One day, one country

Project description

I randomly pick a new country every couple of days, then I read and write a bit about it. The idea is to learn something new about the world and get into the habit of writing regularly. As I write about a new country every couple of days, I don’t have time to research things carefully. This means there may be many inaccuracies and outright errors. Please feel free to point them out to me if you encounter any. I primarily think of these notes as a public diary in which I keep track in (almost) real-time of the things I found interesting and the questions I had as I was learning about a new country.



The countries I’ve already written about are highlighted in green. When you click on one of them, a popup takes you to the relevant entry.

In a list

Day Country Continent Notes
Day 63 Cambodia Asia See notes for Cambodia
Day 62 Turkmenistan Asia See notes for Turkmenistan
Day 61 Burkina Faso Africa See notes for Burkina Faso
Day 60 Serbia Europe See notes for Serbia
Day 59 São Tomé and Príncipe Africa See notes for São Tomé and Príncipe
Day 58 Cameroon Africa See notes for Cameroon
Day 57 Slovenia Europe See notes for Slovenia
Day 56 Iran Asia See notes for Iran
Day 55 Antigua and Barbuda America See notes for Antigua and Barbuda
Day 54 Papua New Guinea Australia and Oceania See notes for Papua New Guinea
Day 53 Madagascar Africa See notes for Madagascar
Day 52 Saint Vincent and the Grenadines America See notes for Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
Day 51 Malaysia Asia See notes for Malaysia
Day 50 Monaco Europe See notes for Monaco
Day 49 Jamaica America See notes for Jamaica
Day 48 Zambia Africa See notes for Zambia
Day 47 Ireland Europe See notes for Ireland
Day 46 Finland Europe See notes for Finland
Day 45 Botswana Africa See notes for Botswana
Day 44 Comoros Africa See notes for Comoros
Day 43 San Marino Europe See notes for San Marino
Day 42 Sierra Leone Africa See notes for Sierra Leone
Day 41 Tuvalu Australia and Oceania See notes for Tuvalu
Day 40 Kiribati Australia and Oceania See notes for Kiribati
Day 39 Belgium Europe See notes for Belgium
Day 38 New Zealand Australia and Oceania See notes for New Zealand
Day 37 Peru America See notes for Peru
Day 36 Bahrain Asia See notes for Bahrain
Day 35 Canada America See notes for Canada
Day 34 Malawi Africa See notes for Malawi
Day 33 El Salvador America See notes for El Salvador
Day 32 Cyprus Europe See notes for Cyprus
Day 31 Panama America See notes for Panama
Day 30 Niger Africa See notes for Niger
Day 29 Costa Rica America See notes for Costa Rica
Day 28 Haiti America See notes for Haiti
Day 27 Syria Asia See notes for Syria
Day 26 Nigeria Africa See notes for Nigeria
Day 25 Central African Republic Africa See notes for the Central African Republic
Day 24 Italy Europe See notes for Italy
Day 23 Brazil America See notes for Brazil
Day 22 Jordan Asia See notes for Jordan
Day 21 Libya Africa See notes for Libya
Day 20 Mauritania Africa See notes for Mauritania
Day 19 Sri Lanka Asia See notes for Sri Lanka
Day 18 Guyana America See notes for Guyana
Day 17 Benin Africa See notes for Benin
Day 16 Namibia Africa See notes for Namibia
Day 15 Ivory Coast Africa See notes for Ivory Coast
Day 14 Ghana Africa See notes for Ghana
Day 13 Gabon Africa See notes for Gabon
Day 12 Kyrgyzstan Asia See notes for Kyrgyzstan
Day 11 Chad Africa See notes for Chad
Day 10 Lesotho Africa See notes for Lesotho
Day 9 South Sudan Africa See notes for South Sudan
Day 8 Germany Europe See notes for Germany
Day 7 Seychelles Africa See notes for Seychelles
Day 6 Malta Europe See notes for Malta
Day 5 Uzbekistan Asia See notes for Uzbekistan
Day 4 Suriname America See notes for Suriname
Day 3 Burundi Africa See notes for Burundi
Day 2 Uganda Africa See notes for Uganda
Day 1 Kenya Africa See notes for Kenya



The Khmer Rouge, also known as the Communist Party of Kampuchea, came to power in 1975 after a devastating civil war that lasted 5 years. Both the Khmer Rouge and the opposing government forces received external support during the civil war: the Khmer Rouge from the North Vietnamese, who used the eastern part of Cambodia as a sanctuary; the government forces from the US, which was motivated to stop a communist takeover.

In a conflict with many sides, like the Cambodian Civil War, one thing is certain: people will suffer. The local populace suffered from bombardments and from atrocities perpetrated by both sides. But the worst was yet to come. After the fall of the capital, Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge’s power became absolute under the leadership of Pol Pot. For good measure, the one-party totalitarian state was named Democratic Kampuchea.

Pol Pot’s regime, which lasted around 4 years, committed genocide against its people on a massive scale: one-quarter of the population (2 million people) was murdered or perished due to starvation, overwork, and disease.


Turkmenistan is rich in natural gas. Despite a population of only around 6 million, which is less than 0.1% of the world’s population, it has 3.8% of global gas reserves. Starting in the early ’90s, not long after the country emerged as an independent nation after the collapse of the Soviet Union, its government introduced free electricity, gas, water, and table salt for its citizens. The last item seems rather surprising if we consider that salt is inexpensive, which I assume even most poor people could afford. I wonder if Turkmens consider it a basic necessity, in which case providing it for free sounds like a cheap way for the government to show that it takes care of everything its people need.

Fifteen years later, and under a different leader, another free allowance was introduced. Turkmens became entitled to 120 liters of petrol per month.

But no subsidy can be sustained indefinitely. In 2014, Turkmens had to start paying again for petrol. Three years later, the president announced plans to eventually eliminate all free allowances for utilities. To pay for utilities like gas, a gas meter needs to be installed, at a cost of around 60 to 75 dollars. In a country where most people earn low wages (around $300 a month), this amount is non-trivial. And let’s not forget the financial and psychological burden of seeing a monthly bill after almost three decades of free allowances.

Burkina Faso

Burkina Faso, like many of its neighbors, is a multi-ethnic country. Its largest ethnic group, the Mossi people, formed kingdoms around the 15th century and governed the territory until the French colonized arrived at the end of the 19th century. Today, more than half of the country’s 21.5 million people are Mossi; further 1.3 million live in neighboring Ivory Coast and Ghana.

Among their notable people, we can find musicians, playwrights, journalists, and members of other professions that usually make these lists. Interestingly, though, many of them are soccer players. I wonder if soccer players are indeed more common among the Mossi than elsewhere, or it’s just easier to find more information about them.

Certain surnames, especially Ouédraogo, also seem quite common among the famous. Upon inquiry, Ouédraogo must be popular among the famous because it’s popular in the general population: 1 in 11 people in the country have this surname, making it the most common Burkinabe surname. It comes from the name of the person who founded the Mossi kingdoms. I can see why it’s the most popular surname, but the level of its popularity surprised me. For example, in Germany 1 in 85 have the most common surname; the statistic is similar in England (1 in 88). Neighboring Mali has a similarly skewed distribution as Burkina Faso (1 in 12), while another neighbor, Ghana, is closer to the aforementioned European countries (1 in 52).


Serbia is famous for its plums. With a yearly production of over half of million tons, the country is the third-largest producer behind China and India. But plum production in Serbia is not a recent endeavor: the country already exported its prunes (dried plums) in the second half of the 19th century, eventually becoming the largest prune exporter by the turn of the 20th century.

Certain climatic and soil conditions are necessary for a high-yielding plum variety. The central part of Serbia had the ideal conditions for cultivation. Sometimes called the plum belt, the region with the highest production was the Sumadija region, but other regions to its east and west also had substantial production. It remains a well-known fruit-producing region to this day.

Initially, most of the production was consumed by the farmers themselves. The fruit in its raw form was uneconomical to transport, got easily damaged in transit, and went bad quickly. If distilled, however, many of these problems disappeared. The resulting alcoholic beverage, rakija sljivovica, became Serbia’s national drink. There was national and some regional demand for this drink, but the international market was more interested in two other products: prunes and jam (pekmez in Serbian). To put things into perspective, at the turn of the century, 100 kg of wheat cost 13.65 dinars, while the equivalent weight in prunes, pekmez, and rakija commanded the higher prices of 32, 43, and 90 dinars, respectively.

São Tomé and Príncipe

São Tomé and Príncipe is an island country in the Gulf of Guinea with a population of under 200 000. Despite its small population, there are various ethnic groups living in the country. The first group is the Mestiços, a multiracial group whose ancestors were Portuguese settlers and African slaves from nearby countries like Benin and Gabon. The Portuguese settlers first set foot on the island at the end of the 15th century. They soon recognized the island’s strategic location in the slave trade. But not all enslaved people were sent to the Americas—some had to toil on the island’s plantations.

Throughout the centuries, slave rebellions broke out sporadically. Portugal officially abolished slavery in 1876. The descendants of freed slaves are now called Forros, who speak a creole language called forro. Even though slavery had been abolished, various forms of forced labor continued to exist well into the 20th century.

Portuguese, the country’s official language, is also spoken in other African countries. The shared language made the island a feasible destination for contract laborers from Angola, Mozambique, and Cape Verde. Descendants of people from Angola are called Angolares and speak a creole language similar to forro.


Among the leading causes of death in Cameroon, we find many medical ones, such as HIV, respiratory infections, malaria, and heart disease. If people were asked to estimate how many deaths were caused by each, we would expect them to underestimate the true numbers. This is not terribly surprising—after all, many of these silent killers are not very salient in the public’s mind.

Carbon dioxide inhalation claims far fewer lives, but the lives lost this way are much easier to see and remember. In 1986, a mass tragedy involving this gas unfolded in the vicinity of Lake Nyos, in the northwestern part of the country. For reasons not fully understood, there was a limnic eruption at the lake. In this very rare type of natural disaster, a large amount of carbon dioxide is released into the air. As the resulting gas mix was heavier than air, it descended onto the neighboring low-lying villages. More than 1700 people and thousands of animals perished.

Two years earlier, the smaller Lake Monoun also produced a similar explosion, claiming dozens of lives. The disaster was initially believed to be a terrorist attack or an intentional act of dumping chemicals into the lake.

After the Lake Nyos disaster, a degassing system was installed at both lakes to mitigate the risk of further eruptions.


Slovenia’s official language is Slovene, a South Slavic language. Its closest neighbors, geographically and linguistically, are the other members of the former Yugoslavia. But linguistic variety doesn’t start at the country’s borders: various dialects exist even within the country. They are part of a dialect continuum. Geographically close dialects are mutually intelligible. As the distance increases between any two dialects, they become more different.

Besides the official language, a small percentage of the population speaks other languages as well. For instance, Hungarian and Italian are spoken close to the border with Hungary and Italy, respectively, attesting to the region’s shifting national borders over the 20th century.

There is also a small German-speaking population in Slovenia. During the 20th century, the number of people with German as their native tongue gradually decreased. Some switched to using Slovene, others were resettled to other territories, yet others were expelled after the Second World War.


Many countries have a national sport. In Iran, that sport is wrestling. In ancient times, traditional forms of wrestling were widely practiced. Over the years, the country also developed a strong tradition of Greco-Roman and freestyle wrestling. The sport gained momentum in the 20th century: the first wrestling club was opened in 1921 in Tehran, with many more to follow in different parts of the country.

More than two decades later, Iran sent its first team of athletes, including wrestlers, to the 1948 Summer Olympics. Although one of the athletes, Mansour Raeisi, came close to winning a medal, the team would need to wait four more years for their first medal. Since then, Iranian wrestlers have won medals at every Olympics they attended (they boycotted the 1980 and 1984 Olympics).

Iran’s most accomplished wrestlers, like Gholamreza Takhti or Rasoul Khadem, won medals more than once. If we consider some of the top athletes, an interesting pattern emerges. Many come from the same province, Mazandaran, located in the northern part of the country. Juybar, a small city in the province, stands out even more. Despite its population of about 27,000, it produced the majority of Iranian medallists at the 2013 World Wrestling Championships.

Antigua and Barbuda

Antigua and Barbuda, as one might guess, gets its name after the two islands it comprises. Although similar in size, they are unequal in their populations: Antigua has about 97% of the population. One reason why so few people live in Barbuda may be its location. It lies in a zone very prone to hurricanes. In fact, in the last 30 years, the island has been devastated by hurricanes twice.

In 1995, Hurricane Luis struck. A Category 4 hurricane, it reached speeds of 135 mph and was accompanied by heavy rainfall. The majority of the island’s infrastructure suffered damage or was destroyed. The human toll was also significant: out of the island’s about 1500 residents, 3 people died, while hundreds were injured and left homeless.

Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 hurricane, reached the island 22 years later. It left the island in shatters. It destroyed about 95% of the island’s structures and vehicles, the electricity grid was damaged, and there was no drinking water. The island’s almost entire population had to be evacuated.

Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea has a difficult terrain. It’s home to mountains, tropical rainforests, and large wetlands. This makes most of the country difficult to access—a problem when one wants to govern a territory. At the end of the 19th century, the northern part of the country became a German colony, while the southern part belonged to the British Crown.

Port Moresby, the country’s capital, is located on the southern side of the Papuan Peninsula. The British wanted to establish a path connecting the capital with the other side of the Peninsula. Part of this path is the Kokoda Trail. First surveyed in 1899, it’s a narrow trail that crosses the jungle and the Owen Stanley Range, a mountain chain in the middle part of the Peninsula.

During the Second World War, a series of battles took place there. The objective of the Japanese invading forces was to seize Port Moresby. Attacking from the north coast, they used the trail for their advance. The Allied forces eventually pushed them back.

After the war, the trail fell into disuse. Although some people walked the 96-km long trail in the following decades, it has only emerged as a popular trekking route in recent years. Today, hikers can choose from various tour operators to complete the trail.


In the southern part of Madagascar, there has been severe food insecurity since the middle of 2021. That part of the country has a semi-arid climate. In 2021, it experienced record low rainfalls. To make the situation even worse, there are frequent cyclones and tropical storms in the northern and eastern parts of Madagascar, which also damage crops. When there is little rain, which also arrives late in the season, crop harvests will also be delayed.

The bad harvest in many parts of the country also means there is less need for labor. If only one part of the country is affected in a season, people can at least go and work in another region, using the money they earn to buy food for their families. Conversely, when various regions are simultaneously affected, people lack access to both homegrown food and labor opportunities. As they don’t earn a regular income, their purchasing power is low, and they cannot afford to purchase food from the market.

Saint Vincent and the Grenadines

Saint Vincent and the Grenadines is a small island country consisting of the main island (Saint Vincent) and several small islands. There is volcanic activity on Saint Vincent, with La Soufrière being the largest volcano (and also the country’s highest point). Its first eruption that was confirmed by observation was in 1718. We have no official records of earlier eruptions, but radioactive dating, a technique used to estimate volcano eruption dates, suggests there had been eruptions for many thousand years.

The 1812 eruption inspired English painter J.M.W. Turner. His painting, made three years later, was based on a sketch by a British plantation owner who had been on the island at the time of the eruption. In 1902, the volcano erupted again, claiming about 1700 lives. (In Martinique, a territory in the same Caribbean region, another volcano erupted hours later.)

The latest volcanic activity was in 2020-21. This time, the authorities were prepared, and an evacuation plan was in place. About 20,000 people had to be evacuated. The World Bank provided financing to the country to help with the post-eruption recovery.


Malaysia first issued identification cards in 1948. Then called the Federation of Malaya, which comprised the peninsular part of today’s Malaysia, the country’s objective with the ID card was to control the movement of people. This was a pressing issue as a guerilla war raged between the military forces of the British Empire and insurgent groups.

Half a century later, the ID card has gone through many changes. In 2001, the innovative MyKad was introduced. This multipurpose plastic ID card contains the usual pieces of information and stores the person’s fingerprint. Also, there is information about the person’s ethnicity. Malaysia is a multiethnic country, with the largest ethnic group being the Malays, followed by Malaysians with Chinese and Indian heritage. Followers of Islam (about 60% of the population) also have their religion featured on the card to help enforce Sharia law.

All citizens must always carry this card with them. But besides verifying their identity, the card has other uses as well. For instance, it can be used for e-commerce transactions, verification of one’s identity in digital communications with various authorities, and to pay for car parks or public transport. An interesting aspect of this card is that it can store its owner’s basic health data. If needed, emergency services can access this information to provide better medical help.


Monaco is a microstate, occupying about 2 km2 of land. Put differently, imagine that someone wants to run the whole length of Monaco’s land border. They would face a bit more than a 5K run.

Even though Monaco has a small population, it’s the most densely populated country. It’s not just people who are heavily concentrated, however. The country is one of the wealthiest by GDP per capita. It’s also home to many famous and high-wealth individuals, including current and former Formula 1 drivers Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg, and David Coulthard. Monaco has an appeal to these drivers few other places can match: it hosts the Monaco Grand Prix, one of the most important automobile races. And all three of them won the race more than once.

Besides its Grand Prix, Monaco is most famous for the Monte Carlo Casino. Completed in 1863, the gambling and entertainment complex is visited by many tourists every year. Interestingly, locals are prohibited from entering the premises due to a restriction dating to the 19th century.


Jamaica is a small country with under 3 million people. But the size of its population is not proportionate to its cultural relevance: Jamaica made significant cultural contributions in more than one domain. Take, for instance, the internationally known Rastafari movement, a religious and political movement. It originated in Jamaica in the 1930s, combining religious elements from Christianity and mysticism with political goals.

Every movement needs some champions. Arguably, the most famous person associated with the Rastafari movement was Bob Marley. Widely considered one of the pioneers of reggae, his work increased the visibility of Jamaican music worldwide. His compilation album Legend became the bestselling reggae album ever. Interestingly, it was released three years after his death.

If there is another Jamaican with similar international fame, it’s Usain Bolt. The now-retired sprinter won an astonishing 8 gold medals at the Olympics during his career. He won the 100 meters and 200 meters events at three consecutive Olympics and holds the world record in both distances.


One of Zambia’s ten provinces is the Copperbelt, alluding to the region’s richness in copper. It’s close to the border with DR Congo and is home to some of Zambia’s most important copper mines. Explorations started at the end of the 19th century. By the time it became independent in 1964, Zambia’s copper production had reached 700,000 tons annually. This resource provided Zambians a relatively high living standard compared to residents of most other countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

In the 1970s, the government began to nationalize the formerly private mines. Production declined in the next two decades to a low of about 250,000 at the turn of the millennium. Then the government decided to privatize the mines again. Foreign private investment poured in, production increased, and new mines were opened.

Today, four mines account for about 80% of Zambia’s entire production. Two of them are not in the Copperbelt but in the adjacent, previously underdeveloped North-Western province. In 2020, the country’s copper production reached 880,000 tons, a historic high. Last year, the government nationalized one of Zambia’s largest mines, which may be a precursor of further similar moves.


The Irish Potato Famine was a turning point in the history of Ireland. From 1845 to 1849, hundreds of thousands of people perished due to starvation and diseases. Many of those who didn’t die emigrated, primarily to Northern America. The famine-related deaths and emigration in the following decades caused a population decline. A century after the famine, Ireland’s population was half of what it had been, starting to increase again only in the second half of the 20th century.

Most famines are named after geographic regions or years (e.g., Chinese Famine, Iranian Famine, Rajputana Famine of 1869). The Irish Famine, in contrast, was named after the potato, a staple food, suggesting that the root problem was the lack of potatoes.

A potato blight that infected crops throughout Europe in the 1840s reached Ireland and wreaked havoc. The country didn’t diversify its agricultural production: it relied heavily on a single crop, potatoes, to feed its population. To make matters worse, a disproportionate share of potatoes was of the same variety, the so-called Irish Lumper. Relying on a single variety of a single crop may work well in ordinary circumstances. But when something bad happens, the effects are catastrophic.


Famines have claimed many lives globally. This pattern wasn’t any different in Finland either: the country suffered two devastating famines. The first was the Great Famine of 1695-1697, caused by harsh weather conditions. Although most territories in the Nordic and Baltic countries were affected, Finland was among the hardest hit. According to some estimates, about a third of the Finnish population perished in two years.

Between 1866 and 1868, Finland suffered a similarly catastrophic famine, the last in its history and the last European famine that wasn’t man-made. Like two centuries earlier, widely consumed crops, such as potatoes and root vegetables, rotted due to the rainy summer. The cold winter that followed prolonged people’s suffering, delaying the start of agricultural activities in the following season.

When the local population doesn’t have access to its staple food, they look for alternatives. In heavily-forested countries like Finland, tree bark (e.g., pine) could fulfill this function. The inner, so-called cambium layer of the bark is ground into a kind of flour, which is then used for baking bread.


Botswana is the second-largest diamond producer in the world. By far its most important export product, diamonds significantly contributed to its economic prosperity. It has one of the highest per-capita GDPs in Africa, low levels of corruption, and relatively high standards of living.

Currently, the largest mining company in the country is Debswana, a joint venture between the government and De Beers, a large international mining company. Starting its operations in 1969, it now mines diamonds in four different locations and is the largest private-sector employer in the country. Its largest mine, Jwaneng Mine, contributes about 60-70% of the company’s revenues.

The company’s name, Debswana, alludes to both owners: ‘deb’ stands for De Beers and ‘swana’ for Botswana. In neighboring Namibia, another mining company, jointly owned by De Beers and Namibia, is called Namdeb. But unlike in that name, in Debswana, ‘deb’ is a prefix. Maybe just a coincidence, but Bantu-speaking groups (like Botswana’s largest ethnic group) use prefixes to differentiate between some related concepts. For instance, Botswana is the land of the Tswana (or Batswana) who speak Setswana. The company’s name has the same structure, possibly indicating that it wants to be seen as a company belonging and contributing to the people of Botswana.


Comoros is a small country in the Indian Ocean. Looking at its top exports, we find an interesting mix of products, such as cloves, vanilla, essential oils, and scrap vessels. Apart from the last, somewhat surprising product category, they share a common feature: they are typically used in luxury products.

Essential oils, for instance, mainly refer to the oil extracted from the ylang-ylang plant, a tropical tree with yellow flowers. After an early-morning harvest, the flowers are quickly taken to a local distillery to extract oil from them. To extract 2 liters of oil, approximately 100kg of flowers are needed. The next step is exporting the oil, primarily to France, where it serves as the main ingredient of high-quality perfumes, including the famous CHANEL N°5.

The other two products—vanilla and cloves—also come from plants. Vanilla is among the most expensive spices because it’s very labor-intensive: the vanilla orchards must be pollinated by hand, and when it’s harvest time, the beans are also hand-picked.

San Marino

San Marino is a small country enclaved by Italy. With a land area of only 61 km2, its mere existence is an interesting fact. There had been numerous small states in Italy at the beginning of the 19th century, but all disappeared (except for the Vatican) by the time the country was unified in the 1860s.

One of the men who played a crucial role in Italy’s unification was Giuseppe Garibaldi. Finding refuge in San Marino during Italy’s turbulent years, he was grateful to San Marino for its hospitality. After Italy’s unification, a bilateral treaty guaranteed San Marino’s independence—welcoming Garibaldi and his men some years earlier certainly didn’t hurt.

Besides Garibaldi, many others in need were taken in by the country. During World War II, when San Marino had a population of around 15,000, it harbored an estimated 100,000 Italians and Jews who were fleeing the Nazi and Italian regimes. Once a refuge, not always a refuge: today, there are practically no refugees in the country.

Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone has vast mineral resources, including bauxite, gold, iron ore, rutile, and diamonds. Found mainly in the southeastern and eastern parts of the country, diamonds are mined in both large-scale (industrial) and small-scale (artisanal) operations. Some of the world’s most notable diamonds are from there, including the Star of Sierra Leone, one of the largest gem-quality diamonds ever found.

Not unusual in resource-rich but poorly governed countries, gains from mineral extraction in Sierra Leone didn’t go to the local population. Instead, they went to corrupt politicians and foreign interests. Even worse, money from the diamond trade was used to finance a devastating civil war that lasted for 11 years, ending in 2002.

Among other things, the conflict left 50,000 dead, many were internally and externally displaced, and there was significant damage to the country’s infrastructure. In a particularly gruesome attack in Freetown, the capital, rebel forces maimed, raped, and murdered thousands of civilians indiscriminately.


Before Tuvalu gained its independence, it was administered by the U.K. as part of a territory called the Gilbert and Ellice Islands. In 1974, Tuvalu’s (Ellice Islands) residents could choose, in a referendum, to separate from the Gilbert Islands. The overwhelming majority, 93% of the roughly 4000 eligible voters, voted in favor of separation. The country’s population is now around 10,000.

And it’s not just the population that’s small in Tuvalu—so is the country itself. Its total land area of 26km2, distributed among various reef islands and atolls, is equivalent to around one-fifth of the Bronx. The most populous atoll, Funafuti, varies in width between 20 and 400 meters.

Besides English, Tuvalu’s official language is Tuvaluan, a Polynesian language. With the language being spoken only in Tuvalu (and, to a small extent, by Tuvaluans in New Zealand), it’s at serious risk of extinction.

It’s not only the country’s language, though, that’s in danger—but the country itself. Barely lying above sea level, climate change could make it uninhabitable. In this respect, a small population is a positive thing, as finding a new home in other countries for the 10,000 Tuvaluans would be a solvable challenge.


Kiribati is an island nation in the Pacific Ocean, comprising an island and several ring-shaped coral reefs, or so-called atolls. These formations are the result of volcanic activity. First, an underwater volcano emerges from the water, creating an island. In the next step, a coral reef forms around the island. Finally, the island sinks completely; where it had once been an island, now there is a lagoon.

Although the country’s total land area is under 1000 km2, its many atolls, forming three island groups, are dispersed in a large geographic area. The Line Islands are one of these archipelagoes. Formally ceded to independent Kiribati in 1979 by the U.S., the archipelago is notable because of the International Date Line, the boundary between two calendar days. It runs from the South Pole to the North Pole, approximately following the 180 degrees longitude line.

Before the Line Islands were part of Kiribati, the entire country was west of this line. Put differently, it was the same calendar day in the entire country. The newly added archipelago, however, was east of this line; its residents were one day behind the rest of the country. Kiribati resolved this anomaly by moving the International Date Line to the east of the archipelago. As a result of this change, there is a single calendar day again in the country. Like putting our clocks forward an hour for Daylight Saving Time, residents on the Line Islands put their clocks forward a day, erasing a day (31 December 1994) from their calendars.


Around the globe, it’s common to find countries with serious internal divisions. In Europe, this phenomenon is much less frequent, Belgium being a notable exception. The division in Belgium is linguistic: the northern part of the country (Flanders) speaks Dutch, while the southern part (Walloon) speaks French.

To complicate matters further, the capital, Brussels, is bilingual. It has a French-speaking majority but is located within Flanders. In practice, this means that a person who works in Brussels and lives in one of the surrounding municipalities probably needs to use both French and Dutch during the day. Although much of the conflict revolves around these two languages, a small minority of Belgians speak German—the third official language in the country.

Belgium’s administrative system was designed with this linguistic division in mind. Power is distributed among three levels of government: federal, linguistic, and regional. This situation inevitably leads to tensions around jurisdiction, as each level of government feels it should have a say over more things than it currently does. Keeping both sides happy in this complex system is a delicate task, especially when both the French-speaking and the Dutch-speaking communities have jurisdiction in the same region, as in Brussels.

New Zealand

The Māori are New Zealand’s indigenous population. Descending from Polynesian people who arrived in the country in the 14th century, they developed their own culture over the centuries. Trading with European settlers introduced many new products, including potatoes and muskets.

Before potatoes were introduced, the Māori produced a type of sweet potato that they had brought with them from Polynesia. Potatoes brought by the settlers were better suited to New Zealand’s cooler climate, quickly overtaking the sweet potato as a staple food. This agricultural improvement benefitted the local populace—unlike muskets.

The Māori aren’t a homogeneous group. They are organized into tribes, each living in its own territory. Even before muskets were available, there had been conflicts between these tribes. Tribal fighters engaged in hand-to-hand combat, using weapons primarily made of wood, whalebone, and stone. Muskets drastically increased the lethality of warfare, and the tribes to first obtain them gained a significant advantage.

At the beginning of the 19th century, the tribes fought a series of battles against each other. This intertribal warfare, called the Musket Wars, claimed thousands of lives and redrew the boundaries of tribal territories.


When governments are unstable, some groups step up to fill the void. In Peru, the most famous of such groups in the last four decades has been Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), a Maoist guerrilla organization. Led by the former communist philosophy professor Abimael Guzmán, the organization had its base in the Ayacucho region, a mountainous terrain. After an initial act of burning ballots at the 1980 elections, the organization (labeled a terrorist organization by the U.S., European Union, and many other countries) turned increasingly violent.

For some years, the guerrilla group’s territorial reach and membership increased. In more neglected regions, such as Ayacucho, Apurímac, and Huancavelica, some from the local populace sympathized with the group’s message. At the same time, its brutality, the massacres and bombings it committed, and its targeted assassinations against, among others, ideologically similar groups alienated many.

Unsurprisingly, when the state can’t protect its citizens, people take things into their own hands. In some areas, peasants set up anti-rebel militias and fought against the guerrillas. National forces also joined the fight and committed their fair share of atrocities. A local population, caught between two fires, suffered.

In 1992, Guzmán was captured and imprisoned, dealing a significant blow to the group. Although Shining Path’s influence has substantially diminished in the years since the 90s, its various spin-offs commit occasional terrorist acts to this day.


Bahrain is the smallest of the Arab states in the Persian Gulf, being the size of New York City. Also, it’s the only island. More accurately, it’s not a single island but an archipelago—a collection of many islands, the largest of which is the Bahrain Island.

Being an island, Bahrain has been accessible only by sea for most of its history. The construction of the King Fahd Causeway changed this. Financed by Saudi Arabia and constructed in the 1980s, it’s a series of bridges and causeways connecting Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. It has a total length of 25 kilometers, passing through both natural and artificial islands.

When the parties first raised the idea, Bahrainis were driving on the left and Saudi Arabians on the right. In 1967, Bahrain switched over to right-hand traffic (around that time, many other countries were doing the same), having to worry about one fewer thing in the already challenging engineering project.

Like its neighbors, Bahrain also has significant revenues from the oil trade, with refined petroleum being its most exported product. But economic life exists even beyond the oil: the country has a highly developed banking and financial services industry. Boasting a business-friendly environment, projects such as the recently launched FinHub973, a digital platform to connect fintech startups and traditional financial institutions, signal the country’s ambitions as a regional leader in the finance industry.


Immigration played an important role in Canada’s history. In the last two centuries, people from many countries found their new homes in the country. Among them, there were British Loyalists who fled the American Revolution, Scottish Highlanders who had been dispossessed of their lands at home, and Irish peasants who were trying to escape the Great Famine of Ireland.

Immigration was not always equally available to all. For instance, Chinese immigrants, who had arrived in large numbers to work on construction projects like the Canadian Pacific Railway, were frequently discriminated against. In 1885, a tax was introduced that forced every Chinese person entering Canada to pay a fixed amount. Around 40 years later, this monetary burden was deemed insufficient by those wanting to limit Chinese immigration further. Except for a few cases, Chinese immigration was outright banned.

Currently, around 20% of Canada’s population are immigrants. With current yearly targets of approximately 400,000 immigrants, Canada’s immigrant population is likely to grow even further in the future.

The country’s yearly immigration plan not only determines the number of immigrants but also provides a breakdown by categories. There are four routes available to applicants; most become permanent residents by belonging to one of the following three: economic migrants, family members of permanent residents, and refugees. More than half of the entire quota is allocated to economic migrants; this category includes physicians, business people, and other skilled workers.


Since its independence in 1964, Malawi (formerly Nyasaland) was ruled by one man for three decades. The ruler, Hastings Banda, was born in the central part of the country on an unknown date, sometime around the turn of the 20th century. He spent time around various missionaries in his childhood and early adulthood. These religious connections opened doors for him; he studied in the U.S. and the U.K., then became a practicing doctor in the U.K.

Some years after his return to Malawi, he became the country’s first leader upon its independence. He built an autocratic rule while maintaining a pro-Western, anti-communist stance. As is usually the case, he gradually tried to seize ever more power. First, he changed the constitution and got himself elected as the country’s president for a 5-year term. Although Malawi had been a de facto one-party state by then, he banned all parties but his—just in case. To save the hassles of being re-elected every five years, he was declared president for life before the end of his first term.

In many respects, Malawi functioned as a police state. Political dissent was not tolerated, censorship was rampant, and citizens frequently reported each other. In 1983, in what became known as the Mwanza Four incident, four high-ranking government officials died under suspicious circumstances, not long after they had criticized some aspects of the regime. Many years later, no longer the president, he was charged in this case (and acquitted due to lack of evidence).

In 1993, a referendum asked Malawians if they want a one-party or a multi-party state. The multi-party side won with 65% of the votes. Put differently, 35% of the voting population favored the continuation of the existing system—a result worth thinking about. Banda contested the position of president in the country’s first multi-party elections a year later, losing to his opponent.

El Salvador

People all over the world use money to exchange goods and services. Money can manifest itself in many forms—anything works as money as long as you can use it to get, for example, a loaf of bread or a haircut. Before El Salvador’s colonial period, cacao beans fulfilled this important function. When the Spanish colonialists arrived, they brought their currency, the real, with them. In reality, however, the most used coins were the so-called macacos, irregularly shaped silver coins from Peru and Mexico.

El Salvador became independent in the 19th century. In 1883, it introduced the peso. Less than ten years later, it changed its name to colón, to commemorate Christopher Columbus (called Colón in Spanish). The currency’s value was linked to the U.S. dollar through a fixed exchange rate. In the 1930s, the fixed exchange rate was abandoned.

The colón was the main currency until 2001 when a second currency was also added as legal tender: the U.S. dollar. Once the decision had been made to abandon its own currency, adopting the dollar was the most natural choice for El Salvador. Although surely many factors played a role in this decision, two are worth highlighting. First, the U.S. is the country’s most important trading partner. Second, many Salvadorians live in the U.S. and regularly send money to their families in El Salvador.

The latest development in the monetary history of El Salvador is its embrace of the cryptocurrency Bitcoin. In a move that surprised many, El Salvador’s current president, Nayib Bukele, made it legal tender last year.


Cyprus is an island in the Mediterranean Sea, located to the south of Turkey. As an island with a strategic location, it has drawn the attention of regional powers throughout its history. More than two millennia ago, Alexander the Great conquered it and Hellenized it (i.e., made the local population adopt the Greek language and culture). Fast forward many years and different rulers, the island came under the rule of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century. People from nearby Anatolia (the peninsula that comprises a large part of today’s Turkey) settled there. As a result of the two conquests, the island came to have a population of both Greek and Turkish Cypriots.

After the Ottoman rule, the island became a British colony before finally achieving independence in 1960. The now-independent country faced a problem: its Greek and Turkish citizens wanted different things. Many Greeks, who made up around 80% of the island’s population, wanted a union with Greece—something Turkish Cypriots opposed. After bouts of intercommunal violence, a Greece-led coup d’état removed the island’s sitting president. Five days later, the Turkish army invaded the island, occupying its north-eastern part.

The territorial division remains to this day. At the time of the Turkish invasion, many Greek Cypriots lived on the occupied side. Similarly, many Turkish Cypriots lived on the Greek side. Those Greek and Turkish Cypriots who found themselves on the wrong side of the new de-facto border were forced to move. A wall was erected, and a UN buffer zone was created between the two sides. Although the border wall was demolished in 2008, and traveling between the sides became easier, reunification efforts have failed so far.


Panama has a unique geographical position: it’s on a narrow strip of land connecting South and North America. If it weren’t for a narrow gap in the Panamanian jungle (Darién Gap), one could travel on a single, continuous road, the Pan-American Highway, from Alaska to Patagonia. Although there had been proposals to build this missing segment, its construction never began. The missing segment would need to cross a dense jungle—a formidable engineering challenge.

Talking about engineering challenges, the most famous thing in Panama is probably the Panama Canal. Built between 1904 and 1914, it’s one of the largest and most difficult engineering projects ever undertaken. Although eventually constructed by the U.S., other countries also discovered the enormous potential of connecting the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. At the end of the 19th century, the French had already made an unsuccessful attempt to build it.

The Canal is 82 kilometers long. It has an artificial lake in the middle, located above sea level. At both ends, a sophisticated system lifts and lowers the ships. An engineering system of this complexity requires active maintenance. Initially maintained by the U.S., and after a period of joint management, Panama started to own and operate the Canal in 1999.

According to the government-owned operator, more than 13,000 vessels passed through the Canal last year alone. In the same year, the tolls paid by the passing vessels contributed around 2 billion USD to the government’s budget.


Niger is one of the poorest countries today. There are many reasons behind this, one of them being its unfortunate geography—most of the country lies in the Sahara Desert. Around the time it became independent from France, large uranium reserves were discovered in the northern part of the country. There was hope that this resource—if managed properly—could lift many Nigeriens out of poverty.

Judged by virtually all statistics, uranium didn’t bring about the large-scale changes that many were optimistic about. Since the beginning, uranium mining has been dominated by French conglomerates. According to some, the former colonizer, France, was in a position to negotiate deals that favored its nuclear industry (but not necessarily the Nigerien people).

The most significant mines are in the twin mining towns of Arlit and Akokan. Far from the country’s capital and located in the desert, Arlit is Niger’s 6th most populous city, and much of its economic life is centered around uranium. In this part of the world, water is a scarce resource. Unsurprisingly, local residents who buy water in 25-liter containers will feel resentful at foreign mining companies pumping water out of the remaining aquifers. Apart from worsening water scarcity, reports mention toxic waste and illnesses caused by the operations of the nearby mines.

Despite its many health, environmental, and fairness implications, uranium mining employs many locals. When one of the region’s longest-running mines closed last year after 47 years of operation, hundreds lost their jobs. In a region with very limited economic opportunities, these lost jobs will be difficult to replace.

Costa Rica

There are only a few countries in the world that don’t have an army—Costa Rica being one of them. It had a short civil war in 1948 when disputes around election results escalated into an armed conflict. After the civil war ended, the provisional president, José Figueres, abolished the army. The funds formerly allocated to the military are now used to finance public health and education programs.

Aside from abolishing the army, Figueres granted women and Costa Ricans of African origin the vote, nationalized the banking sector, and guaranteed public education for all—just to name a few of his reforms from his 18-month provisional presidency. Costa Rica’s democracy, the oldest in Central America, also dates to 1949. After his provisional presidency, Figueres served two more terms as president.

As is frequently the case, his family members also held political and diplomatic positions in subsequent administrations. Most importantly, his son, José María, followed him in his footsteps, serving as the country’s president between 1994 and 1998. In this year’s elections, José María unsuccessfully contested the same position again. But unlike dictatorships ruled by dynasties, Costa Rica is a democracy. Even when a country has a small population like Costa Rica does, for a family to stay politically relevant for seven decades is noteworthy.


Haiti became independent in 1804, the first country to do so in the Caribbean. Its history ever since has been full of natural disasters and man-made suffering. For instance, in the 200 years since its independence, the country suffered 32 coups, the most recent one in 2004.

During the 2004 political instability, a tropical storm struck Haiti, leaving thousands dead due to flooding and landslides in the northern part of the country. Four years later, another tropical storm and several hurricanes resulted in further deaths and property damage. In another two years, the already devastated population suffered its worst earthquake in over 200 years.

On 12 January 2010, a magnitude 7.0 Mw earthquake struck the country, with an epicenter only 25 kilometers away from the capital, Port-au-Prince. Although there have been larger earthquakes globally since then, its epicenter was close to heavily populated areas, affecting around three million people. The resulting death toll was estimated to be somewhere between 100 and 200 thousand people. Property damage was also significant: many historically important buildings, such as the Presidential Palace and the Port-au-Prince Cathedral, were damaged beyond repair. The same year Haitians were trying to clean up the devastation left behind by the earthquake, the country suffered the world’s first modern large-scale cholera outbreak.

We would be forgiven for thinking that a series of natural disasters would bring Haitian politicians together, but we would be wrong. Political turmoil continued throughout these years—among other things, the president was assassinated last year. As Haitians were dealing with the aftermaths of this event, a devastating earthquake struck the island again.


The most famous family in Syria is undoubtedly the al-Assad family, having led the county for the last 50 years. Hafez al-Assad was the first nationally prominent member of the family. Born in an Alawite (minority sect of Shia Muslims) family in western Syria, his ascension to power didn’t happen overnight—it required no fewer than three coups.

After a military career, he was involved in the 1963 Syrian coup d’état, when the Ba’ath Party, a movement urging the unification of the Arab world, came to power. Three years later, a power struggle broke out within the leading factions of the party, which deposed the traditional leadership and fortified al-Assad’s position. In 1970, he ousted his last opponent, clearing the way for his regime that would last 30 years.

In the mid-80s, he had some health issues, bringing the issue of his successor to the forefront. But some of his family members had their own plans: his brother Rifaat attempted a coup against his regime. After the failed attempt, Rifaat was exiled to France until he was allowed to return to Syria last year.

The person who allowed him to return was Hafez’s second son, Bashar, the country’s current president. Ruling Syria since his father’s death in 2000, he wasn’t destined for a political career. Trained as an eye doctor in Syria and the U.K., his political involvement became clear only after his older brother, Bassel, had died in a car accident.


Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country. It’s a country characterized by regional variation—in climate, ethnicity, religion, and even legal systems.

In many parts of the world, climate determines how people make a living. The climate of the southern part of the country is tropical, while the northern part is an arid steppe (and desert in the northeast). Traditionally, most were pastoralists in the north and farmers in the south. Where these groups meet, in the so-called Middle Belt (the country’s central region), the situation is susceptible to conflict.

This is especially the case when ethnic, linguistic, and religious differences also abound. Nigeria is a multi-ethnic state with hundreds of ethnicities. The three largest groups dominate one region of the country each: the Hausa in the north, the Yoruba in the southwest, and the Igbo in the southeast. Not only do these groups speak different languages, but their religious affiliations are also different. The northern part of the country follows Islam, while the southern part is Christian. Reflecting its past, Nigeria’s legal system has elements of common law (from its colonial past), customary law (in some indigenous regions), and Sharia law (in the north).

A country with this level of diversity is in a tricky position: it needs to maintain a common identity while allowing people to live their lives as they see fit. Nigeria is a federal country, structured in some ways like the United States. The advantage of this system is that it allows more regional variation than a unitary state. The official language is English—not one of the regional languages. If, in contrast, one of the regional languages were to become the official language, people from other linguistic groups could be alienated.

Central African Republic

By most statistics, the Central African Republic is one of the worst countries to live in. There is extreme poverty: the GDP per capita is around 400 dollars—or less than half the price of a new iPhone. Aside from the miserable economic conditions, its life expectancy is the lowest in the world, while its maternal mortality rate is among the highest. The majority of its population is illiterate.

Since its independence from France in 1960, the country’s history follows a pattern that’s, unfortunately, not uncommon in the region. Civil wars, coups d’états, a small glimmer of hope for democratic change, then a devastating civil war again. Although leaders in countries like the Central African Republic don’t typically rise to power through their moral standing in the community, the country produced a particularly brutal and narcissistic dictator even by regional standards.

Jean-Bédel Bokassa came to power in a coup in 1966. At the start of his regime, he suspended the constitution and dissolved the National Assembly. Not stopping there, he renamed the country the Central African Empire, declared himself president for life, and named himself the emperor. At that time, the country had approximately two million people—not the typical population of an empire. He spent an estimated 20 million dollars (equivalent to a third of the country’s annual budget) on his coronation ceremony. Eventually, he was ousted from power the same way he came to it—by a coup.

Many years after his regime had ended, he was convicted of murders, concealing corpses, embezzlement, and other charges in a widely publicized trial.


If a country is large enough, chances are there will be conflicts between its regions. Italy, with an area of around 300,000 km2, is no different in this regard. It has a North-South divide, at least since its unification in the second half of the 19th century. The gap that existed at the unification only grew wider over time. Today, the southern part of the country, once occupied by the Kingdoms of Naples and Sicily, fares significantly worse on most economic indicators.

A particularly alarming statistic in Southern Italian provinces is the high unemployment rate. When unemployment is high, economic output tends to be lower. This is reflected in the southern provinces’ significantly lower GDP per capita. For example, out of Italy’s 20 administrative regions, the bottom five by GDP per capita are in Southern Italy. When people don’t see a bright future for themselves or their children, they leave. In 2010 alone, around 134,000 people left Southern Italy—most of them finding their new home in the north.

Those who stay despite the poverty, poor infrastructure, and joblessness, are exposed to the consequences of Mafia-type organized crime. According to a 2010 estimate, the yearly income of criminal organizations could reach a sum equivalent to 9% of Italy’s GDP. Aside from the damage to people’s livelihoods, these criminal groups were also responsible for several high-profile murders. One example of this was the Via D’Amelio bombing, which claimed the life of the distinguished anti-mafia judge Paolo Borsellino.


Brazil’s first capital city was Salvador. Two centuries later, in the middle of the 18th century, the capital was moved to Rio de Janeiro. Although both cities have access to the Atlantic Ocean, Rio de Janeiro was a quickly growing city closer to lucrative gold and diamond mines. When Brazil became independent in 1822, the idea of a new capital city was born. The idea, however, wouldn’t become reality for more than 130 years.

Juscelino Kubitschek became Brazil’s president in 1956. During his campaign, hallmarked by the slogan ‘50 years of progress in 5’, he promised to move the capital from Rio de Janeiro to a more central location in the country. The goal of this move was to develop Brazil’s interior regions, which lagged behind the more densely inhabited (and more prosperous) coastal regions. The new capital, Brasília, was to be planned and constructed from scratch.

After a public competition, the jury selected the modernist architect Lúcio Costa’s design. The city has a cross-axial design, which could be visualized as an airplane or a bird. One axis hosts the political and administrative buildings, while the other contains residential buildings. Construction took place at a record speed: in only 41 months, the city was finished.

Initially designed for around half a million people, the population quickly outgrew this limit. The plan was that satellite cities, separated from the city by a 15-mile buffer zone, would accommodate the extra population. Unfortunately, the plan largely failed. Today, Brasília is frequently held up as an example of a failing city.


When a war breaks out in a country, people try to flee to a safer, typically neighboring one. Jordan has been relatively safe by regional standards for the last seven decades. This means that whenever the security situation worsened in one of its neighbors, a large wave of refugees arrived in the country.

The first wave of refugees were Palestinians who fled during the Arab-Israeli War in 1948. Followed by subsequent waves, most Palestinians received Jordanian citizenship. According to some estimates, the number of Palestinian refugees in the country is approximately 2 million. Around one in five live in refugee camps.

More recently, during the Iraq War in 2003, up to 1 million Iraqis found shelter in Jordan. Most of them have since returned, with around 130 thousand remaining in the country. Since the start of the Syrian civil war, an estimated 1.4 million Syrian refugees have arrived in Jordan, with around half of them being registered refugees. Some live in two large refugee camps, but most live among the local population.

Jordan has a population of around 10 million people. Providing help to over a million refugees is a sizeable undertaking for a country its size. Aside from the problems of unemployment, lack of access to healthcare, and poverty, the refugee population also suffers from a lack of clean water. The country, being one of the most water-scarce countries on earth, has a hard time providing water even to its citizens, let alone to a more marginalized refugee population.


When the major European powers set their eyes on colonizing Africa at the end of the 19th century, Italy also started a search for potential colonies. Besides the Horn of Africa, today’s Libya would belong to its sphere of influence. In the early years of the 20th century, Libya was under the rule of the significantly weakened Ottoman Empire.

In 1911, Italy invaded the territory. The Italo-Turkish War, as it came to be known, lasted around a year and led to the establishment of two colonies: Italian Tripolitania and Italian Cyrenaica. Notable for its military innovations, this was the first war in which a military carried out an aerial reconnaissance operation and an aerial bombardment. To put things in perspective, the bombardment meant dropping 4 grenades of around 2 kilograms each from a very simple airplane.

In 1923, a conflict between the Italian military and rebel forces associated with the Senussi broke out. Led by Omar al-Mukhtar, the Senussi were a political-religious order seeking to reform the lives of Bedouin tribesmen in the eastern part of the country. This conflict, sometimes called the Pacification of Libya, ended in 1932 after the capture and execution of al-Mukhtar. A bit of a misnomer, the war was anything but pacific. The Italian military used chemical weapons, deported a large part of Cyrenaica’s (the eastern part of the country) population from their land, and confined them to concentration camps.

Libya remained an Italian colony until 1943. Conquered by the Allies in the North African Campaign, it was administered by British and French forces until its independence in 1951.


Mauritania abolished slavery in 1981, the last country to do so in the world. Despite being banned, owning slaves was only criminalized in 2007. Even today, the law is rarely enforced. Although the exact number of enslaved people in the country cannot be known, the 2018 Global Slavery Index estimated the currently enslaved population to be around 90 000 people, or approximately 2% of the population. When we see a statistic like this, it’s important to bear in mind that the prevalence of slavery is difficult to estimate. This difficulty is multiplied when the country in question is located almost entirely in a vast desert.

Furthermore, slavery doesn’t manifest itself in only one way. For instance, a U.S Department of State page mentions 7 forms of modern slavery, including forced labor, domestic servitude, and bonded labor. In Mauritania, chattel slavery is common. In this form of slavery, the enslaved person is the slave owner’s property and can be, among other things, sold or rented out to others.

Besides the inhumane treatment of enslaved people, there is also a racial undertone in slavery in Mauritania. The country is multi-ethnic, with both lighter-skinned and darker-skinned ethnic groups. The former group, called Bidhan, are of Arab or Berber descent and comprise most slave owners; the latter group, called Haratin, are descendants of former sub-Saharan slaves and comprise most currently enslaved people.

Slavery is still a significant problem in Mauritania. Nonetheless, the last couple of decades saw a lot of progress on this issue. Anti-slavery organizations, such as the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement, increased the visibility of this human rights issue, frequently at significant personal cost.

Sri Lanka

In the first half of the 19th century, Sri Lanka was exporting large amounts of coffee. By the end of the century, its coffee plantations were largely wiped out by a disease, Hemileia vastatrix. This disease (a fungus) covers the leaves of a plant with spores or causes them to fall. It spread quickly—instead of just affecting a local plantation, the country’s entire coffee production was affected: it dropped from around 100 million pounds in 1870 to only 5 million a mere 20 years later.

While the disease was destroying coffee plants, tea (another plantation crop) was introduced into the country. A Scottish tea planter, James Taylor, set up a small tea plantation in the central part of the country (then called British Ceylon). After visiting the island, a fellow Scotsman, Thomas Lipton, started buying Ceylon tea from Taylor’s plantation. His surname might ring familiar to some: he was the founder of the famous tea company Lipton. Today, Sri Lanka is the fourth largest exporter of tea.

Another of its important export products is cinnamon. Globally, there are only three countries (Indonesia, China, and Vietnam) that produce more cinnamon. Cinnamomum verum (translated as true cinnamon tree) is native to Sri Lanka; some claim it has a subtler flavor than other cinnamon species.


Guyana neighbors three countries: Brazil, Suriname, and Venezuela. It has territorial disputes with the latter two. In the largest dispute, Venezuela claims an area of around 160,000 km2 (out of Guyana’s 215,000 km2). The territory in question is called Guayana Esequiba by Venezuela, and it concerns the territory to the west of the Essequibo River. It’s controlled and administered by Guyana, but it has been a consistent source of tension between the two countries for a long time.

The origin of the conflict lies in an old territorial dispute between colonial powers. Venezuela was a Spanish colony, while Guyana was under Dutch and later British colonial rule. As is usually the case, both sides claimed the territory citing some historical and geographical reasons. After gold had been discovered in the 19th century, the dispute became more intense. In 1899, an international arbitration tribunal ruled almost fully in favor of the British, giving them most of the disputed territory.

In the early 1960s, Venezuela challenged the validity of this arbitration. The newly independent Guyana and Venezuela tried to resolve the issue—without success. In 2013, an oil exploration vessel in disputed waters (i.e., the part of the ocean that’s adjacent to the disputed territory) was seized by the Venezuelan navy. As of today, there is still no agreement about where the border should be. One thing seems certain: when a disputed territory has significant natural resources, whether it’s gold in the 19th century or oil in the 21st, reaching an agreement becomes more difficult.


Benin became independent from France in 1960. But the name Benin was only adopted in 1975—the new country was initially called Dahomey, named after the Kingdom of Dahomey. This kingdom was an important regional power before it came under French colonial rule in the late 19th century. It’s noteworthy—among other things—for its role in the slave trade and its all-female military unit.

As a highly militarized kingdom, the Kingdom of Dahomey frequently conducted raids against other societies. During these raids, its fighters captured people who were then sold to European slave traders. The British passed the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833, which made slave ownership illegal in the British territories. As a result, the demand for slaves gradually disappeared. This Act and other factors contributed to the kingdom’s decline. After some territorial disputes and two wars with France, the kingdom was incorporated into French West Africa.

Frequent wars require a large number of military-age men. High casualties in this population led to an unusual proposition—an all-female military unit. Named the Dahomey Amazons, they were recruited from free Dahomean women and captives. They went through rigorous training and made up about a third of the army.


The first inhabitants of Namibia were different hunter-gatherer tribes such as the San, Damara, and Nama people. Over the centuries, Bantu peoples started to arrive in the country, eventually making them a majority. At the end of the 19th century, most of the territory became a German colony under the name of German South West Africa. One exception to German rule was the port city of Walvis Bay and some offshore islands, which were under British rule.

The Herero and Nama people started a rebellion against the German colonizers in 1904, eventually leading to the Battle of Waterberg. The Germans, thanks to their superior firepower, quickly won the battle and drove the fleeing Herero into the Kalahari Desert, one of the driest spots in sub-Saharan Africa. According to some estimates, tens of thousands of Herero people died of starvation and dehydration. Many of those who survived the first phase of the genocide were then sent to the Shark Island concentration camp and succumbed to diseases, malnutrition, overwork, and abuse. It was the first genocide of the 20th century. Eventually acknowledged as a genocide, the German government is now paying reparations to the affected communities.

The Germans were defeated during World War I by the South African forces, thereby transferring control over Namibia to South Africa. Starting in the 1960s, the decolonization of Africa led to calls for Namibian self-determination. After armed insurgencies and a regional conflict, Namibia gained independence from South Africa in 1990.

Ivory Coast

Félix Houphouët-Boigny was an unusual figure in African politics. Until his death in 1993, he was Ivory Coast’s president—a period encompassing 33 years. This is no small feat in Africa where leaders tend to stay in power for much shorter periods. At the time of his death, he was the longest-serving president in Africa; even on the world stage, he was only third, after the dictators of Cuba and North Korea.

He maintained close ties with France throughout his years in power. Before he became the leader of the newly independent Ivory Coast, he had served in the French government. But his link to France was not only political but economic: he owned several high-value properties in Paris (and elsewhere). According to some sources, his wealth amounted to several billion dollars. By regional standards, Ivory Coast was a relatively stable country and had a strong economy, primarily driven by coffee and cocoa production. It’s not difficult to imagine how a president with strong executive power could financially benefit from a growing economy with little outside control.

In 1983, the country’s political capital was moved from Abidjan to Yamoussoukro, making it the fourth capital city in a century. Born in a family of tribal chiefs in Yamoussoukro, Boigny’s decision was probably motivated by factors other than purely administrative or practical ones. He set out to develop the new capital city. Its flagship construction project was the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace, one of the largest churches worldwide.


Nii Amon Kotei was a Ghanaian artist most renowned for designing the coat of arms of Ghana. Commissioned by the British colonial government, his design was adopted when Ghana gained independence in 1957. Unchanged to this day, it features a shield with four quarters divided by a St. Georges Cross and some other symbols.

Although all four quarters tell us something different about Ghana, let’s focus here on only two of them: a cocoa tree and a mine shaft. The cocoa tree represents the country’s wealth in agricultural products in general and cocoa in particular. Only second to its western neighbor (Ivory Coast) in cocoa production, the cocoa tree makes an important contribution to the country’s economy.

Besides agricultural production, mining (as represented by the mine shaft) is also paramount to the Ghanaian economy. Although the country mines and exports a variety of metals, gold is by far the most important one. It’s one of the country’s top export products. But not only that: Ghana’s gold production is also significant internationally, in some years being the largest in Africa.

Above the shield is a black five-pointed star, the lodestar of African freedom. Also present in Ghana’s flag (designed the same year by a different artist), it became a symbol of Pan-Africanism and anti-colonialism and served as an inspiration for other African flags.


Gabon, like most African countries, has substantial ethnic diversity. The majority of its people belong to different Bantu ethnic groups, the largest of which are the Fang people. Also found in neighboring Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea, their culture is rich in folklore and oral tradition.

Some of their ceremonial objects, such as face masks and reliquary figures, are valuable collector items. For instance, a Ngil mask was sold in France for 4.2 million euros earlier this week. The recent sale is more of a coincidence than an everyday occurrence—these masks are difficult to find these days.

The masks were used by a secret society called Ngil that administered justice and policed negative behaviors, such as witchcraft, in Fang communities. They typically had a broad forehead, almond-shaped eyes, and a long nose. Many of them were white because they were covered with white clay (kaolin). When used during the night, these masks (as part of a full costume) could make the wearer look quite intimidating.

Around 100 years ago, the secret society was banned by the French colonialists, which led to a gradual disappearance of Ngil masks. Made from wood, it’s unlikely that many of them survived to this day in pristine conditions. For example, the recently sold mask had a difficult-to-replicate trajectory before going under the hammer. It was originally collected around 1917 by a colonial governor. Lying around in an attic, it was finally discovered by his descendants a century later.


Issyk-Kul is a large endorheic (i.e., without outflow) mountain lake in northeastern Kyrgyzstan. Its name means “warm lake” in the Kyrgyz language. Situated in the northern Tian Shan mountains at an elevation of 1600 meters, its name doesn’t refer to the outside temperature (which can be very cold indeed) but to the fact that the lake never freezes.

The lake has significant biodiversity. It contains several fish species that aren’t found elsewhere, so-called endemic species. Some of them are endangered by overfishing and predation by other fish species that had been introduced in the 1970s.

Beyond its biodiversity, Issyk-Kul has also been an attractive spot for tourism for the last couple of decades. During Kyrgyzstan’s Soviet era, when domestic tourism within the Soviet Union was encouraged, the empire’s elite started frequenting the lake and built lavish resorts and hotels in the town of Cholpon Ata. Although there have been new developments in recent years, much of the town’s current infrastructure was built in the Soviet era. The lake’s region is responsible for 70% of all tourism in Kyrgyzstan, attracting around 1 million people a year (opens a pdf). Many tourists to the region are domestic travelers or from former Soviet states, such as Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan.


Chad is a multi-ethnic country, having around 200 ethnic groups. The largest ethnic group are the Sara people, with around 30% of the population belonging to this ethnicity. They live in the southern part of Chad, to the southeast of Lake Chad, an endorheic lake, fed primarily by the Chari River. This region is the country’s most fertile, and a relatively small, area with a large population. In contrast, the northern and central parts of Chad cover a large area but have a low population density. In the north, we find the Saharan zone while the central part is the semi-arid Sahel, a transition zone leading to the Sudanian savannah.

In multi-ethnic countries like Chad, it’s not uncommon to see different ethnic groups struggle for power. Frequently, this struggle ends in a protracted and devastating civil war. Typically, the country’s leader favors his ethnicity and commits atrocities or discriminates against other ethnicities. The other ethnic groups then feel threatened and harbor hate and resentment. When they have the chance, they try to topple this leader and settle the score. The process then starts all over again.

Chad became independent in 1960. Its first leader was a man named François Tombalbaye, an ethnic Sara. An interesting side note about this leader: a photo from 1959 shows scars on his face. Not from a war-time injury or a debilitating disease but from what is called scarification, a common tradition in many African tribes. During this procedure, a person’s body is intentionally cut or burned to leave permanent scars.

During his regime, Tombalbaye banned opposition parties, and inter-ethnic relations got worse, eventually leading to a civil war. He was killed in 1975. The country’s next leader was Hissène Habré, an ethnic Toubou from the north. Fifteen years later, he was deposed by one of his generals, an ethnic Zaghawa. This general ruled Chad for three decades, surviving various coup d’états and rebellions. He was killed in 2021 during a military offensive against rebel groups.


Lesotho holds many records in geography. For instance, it’s one of only three enclave countries in the world (the other two being Vatican City and San Marino). An enclave country’s territory is fully surrounded by that of another country. In Lesotho’s case, that other country is South Africa. Furthermore, Lesotho is the only country whose entire territory lies above 1000 meters. To be more precise, its lowest point is at 1400 meters, beating the second country on the list, Rwanda, by 450 meters.

A mountainous landscape makes a country difficult to conquer. This probably played a role in Lesotho’s independence. After all, a small territory in the middle of a much larger one isn’t likely to maintain its independence for long unless it has a serious natural advantage (e.g., a difficult terrain) over a potential invader. But the historical record shows that, even then, virtually all attempts to remain independent end in failure sooner or later. Currently, the only exception to this is Lesotho.

That said, even though Lesotho is an independent state, South Africa is hugely important for its future development. An important milestone in cooperation is the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, the largest infrastructure project between the two countries. The goal of the project is to divert water from the rivers in the Lesotho Highlands to the Gauteng region in South Africa through an elaborate system of dams and tunnels. South Africa benefits from an increased water supply, while Lesotho earns royalties and generates hydroelectricity.

South Sudan

In 2011, the United Nations admitted South Sudan as its most recent, 193rd member. The country gained its independence from Sudan after two prolonged civil wars, each lasting around 20 years. This means that a person born in the southern part of Sudan in 1955 (the year Sudan itself became independent) had to survive around 40 years of devastating civil wars before he could celebrate his 56th birthday in an independent South Sudan.

Living that long wasn’t very likely, however, if we consider that life expectancy at birth in 1960 was around 48 years in Sudan and 32 years in South Sudan, according to the World Bank. (It’s unclear how the World Bank calculated life expectancy in 1960 for a country that hadn’t existed back then.)

A mere two years into its independence, the country descended into a new civil war that lasted 7 years. During this civil war, an estimated 400,000 people were killed, and millions were displaced internally or had to flee to neighboring countries. Ethnic conflict soared, one particularly gruesome episode of which was the 2014 Bentiu massacre. Even more recently, the country experienced widespread famine, caused both by the war and a pest outbreak. In 2020, the sides agreed to a peace deal.


If we had traveled through what is now Germany some centuries ago, we would have found a large number of sovereign, independent states. They comprised a loose political entity called the Holy Roman Empire, which existed for around 1000 years and was finally dissolved in 1806. A decade later, in 1815, it was replaced by another federation of states, the German Confederation. A primarily military alliance, it was formed by 39 independent states, including Prussia and Austria.

Being the two most powerful states, Prussia and Austria were rivals in the quest for power. The tensions between them culminated in the Seven Weeks’ War in 1866, which was won by Prussia and led to the dissolution of the Confederation. The now dominant Prussia created the North German Confederation. Shortly after, a dispute between the this newly formed entity and France escalated into the Franco-Prussian war, which induced Southern German states to join the Prussia-led Confederation.

With the Confederation now involving both northern and southern states, the unification was essentially complete: in 1871, the German Empire was born, with Prussia at the helm. The mastermind behind the rise of Prussia and the main driving force behind Germany becoming a nation-state was Otto von Bismarck. He became the first Chancellor of the Empire, holding this position until 1890.


For a small country of around 100 thousand inhabitants, one wouldn’t expect a lot of political turmoil. We would be wrong in this case. Since Seychelles gained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1976, it saw, among other things, a successful coup d’état, various failed ones, a one-party state, the murder of an opposition leader in London, and a peaceful transition of power.

One year into its independence, the country’s elected president was deposed while attending a conference outside the country. In a virtually bloodless coup, around 200 armed men took over strategic positions on Mahé, the main island. Based on a contemporary New York Times article that describes the aftermath of the events, one comes away with the impression that the inhabitants’ lives hadn’t been upended in significant ways. For example, the article notes that tourists on the island were a bit annoyed they couldn’t buy alcohol temporarily and that six British officers were arrested and flown back to Europe. After this coup, the person who served as the prime minister under the deposed president formed a new government and quickly instituted a one-party state.

Four years later, in 1981, the country saw an unsuccessful coup attempt, led by an Irish mercenary and orchestrated by South Africa. A group of 44 mercenaries flew into Mahé, under the pretext that they were rugby players on holiday. Their identity was quickly discovered when a baggage search produced an AK-47, and the coup attempt failed.

In 1991, the same president who introduced the one-party state announced a return to a multiparty system. He won several elections before voluntarily turning over his presidency to another politician from his party. In 2020, the elections were won by the opposition party that hadn’t been in power since 1977.

In sum, Seychellois politics of the last couple of decades produced many rather unexpected (and occasionally bizarre) episodes.


Maltese is one of the two official languages in Malta. It is a Semitic language, making Malta the only country in the European Union to use one. How did Maltese become Malta’s official language? To answer this question, we need to take a step back and briefly consider Malta’s geographic location and history.

The most widely spoken Semitic language is Arabic. The Arab world is geographically close (around 300 km) to Malta, with Tunisia to its west and Libya to its south. By the beginning of the 10th century, the Arabs conquered Sicily, located to the north of Malta, and created the Emirate of Sicily, which also included Malta. The conquerors spoke a variety of Arabic called Siculo-Arabic. This language is now extinct, but it served as the starting point for the evolution of Maltese.

In 1091, Norman forces conquered Malta, and the island’s re-Christianisation began. The language went through a process of Latinisation: the formerly spoken language was written down in Latin script. It’s the only Semitic language written exclusively with Latin characters, albeit it has some extra, diacritically altered letters such as ċ. Over the centuries, Italian and Sicilian had a large influence over it. As a result, its vocabulary does not only contain words of Arabic origin but also many loanwords from these two languages and, more recently, English. It has been Malta’s official language since 1934, and around 97% of the population consider it their mother tongue.


Historically, cotton has played an important role in Uzbekistan. For instance, all the emblems the country had in the last roughly 100 years featured a cotton plant. Cotton production greatly increased during the Soviet era: around 70% of the Soviet Union’s entire production came from the Uzbek SSR. Although cotton production is now lower than it was in the Soviet era, Uzbekistan is still among the largest producers and exporters of cotton. Nicknamed as “white gold”, cotton has undoubtedly contributed to the country’s economy, but its production also brought with it some problems. Let’s briefly mention three of them.

First, cotton is a water-intensive crop. The water for its irrigation was supplied in part by the Aral Sea. Furthermore, rivers feeding the Aral Sea (Amu Darya and Syr Darya) were diverted for Soviet irrigation projects. As a result of all this, the Aral Sea started shrinking in the 1960s and lost around 90% of its original size, creating the world’s most recent desert (Aralkum Desert) in the dried-up basin.

Second, the environmental damage was exacerbated by the extensive use of fertilizers and other chemical products, which caused soil contamination and public health problems. For example, a defoliant called Butifos (since outlawed) was blamed by locals for higher than usual infant mortality and birth defects.

Finally, some reports claim that cotton production in Uzbekistan is rife with human rights abuses. According to a 2020 Bureau of International Labor Affairs report, forced labor is still used, and some earlier reports documented child labor as well.


Suriname has enormous ethnic diversity for a country of only 600 thousand people. To understand why this is the case, let’s briefly look at some of its history. Some areas of today’s Suriname were inhabited by indigenous tribes, the largest one of which were the Arawak. When Suriname became a Dutch colony in the second half of the 17th century, new plantations could be created in the fertile Guiana plains, which required a lot of human labor. Initially, this labor was provided by slaves from sub-Saharan Africa. Many of them managed to escape from the plantations and find refuge in the adjacent rainforest. The descendants of these people are the Maroons and constitute around 22% of the Surinamese.

After the Dutch abolished slavery in 1863, the labor-intensive plantations had to find another source of labor. Contract and indentured (i.e., people working without a salary for some years) workers were brought in primarily from today’s Indonesia and India. Like Suriname, Indonesia was also a Dutch colony, which made transporting people to Suriname easier. Organizing the transport of Indian workers was a bit more involved because, India being under British colonial rule, arrangements needed to be made with the British. Today around 15% of the population have Javanese (from Java in Indonesia) ancestry and around 27% have Indian ancestry. We also find people with Creole, Chinese, and Brazilian heritage among the country’s residents.

To sum it up, Suriname’s current ethnic composition offers a glimpse of its history: the slave trade from Africa, contract and indentured workers from Asia, and recent voluntary migration from places such as Brazil.


Countries in the same region tend to have many things in common. One of the aspects in which Burundi is similar to some other countries in the region (Tanzania, in particular, comes to mind) is that it has recently changed its capital city. Historically, the capital of the pre-colonial Kingdom of Burundi was Gitega, which is now the second-largest city in Burundi. Around the time Burundi gained its independence from Belgium, Bujumbura became its capital city. Now it’s the country’s largest and economically most important city, conveniently located on the shore of Lake Tanganyika. A couple of years ago, Burundi’s then-president announced that the capital would be Gitega again.

I’ve always wondered why countries change their capitals. I assume sometimes there is a purely political reason, such as moving to a politically more welcoming region. Other times, changing the capital can reflect, among other things, a genuine shift in the importance of certain regions within a country.

Finally, let me mention two things briefly in which Burundi is a bit atypical in sub-Saharan Africa. First, Burundi is linguistically more homogeneous than most other countries in the region: almost everyone speaks Kirundi, while in other countries there is usually a large degree of linguistic diversity. Second, the current country’s territory occupies that of the pre-colonial Kingdom of Burundi. This is rare in that most current borders in the region don’t coincide with those of pre-colonial states.


Uganda is named after Buganda, its largest region. Buganda is in the southern part of the country, and approximately 25% of the country’s 45 million residents live there—many of them in the capital, Kampala. People from Buganda are collectively called the Baganda (or Ganda), while a single person from this group is a Muganda. They speak a language called Luganda.

In yesterday’s post about Kenya, I mentioned that flags may contain useful information about a country. So, I duly checked Uganda’s flag. It depicts a grey crowned crane, Uganda’s national bird. So far so good. Today’s revelation (or reminder, rather) is that names can also contain interesting pieces of information.

Suspecting that Buganda, Luganda, and Baganda may have something to do with the country’s name didn’t require a lot of effort because the words are almost identical. Without knowing too much about the country’s history, one would guess that the Baganda people must have played an important role in shaping Uganda’s past and present.

Detecting that some words share a common root is not always as straightforward as in Uganda’s case. Had the words been a bit more different from one another, I could have easily overlooked the link between the country’s name and its most important region.


I’ve heard about the Maasai before, but I haven’t realized they are one of the largest ethnic groups in Kenya. It turns out that Kenya’s flag even features a Maasai shield. A note to my future self: checking out the symbols on a flag can give me some interesting leads. Another ethnic group I found interesting are the Kalenjin: many of the famous Kenyan middle- and long-distance runners are from this ethnic group. It would be interesting to know why.

I also learned that the largest urban slum in Africa is a place called Kibera, on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya’s capital. My questions: (1) Why there? In other words, is there a geographic, legal, or other reason why the slum is there, or is its location just the result of a random process?; (2) Did its residents move there from a particular region in Kenya (or East Africa)?

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is one of the most popular Kenyan writers. He has a short story (The Upright Revolution: Or Why Humans Walk Upright) that has been translated into 100 languages. Maybe it’s time for me to read some Kenyan literature.

While I was reading about Kenya, I noticed many names and concepts that start with the letter K—for example, Kenya itself, or the aforementioned Kalenjin and Kibera. Is this a coincidence, or is the letter K indeed common in some or all the languages Kenyans use?