How Big is Africa? You Have No Idea. ~ Ryan Pinkard

Via elephant journal
on Jun 15, 2012
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If you know your nerd history, you may have heard of Kai Krause. Krause is famous for developing graphical user interface design, something you might really be thankful for if you have enjoyed computers any anytime after 1985. Whatever else Krause has been up to since then, he was good enough to put together this infographic that combats a concept he calls immapancy—insufficient geographical knowledge. Please share it.

I know a lot of good people—people who care about the world and its problems in a very intelligent way. But even those people are often uninformed for reasons that aren’t their fault.

Take a look at this world map by Google. Does it seem misleading the way that Africa seems much closer in size to the U.S. or China?

In fact, the actual landmass of Africa could swallow the U.S., China, India, Japan, and all of Europe at the same time. Due to the phenomenon that occurs when a three-dimensional globe is turned into a two-dimensional map, the view of the world you know is lying to you.

But more important than appreciating the physical size of Africa, is the way in which we don’t always treat the troubled continent as a continent.

When I tell people I’ve been to Africa, I get a number of responses.

Did you see lions? No. The starvation must have been terrible. No. Do you mean South Africa? No. I have a friend who lived in Uganda, do you know him/her? Seriously?

My favorite response is simply, “Why?”

The point is that in my experience there are a lot of people who don’t know anything about Africa—like 99 percent.

Africa is not a country.

We find it too easy to speak of the starving children in Africa, AIDs in Africa, even KONY 2012. We can quickly describe a picture of Africa, whether it resembles The Last King of Scotland or The Lion King, and this image somehow applies to the continent as a whole.

When someone stereotypes the cultures of Asia as a single group, we call them a racist. So what seems okay about doing this to a place that is equally or more diverse?

There are over one billion people in Africa, belonging to 56 countries, speaking over 2,000 languages. That is more people and countries than the entire Western world.

South Africa “the country” is different from South Africa “the region.” The people of West Africa are different in color, ethnicity, religion, language, climate, geography and colonial history from those of East Africa. North Africa has been completely separated from Sub-Saharan Africa, in history and culture, since the great desert formed.

And as diverse as the regions of Africa are, the ways that make them similar to each other also make them similar to the rest of the world.

The most popular religion in Africa is Islam, making up 25 percent of the world’s muslim population. The rest are predominantly Christian. Shaman and witch doctors  can exist but their practices are adapted to fit the dominant faith.

While the “tribe” as an ethnic and cultural group can still exist, it is incredibly rare for anyone to live a hunter-gatherer existence. For those who do continue, it is a choice, and their contact from is modern world is not cut off. There are no isolated people on this earth.

Africa has cities—modern metropolitan cities—some with tens of millions of people. In and out of cities, everyone has a cell phone (sometimes two). Anyone under 30 has a Facebook and wears popular styles. And they love American hip-hop, from Tupac to Akon.

Of course there are exceptions, as with any country or place you come from or visit. I neither want to be condescending nor too general—I am not an authority. For such an amazing continent that people don’t usually give a chance, Africa is still a frustrating and troubled place that could use a helping hand.

It is my opinion, however, that before we as privileged Westerners can make a meaningful difference, we have to understand the place we are helping. We need to understand that the little continent with all those problems is the size of America, Europe and half of Asia, combined.

We all can use a little clarification.

Ryan Pinkard is an editorial intern at elephant journal. Ryan is a wanderlust backpacker journalist in training, and a student at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Find his writing and his images from around the world at Follow his reviews and exploits on music at


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9 Responses to “How Big is Africa? You Have No Idea. ~ Ryan Pinkard”

  1. stommefilm says:

    Great article, very good point!

  2. Krista says:

    Awesome article. This stuff drives me crazy.

  3. mmarc says:

    I'm very conscious of this too, and I think the author's overall message is a good one. It's interesting, though, that even as he writes about the problem of simplifying all of Africa into one culture or one stereotype, he speaks of having been to "Africa." I've traveled fairly extensively throughout the continent and in cases where it's been a trip to several countries, I'll refer to it as a trip to Africa, but even then with a certain kind of uneasiness. Maybe this is what Pinkard means when he mentions having been in Africa, and I hope that's the case because if not it strikes me as not unlike the thoughts he's criticizing that lump the entire continent into one single identity.

  4. Great article, Ryan.


  5. muks says:

    I spent a few months in Sudan and I can understand the issues in your article very well. People were approaching me with very different stereotypical opinions and questions, e.g. "Have you been working in a leading position?" (No, there are local people with University degrees who do) or "Did you meet 'someone'?" (Nope, in a traditional Muslim culture I cannot just meet someone out of a marriage.) or "Africans are not able to found and run businesses" (My boss looked very African to me ;))

    If I see the picture the media is creating about Africa I understand those questions and opinions very well. I appreciate efforts to get to know different places and people in Africa though.

  6. a poet in India says:

    Catch the Wind
    (a poem about Jason Russell of Invisible Children on the occasion of his reactionary psychosis after his Kony 2012 video went viral)

    Useless lawyer waste of people
    Mrs. Spring.
    And they tease you.
    Can you hold your hand out
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    Earth activated.
    Look at your gymnastics.
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    Tryin’ to explain to yah
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    As much as you can
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    All the time.
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    A mural
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    Tasted enemy.
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    Know what I mean?

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    If you let me
    Give you something to do.
    Sterling Abbot
    Your wife’s concentration,
    Another wife
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    In making a very sharp objection
    Present myself.
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    Not him.
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    If it don’t
    Your foolish pride
    In front of

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    The same
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    The arson
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    Every arson
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    Man that’s a good question
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    Is this opera house,
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    Wire specialist
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    Happy birthday.

  7. […] made it a habit to save every bit of acceptable biodegradable waste I produce. The waste problem in West Africa will do that do […]

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