The Countries and Languages of Africa

However far the stream flows, it never forgets its source. – Nigeria (Yoruba)

To fully explore the African continent, one would have to visit fifty-six countries, including islands and disputed and colonial territories (marked with an*):

african country mapAlgeria (al-JEER-ee-ah). Population: 33,333,216. Algiers or Al- Jazair means “the islands” in Arabic, referring to small islands that once dotted the bay of the city. Approximately 80 percent of Algerians speak Arabic. Other living languages spoken in Algeria include the Berber languages (Riff, Kabyle, Tamashek) and French.

Angola (ahn-GOH-lah). Population: 12,263,596. Angola takes its name from the Quimbundos king, called “Ngola.” Although Umbundu, Mbundu, Kongo, and Chokwe are spoken in Angola, the official language of Angola is Portuguese.

Benin (beh-NEEN). Population: 8,078,314. Formerly Dahomey, Benin inherited its name from its indigenous inhabitants, the Bini, who were themselves named for an ancient kingdom on the Gulf of Guinea. The main local language is Fon, with about one million speakers in south Benin. Other living local languages include Burba and Yoruba. Benin’s official language is French.

Botswana (bahts-WAH-nah). Population: 1,815,508. Botswana refers to the Tswana, Botswana’s indigenous inhabitants. Tswana is thought to mean “like” or “similar,” referring to people who stayed after most emigrated. The official languages of Botswana are Tswana and English; however, there are still a significant number of San speakers.

Burkina Faso (behr-KEE-nah FAH-soh). Population: 14,326,203. Formerly The Republic of Upper Volta, this country’s modern name translates as “fatherland of the worthy men.” Burkina Faso has also been translated as Mossi for “Land of Incorruptible Men.” The major local living language is More (Mossi). Other living languages include Gourma, Fulani, Tuareg, and Dyula. Burkina Faso’s official language is French.

Burundi (boo-RUN-dee). Population: 8,390,505. The name derives from Rundi, the indigenous people. The universal (and official) language spoken throughout the country is Rundi or Kirundi. French, the colonial language, remains as an official language.

Cameroon (kah-meh-roon). Population: 18,060,382. This present form of the name is derived from Rio de Camarões (the River of Prawns) the name given to River Wouri by Portuguese colonialists surprised by the abundance of crustaceans in the river. Local languages are Fang, with about 2 million speakers; Bamileke, with about 1.5 million speakers; and Duala, with around 1.3 million speakers. More than 2 million speakers, mostly in urban centers, speak Cameroon Pidgin English. French and English are both official languages of Cameroon.

Cape Verde (CAPE VEHR-day). Population: 423,613. The name translates to “green cape” and refers to the large trees that have green leaves year-round. Although Portuguese is the official language of Cape Verde, Cape Verde Creole is the mother tongue of nearly all inhabitants.

Central African Republic. Population: 4,369,038. This country is located in central Africa, thus the name. “Africa” is thought to originate from either the Latin word “aprica” (“sunny”) or the Greek word “aphrike” (“without cold”). French and Sango are the official languages of the Central African Republic.

Chad Population: 9,885,661. The name derives from Lake Chadand is a local word meaning “large expanse of water.” While there are over 100 local languages, Sara (with more than 750,000 speakers) is the most popular language in the south of Chad. Fur is also spoken in the Darfur area on the border with Sudan. The official languages are French and Arabic.

Comoros. Population: 711,417. The name “Comoros” is derived from the Arabic word Qamar, meaning “moon.” French and a form of Kiswahili are spoken most often in Comoros.

Congo (kohn-goh). Population: 3,800,610. Congo borrows its name from the Bantu word, Kongo, meaning “mountain.” The main local languages are Kongo and Teke with half a million speakers each. Two Creoles, Kituba and Lingala, are languages of wider communication used by roughly two to four million Congolese. French, however, is the official language.

Cote d’Ivoire (coat-dee-VWAHR/Ivory Coast Population: 18,013,409. European traders referring to the availability of ivory tusks, called this country Ivory Coast. The official language is French. However, about seventy local languages are spoken here, including Dyula and Senufo (in the north); Akar and Agni (in the southeast); and Malinke (in the northwest).

Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Population: 65,751,512. Formerly Zaire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo gets its name from the River Congo. The official language is French, with Lingala spoken by about 25 percent of the population. Luba is spoken by about 15 percent and Kiswahili is spoken by about 30 percent of the population.

Djibouti (jee-BOO-tee). Population: 496,374. Djibouti is believed to derive from an Afar word “gabouri,” meaning “plate,” referring to a plate woven from palm fibers and used for ceremonial purposes. Approximately 4 percent of the population speaks French, while about 12 percent speak Arabic. The main local languages are Somali, spoken by about 45 percent of the population, and Afar, spoken by 40 percent of the population.

Egypt (EE-jehpt). Population: 80,335,036. The name appears to have Latin and Greek origins in the word “hut-ka-ptha,” meaning “the temple of the soul of Ptah.” This area has also been known as Kmt, Kemet, and Khamit, and Egyptians refer to their country as Misr, not Egypt. The vast majority of the population speaks the official language, Arabic.

Equatorial Guinea (GEH-nee). Population: 551,201. This country’s name refers to its location inside the territory of historical Guinea. While the main local language is Fang, spoken by about 75 percent of the population, the official language is Spanish.

Eritrea (ehr-uh-TRAY-ah). Population: 4,906,585. The name is derivative of the Latin phrase “Mare Erythraeum” (meaning “of the Red Sea”), referring to the Red Sea, along which Eritrea lies. English and Arabic are taught in schools and used for business. The indigenous languages include Afar, Tigré, and Tigrinya.

Ethiopia (ee-thee-OH-pee-uh). Population: 76,511,887. The name has origins in a Greek word, “aithiops,” which literally translates to “burnt appearance” and is thought to refer to the dark skin color of the original inhabitants of Ethiopia. Tigrinya and Tigré are spoken in north Ethiopia, and Italian is spoken in a few places. Much of the population, however, speaks and understands Arabic, but the official language is Amharic, spoken by about 25 percent of the population.

Gabon (gah-BOHN). Population: 1,454,867. The name, derived from the Portuguese word “gabao,” meaning “cloak,” perhaps refers to the shape of the rivers underneath the extensive foliage. The population speaks about 40 local Bantu languages. The official language is French.

Gambia (GAHM-bee-ah). Population: 1,688,359. This country is named after the River Gambia (gambia means “river”) that flows through the country. Local languages includeMalinke (400,000 speakers), Fulani (100,000 speakers), Wolof (75,000 speakers), and Dyola and Sonike (50,000 speakers each). English is the official language.

Ghana (GAH-nah). Population: 22,931,299. Once referred to as the Gold Coast, Ghânâ means “king” in Arabic. About one million Ghanaians speak English as a second language, and half the population speaks Akan. Ewe, Hausa, and Dagbani (More) are also fairly common, and Ga is spoken in Accra, the capital of Ghana. The official language is English.

Guinea (GEH-nee). Population: 9,947,814. The word Guinea is believed to be Berber in origin and refers to “land of Blacks.” Fulani is popular in central Guinea, where about 40 percent of the population speaks the language; about 25 percent (in north Guinea) speaks Malinke; and about 10 percent (in southwest Guinea) speaks Susu. French is the official language.

Guinea-Bissau (GEH-nee bee-SOHW). Population: 1,472, 780. This name comes from Guinea, which borders it to the southeast; and Bissau, its capital. Balante is spoken by about 30 percent of the population; around 20 percent speak Fulani; and Malinke is also common. Portuguese is the official language of Guinea-Bissau.

Kenya (KEHN-yah). Population: 36,913,721. Kirinyaga or Kere- Nyaga (“Mountain of Whiteness,” referring to the permanent glaciers and snow) is the Agikuyu term for the mountain from which Kenya derives its name. The major Bantu languages are Agikuyu (20percent of the population), Luo (14 percent), Luya (13 percent), and Kamba (11percent). Maasai is still found along the border Kenya shares with Tanzania, and Turkana is spoken in the northwest. Kenya’s official languages are Kiswahili and English.

Lesotho (leh-SOH-toh). Population: 2,125,262. Sotho is thought to mean “brown” or “dark” and could refer to the people in Lesotho or to the waters of the Usutu River. About 15 percent of the population speaks Zulu. The official languages are Sotho, spoken by almost all the indigenous people of Lesotho, and English.

Liberia (lai-BEE-ee-ah). Population: 3,195,931. Formerly enslaved Africans founded the country known as the Republic of Liberia. The name is derived from the Latin word “liber,” meaning “free.” Liberia’s main local languages are Kpelle and Kru, but Liberian Pidgin English (sometimes called Kru English) is widely used as a lingua franca. The official language is English.

Libya (LEH-bee-yah). Population: 6,036,914. Libya is believed to come from Libu, a local nomadic tribe. While some Tuareg (Tamashek) is found in the west, most of the population speaks Arabic.

Madagascar (mah-dah-GAHS-kahr). Population: 19,448,815. The origin of Madagascar is uncertain. Early reference to the island as Madagasikara, Madeigascar, or Mogelasio eventually became Madagascar. Almost the entire population speaks Malagasy, the official language. French is also widely understood.

Malawi (mah-LAH-wee). Population: 13,603,181. Maravi (from which “Malawi” derives) is said to mean “flames,” potentially referring to the sun’s rays rising on Lake Malawi. A third of the population speaks English and Nyanja, the official languages.

Mali (MAH-lee). Population: 11, 995,402. Formerly called the French Sudan, some have traced “Mali” to an old Malinke word meaning either “place where the king resides,” or “hippopotamus.” Bambara, with about two million speakers, is a primary local language; Fulfulde and Songhay are spoken by approximately one million people. French is the official language of Mali.

Mauritania (mahw-ree-TAH-nee-ah). Population: 3, 270,065. The name is derived from a Spanish description of the area as “the land of the Moors.” French is still a major language in Mauritania, along with Fulani (in the south, with about 150,000 speakers). Arabic is the official language of Mauritania.

Mauritius (mahw-REE-shyuhs). Population: 1,250,882. Dutch explorers named this island for Prince Maurice of Nassau. About 30 percent of the population speaks Creole French, and just a few people speak English, the official language. With one of three residents being of Indian and Pakistani origin, English has very little influence locally.

Mayotte* (mah-YAHT). Population: 208,783. Mayotte (French) or Maore/Mahore (Comoran) describes the land of the Moharais. Since Mayotte is an overseas collectivity of France, French is the official language in Mayotte. However, most inhabitants speak either Maore or Bushi.

Morocco (moh-RAH-koh). Population: 33,757,175. Morocco is a version of the name Marrakech, the meaning of which is not certain. More than half the population speaks Arabic, the official language. There are a significant number of Berber speakers in the mountain region. French and Spanish are also widely understood by the people of Morocco.

Mozambique (moh-zahm-BEEK). Population: 20,905,585. The name is believed to be a corruption of the Arabic “musa malik” (“musa king”). Two of the main local languages are Makua, spoken by about six million people in the north, and Tsonga, spoken in the south by about two million. Portuguese is the official language.

Namibia (nah-MEE-bee-ah). Population: 2,055,080. In the local Nama language, “namib” means “land where nothing grows” or “an area where there is nothing.” Ambo is the most widespread local language spoken by the Ovambo people in the north. In central and eastern parts of Namibia, Herero is often found. English (the official language) and German are still common.

Niger (NAI-juhr). Population: 12,894,865. The country’s name is derived from the River Niger, meaning “black” in Latin. At least half the population speaks Hausa. About 23 percent (mainly in the southwest) speaks Dyerma. Fulani and Tuareg (Tamashek) are commonly found in the northern and central region. The official language is French.

Nigeria (nai-JEER-ee-ah). Population: 135,031,164. Nigeria means “the area of the Niger,” identifying Nigeria as the area of the Blacks. Africa’s most populous country, Nigeria has the largest number of local languages, including Hausa (20 million speakers, mainly in the north), Yoruba (17 million speakers in the southwest), and Igbo (13 million speakers in the southeast). Nigerian Pidgin English is the lingua franca of urban centers like Lagos.

Reunion*(ree-yoon-yuhn). Population: 793,000. The islands are named Reunion reportedly to commemorate the reunion of the soldiers from Marseilles. Réunionnaise Creole is the main language of the country.

Rwanda (roo-WAHN-dah). Population: 9,907,509. This country’s name is taken from the indigenous people, Vanyaruanda, the meaning of which is unknown. The two official languages, Rwanda (known as Rundi in Burundi) and French are spoken by most of the population. Kiswahili is a business language in Rwanda.

Sao Tome and Principe (sah-toh-MAY and PREEN-see-peh). Population: 199,579. Sao Tome means “St. Thomas” and Principe means “Prince Island” in Portuguese. Much of the population speaks a Portugese-based Creole,with Portuguese being the official language.

Senegal (SEH-nee-GAHL). Population: 12,894,865. Derived from the River Senegal, the meaning of the actual word “Senegal” is unknown. Thirty-five percent of the population speaks Wolof, the main local language. Other local languages include Fulani, Serer, Dyola, and Malinke. Senegal’s official language is French.

Seychelles (say-SHEHLZ). Population: 81,895. This country was named for the French finance minister, Jean Moreau de Sechelles. Though French Creole is spoken in the majority of areas, the official languages are English and French.

Sierra Leone (see-EHR-rah-lee-OHN). Population: 6,144,562. The country’s name means “lion mountains” and refers to the shape and climatic conditions since lions do not traditionally frequent this part of Africa. There are about one million Mende speakers in Sierra Leone. Krio, an English-based Creole, is widely spoken, particularly in the capital Freetown. The official language is English.

Somalia (soh-MAH-lee-yah). Population: 9,118,773. The origin of the name is unknown. While English and Italian are widely understood in Somalia, Somali and Arabic are the two official languages.

South Africa. Population: 43,997,828. An all-white government chose the name “South Africa” because this country is Africa’s southern most country. The Pan African Congress, a liberation movement, refers to their homeland as Azania, meaning “land of the Black people” (this tradition is respected here). Zulu and Xhosa are the main languages of South African Blacks, with about 4 million speakers each. Two million people speak Tswana, about 1.5 million speak Sotho, and about 500,000 people speak Swazi. The country’s constitution guarantees equal status to eleven official languages: Afrikaans, English, IsiNdebele, IsiXhosa, IsiZulu, Sepedi, Sesotho, Setswana, SiSwati, Tshivenda, and Xitsonga.

Sudan (soo-DAHN). Population: 39,379,358. Sudan in Arabic means “land of the Blacks.” Around 500,000 people in the central region speak one of the Nubian languages (Nobiin, Dongolawi), while another 500,000 speak Beja. Darfurian has around 175,000 speakers in the west. More than half the population speaks Arabic, the official language. In the south, the dominant languages are Dinka and Nuer. Juba Arabic is a creole language that has developed as a widely spoken language in the regional capital of Juba.

Swaziland (SWAH-zee-land). Population: 1,133,066. This country takes its name from the Swazi group of people. The name is believed to have origins in Mswati, meaning “rod” or “stick.” The entire Black population speaks Swazi, which is now the official language (along with English).

Tanzania (tahn-zah-NEE-ah). Population: 39,384,223. The name is derived from the union of mainland Tanganyika and the islands of Zanzibar that together form the United Republic of Tanzania. Although there are roughly 100 Bantu languages spoken in Tanzania, Kiswahili is spoken by almost everyone. The two official languages are Kiswahili and English.

Togo (TOH-goh). Population: 5,701,579. This country is named after the nearby Lake Togo. French is the language used for business purposes, but Ewe and Mine are two major local languages spoken in the south. In the north, Kabye and Dagomba are major local languages.

Tunisia (too-NEE-zhuh). Population: 10,276,158. This country was named for Tunis, the present-day capital. Arabic (the official language), French, and Shilha (Tunisian Berber) are most commonly spoken in Tunisia.

Uganda (yoo-GAHN-dah). Population: 30,262,610. The name means “land of the Ganda” from the Swahili “u,” meaning “land,” and “Ganda,” the country’s most numerous people. English is the official language. Ganda and Kiswahili are also widely used.

Western Sahara*. Population: 393,831. This country is named for its location. Arabic is the most commonly used language (specifically, Hassaniyah, a dialect of Arabic).

Zambia (ZAHM-bee-ah). Population: 11,477,447. Once known as Northern Rhodesia, Zambia is derived from the Zambezi River that flows along Zambia’s southern borders. English is the official language, and common languages are Bemba (25 percent of the population), Kaonda, Lozi Lunda, Luvale, Nyanja (12 percent of the population), and Tonga (12 percent of the population).

Zimbabwe (zeem-BAHB-way). Population: 12,311,143. Zimbabwe means “stone houses” in the local Shona Language. More than half the population speaks Shona. Around 8 percent speak Sindebele (Ndebele).

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