, and John N. Paden, Black Africa: A Comparative Handbook, 2nd ed. (1989). The physical environment is explored in Reuben K. Udo , A Comprehensive Geography of West Africa (1978), and The Human Geography of Tropical Africa (1982); R.J. Harrison Church, West Africa, 8th ed. (1980), an environmental study; J.B. Wright (ed.), Geology and Mineral Resources of West Africa (1985); Brian Hopkins, Forest and Savanna, 2nd ed. (1974), on West African tropical ecology; and F. White, Vegetation of Africa (1983). Richard W. Franke and Barbara H. Chasin, Seeds of Famine (1980), is a study of the Sahelian famine of 1969–74. John C. Caldwell (ed.), Population Growth and Socio-economic Change in West Africa (1975), surveys demographic conditions by region. P.H. Ady (ed.), Africa (1965), is useful.Migration and urbanization are examined in Samir Amin (ed.), Modern Migrations in Western Africa (1974); Josef Gugler and William G. Flanagan, Urbanization and Social Change in West Africa (1978); and K.C. Zachariah and Julien Condé, Migration in West Africa (1981). Economic history and development are analyzed by A.G. Hopkins, An Economic History of West Africa (1973); Douglas Rimmer, The Economies of West Africa (1984); and Claude Meillassoux (ed.), The Development of Indigenous Trade and Markets in West Africa (1971). See also J.O.C. Onyemelukwe and M.O. Filani, Economic Geography of West Africa (1983). Works on agriculture include William Allan, The African Husbandman (1965, reprinted 1977); Robert H. Bates, Markets and States in Tropical Africa (1981); Keith Hart, The Political Economy of West African Agriculture (1982); Jonathan Barker (ed.), The Politics of Agriculture in Tropical Africa (1984); and Paul Richards, Indigenous Agricultural Revolution (1985).

Traditional cultures
Overviews of African culture are provided by George Murdock, Africa: Its Peoples and Their Culture History (1959), still recommended; and Jocelyn Murray (ed.), Cultural Atlas of Africa (1981). Survey articles on the major ethnic groups may be found in Georges Balandier and Jacques Maquet (eds.), Dictionary of Black African Civilization (1974; originally published in French, 1968). (Western Sudan cultures): A summary of Wolof and Serer ethnography is David P. Gamble, The Wolof of Senegambia, Together with Notes on the Lebu and the Serer (1957, reprinted 1967). Paul Pélissier, Les Paysans du Sénégal (1966), describes Wolof, Serer, Malinke, and Diola agriculture. On the Mossi, see Peter B. Hammond, Yatenga: Technology in the Culture of a West African Kingdom (1966); and Suzanne Lallemand, Une Famille mossi (1977). Sources for the Fulani include Derrick J. Stenning, Savannah Nomads (1959); and Marguerite Dupire, Peuls nomades: étude descriptive des Wodaabe du Sahel nigérien (1962). Two studies of ethnic culture in urban areas are Enid Schildkrout, People of the Zongo (1978); and John N. Paden, Religion and Political Culture in Kano (1973), on the Hausa and Fulani in Kano, Nigeria. Patrick R. McNaughton, The Mande Blacksmiths (1988), describes artistic, social, and spiritual realms of Mande smiths. Other works include Barbara J. Callaway, Muslim Hausa Women in Nigeria (1987); and Carol Beckwith and Marion van Offelen, Nomads of Niger (1983), a pictorial study.(Guinea Coast cultures): Ethnographic studies include William Tordoff, Ashanti Under the Prempehs, 1888–1935 (1965); Ivor Wilks, Asante in the Nineteenth Century (1975); Dennis M. Warren, The Akan of Ghana, rev. ed. (1986); Leo Spitzer, The Creoles of Sierra Leone: Responses to Colonialism, 1870–1945 (1974); J.S. Eades, The Yoruba Today (1980); Rosemary L. Harris, The Political Organization of the Mbembe, Nigeria (1965); Michael Jackson, The Kuranko (1977); J.D.Y. Peel, Ijeshas and Nigerians: The Incorporation of a Yoruba Kingdom, 1890s–1970s (1983); Michel Verdon, The Abutia Ewe of West Africa (1983); Daryll Forde, Yako Studies (1964); and Victor C. Uchendu, The Igbo of Southeast Nigeria (1965).Martin B. Thorp David P. Gamble Rosemary Lois Harris

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Universalium. 2010.

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