Debunking Common Myths and Stereotypes About Africa
The world continues to expand and develop in various magnificent ways. Computers now function like human brains, a cancer-detecting pill exists, and it’s now possible to instantly communicate with people from different parts of the world due to video conferencing. There’s no denying that humanity has evolved in remarkable ways, but there is still a great deal of inequality and misunderstandings that exist in society, especially on a global level.
One vastly misunderstood place covers 6 percent of the Earth’s surface and more than 1.1 billion of the world’s population calls it home: Africa. There are many myths about Africa that people throughout the world believe to be true. The truth is that these myths are rooted in misinformation, lack of knowledge and stereotypes. A danger to the advancement of society, stereotypes lead to the widespread belief of myths.
The Connection Between Stereotypes and Myths
We all first view the world through a single lens, and our own life experiences and beliefs impact our actions and behaviors unconsciously. This is referred to as implicit or unconscious bias. Everyone makes these generalizations, and they help and protect us in this complex world. But stereotypes are different. They are oversimplified and based merely on group membership and can be built upon any characteristic, such as age, a physical trait, gender, race or nationality.
Our beliefs about groups of people stem from socialization, including our parents, peers, national culture, subcultures and even the media. If this is true, stereotypes act as a way to justify placements in society. This concept is known as legitimizing myths – and it acts as a justification for social practices that influence groups and allocate social value within the social system.
In short, generalizations can be helpful but stereotypes are dangerous. Based on oversimplified, fixed assumptions about groups of people, stereotypes are often justified within social systems, causing myths that come with widespread belief. Among things to know about Africa is the fact that the continent has been the target of an unfathomable amount of stereotyping, which has led to the widespread belief of much false information.
Africa is a rich and diverse place. It encompasses more than 1,500 languages and 16 percent of the world’s population. To better understand the breadth of this diversity, let’s dissect seven myths about Africa.
Myth 1: It is Always Hot in Africa
Yes, the Sahara Desert is in Africa and it makes up about one-third of Africa’s landmass. This fact leads many people to think that the majority of Africa is sweltering hot and a vast, open land of emptiness. The truth, however, is that deserts aren’t necessarily hot all the time and much of Africa is not a desert.
The northern part of Africa where the Sahara is located is called Northern Africa, and everything south of that is known as Sub-Saharan Africa.
Here are a few facts about Africa’s climate:
- It Snows in Africa. There are ski resorts in Morocco and quite a few other African countries. Africa’s high elevations experience snowfall, even those locations close to the equator. Locations in South Africa experience below-freezing temperatures throughout the winter.
- The Largest Vegetation Zone in Africa is Savanna. People commonly mistake Africa as one gigantic desert. The truth is that Africa contains deserts, rainforests, mountains and savannas. A savanna is a grassy plain with only a few trees, and it’s often found in tropical and subtropical regions. Many people accurately describe the African savanna as rolling grassland dotted with trees.
- The Temperature Variation is Vast. Africa is large, therefore it’s difficult to make any generalizations about the continent as a whole. There are, of course, changes in seasons and many different countries with different elevations. This makes is difficult to provide an average temperature. Asking for an average temperature in Africa would be like asking for the average temperature for North America and half of South America, combined.
Myth 2: Africa Is a Country
Africa is a continent made up of 54 independent countries, and it’s the world’s oldest populated area. Misconceptions of Africa often include the belief that it’s its own country, or made up of only a few countries. The continent of Africa is vast, and it’s the second largest continent in the world. Of the nearly 200 independent countries on Earth, a quarter of them are in Africa, where the population is more than 1 billion.
Besides Ethiopia and Liberia, Africa was colonized by non-African countries. Many different countries, including Germany and France, claimed to rule parts of Africa in what became known as “The Scramble for Africa.”
Over time, however, African countries began taking back their independence. After World War II, most African countries used the borders established by the non-African colonies to form the borderlines for their independent countries.
The people of Africa’s countries speak a great variety of languages, Arabic being the most popular with about 170 million speakers. Besides Arabic, the people of Africa speak English, Swahili, French, Portuguese, Spanish and many more languages. About 25 percent of the languages spoken in African countries aren’t recognized anywhere else in the world, which is a testament to its diversity and fullness.
Every African country is different, and each has its own cultures and subcultures. People around the world tend to think of Africa as a whole, which is likely why myths of Africa as a single country exist.
Myth 3: Africa Is Lacking Innovation
Common misconceptions of Africa include the idea that it is behind the rest of the world, lacking in innovative technology. The truth is that people in some African countries lack access to education and resources, but they make the most of what they have. They are undoubtedly resourceful and innovative.
Consider the following African inventions as examples:
- Traffic-Regulating Robots. Thérèse Izay from Congo-Kinshasa invented humanlike robots to regulate traffic in Kinshasa. The robots function as a traffic light combined with a crossing guard. In March 2015, there were five robots regulating traffic in this city, located in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
- Drone in Nigeria. In December of 2013, Nigeria’s first unmanned aerial vehicle, commonly referred to as a drone, was created at the Nigerian Air Force School of Engineers. It can fly nonstop at 3,000 feet for nearly four hours. This is a significant accomplishment because it was Nigeria’s first indigenous drone flight.
- Mercedes S-Class Interior Design. Steeve Burkhalter from Congo-Brazzaville designed the interior of the Mercedes’ concept car.
It is true that some African countries have access to fewer resources and therefore neglect opportunities to keep pace with other areas around the world. This fact, however, does not mean that all Africans avoid technology.
Myth #3: Africa is lacking innovation. Fact: The truth is that people in some African countries lack access to education and resources, but they make the most of what they have. They are undoubtedly resourceful and innovative.
In fact, mobile data usage in Africa is expected to grow 20 times by 2019 – a statistic that is double the projected growth on a global level. Mobile technology has transformed many African countries because it is more readily available than computers. Consider the following
- Cell phones are as common in Nigeria and South Africa as they are in the United States – about nine out of 10 people own one.
- Mobile banking is common in Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya.
- Smartphone usage is on the rise, with 34 percent of South Africans and 27 percent of Nigerians owning one
Seventy percent of the population of Africa is under age 30, which is proof that the oldest continent is home to many young people. The continent is also increasingly urban, with more than 50 cities with populations greater than a million people. Thirty-nine percent of Africans live in urban areas. The young age demographic, coupled with the urbanization of Africa, is a recipe for further innovation and more positive change.
Myth 4: Everyone in Africa Is Poor
Common misconceptions of Africa include the ideas that everyone lives in poverty and there are no growing industries or opportunities. While it’s true that in Sub-Saharan Africa, it is estimated that more than 218 million people live in extreme poverty, many people simply do not see past the statistics to gain a deeper understanding about the root of the problems. Furthermore, many people fail to understand that not every African country is poor, and that Africa is, in fact, quite rich in many growing areas.
When it comes to oil and gas potential, especially, Africa is not poor. In 2013, the majority of the global discoveries in the oil and gas sector were made in Africa, and there are hundreds of companies surveying the area. Nine-tenths of Africa’s annual production volume of gas is exported from Nigeria, Libya, Algeria and Egypt.
While it still remains largely underexplored, Africa’s potential for oil is positioned to grow significantly over the next two decades. The global market can change quickly, but there is evidence to support Africa’s position as an oil and gas leader in the future.
Mineral reserves in Africa are also abundant. The continent exported 6.5 percent of the world’s total mineral exports by mining 20 percent of the world’s land in 2011. Consider the following African mineral and natural resource exports as an example of the magnitude of the continent’s impact
- Industrial Diamond. Africa accounts for about 46 percent of the world’s diamonds. Botswana, Tanzania, Democratic Republic of Congo and Sierra Leone are the top exporters.
- Bauxite. Bauxite earns Guinea a great deal of foreign exchange, and the country exports about 8 percent of the world’s total.
- Platinum Group Metals. Africa exports most of the world’s platinum group metals, contributing an astounding 75 percent of the world’s total output. South Africa contributes most of this metal.
- Phosphate Rock. Algeria, Egypt, Senegal and South Africa account for most of the continent’s phosphate rock exports.
- Gold. As the most mined resource in Africa, it’s responsible for about 21 percent of the world’s total. Countries exporting gold include South Africa, Ghana and Tanzania, among many others.
- Vermiculite. South Africa and Zimbabwe export most of the continent’s vermiculite.
- Cobalt. Zambia provides the world with a great deal of cobalt, and the country is highly dependent on this export.
- Zirconium. Much of the world’s supply of zirconium is mined in and exported from South Africa.
There are many other minerals and natural resources found in abundance in Africa, such as copper, coal, uranium, aluminum, iron and steel.
Myth #4: Everyone in Africa is poor. Fact: Many people fail to understand that not every African country is poor, and that Africa is, in fact, quite rich in many growing areas, including Nigeria, South Africa, and Egypt.
While some of the poorest countries in the world are located in Africa, it’s worth noting that not every country in Africa is poor. Looking at gross national product, there are a few wealthy counties in the continent, such as the following:
- Nigeria. The country exports a large amount of the world’s oil, and it’s also the African country with the highest population. Its GDP is more than $594 billion, and it’s positioned to become one of the world’s largest economies by 2020.
- South Africa. Unlike many other African countries, South Africa isn’t dependent on one prime resource. Its stock exchange is the 18th largest in the world, and it’s also a popular destination for tourists.
- Egypt. Although Egypt has experienced some setback in recent years, with tourism and construction negatively impacted, the country remains one of the wealthiest in the continent.
Besides the myth that all of Africa is poverty stricken, there is also the false belief that the whole of the continent is plagued with disease.
Myth 5: Africa Is Disease-Ridden
Many, but not all, African countries lack proper health resources. Global attention has focused on the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Sub-Saharan Africa and more recently on the Ebola virus disease (EVD) outbreak.
The Ebola disease has gained national attention and has come with vast misinformation, which has led to hysteria and myths. Statistics prove that as of April 2015, the disease is affecting three African countries:
- Sierra Leone
Ebola previously affected other countries, African and other, but as of April 2015 there have been no reported cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Myth #5: Africa is disease-ridden. Fact: Many, but not all, African countries lack proper health resources. Ebola, for example, currently affecting Sierra Leona, Liberia, and Guinea, has no reported cases in any other African country as of April 2015.
There has been a great deal of fear and misunderstanding surrounding the Ebola outbreak, which has undoubtedly led to globally shared misconceptions about the people of Africa. The disease is excruciating and quickly fatal, a fact that has led to the hysteria surrounding it.
Here are a few truths about Ebola in Africa to put things in perspective:
- Ebola is not spread like a common cold, nor does it have the potential to become a global pandemic.
- It is spread through direct contact with the body of a person who has the virus. This means the bodily fluid of an infected individual must come into contact with the mucous membranes of an uninfected individual.
- Simply traveling to Africa is not a risk factor for contracting Ebola.
Myth 6: It is Unsafe to Visit Africa
Negative associations and common misconceptions about Africa lead many people to falsely believe that all of Africa is unsafe to visit. Though there are parts of Africa that may not be recommended for foreigners to travel, that is not reflective of the continent as a whole.
Global news tends to focus on the negative, so many people around the world only hear of the wars, disease and poverty that the continent has experienced. The news rarely covers anything about the emerging middle class in Africa countries, or the beautiful locations on the continent.
Myth #6: It is unsafe to visit Africa. Fact: Though there are parts of Africa that may not be recommended for foreigners to travel, there are plenty of perfectly safe (and beautiful!) locations on the continent.
Of course, if you were to visit Africa you would likely avoid certain locations, but there are plenty of perfectly safe locations to visit. The following places in Africa are popular for tourism:
- Morocco. There are pristine beaches, opportunities for trekking the magnificent landscape, plenty of history, and festivals to be discovered in a Moroccan adventure.
- South Africa. Cape Town and South Africa are continually named on must-see travel lists due to their rich culture, wildlife and beautiful landscapes.
- Senegal. Popular Senegal attractions include Goree Island, Dakar and Pink Lake. The Casamance Region is also popular for dolphin watching and visiting remote beaches.
- Ghana. With its rich history and diverse wildlife, Ghana is a well-travelled destination for tourists. The locals are known for being some of the friendliest in the world.
- Tanzania. A view of breathtaking Mount Kilimanjaro is enough to attract most people to Tanzania. But if that’s not enough, there’s also the Serengeti, multicultural food and welcoming locals.
It’s always recommended to take customary precautions when visiting a country that is foreign to you, such as enrolling in a smart traveler program, determining where your embassy is before traveling and getting your immunizations.
Myth 7: All Government and Politics Are Corrupt in Africa
There’s a shared misconception that every aspect of African politics is fueled by corruption and deceit. It’s true that the continent has experienced its share of corrupt leadership, but it’s also true that Africa has experienced some noteworthy leadership.
Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa, was an anti-apartheid politician and revolutionary who earned The Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.
Myth #7: African government and politics are corrupt. Fact: Africa has experienced noteworthy leadership from the likes of Former President of South Africa Nelson Mandela, as well as Nobel Peace Prize winners Leymah Gbowee of Liberia and President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia.
Three women, two of them African, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011. Leymah Gbowee from Liberia and President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia were awarded the honor for their work in spearheading the women’s peace movement that led to the conclusion of the Second Liberian Civil War.
Africa’s young entrepreneurs are relentless when it comes to making continued progress. They’re dedicated to persistent positive change, and the people of Africa will undoubtedly continue to develop.
Future Development of Africa
Africa is a continent with much to offer the rest of the world, and its entrepreneurial youth are determined to make an impact on society – on both local and global levels. Six of the 10 fastest-growing economies are located in Africa, a fact that serves as a testament to its ambition and potential for further development.
There are also many small, microfinance projects in the works, which help those suffering in poverty learn skills needed to earn a better living. The middle class is ambitious and working toward bridging economic gaps. In fact, 23 of African’s countries are now middle-income level.
Is Africa developing? Yes, it is without a doubt developing. It is happening faster in countries such as Rwanda or Cote D’Ivoire, and happening slower in other countries, such as Somalia. African countries are also maintaining relationships with non-African countries, specifically China. Such relationships are helping many African countries execute large infrastructure projects such as roads and dams.
As African countries continue to develop and work with other countries around the world, it’s vital to understand cultural differences. Here are a few tips to consider:
- Remember that Africa is a vast, culturally diverse continent. Standard greetings – and of course languages – will be different depending on the area. Learn an appropriate greeting before conducting business.
- Research cultural norms and expectations before you visit Africa or conduct business communications with someone from Africa. There isn’t one right way to interact with someone from Africa. Be sure to do your research so you present yourself in a professional and respectful manner.
- Know appropriate business card etiquette. In South Africa, standard business card etiquette is appropriate. The general rules apply – treat the card with respect, tuck it away, preferably not in a pocket, and add a comment to it if necessary.
- Understand that business is driven by relationships. Generally speaking, business relationships in Africa are driven by relationships more so than transactions – just another reason to communicate well.
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