For some reason, the world often thinks of Africa as a single entity, rather than a hugely diverse continent made up of 54 very different countries. It's a common mistake to make - even U.S. President George W. Bush once famously referred to Africa as a "nation". This misconception often causes first-time visitors to ask what the weather's like in Africa - but the reality is, it's impossible to generalise the climate of an entire continent.
A Continent of Extremes
Nevertheless, understanding the weather patterns of your chosen destination is a key aspect of planning a successful trip. Time your adventure wrong, and you could find yourself caught up in a cyclone during a beach holiday to Madagascar; or stranded by extreme flooding during a cultural trip to the remote valleys of Ethiopia. As with everywhere else in the world, African weather depends on a huge number of factors, and differs not only from country to country, but from one region to the next.
After all, the African continent spans both hemispheres - so that Morocco's High Atlas Mountains may experience heavy winter snows in the same month that visitors to South Africa are soaking up the summer sunshine on Cape Town's idyllic beaches. The only way to form an accurate idea of the weather that you can expect on your vacation is to research the specific climate of the places that you plan on traveling to. With that being said, it is possible to make a few tentative generalisations.
General Weather Rules
For many countries in Africa, seasons don't follow the same pattern that they do in Europe and the United States. Instead of spring, summer, fall and winter, most countries south of the Sahara Desert have dry and rainy seasons. This is especially true for equatorial countries like Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where temperatures remain consistently hot all year round but the amount of precipitation changes dramatically.
Rainy and dry seasons fall at different times in different regions, and learning the timings of both should be an important part of your planning process. Deciding when to travel depends on what your priorities are. Generally speaking, the dry season is best for game-viewing in the wildlife reserves of Kenya and Tanzania, while the rainy season is often better for birding enthusiasts and keen photographers - especially in West Africa, where dust-laden winds reduce visibility during the dry season.
Africa's weather can also be fairly accurately categorised by region. North Africa has an arid desert climate, with high temperatures and very little precipitation (although temperatures in the mountains and in the Sahara at nighttime can drop below freezing). Equatorial West and Central Africa have a monsoon climate defined by high temperatures, soaring humidity and heavy seasonal rains. East Africa also has distinct dry and rainy seasons, while Southern Africa is generally more temperate.
Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, and some countries don't conform to this generalised model. Namibia, for example, neighbours temperate South Africa and yet it is home to some of the most arid desert regions on Earth. Morocco is part of hot, dry North Africa - but every winter, enough snow falls in the High Atlas Mountains to support a natural ski resort at Oukaïmeden. Essentially, there are no guarantees when it comes to Africa's weather, which is as diverse as the continent itself.
This article was updated and re-written in part by Jessica Macdonald on November 18th 2016.