by Christiana Kaiser

Fifty-four countries. Over 900 million people. More than 1,000 languages. More than 1,000 nations/ethnic groups. Many hundreds of faith traditions. Yet, in our collective consciousness this beautiful, dynamic and complex continent and the people who make it such are largely reduced to one big country, one people, one culture. What's more, the realities attributed to the continent in this monolithic vision are almost exclusively derogatory.

The images we receive of Africa, through our schools, media and popular culture emphasize disease, poverty, ignorance, corruption, perpetual conflict and "tribalism." They portray African people as helpless, hopeless and inactive. They paint the picture of a place where no one would live if they had a choice, of a desperate place in need of charity.

It is no accident that these images of Africa dominate our perspective of the continent. They are the result of 500 years of aggressive, calculated disinformation about Africa created and reinforced by Europeans and European-Americans who used them to protect and to justify their interests in systems that enslaved, colonized and exploited millions of people.

Five hundred years ago dehumanizing characterizations of African people contributed to the foundation of the ideology of racism. Through the years they served as justification for mass crimes against humanity. Today they serve to assuage our national guilt, to convince us that the challenges that Africa faces are inevitable and somehow inherent in the continent thereby absolving us of responsibility for our role in creating and maintaining those conditions.

Supporting African people's struggles for justice and equity requires that we develop our understanding of the complexity of African social, economic and political affairs and look for guidance in this effort from the experts, Africans themselves. An essential part of this process is to work to identify our part in injustices in Africa and to deconstruct our own negative ideas about the continent in order to make space for images that reflect the many diverse realities for African people.


Common Myths and Stereotypes

Africa is not that big.
These Ogoni (a Nigerian minority group) protesters marched in Washington, DC on November 10, 2006, the anniversary of the hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa. Photo: Grundlepuck on
One of the ways that the image of Africa has been minimized is in the maps we use. Africa is the second largest continent. It is the size of China, the US, India, Europe, Argentina and New Zealand combined. Yet, the common Mercator Projection Map grossly distorts the size of Africa, and other regions near the equator, in relation to other parts of the world. Africa is 14.5 times larger than Greenland but in the Mercator projection they appear to be about the same size. New maps, like the Peters Projection Map are "area accurate" and represent the size of Africa and other regions in correct proportion to one another.

One country, one people, one culture.
Africa is comprised of 54 diverse countries each with its own distinct history and identity. African countries are not only geographically, culturally and politically diverse between nations but internally as well. In a single country like Ghana, about the size of Oregon, there are more than 50 languages spoken, more than 50 nations/ethnic groups and hundreds of faith traditions.

All jungle and wild safari animals.
Despite the images reproduced by so many Disney movies and theme parks, most of the continent is not rainforest. Of the parts that are, only the smallest portion of them could be technically classified as "jungle." Nor is Africa mostly savannahs where wild herds roam free amongst Acacia trees under the setting sun. In fact, the ecology of the continent is extremely diverse. According to the World Wildlife Federation, Africa is one of the "richest [continents] in terms of species and habitat diversity, much of which is found nowhere else on Earth." Despite this diversity "wild jungle" and romanticized safari stereotypes are pervasive. The imagery of vast jungles has been reinforced through the years by racist portrayals of Africa as a backward wilderness, such as the portrayal in Tarzan movies. Remember, the premise of the Tarzan stories was that a white man raised by apes was fit to rule Africans. The safari imagery popularized by the so-called "great white hunters" like Ernest Hemingway and Theodore Roosevelt, and more recently 'The Lion King,' imagines an Africa made beautiful by its animals and landscape void of African people.

Africa is poor.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Africa is the richest continent in terms of natural resources, producing 30% of the world's gold, 49% of the diamonds and 20% of the uranium along with a long list of other abundant resources including copper, bauxite, natural gas, oil and agricultural products. Multinational corporations are fully aware of Africa's wealth. Coca-Cola has reaped its highest profit margin in Sub-Saharan Africa. Shell, Chevron and other oil companies move millions of barrels of oil a day out of Africa, primarily from Nigeria, Angola, Sudan, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon. Up to 18% of oil used in the US comes from Africa. This amount is expected to increase to 25% in the next 10 years. The world's largest deposits of Columbo-Tantalite (Coltan) are located in the Democratic Republic of Congo where civil war (starting in 1998) and continued conflict are estimated to have killed as many as four million people. Coltan, which is essential to the production of capacitors in electronic equipment like cell phones and laptops, is in high demand. As its value has skyrocketed, some have likened the scramble for Coltan in the eastern Congo to the California Gold Rush and cited it as a major factor in causing and perpetuating the war.

African leaders refuse to provide basic health care and education for their people.
Under the Structural Adjustment Programs instituted in many African countries in the 1980s and '90s, countries were required to undertake measures to suit IMF and World Bank lenders. Chief among these conditions was the requirement to cut funding for public health care and education in order to free up funds to pay the interest on new loans. As a result, many countries have "cash and carry" systems where only those who can afford to pay receive health care and other services.

Adding to the burden of health care infrastructure in Africa is the emigration of health care professionals to the West. In the midst of the AIDS pandemic US recruitment firms are actively recruiting African nurses to leave their home countries to fill nursing shortages in the US. Fifty thousand new green cards have been made available for this purpose by the Bush Administration.

Africa is overpopulated.
Europe is more than twice as densely populated as Africa. The US too is more densely populated than Africa (76 versus 65 people per square mile). Much of the argument that Africa is overpopulated is based on the misconception that food shortages are caused by a lack of capacity to produce food rather than complex international political and economic factors. This position warns of environmental destruction caused by large population but fails to take into account that environmental impact is caused by certain methods of procuring resources and the amount of resources consumed rather than mere numbers of people. On average, a North American's impact on the environment is seven times greater than an African's.

Students study English at Africa University in Zimbabwe, one of the continent’s hundreds of colleges and universities. Photo: Mark Taber

Most Africans are illiterate and uneducated.
This is simply not true. The subtext of this stereotype is that learning only occurs on paper and in European languages. Many people who are called illiterate because they do not read and write English, French or Portuguese speak multiple languages. Across the continent, fluency in several languages is commonplace and the majority of Africans are also literate in one or more African or European languages. Let's be honest, many in the US equate literacy in English and education in Western curriculum with intelligence and capacity to contribute to society. This stereotype denies the cultural, historical and political value of rich oral traditions and defines Africans as recipients rather than producers of knowledge and ideas. Meanwhile, hundreds of African Universities and colleges continue to produce world class scholars and professionals and Africans make up the most highly educated group of immigrants to the US.

Africans are prone to 'tribal' conflict.
The notion of "tribes" and "tribalism" originated among Europeans who were seeking to justify enslavement and exploitation. It is a term that is reserved for "other" people and is rarely used for Europeans and other white people.

The concept of tribalism is harmful not only for its racist application but also because it obscures the true causes of conflicts and makes them seem inevitable and inescapable. The 1994 genocide in Rwanda is widely attributed to "tribal" hatred that "always existed." In fact, "Hutu" and "Tutsi" are not racial or ethnic categories at all. They are designations that resulted from Belgian imposition during colonialism. The Belgians established a minority elite by assigning people membership to one group or the other based on what they saw to be "superior" racial characteristics among some and issued people identity cards on that basis.

Colonialism helped Africa by creating infrastructure.
Little was done by colonialists in Africa that did not have a direct benefit for their home country. Infrastructure was built up in the colonies in order to exploit and oppress people efficiently. Schools were established to indoctrinate. Roads and railways were built to remove resources more easily. Much of this infrastructure was built by Africans who were denied access to the profits from their work.

Colonialism happened a long time ago.
The African Independence era began just 50 years ago. The people of Ghana gained their independence from Britain on March 6, 1957. Africans in many other countries did the same in the following decade. However, others gained independence more recently. Namibia gained independence from Apartheid South Africa in 1990 and South Africans brought about the end of Apartheid just 13 years ago, in 1994.

Christiana studied International Relations at the University of Ghana at Legon and Syracuse University.