Prejudices About Africa

When I boarded the plane to Kampala (Uganda's capital) to do an internship, a committee of friends and family came to see me off. "Be careful!" they shouted with a worried wrinkle in their foreheads. Weeks later, when photos appeared on Facebook of my ultra-hip-dressed, Ugandan friends in steaming, underground nightclubs, I received multiple responses asking the same thing: "Huh, you were in Africa, weren't you?"

When you ask elementary school children what to think of when they hear the word “Africa,” the following terms will probably sound: Elephants! Lions! Heat! Poor children! Thirst! Because yes, when we used to have no patience for dinner we were all told: ‘You’re not hungry, you just have an appetite! In Africa, there they are hungry!” Even when Dutch friends come to visit me in Uganda for a vacation, they are surprised that I don’t live in a clay hut and wash my clothes in the river, but have a “normal” house with WIFI and hot water.

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Africa is a very beautiful country!

OK, so there are prejudices about Africa. You cannot say that all of them are not true either. Africa is not poor or rich, cold or hot. In fact, Africa is not a country but the second-largest continent on the globe. Africa has 54 countries where some 2,000 different languages are spoken. The distance between Morocco and South Africa is 11,500 kilometers. For the record, the Netherlands and China are only about 7,500 kilometers apart. So it is important to understand how diverse a continent is, with countless different cultures, skin colors, religions, cuisines, incomes, arts as well as landscapes. Prevailing prejudices only outline and emphasize one part of the story. However, as a travel agent, we find that these prejudices play an important role in shaping expectations. So we list the most important ones for you!

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List of the most significant biases:

Bias 1: Africa consists mainly of dry savannah plains

Africa certainly has many savannas. Almost half of the continent is savannah. But beware: savannas are not always dry. After all, it rains in Africa, too! On the African savannah, an average of 38 to 64 cm of water falls during a rainy season. The yellow color of the savanna can then change to bright green due to the lush grass growing up. So when is that rainy season? That depends on where the savannah is located: in the southern hemisphere, it pours between April and September; in the northern hemisphere, on the contrary, between October and March.

What about the other good half of the continent? There you can find just about any kind of landscape you can think of! Pearly white beaches and bounty islands? You’ll find those all along Africa’s coastline. Tropical jungles? Wet swamps? Endless desert plains? Glaciers atop mountains? Red salt lakes? Vineyards? Active volcanic landscapes? Canyons or cliffs? Ancient churches carved out of rock, bustling metropolises or Arab, historic towns? You name it, you’ll find it in Africa!

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Prejudice 2: Africa is bloody hot

You’re going to Africa, and what do you take with you … just summer clothes! Because it is boiling hot over there, you get a sweaty mustache super fast and besides, it weighs nothing so you can take extra souvenirs back home. You might live to regret this choice. Depending on where you are going and in what season, a nice warm sweater or jacket could certainly come in handy. For example, did you know that:

  • Nairobi is at an altitude of 1600 meters which means that the temperature in July and August is only between 10 and 21 degrees? Here you don’t need a fan at night, but a nice, warm blanket.
  • It cools down to around 0 degrees in Lesotho around June?
  • Cape Town has four seasons just like the Netherlands, but exactly the other way around?
  • You can ski in Morocco and walk on glaciers in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania?
  • It can often freeze at night in the Sahara or Namibian desert?
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Prejudice 3: In Africa, everyone is poor

The stereotype that Africa is synonymous with poverty is a tricky one because, indeed, poverty is prevalent on the continent. However, it is dangerous to look at the continent and its people through this lens alone. First, some facts about poverty, provided from 2018 World Data Bank reports:

    • Sub-Saharan Africa is the only part of the world where poverty has actually increased rather than decreased. The number of people living in poverty (that is, with an income of less than $1.90 per day) has increased from 278 million in 1990 to 413 million in 2015. That said, Africa in general is also the fastest-growing continent in the world in terms of population size.
    • Based on GDP per capita, 27 of the 28 poorest countries in the world include names of countries from Sub-Saharan Africa: all with a poverty rate of at least 30%. It’s essential to note that a significant portion of income in African countries is informal and not counted in GDP per capita. Think of everything sold in the local market, the moped cabs, the small roadside shops or the street food sizzling on the barbecues. These incomes are not counted in per capita GDP.

But these facts are not the end of the matter. Looking at Sub-Saharan Africa in this one-dimensional way can do a lot of damage. It is therefore very important to think carefully about the following things:

    • People are not their poverty. While ‘poor’ people may have lower incomes, no formal education, or limited access to food, it is dangerous to identify people solely by these characteristics. They are all people, just like you and me or your neighbor or your elementary school teacher. Linking people inextricably to their poverty makes it easy to dehumanize, creating an unbridgeable distance and unjust inequality. It’s good to realize: the roles could just as easily have been reversed.
    • Poverty is a complex, vague and subjective concept. What does poverty and wealth actually mean and by whose yardstick is it measured? Among the traditional Masai ethnic groups in Kenya, the tribal chief is enormously wealthy because he has 40 cows. This is not data that the World Data Bank includes when they calculate GDP per capita. Also, low income does not have to directly equal happiness. Take, for example, a lady who lives with her husband and his second wife in a small hut, has her own cattle roaming around and grows her own vegetables. According to the books, she is poor, but who has the right to automatically label her as pathetic and unhappy by doing so? Through pity you deprive people of their dignity. Of course, we must also be careful not to romanticize poverty: especially from a position of privilege, we must be careful about statements such as, “In Africa they are happy with nothing, what an inspiration!”
    • There may be much poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa, but at the same time, the African Development Bank writes: “Sub-Saharan Africa’s economies continue to grow strongly. Growth is increasingly driven by consumption and production of an emerging middle class.” Indeed, Africa’s middle class is growing faster than anywhere else in the world, and that in turn is bringing in money! And this time not through donations and development aid, but rather through domestic and foreign investors responding to the growing consumption needs of the middle class (think shopping malls, entertainment or vacations).
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Prejudice 4: In Africa, everyone lives in clay huts and there is no wifi

Words like ‘underdeveloped’ and ‘primitive’: they are all too easily thrown up when it comes to Africa, and these too are two heavily loaded, subjective terms. If, then, we assume ‘development’ from a Western perspective and we plunk down hard facts? Then we can look at the figures that say something about how many children go to school, how many inhabitants complete higher education, how good the infrastructure and healthcare is or how many people have smartphones and use 4G. Figures that are not exactly thunderous. For example, according to the World Data Bank, the 24 countries with the lowest rate of school enrollment with the exception of the Solomon Islands are exclusively African countries. At number 1 is Sudan with 5%, at number 24 Tunisia with 32%. In the Netherlands, the percentage is 93%. But again, Africa is a huge continent and cannot be lumped together. For example, in Egypt and and Mauritius the school enrollment rate is 83%, in South Africa 72%, in Botswana 60% and Ghana 58%.

All right, the numbers don’t lie. But at the same time, they don’t tell the whole story either. I myself have been living in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, for almost three years now. Some hard facts from my life in Kampala, based on experience rather than scientifically collected data:

  • Almost all Ugandans I know have smartphones (side note: I know almost no Ugandans outside urban areas. There people are considerably less likely to have an iPhone or Samsung in their pockets). In countries like Kenya, you can even use your smartphone to pay for your groceries at the supermarket just as easily as you can use a debit card in the Netherlands.

  • Almost all of my Ugandan friends watch the same Netflix or HBO series as I do. For example, many a cafe was showing the new episode of Game of Thrones every week and was packed with fans anxiously following the fight with the Night King.

  • Fanny packs, Nike socks, and trendy sunglasses are also in fashion here, showcased all over Instagram.

  • The underground music scene is booming, featuring powerful EDM beats, techno, tribal, or Afro house often played by female DJs.

  • Multi-day festivals where everyone looks fabulous (and partygoers casually pop an ecstasy pill)? Absolutely!

  • Sushi? Pizzas that are so limp you have to put one slice in your mouth with two hands, just like in Italy? Nachos with scrumptious guacamole? Spicy chicken tikka masala, cappuccinos with artsy-fartsy latte art? Or primal Dutch spelt bread at the Dutch ‘Brood’ chain? You can get just about anything in Kampala, although you’ll make many Ugandans most happy with a local meal.

  • Insanely intelligent people with whom you can philosophize all night long over cold beers? There are plenty of those! As are creative people: fashion designers, musicians and producers, photographers, filmmakers, artists, designers, professional dancers.

Of course, this does not only apply to Kampala. Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, is a city with one of the fastest growing economies in Africa. The cafes are bikes-on-the-wall hip and the malls are shinier and bigger than all the malls in the Netherlands combined. In almost every major African city, from Tunis to Abidjan, Johannesburg to Addis Ababa, Dar es Salaam to Accra, you can see how booming this continent can be!

While urban areas are increasingly taking on a modern and international vibe, in the meantime a firm grip is maintained on traditional cultures. After all, this is something to be proud of! For example, traditional fabrics, prints and jewelry are woven through contemporary, urban fashion. You can also see many aspects of ancient, traditional dances in the modern moves in the clubs. The same goes for music, philosophy and art. Proud to be African is a mindset that many people hold to: and rightly so!

Johannesburg tuktuk

Prejudice 5: Africa is full of scary diseases

Ebola, malaria, AIDS … Diseases that are often mentioned in the same breath as the name of the continent. It is true that some of these diseases are more common than on other continents. You can also catch diseases that haven’t existed in the Netherlands for ages, such as typhoid, here. Ebola outbreaks have claimed many lives in West Africa and Congo, and HIV and malaria are cause of death number 2 and 4 across the continent.

This does not mean that good health care is not available: in fact, it varies by region. In urban areas, you can often walk into high quality hospitals or clinics. Therefore, when you have access to this health care, there is often not much to worry about. Malaria can generally be easily treated – even though it is no fun – and is particularly fatal in rural areas where there is no access to good health care. Fortunately, these days – even in rural areas – malaria tests and medication are available. Many of my Ugandan friends find the occasional malaria as common as catching a cold in the Netherlands.

The important thing is to catch it quickly. That is why it is normal here to visit the nearest hospital as early as when you get the flu. Because as a tourist or expat in African countries we can often use good health care and insurance, or get medication to prevent certain diseases, we generally have less to fear. Are you going on a trip to an African destination? Then be well informed in advance by a medical institution such as the GGD. Which areas are you more or less at risk? What vaccinations or medications can you take? But also be aware, for example, that a disease like Ebola is not contagious through the air, so it really won’t just travel from Congo to Tanzania when you’re on vacation there.

Prejudice 6: Africa is dangerous

Danger is always lurking wherever you are. Even during your city trip to Paris and Barcelona, your pockets could be picked, or there’s the threat of a terrorist attack. Then again, “dangerous” is a subjective term, which has to do with perception of risk. Many of my Ugandan friends think we Dutch are crazy that we live below sea level – on the coast, while the ice caps are melting! We cannot understand that people live right under an active volcano, and those people will think it is crazy that people continue to live in countries where Ebola is raging nearby.

Risk perception aside, of course, it is true that in general crime in many African countries is much higher than in, say, the Netherlands. Also, in many countries the political situation is not always stable, there are unsettled conflict zones and traffic is a lot more dangerous. In a country like Uganda, traffic accidents are among the top causes of death. That we in the Netherlands can cycle back home alone at four in the morning after going out is extraordinary, and the exception rather than the rule in the world. It is important to understand that it is as safe or unsafe as you make it – wherever you go. Therefore, it is good to be aware of risks so you can avoid them. In Kampala, for example, I never take a motorcycle taxi from the street when it’s dark, always wear a helmet, and I won’t sit next to an open window in the car while having an extensive conversation with my mom. So be well informed in advance by your travel agent, Dutch embassies in the country you are traveling to, or government travel advisories. For example, some destinations are better avoided during election time, or avoided altogether because of conflict – and always use your common sense. You will see that Africa is much more than just dangerous: friendly and hospitable locals galore, endless diversity, one postcard landscape after another, good food and even better music. A continent to fall in love with!

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Take off your blinders

With this story, we are not trying to tell you what Africa is like. We don’t want to tell you that Africa is poor or rich, dangerous or harmless. We mainly want to highlight the effect of prejudice. Prejudices form blinders and cause us to look at the world around us with tunnel vision. When you dismantle your prejudices and remove your blinders, you will be surprised yet again at what else there is to see!

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