How Big is Africa? You Have No Idea

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[Originally Published on Elephant Journal, June 15, 2012]

If you know your nerd history, you may have heard of Kai Krause. Krause is famous for developing graphical user interface design, something you might really be thankful for if you have enjoyed computers any anytime after 1985. Whatever else Krause has been up to since then, he was good enough to put together this infographic that combats a concept he calls immapancy—insufficient geographical knowledge. Please share it.

I know a lot of good people—people who care about the world and its problems in a very intelligent way. But even those people are often uninformed for reasons that aren’t their fault.

Take a look at this world map by Google. Does it seem misleading the way that Africa seems much closer in size to the U.S. or China?

In fact, the actual landmass of Africa could swallow the U.S., China, India, Japan, and all of Europe at the same time. Due to the phenomenon that occurs when a three-dimensional globe is turned into a two-dimensional map, the view of the world you know is lying to you.

But more important than appreciating the physical size of Africa, is the way in which we don’t always treat the troubled continent as a continent.

When I tell people I’ve been to Africa, I get a number of responses.

Did you see lions? No. The starvation must have been terrible. No. Do you mean South Africa? No. I have a friend who lived in Uganda, do you know him/her? Seriously?

My favorite response is simply, “Why?”

The point is that in my experience there are a lot of people who don’t know anything about Africa—like 99 percent.

Africa is not a country.

We find it too easy to speak of the starving children in Africa, AIDs in Africa, even KONY 2012. We can quickly describe a picture of Africa, whether it resembles The Last King of Scotland or The Lion King, and this image somehow applies to the continent as a whole.

When someone stereotypes the cultures of Asia as a single group, we call them a racist. So what seems okay about doing this to a place that is equally or more diverse?

There are over one billion people in Africa, belonging to 56 countries, speaking over 2,000 languages. That is more people and countries than the entire Western world.

South Africa “the country” is different from South Africa “the region.” The people of West Africa are different in color, ethnicity, religion, language, climate, geography and colonial history from those of East Africa. North Africa has been completely separated from Sub-Saharan Africa, in history and culture, since the great desert formed.

And as diverse as the regions of Africa are, the ways that make them similar to each other also make them similar to the rest of the world.

The most popular religion in Africa is Islam, making up 25 percent of the world’s muslim population. The rest are predominantly Christian. Shaman and witch doctors can exist but their practices are adapted to fit the dominant faith.

While the “tribe” as an ethnic and cultural group can still exist, it is incredibly rare for anyone to live a hunter-gatherer existence. For those who do continue, it is a choice, and their contact from is modern world is not cut off. There are no isolated people on this earth.

Africa has cities—modern metropolitan cities—some with tens of millions of people. In and out of cities, everyone has a cell phone (sometimes two). Anyone under 30 has a Facebook and wears popular styles. And they love American hip-hop, from Tupac to Akon.

Of course there are exceptions, as with any country or place you come from or visit. I neither want to be condescending nor too general—I am not an authority. For such an amazing continent that people don’t usually give a chance, Africa is still a frustrating and troubled place that could use a helping hand.

It is my opinion, however, that before we as privileged Westerners can make a meaningful difference, we have to understand the place we are helping. We need to understand that the little continent with all those problems is the size of America, Europe and half of Asia, combined.

We all can use a little clarification.



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