a two-minute guide

Africa special - Research

Geography

With a population of 690 million people living in 53 countries and one disputed territory, covering a total area of 11.7 million square miles, Africa is the world's second-largest continent. The Sahara covers 3.3 million square miles, or almost 25 per cent of the land mass. So big is the world's largest desert and so great the heat it generates, that it influences the cycle of drought and rainfall in sub-Saharan Africa.

Cairo is the biggest city in Africa, home to 9.2 million people;

Sudan is the largest country, covering 968,000 square miles. Africa's longest river is the Nile, which stretches more than 4,160 miles. The largest lake is Victoria, expanding over 26,800 square miles. The tallest mountain is Kilimanjaro (19,340 feet) in Tanzania. The most populated country in Africa is Nigeria, which, with more than 125 million people, is also the tenth most populated country in the world.

Economy

The richest country in Africa per capita is Mauritius, with US$11,400 of GDP per head. Somalia is the poorest, and the second poorest in the world, with $500 of GDP per capita. There are 16 African countries in the top 20 poorest in the world. Seventy per cent of the African population survives on less than $2 a day. Every three seconds a child in Africa dies of hunger or preventable disease, a toll of more than 30,000 children per day.

More than 70 per cent of the people who live in Africa's towns and cities inhabit slums characterised by extreme poverty, shacks and poor sanitation. Liberia has the highest unemployment rate in Africa (85 per cent). This is also the highest rating in the world.

Society

African languages are generally divided into four families - Afro-Asiatic, Nilo-Saharan, Niger-Kordofanian and Khoisan - and it is estimated that there are 800 languages spoken across the continent. Half a dozen of these, including Swahili, Hausa and Yoruba, are spoken by millions of people. Many, such as Laal and Shabo, are spoken by a few hundred people or even fewer. There are nine African countries in the top ten most illiterate in the world. Niger has the highest illiteracy rate, with 84.3 per cent unable to read or write properly. Niger also has the highest birth rate in the world, measured at 48.91 per 1,000 inhabitants, while Angola has the world's highest infant mortality rate - 192.5 deaths per 1,000 live births. Out of the top 20 countries worldwide with the highest infant mortality rates, 18 are in Africa.

Swaziland has the highest adult prevalence rate in Africa for HIV/Aids: 38.8 per cent of the population are infected. This is also the highest rating in the world. More than 11 million children in Africa have lost at least one parent to HIV/Aids; it is expected that figure will hit 20 million by 2010.

As far as religion is concerned, the continent divides mainly between Islam and Christianity. Islam was established by the 7th century and

spread down Africa's eastern and western coasts.

Christianity was present in the ancient Coptic churches of Egypt and figured prominently in Sudan. In the past hundred years Christianity has spread to most African countries. Nigeria has the most Christians (54 million); the country with most Muslims is Egypt (58.6 million). Ancient indigenous beliefs still survive. However, Benin is the only country in Africa that recognises "vaudoun" (voodoo) as an official national religion.

Sport and culture

The Marathon des Sables takes place every year in the Saharan provinces of southern Morocco. Each runner must be entirely self-sufficient in food and equipment, and the race covers a distance of 150 miles in seven days. The average maximum speed at which the race has been completed is 8.7mph (14km per hour). Between 25 and 50 per cent of the route is over sand.

At the Olympic Games, 23 countries on the continent have clocked up 274 medals between them, 78 of them gold. Most of these victories were in athletics. In long-distance running, in particular, Africans have excelled - Ethiopian athletes such as Haile Gebrselassie (above) have won all of their country's 14 gold medals in long-distance events.

With 16 albums to her name, Yvonne Chaka Chaka of South Africa (pictured left) is the continent's biggest-selling female artist, dubbed the "Princess of Africa". Senegal's Youssou N'Dour is probably the world's best-known African musician. His 1994 hit "Seven Seconds", with Neneh Cherry, sold 1.5 million copies worldwide.

Between 1901 and 2004, fewer than 15 of all Nobel Prizes were awarded to Africans. However, South Africa alone has produced seven Nobel laureates.

Egypt, South Africa and Nigeria are the only countries in Africa to have won a Miss World title.