Perceptions of Africa

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In Africa, they’re all starving babies, they’re all warlords, they’re all AIDS victims.  This simply isn’t true.  Spanning 11.7 million square miles and supporting over one billion people, Africa is the second largest and second most populous continent on the planet.  There are bustling cities, small villages, cars, tribes, mountains, deserts, Muslims, Christians, conservation areas, hospitals, and forests.  However, it seems all we ever hear about this continent is disease, dictators, and drug lords.  Nothing in the media ever portrays Africa in a positive light.  “The continent is reported either as overpopulated, so people can’t grow enough food and starve, or depopulated by AIDS and war.  The Africans in these stories rarely dress in suits and ties. Either they carry Kalashnikovs or they’re half-naked with prominent ribs and bare breasts.” (Polman 167).  American perceptions of Africa are an example of monolithic thinking, generalizing to the point where everything is the same.  Africa is an extremely diverse continent, but most people don’t realize that.

Although AIDS is a serious disease that should not be taken lightly, not everybody in Africa is dying from it.  As terrible as this epidemic is, it affects far from the entire continent.  23.8 million people in Africa are HIV-positive, and in 2010, 1.2 million died of AIDS.  These numbers translate to 2.4% and 0.12%, respectively, of the total population.  A higher percentage of people died from malignant cancers in the United States than died of AIDS on the entire continent of Africa in 2010. (National Vital Statistics Report, Table 10).  Rather than saying that all of Africa is infected with HIV/AIDS, we should say that sub-Saharan Africa has an AIDS epidemic.  This map provides an idea of what the estimated HIV prevalence is in different countries all around the world.

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Darker color = Higher prevalence of HIV

Another misconception that many people have is that people in Africa are uneducated.  Again, literacy rates change depending on the African country about which you are speaking.  Literacy rates in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Libya, Gabon, Botswana, Seychelles, Equatorial Guinea, Mauritius, Namibia, and Kenya are all higher than the world average.  In fact, in Tanzania, a fifteen-year-old boy made a groundbreaking scientific discovery about a property of water that scientists are still trying to explain today.  Saying the entire continent of Africa has problems with literacy would be like saying the entire United States has the same literacy rate of southern Mississippi or the same crime rate as the south side of Chicago.  Each region has its own problems, and you cannot generalize them to the entire continent.

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Ethnocentrism affects how we view Africa also.  Most African cultures are unlike Western cultures, so we tend to lump them into the category of “different”.  Different is not wrong, it is simply different.  When asked to choose a picture that best depicted Africa, “Over 73% of all pupils [in a Leeds University research study] selected a picture of hungry children holding out an empty plate.” (Media Influences 3).  This is a perfect example of what people think Africa consists of.

Wedding in Freetown, Sierra Leone

Wedding in Freetown, Sierra Leone


Kenyan Maasai Warrior

Kenyan Maasai Warrior

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On the beach in Angola

Zulu dancer in South Africa

Zulu dancers in South Africa

African Acacia Tree

African Acacia Tree

These pictures show that Africa is an extremely diverse place, full of different people and places.  To put the entire continent in the same category of “suffering” and “darkness” is not fair to anyone.  Henry Kissinger, a Nobel laureate, called Africa, “the festering disaster of our age.”  The video “Radi-Aid” is a satirical look at how some Africans are fed up with being seen as the charity case of the world.  The video caused people all over the world to take another look at how they view Africa.  News outlets across the globe reacted to the video- one reporter pointed out that if the images of Norway displayed in the video were all the exposure you had to the country, you would probably think it was a poor country dying from cold exposure.  This turns the tables on the charitable donation videos we see on the television all the time.  Are these videos an accurate representation of the continent as a whole, or just a portion of it?  These images most definitely skew our vision of the continent of Africa.  These disasters are absolutely happening in Africa, but it is unrealistic and unfair to say that the whole continent is suffering.

The perceptions we have of Africa not only shape what we think of the continent, but what its people think about themselves.  “It is important to realize, however, that most people from African countries receive information about Africa via Western media, thus the Western media is responsible for not only shaping the minds of the American public, but of many African audiences as well.” (Wallace, American Perceptions).  We owe it to Africans to accurately represent their lives to the rest of the world.  From Egypt to Botswana to Malawi to Ghana, to be African means something different all across the continent’s 11.7 million square miles of land.

As Linda Polman put it, “Clearly, Africa has an image problem.” (Polman 167).  Learning what Africa is made up of, who the African people are, and what their individual struggles are is a necessary burden.  Many people will never travel to Africa, so they rely on the media’s portrayal to shape their perceptions.  If the media continues on their bender of negative African news stories, Africa will continue to be seen as the “scar on the conscience of the world.” (Polman 167).  We must shift our perceptions of Africa.  Look up statistics.  Read about peoples’ lives.  If possible, go visit the continent itself and learn firsthand what it’s like.  We must be accountable for what we know, as this affects how we act.  The homogenous view many people have of Africa reduces the color painting of nearly a billion people to a single pixel.  Being African is as diverse as each of those billion people- show them the respect of individuality they deserve.


Works Cited


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“AIDSinfo.” UNAIDS. United Nations, n.d. Web. 30 June 2013. <>.

“Africa in Pictures.” BBC News. BBC, 29 June 2007. Web. 01 July 2013. <>.

“Africa For Norway – New Charity Single out Now!” YouTube. SAIH Norway, 16 Nov. 2012. Web. 29 June 2013. <>.

“Africa for Norway – News Collection.” YouTube. YouTube, 05 Dec. 2012. Web. 29 June 2013. <>.

“African Revolution.” My Continent- Africa. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 July 2013. <>.

Heimbuch, Jaymi. “Acacia Trees Could Solve Africa’s Soil Problems, Be the Future for Farms.” TreeHugger. N.p., 25 Aug. 2009. Web. 01 July 2013. <>.

“HIV and AIDS in Africa.” AVERT. AVERT, n.d. Web. 30 June 2013. <>.

“List of Countries by Literacy Rate.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 07 Jan. 2013. Web. 01 July 2013. <>.

National Vital Statistics Report- Deaths: Final Data for 2010. Rep. CDC, n.d. Web. 30 June 2013. <>.

“Perceptions of Africa” Global Thinking: Learning to Change the World. Global Thinking Cooperative, Ltd., n.d. Web. 01 July 2013. <>.

Polman, Linda, and Liz Waters. War Games: The Story of Aid and War in Modern times. London: Viking, 2010. Print.

“Redefining Western Perceptions of Africa.” Environmental Graffiti. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 July 2013. <>.

“Sahara Desert: Hottest Desert in the World.” Famous Wonders of the World. Famous Wonders, n.d. Web. 01 July 2013. <>.

Sharp, Gwen. “”Africa for Norway” Challenges Perceptions of Africa.” Sociological Images RSS. The Society Pages, 04 Dec. 2012. Web. 30 June 2013. <>.

Wallace, Jamie B. “American Perceptions of Africa Based on Media Representations.” Holler Africa! Adonis and Abbey Publishers, Ltd., n.d. Web. 29 June 2013. <>.

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