A follow up to my Nov 13, 2020 blog post called ‘A Mnemonic for Africa and Arabia.’

It might not seem, at first glance, especially useful to know which countries lie entirely between two major parallels, compared to knowing which countries are cut by a single major parallel but in fact it is MORE useful and interesting. This is because you can deduce that every point in each country is between those two parallels. It’s like knowing the height of the shortest man and the tallest man in the world. You can deduce something about the height of every man in the world. So in those rare cases where you get a long neat row of nations that lie between two major parallels, be glad. Unfortunately this is rare. Fortunately, there is one such long neat row in Africa. I call them the Super Sixteen.

The ‘Super Sixteen’ are the sixteen African nations that lie entirely south of the fifteenth parallel, and entirely north of the equator. They are the nations numbered 20 to 30, 58 to 60, and 62 to 64. In addition to lying entirely between the equator and the fifteenth parallel, there are some other regularities that add to the interest of the Super Sixteen, and make memorizing this part of the Madagascar Seventy easier, all the more so because they are so statistically unlikely.

All touch a country cut by the equator, or touch the Atlantic Ocean, or both.

All but five form a neat row.

Except for five easily-learned exceptions, they form a neat row (or chain, if you prefer) stretching completely across the continent from east to west, close to its widest part. By ‘a neat row’ I mean that each of the Sixteen touches exactly two others, except for the ones at the ends which touch only one other. The five exceptions, in order of how grievously they break the rule, are as follows.
Gambia, which doesn’t touch any other member of the Sixteen.
Equatorial Guinea, which touches only one other member while not being at either end. Guinea-Conakry which touches four other members (not as bad as touching only one, because it is also touching two, just not EXACTLY two.).
Liberia and Ivory Coast each touch three, because Guinea-Conakry touches them when it isn’t supposed to.
It’s mnemonic that the three ‘irregularity complexes’ (to coin a term), Gambia, Equatorial Guinea, and Guinea Conakry — Liberia — Ivory Coast each contains a name beginning with a ‘G’.

All but three touch a Fifteener.

A Fifteener is a nation cut by the fifteenth parallel north. Except for Equatorial Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, they all touch a Fifteener. All three are small, which means all large and medium-sized members of the Super Sixteen touch a Fifteener. See the Madagascar Seventy article for more information about why the Fifteeners are such an interesting group of nations.

To see how statistically unlikely it is that the Super Sixteen form an almost perfect row, one need only search the world map for something similar. There is nothing like it anywhere, not even close. Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe form a chain that perhaps would perhaps take second place in terms of neatness, and that’s really saying something, since they don’t stretch all the way across the continent, being blocked by Mozambique and South Africa. The chain gets off to a great start with Namibia which fits remarkably snugly between the fifteenth and thirtieth parallels south, and Botswana which fits almost as snugly. Zimbabwe snuggles up to and almost touches the Fifteenth. Swaziland/Eswatini, which spoils the neatness of the row, is to the Foreshortened Four as Gambia is to the Super Sixteen. If only the equator missed Colombia, there would be a long row/chain of nations in the New World, all the way from French Guiana (technically it’s part of France, it seems, and therefore on the map should appear the same colour as the rest of France) to Costa Rica, seven nations including French Guiana. If only. But even then, they would not stretch across a continent as such.

What could explain the existence and regularity of the Super Sixteen, besides pure chance? I think it might be that the southern border of the Sahel runs for the most part slightly to the south of the fifteenth parallel while the southern coast of West Africa runs for the most part slightly to the north of the equator. In other words, most of the Sixteen are squashed against the coast by the Sahel. The rest are pushed away from the fifteenth parallel by the Sahel, and for some mysterious reason or due to chance stop short of the equator. The southern borders of the Super Sixteen from Cameroon to Ethiopia form a remarkably straight and level line, and I do wonder why. As far as I know there is no river or mountain range and any other barrier or change in biome that can exaplain it. Could it be a psychological effect (knowing that the equator is nearby?) that affected those that originally created the borders?

It’s worth noting that before South Sudan came into existence, Sudan and Uganda stopped the Super Sixteen from stretching all the way to the Indian Ocean. So I, for one, am grateful for the existence of South Sudan.

By the way: Another possible advantage to numbering nations.

When nations have troublesome names, e.g. changed recently like Swaziland (now it’s ‘Eswatini’) or too similar to other countries like the various Guineas and Congos in Africa, it might be convenient to use a number instead. Thus Congo-Kinshasa AKA Democratic Republic of the Congo could be called ‘MS (Madagascar Seventy) 11’, or ‘Congo 11’ or ‘Congo Eleven’. Swaziland/Eswatini could be called MS2 or just ‘2’. Using the old name for a nation is bound to lead to complaints sooner or later, whether justified or not. Using a number cannot be faulted. It is thus a way to (at least some of the time) get out of kow towing to a government that changes the name of a country for no good reason.
Guinea Sixty and Guinea Sixty-Four would refer, in the MS system, to Guinea-Bissau and Guinea-Conakry (AKA ‘Guinea’), respectively. Note that the number of syllables in each name is unchanged, which is mnemonic.

27th January 2021 edit: some more thoughts on the Super Sixteen.

If you apply an extremely strict definition of ‘neat row’, which is to say that it must not contain any members that break any of the rules, Cameroon is disqualified for touching Equatorial Guinea, and the longest neat row (in the world) is five nations, being Nigeria to Ivory Coast, which is to say 26 to 30. And that is very memorable. The second longest neat row in Africa is then four nations long, being CAR to Djibouti, which is to say 22 to 25. The third longest neat row in Africa would then be Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe, that is to say, 9, 8, and 4. By the way, there is a neat row of four countries in South America: Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana (ignoring the inconvenient fact that it is technically part of France, and therefore not a separate nation as such). Interestingly, they lie between the equator and the fifteenth parallel (is it a coincidence?). Anyway, these four tie for second place in the world, with 22 to 25 pushing Namibia to Zimbabwe into fourth place worldwide.

I used to find it quite hard to remember whether Namibia touches Zimbabwe, but not anymore. If it did, both would be disqualified and thus you wouldn’t have a strict definition neat row there. So obviously Namibia and Zimbabwe do not touch.

My favorite activity is learning new things.