John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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Africa Is Big(ger) Than You Thought

by John Campbell
November 9, 2011

This image has been modified from its original to fit this space. Click the photo to see Kai Krause's original design.

In my elementary school classrooms, as in most, the Mercator projection was the dominant depiction of the world. Canada, Greenland, and the (then) Soviet Union were huge and out of proportion (which in the last case may have been encouraged by our perception of the “Red Menace”). So was Antarctica. In comparison, Europe, the United States, and Africa were well-proportioned but small. Perhaps this elementary school image of the world contributes to our typical under-sizing of Africa, at least in our imaginations.

Our intern has recently pointed me to a map of Africa, created by Kai Krause, that graphically illustrates just how big the continent really is. Krause super-imposes over the continent other countries whose scale we can more easily grasp. For example, the United States fits nicely into sub-Saharan West Africa. If North Africa is included, there is also room to add Spain, Portugal, France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom. All of China stretches only from central to southern Africa. And India nicely fills the Horn and Ethiopia.

This map highlights certain obvious realities. First, Africa’s coastline proportionate to its land area is much smaller than that of other continents. That means, among other things, many fewer harbors – with consequences for landlocked countries as well as the development of long distance trade.

The second is how ludicrous it is to generalize about “Africa.” We bristle when our European friends generalize about the United States, with all of the differences between, say, New York and Mississippi, even though we share a genuine common identity. How much more ludicrous to generalize about a continent with cities as different as Mogadishu, Cape Town, and Dakar – as far apart by air as Beijing and Lhasa or, say, London and Los Angeles, and with no common identity.

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  • Posted by Maduka

    Western attitudes to Africa are driven by a combination of disdain and disinterest. You are much less likely to try to understand what you deeply despise.

    Americans tend to be the worst offenders.

    Last year I was called by an American who very slowly explained to me that he wanted to engage the services of my firm to do consulting work in Zimbabwe. I had to explain to him that South Africa was much closer to Zimbabwe than Lagos. He, like most Americans, didn’t think that African geography was worth paying attention to.

    Richard Dowden tells a story about how he was asked on Sky News how the violence in Cabinda (Angola) would affect the World Cup is South Africa. He had to patiently explain to his interviewer (who should have known better), that the distance between Cabinda and Johannesburg was slightly less than the distance between London and Moscow.

    It doesn’t help that the overwhelming majority of Westerners resident in Africa tend to seclude themselves in gated estates near the coast. For example, virtually all Westerners in Lagos live in the Victoria Island/Ikoyi/Lekki axis. They have no interest in venturing out of their comfort zones (and their respective embassies encourage seclusion – for security reasons).

    This is understandable, but it puts the West at a disadvantage with respect to the Chinese and Indians in forming personal bonds and understanding the rapidly changing face of a very dynamic continent.

  • Posted by Uche

    The world is fast changing and the WEST will be left behind if they do not change their ways.

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