It’s somewhat ironic that Africa is called the Dark Continent because it’s one of the sunniest landmasses around, and the people are generally of an equally sunny disposition. Of course the idea of darkness has little to do with climate; instead it has to do with a prevailing lack of general knowledge about the continent.
Africa is a misunderstood and misaligned continent. And while we have the global media to thank for spreading some common misconceptions about Africa, there really is no excuse for ignorance, which brings us to the greatest, most inexcusable and most annoying misconception:
1) Africa is one country
People often go on holiday to “Africa”, completely forgetting that it is made up of 54 separate nations. Each nation has its own character, history, landmarks, attractions and way of life. You can’t generalise Africa just as you can’t generalise Europe, or Asia, or South America.
2) Everyone knows everyone else
This is closely related to the idea of Africa as one country. South Africans travelling in Europe or the US are often asked whether they know cousin so-and-so who lives in Namibia, or such-and-such who is a tour guide in Kenya. I imagine Namibians and Kenyans (Ugandans, Rwandans, Nigerians, Zimbabweans …) suffer likewise. It’s akin to asking someone from Germany if they know your friend who lives in Lichtenstein.
3) There are no cities, only unpaved villages
Aside from some of the larger cities that may have featured in movies (District 9 put Johannesburg firmly on the international map) or made the news, many foreigners assume that most of Africa’s population lives in huts in villages. Cities such as Nairobi, Windhoek, Maputo, Lusaka, Gaborone, Dakar, Cairo and Algiers are considered the exception and not the rule. While it is true that much of Africa is still rural, cities (as the “developed world” know them) abound.
4) Wild animals roam the streets
This is closely related to misconception no. 3. If we live in huts in villages, it is only logical that we share the streets with lions and elephants. Many Africans (of any country) have despaired at this question and played up the misconception by relating stories of how they travel to work on the back of their personal elephant, how streets are backed up by people dropping their kids off at school on rhinos and hippos, and how they have to take special precautions to ensure that lions and crocodiles don’t drag them away during the night. We don’t do ourselves in favours by doing this, but the temptation is just too great.
5) Europe is for learning, Africa is for adventure
Most people associate Africa with its wildlife. Discovery channel and National Geographic have done a great job presenting the continent’s varied bush and savanna plains with their indigenous elephants, crocodiles, lions and hyenas to the world. Few people associate Africa with learning. The misconception is that Africa is too primitive and too backward to have anything to teach the “developed world”. Countries in Africa may have developed in a different way to those in Europe, Asia and Northern America but that does not make them backward.
All countries in Africa have a rich history that stretches back further than any “developed” nation can claim. Think Egypt with its contribution to learning, language and technology (which still baffles the smartest minds of today). Think the verbal history of tribes carried through generations for millennia. Think of the unique adaptations and innovations that have allowed people to live in some of the harshest conditions and climates in the world. Think of the diversity in the lessons that can be learned.
In short, Africa is not a one-stop destination. The countries and the people therein would appreciate it if the rest of the world would remember that. And please, don’t ask us about our pet elephants.