How did trade influence the development of sub-Saharan Africa?

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

As the attached eNotes essay on “North Africa” points out, the development of the African continent was heavily influenced over centuries by the introduction of foreign cultures, cuisines, languages, genetics, religions and philosophies.  Northern Africa, known as the Maghreb, was infiltrated over the course of thousands of years by, among others, the Romans, the Ottoman Turks, the French and British, and Arabs from the Arabian Peninsula.  These imperial intrusions and migrations would deeply affect sub-Saharan Africa in long-lasting ways.  Sub-Saharan Africa has long been identified with riches in natural resources and, sadly, with the exploitation of its people for slave labor in Europe, the Americas, and Arabia.  Even before these foreign influences, however, the ancient kingdoms of West Africa actively traded among each other, beginning as far back as the Fifth Century.  Kingdoms in Ghana, Senegal, Mali and the series of kingdoms that stretched from the Pacific Coast to the Indian Ocean and that ran in a strip through northern Africa, known as the Sahel, established trade routes and profited from trade amongst each other. 

The effects of this trade, as with the ancient Silk Road trade route running through Asia, were felt in exchanges of goods and intermingling of ethnicities.  The Arab merchants developing north-south trade routes brought Islam and took slaves.  Languages evolved with the mixing of dialects and cultures developed characterized by influences from disparate groups utilizing these routes.  European traders, missionaries and colonialists brought Christianity and western systems of governing and took slaves, gold, silver, diamonds and other precious minerals.  The Europeans, especially the British in Northern and Southern Africa, built railroads to better administer their colonies and transport troops and extracted resources.  Entire villages were routinely destroyed so that European governments and businesses could best exploit the continent's resources.  And, as with the European introduction into the Americas, diseases to which indigenous immune systems were not adapted were imported into sub-Saharan Africa. 

The effects of trade on sub-Saharan Africa were overwhelmingly positive during the Fifth through 15th Centuries, when that trade mainly occurred within the aforementioned kingdoms.  Contemporary trade with sub-Saharan Africa can also prove beneficial when conducted fairly.  The trade that occurred for many centuries involving Europeans, however, could be considered deleterious to that vast region’s development.  When the age of European colonialism ended in the 20th Century, it left behind more problems than it found upon arrival.