History of East Africa

east africa

East Africa is an area composed of the countries of Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and the island nation of Madagascar. The region has a total population of about 130 million people. This population is heavily concentrated along the coastlines to take advantage of ocean resources which have allowed East Africans to maintain dense populations throughout history even in the face of difficult environmental conditions.

History of East Africa:

A camel walking in the desert

Around 100,000 years ago the human species evolved in East Africa. The oldest homo sapiens fossil discovered to date was found on the Omo River in Kenya and maybe 200,000 years old. For most of our early history, we were hunter-gatherers without permanent settlements. Then around 10,000 years ago people made the first attempts at farming using primitive stone tools. The development of pottery followed and later the domestication of cattle, sheep, and chicken improved our ability to produce food allowing larger populations to exist. From around 6000 years ago pastoralists who moved into East Africa followed by Bantu-speaking people who began arriving from West Africa around 2000 years ago led to population growth and greater cultural complexity.

The first written accounts of East Africa come from Egyptian traders who sailed to the region beginning around 3,000 years ago. These early accounts mentioned coastal cities such as Mombasa and Zanzibar but not much else is known about these societies since they did not leave any written records of their own. The cities of East Africa developed into trade centers that exported gold, copper, ivory, aromatics, and slaves to the rest of the world.

Arab traders began settling in the area following their own conquest of Egypt beginning in 652 AD. By 750 AD they controlled much of the region establishing trading posts along the coast which grew into city-states with ruling elites, elaborate mosques, and large merchant class.

The last of the Swahili city-states to be created was Malindi in 1252 AD which by 1414 had conquered many of its neighbors including Mombasa. By 1500 AD the Portuguese arrived on the East African coast hoping to profit from trade in luxury goods such as gold, slaves, and ivory. In 1503 the Portuguese captured the island of Zanzibar which they controlled for over a century until 1698 when Arabs from Oman drove them out.

In 1869 the opening of the Suez Canal brought European interest in East Africa as a route to India and the Far East. The British built two railroads in East Africa: one connecting Mombasa and Lake Victoria and the other connecting Mombasa and Kampala to improve trade. Remnants of these railroads can still be seen today. The Germans established control over much of Tanganyika which became a colony in 1884 as did Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda. British influence grew in Kenya while France claimed Madagascar and much of the rest of the region.

The British attempted to form a federation uniting Kenya with Uganda and Tanganyika in response to concerns about German expansion but never succeeded. By 1920 all of East Africa except Ethiopia was under British rule. Post-World War II decolonization allowed many countries in East Africa to gain independence.

Much of East Africa remains heavily agrarian and many people practice pastoralism raising cattle, sheep, and goats as their main source of food and income. Today government services such as education and medical care are increasingly important since many governments have been unable to provide these services adequately. All countries in the region face problems with corruption, political unrest, overpopulation, and environmental degradation.

Subscribe to our monthly Newsletter
Subscribe to our monthly Newsletter