Myths and misconceptions about Africa are commonplace in the West.
Most of us have probably taken geography in school and been bored as hell hearing the teacher explains where the different countries are. Though we took it for granted then, we gained a lot of global knowledge that is now considered common knowledge. For instance, Australia is a continent and a nation; Portuguese, and not Spanish, is the national language of Brazil; and my favorite, the capital of Djibouti is Djibouti. But somewhere along our formal education, misinformation snuck in; whether it was through television specials that were supposed to be educational or teachers who were reading straight from the textbook without processing the information first. Y’all know where we’re going with this, as the title says there are many untrue ideas about Africa, the continent. Much of this is due to a dearth in interest/research which leads to fabrication, and of course our good friend Euro-centrism. What we tried to do here is come up with the top ten myths about Africa that are insulting and, if taken as fact, will make you look like a fool.
Growing up, I never realized the ignorance that surrounds people when they are only aware of where they are from. I can’t fully blame them, especially if they’ve stayed in one place for the majority of their lives. I also can’t blame them when pictures of hungry children in books and on TV show children with big bellies swollen from malnutrition. I would like to take the opportunity to dispel the myths or misconceptions surrounding Africa.
Below are ten of the most common myths I’ve heard over the years, and now you can help shed some light on what too many people still think of as the “dark continent”.
1. Africa is a country
Let’s clear this up first and foremost, I know all you Afroscandic’s know this one, but we need to start schooling more people.
“What country are you from? Africa?” I absolutely detest that question! Even if you don’t know much about a place, I would think people would at least get this question right. Please do yourself a favor and take a look at a globe or a map. Please note that Africa is a CONTINENT and not a country, its not an Island, colony, or a nation. In fact, if you take a closer look, you will see that it is made up of quite a number of different countries, and home to 54 independent, with diverse ecosystems, biomes, cultures, and people. Each country has its own currency, flag, anthem, history, cuisine, music, identity and blend of cultures. In fact more than 2000 languages are spoken in Africa, and its 1 billion inhabitants are made up of over 3000 distinct ethnic groups. Africa is also bigger than most people think it is, even if they know it covers 30,221,000 sq km (11,679,000 sq miles). If you combine the USA, China, India, Europe and Japan – they all fit into Africa. In fact the USA fits into the African continent three times!
2. People in Africa don’t wear clothes or shoes
I find this one to be funny at times. Sometimes people think that when an African comes to this part of the world for the first time, that this is the first time they’ve worn clothes and shoes. Well, let me just say that we do wear clothes and shoes in Africa. We may wear our native garb or choose to wear the same clothes you have on right now. This is not to say that there may be remote tribes that dress different or may not be as fully covered when it comes to clothing. But for the most part, Africans in Africa wear clothing and shoes.
3. All Africans speak the same language “Everybody Speaks African”
False. Though English and French are the primary languages spoken in African nations, each ethnic group has its own unique language and among them various regional dialects. We do not all speak the same language. But somehow, many people in the West get the idea that African is one language composed of mainly click ‘noises’.
In fact, within one country alone, you may have different tribes speak different languages. For example, the Ashanti tribe of Ghana speak Twi (sort of pronounced like “tree” but not quite) but people from the capital of Ghana (Accra) who are of a different tribe speak Ga. Another tribe speaks Ewe. There are still more languages and dialects within Ghana alone. That’s just one country and just a few languages. So no, we do not all speak the same language.
4. Everyone Lives in a Jungle
Again, living situations might vary from place to place depending on the landscape, with some more isolated tribes, and they may live more closely to wild animals. But how is that any different from someone who lives out in the country who lives more closely to bears and mountain lions? We have beautiful cities in Africa where one does not need to worry about those animals unless they choose to go out looking for them. Africa is undergoing an explosion of urbanization, high rises, shopping malls and new housing developments are springing up with regularity in a concerted effort to cater to Africa’s growing middle classes. Cities like Lagos, Nairobi, Accra, Mogadishu, and Johannesburg are crowded with millions of people in search of education, jobs, or just a good time; such locations behold striking sky scrapers, lush beaches, and a colorful nightlife. The only time I’ve seen a lion or tiger in my life was in the Zoo and when I was on safari in Uganda.
5. Africa is All about Poverty
Enough with the starving Ethiopian jokes! Such comments are simplistic and insensitive to one of Africa’s (and the world’s) more serious issues. Africa is rich in natural resources and mineral wealth and so it goes without saying that, theoretically, it’s a wealthy place. But exploitation by outsiders – corporations and governments – and power hungry leaders have robbed the land dry. Sierra Leone, Congo, the Great Lakes region, the list goes on. African creativity is at its peak, from fashion and music to art and culture, the continent’s creative talent is in abundance. Websites like Jamati, Naija Bella and Mimi showcase what the continent has to offer while Charlayne Hunter-Gault’s New News Out of Africa subtitled Uncovering Africa’s Renaissance does all it can to prove beyond doubt that the basket case scenario that’s often presented in the media is unfair and unbalanced. The (soccer) World Cup in South Africa in June will be a chance to show the world that Africa can put on a global event on a massive scale and do it well. It will be Africa’s chance to party to the world, something the continent is rarely allowed to do in the Western media.
6. Africa is Dangerous and Violent
With wars, revolutions, pirates and child soldiers making the news, it’s really no wonder that the myth about Africa being a dangerous place is a common one. If New York City was judged by reading the New York Post, few tourists would dream of visiting. Of course bad news is news, so you don’t get to hear enough about the good things that happen on the continent. How often do you hear about Botswanaor Ghana in the news? How often is the middle class in Africa given any air time? Never really. As a visitor to Africa it’s likely you’ll avoid certain countries no one would suggest you spend a week at the beach in Somalia. There are countries, some cities and borders that are very dangerous, but given the size of the continent, it is not hard to see that there are many perfectly peaceful and safe places to visit. Violent crime against tourists in all African countries is quite rare. As a visitor you are much more likely to be killed with kindness than anything else.
7. The Whole Continent is at War/There’s No Democracy
Contrary to what you see and read, Africa has a number of thriving democracies. Ghana is often heralded as a beacon of hope for democracy on the continent with President Obama offering a personal seal of approval on his visit to the country last year. Botswana, the world’s biggest diamond producer, has also been hailed as an example to its continental peers. Let’s also not forget, that the majority of African nations have been independent for roughly 40 or 50 years, meaning we have a ways to go, but as you can see many of us are on a great start.
8. Women are Repressed
This is so not the case. Women have traditionally been held in high-esteem in African society as the matriarchs and foundations of a community. A case in point, Rwanda has the highest number of female parliamentarians in the world while all over the continent women sit in positions of high power.
9. Everyone Practices Voodoo
Contrary to popular belief, modern day missionaries didn’t bring Christianity, in particular, and religion, in general, to Africa. In fact, the roots of Christianity on the continent can be found in the Bible and Ethiopia’s last remaining Jewish community, the Falash Mura trace their roots back to the biblical King Solomon. Today, Christianity is the most widely practiced religion in Africa, with Islam and traditional religions following closely behind. While church attendance in some parts of the world continues to decline, in Africa, the opposite is in fact true. Mission analysts at the Free Methodist Church of North America say their African churches are the fastest growing in their denomination and the largest Anglican province in the world is in Nigeria. That’s not to say that Christianity civilized the so-called ‘the dark continent. African Traditional Religion has been demonized as being evil and destructive but, as with all faiths, there’s the good and the bad, the literal and the figurative. Many Africans, though defining themselves as Muslim or Christian, incorporate some elements of traditional religion in their faith.
10. Egypt Was the Only History Maker
Being that history is one person’s account of controversial events of the past, a great deal of integral information often gets left out. Like how Africa had many nations and empires prior to colonization that thrived in culture, scholarship, and commerce (check any Nas album for musical commentary). We often get this idea that Africa’s greatness rests in Egypt where fair skinned pharaohs surpassed the entire continent. In the 11th Century a flourishing kingdom we know now as Great Zimbabwe was built in southern Africa. Its walls are still standing today. In the 12th Century, while Oxford and Cambridge were just getting founded, Timbuktu in Mali already had three thriving universities and more than 180 Quranic schools. But let’s not forget the Songhai, Ashanti, Zulu, Igbo, and Shona empires that have made vast contributions to all of human history. (FYI: Those were just a few ethnic groups, please share any others you have come across in your studies).
While there are many more other misconceptions surrounding Africa, those are the most common ones. I ask you the reader that instead of allowing TV or books to be the only ones to mold your thinking, please, ask an African about their culture. So the next time you hear some deceptive fact about Africa, ask yourself, “did they really just say that?”