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Top 10 Myths About Africa

Top 10 Misconceptions About Africa

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Myths and misconceptions about Africa are commonplace in the West. On a recent episode of the American tv reality series, "Amazing Race", one of the contestants exclaims, "There's no snow in Africa!". Well, in fact there is. This is just one example of the kinds of things many people think they know about Africa, but in fact have quite wrong. 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

Map of Africa - Made From Recycled Tin
© Anouk Zijlma
People often refer to "Africa" as if it is a country rather than a continent. Well, it is a continent and home to 54 independent, unique countries with South Sudan being the latest addition in July 2011. 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! More Africa Facts...

2. Africa is Dangerous and Violent

young boy
© Michael Daecher
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 Botswana or 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, and personally I feel a lot safer walking around Accra than Amsterdam. As a visitor you are much more likely to be killed with kindness than anything else.

3. Africa is Poor and Disease Ridden

A woman and her child were enjoying morning porridge in Nabila Village, Northern Ghana.
Lauren Mong
Poverty is obviously something that will strike you as a visitor to many African countries. But African countries are not all poor. It's the distribution of wealth that's the biggest problem. South Africa is an incredibly wealthy country. In fact its GDP outranks that of Belgium and Sweden. It has many natural resources, a good education system, excellent universities, sparkling business districts and very advanced hospitals. Unfortunately much of its population does not get to share the wealth. Did you know that Egypt, Nigeria and Algeria are all richer on paper (as per GDP and PPP) than Denmark and Norway? There are middle class people in every African country commuting to work every day, complaining about taxes and watching their kids play soccer every weekend.
Diseases take millions of lives every year in Africa because the poor lack access to childhood immunization programs and basic health care, not because the continent is infested with scary illnesses. Successful immunization programs have made huge strides in reducing polio and measles in the last decade. AIDS is prevalent in countries like South Africa, but we all know what to do to avoid it. As long as you are up to date on your vaccines as a visitor, you are unlikely to catch anything more tropical than a sunburn. Avoiding malaria is easy when you take prophylactics and have the money to sleep under a mosquito net. More on vaccinations you need when traveling to Africa ...

4. African Politicians Are All Corrupt

Nelson Mandela Tour, South Africa
Getty Images/Gareth Cattermole
Corrupt politicians aren't exactly unique to Africa, but the continent does seem to have more than its fair share. At least Nelson Mandela showed the world that Africa is capable of producing an honest leader. Some of the political crises in Africa can be blamed on colonial legacy but most of it reflects greed and corruption on the part of incumbent presidents and political parties. 2011 elections in Uganda and Cameroon, left the incumbents securely in place after questionable tactics and ballot counts. But the North Africans have certainly shown the way forward, starting with the Tunisian revolution and (so far) ending with the toppling of Libya's Gaddafi. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia along with 2 other women received the Nobel Peace Prize. And Zambia had a successful and fair election with a change of ruling party.

5. Africa Has No History

Grande Mosque made of mud, Djenne, Mali
© Getty Images/Glen Allison
It's a common misconception that Africa has no history beyond its people scrabbling about trying to survive in a harsh environment. But consider the ancient Egyptian monuments, the rock-hewn churches of Ethiopia, the Fes medina, and you obviously have proof of Africa's rich history. 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. The San Bushmen living in the Kalahari desert may appear to be "living in the stone age" but they've been trading and inter-marrying with their neighbors for millennia. There are hundreds of caves all over southern Africa decorated by San ancestors that date back 20,000 years. No culture lives in a vacuum, every culture is dynamic. There's plenty of history in Africa, we just don't learn enough about it. If you'd like to see some of Africa's ancient civilizations, check out these great sights. And see About.com's African History site for more.

6. Africa is Filled With Dangerous Animals Roaming Freely

African Elephant, Serengeti, Tanzania
© Anouk Zijlma
It's true that rhinos graze just a few miles from the center of Nairobi, East Africa's biggest city. And there are golf courses in South Africa where the water hazards are home to crocodiles. Hyenas still appear in Malawi's capital city, Lilongwe, so it's best not to walk around at night. But, for the most part, Africa's wildlife is basically confined to national parks and reserves, including Nairobi's rhinos. You are likely to see the odd ostrich and baboon by the side of the road in southern Africa, but elephant, giraffe, lion and buffalo do not roam around towns or in suburbs. There is just too much competition for resources with a rapidly growing population. Keeping what remains of Africa's wildlife safely in reserves and national parks also helps protect farmers from wildlife destroying crops and eating their cattle. That's not to say you'll feel like you are driving around a large zoo when on safari, national parks and protected areas are often larger than many European countries. More about Africa's wildlife ...

7. Africa is Technologically Backward

Maasai on Cell Phone
© Getty Images
The idea that technical innovation is lacking in Africa is laughable to anyone who has spent a little time there. In Ghana I've watched entire cars being re-built from scrap by "fitters", all without an engineering degree. Walk through any school playground in Zambia and you're bound to see a child play with a home made toy car complete with steering capabilities. What some African nations lack is access to education and resources, innovation is in plentiful supply. Many people responded to the Malawian boy who Harnessed the Wind, but this is actually the type of story that could be told many times over, just check out the Afrigadget blog, or the long list of African inventions gathered by Kumatoo.com. If you visit any country in Africa, you can't help but notice that everyone is chatting away on their cell phones. Cell phones are in fact being used in hugely innovative ways throughout Africa. Kenya has established a highly effective mobile banking system, opening up rural areas to credit in ways that has revolutionized small businesses. You see traditional Maasai in their bright red shukas texting one another current cattle prices and health care workers sharing valuable immunization data with one another.

8. It's Always Hot in Africa

Snow-capped mountains of Lesotho, Southern Africa
© Linda Fogarty
If you've only visited West Africa, I'd say it would be entirely appropriate to say "it's always hot in Africa". But that's where this myth stops. It snows in Africa, yes it does. Both northern and southern Africa experience cold winters with frequent frost, as well as hot summers. Mountains, plateaus, cold oceans, warm oceans, rainy and dry seasons -- all affect weather patterns in individual countries as well. It is fair to say that conversations about the weather in much of Africa tends to focus more on whether its dry or wet, than about the temperature being hot or cold. More about the weather and season in Africa.

9. Africa Needs Aid (and Celebrities) to Help it "Develop"

Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie donate $2 million to wildlife sanctuary in Namibia
Getty Images/Jason Merritt
It's questionable how much good aid money has done for African countries, and it's not just because it has ended up in the wrong hands. Mainly it's because projects are often ill-defined, ill-conceived and ignore any input from the people they aim to "help". A lot of aid, while given in the right spirit, has actually been somewhat detrimental to African development. For a start, aid money has subsidized some very corrupt governments and crippled efforts to increase government transparency. Real "fair trade" agreements would help a lot more than aid. Steady employment, a stable economy and access to credit would also benefit most people looking to better their lives. Certainly celebrity visits are not the answer. We'd find it a bit odd if a Nigerian superstar came over to Chicago and started handing out money to those on welfare. We all know that it would not make the problem simply go away -- life is a bit too complicated for easy solutions. There are many unsung local heroes making a difference in communities all over Africa. So it's also unfair to think that the poor in Africa are simply sitting around waiting for handouts. Having said all this, there are some charities that truly make a difference, but it would be nice to see them based in Africa and not in New York or Silicon Valley.

10. Africans All Have Rhythm

Intore Dancer, Rwanda
Anouk Zijlma
Ok, this one might have some merit. The amount of times I have been out-danced by toddlers and seventy year old grandmas in various African locations makes it hard for me to dispel this myth. In the past four decades I have been to dive bars, clubs and festivals throughout the continent and have observed foreigners trying their best to keep up with the locals, to no avail. Just recently I was at an outdoor nightclub in Kumasi. It was a sweltering hot night, people were dancing, my mouth was agape at their style and moves. Up pops a British backpacker and begins to gyrate rather awkwardly. I turned around and found a sea of smiles in the darkness. Our Ghanaian friends were laughing so much they actually fell to the ground. "What is the problem with you white people? Why can't you dance?". I mumbled something incoherent about Westerners not being civilized enough to have music, song and dance surround us from the cradle to the grave... Do check out some of Africa's music festivals and see if I'm right about this.
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