When you hear the word, “Africa,” what comes to mind?
Wildlife safaris? The vast Sahara desert? Impoverished children? Toto?
While you’re not technically wrong, this imagery is overly simplistic – and to a damaging degree. Western portrayals of the continent– which fits the entire area of the United States, China, India, Japan, and much of Europe – have significantly oversimplified the endlessly diverse countries, climates, communities, and cultures that reside within it.
Traveling is at heart a cultural exchange, and it seems that many need a reminder that the continent of Africa cannot be generalized as a single entity. Actively learning about the continent’s intricacies not only helps to dismantle toxic anthropomorphic worldviews, but it also encourages travelers to make better informed decisions and ensure their tourism dollars are being used responsibly and effectively. As the world continues to open up, and with technology fostering a more connected global community, there is no better time to learn and improve as conscientious travelers, as well as challenge outdated notions.
As we break down where this over-generalization stems from, how it persists, and how it limits worldly understanding, it is our hope that you look at Kenya, Egypt, Namibia, Eswatini – any one of the 54 individual countries across Africa in a different light – or perhaps, truly look at them for the first time.
Problems of Perception
The oversimplification of Africa’s image has largely been shaped by Western portrayals and narratives of the region. Through news reporting, Euro-centric history lessons, movies and other entertainment media, the story of Africa has been authored by visitors, which has impacted present attitudes and realities.
Africa is a continent rich with natural resources which have been exploited over and over again. Centuries of global slave trade, colonialism, and other acts of Western entitlement have damaged the environment, peoples, and reputation of Africa. From a tourism standpoint, the continent of Africa has long been victim to the “Adventurer Fantasy”: a tantalizing, wild, undiscovered place, ripe with beauty, resources, and much danger… yet all the while being very much occupied and adapted to by actual citizens. This lack of recognition of African civilizations is a common thread in its exploitation. When people fail to see and understand different ways of life, there is no respect or equality, no help against injustice.
Today we continue to overlook life in Africa, as the same ignorance is carried out in news reporting and popular media, solidifying a Western-dominated global structure.
Try to think back on the last time you heard a country in Africa called by its name instead of, well, as a country in Africa. Hard, right? An app called “Africa is Not a Country” determined that news reporters discussing global issues disproportionately refer to the continent of Africa instead of the specific countries involved in comparison to other continents. Remember: the continent of Africa fits all of the U.S., China, India, Japan and most of Europe – the idea of trying to establish it as a single geographic location is, and should be, laughable.
Generalizing the massive expanse of Africa is a double-edged sword; it makes it more difficult to truly address issues while simultaneously covering up admirable traits, as the negative occurrences of anywhere across the entire continent takes priority. Reputation of the whole continent overwhelms the individual countries. News media often portrays tragedy because it stands out, which in turn reinforces anthropomorphic worldviews, not because it is the norm but because it supports the established narrative.
The negative impression the West has of Africa is not only garnered through reporting and media, Hollywood and popular culture also contribute by neglecting real settings. Creatives will use fictional places when representing Africa and African people as being powerful and independent, and when “real” African settings are shown, they tend to be negative.
The limited and vague coverage of Africa has led to a one-note depressing sound of starving children and disease-ridden villages in yellow-filtered light. Narrow perspectives and narratives continue to go unchallenged on a global scale.
White Guilt and Voluntourism: Who Really Benefits?
White saviorship also thrives off of the narrative that African people are helpless and cannot solve their problems. While often well-intentioned, this attitude created by misrepresentation prevents equality. It creates a superior and inferior, accompanied by a patronizing tone.
Harmful tourism is prevalent in Africa due to this power imbalance.
Africa is a magnet for “voluntourism”, where travelers seeking to do good often commit unnoticed acts of harm, failing to do what’s best for locals. For example, foreigners on mission retreats often allow their privilege to prevent them from enacting greater change. They fail to learn about issues from a local perspective, instead feeling they know best – and this is often the best case scenario. There are several cases of people using religion to abuse African people unchecked. Another example involves orphanage visitors, who may or may not recognize the industry tie to human trafficking and familial separation, or the psychological impact of impermanent caretakers in the lives of young children. Perhaps the most backwards of all are trophy-hunters who are told that their financial support helps protect the same endangered wildlife they aim to kill. This oftentimes devolves into canned hunting, where animals are held captive, bred, drugged, and made easy targets for tourist-hunters.
White saviorship is just another way to exploit Africa, this time for personal “spiritual” benefit. People motivated to do charitable acts are blinded to the realities of the people they have come to help due to their subconscious sense of superiority. The exchange then becomes unequal: Westerners assuage their guilt or gain spiritual credit, ultimately acting in their own interests. In other cases, false promises of benefiting others helps them ignore how they contribute to a system that harms people and the environment. In the end, voluntourism may make people forget that they are guests and not heroes, called forth by a tragic image of life in Africa that lacks true depth and understanding.
Growing Your Global Understanding
There’s no sugar-coating it. The countries and the peoples of Africa have been continuously exploited and overlooked throughout history. In the modern day, the Western world labels African nations as “developing” when in many ways, they are recovering from colonialism. Several nations are fighting to overcome the depressing and defeating narratives assigned to them and reestablish pride in their homeland that they were deprived of. In some cases, it’s as simple as an establishment in Uganda using names that are rooted in African history and identity instead of the language of colonizers. On the other end of the spectrum, there are countries in Africa that stand on equal footing – if not a step above – the admired locales of Europe, the Americas, Asia, and Oceania.
Africa has a land area of 30.37 million sq km (11.7 million sq mi), making it the second largest continent following Asia. Due to the nature of Africa’s size, it should be similarly impossible to imagine that one vision of life applies to everyone everywhere across the continent – yet here we are. Africa has 54 countries, 8 major physical regions, over 3,000 tribes, and thousands of languages and dialects. Its urban areas are some of the fastest-growing in the world, and many are top-notch in terms of sustainability, fashion, technology, and more. There are things to be worked on in Africa, but also much to learn from.
One component of the misconceptions many people have of Africa is a lack of personal interaction. Tourism in Africa is limited, and not always presented as a safe and mainstream option. Not as many people travel there and bring back their experience and perspectives. While some offered “experiences” are harmful to wildlife or commodify tribes, tourism can be greatly beneficial if it is done with understanding and if tourist money is invested the right way.
Due to the many Indigenous people and rural lifestyles, tourism organizations place a special emphasis on the health of their environment and communities. Africa has many sustainable parks, and tourism can directly support wildlife conservation.
Namibia in particular is recognized as a world leader in sustainability and eco-tourism, though many African nations deserve recognition. Rwanda works to protect gorillas and benefit local people with tourism money. The Guinean forest in West Africa is actively being protected by Liberia and other nations it stretches across, and tourism helps fund the protection of biodiversity. Morocco in the north incentivizes tourism-based businesses like hotels to be “eco-responsible.” Across the entire African continent, mindful, deliberate tourism has been developed to benefit both the traveler and the native.
Let Africa Speak for Itself
The world needs to see the continent of Africa for what it is: not monolithic, but diverse, complex and alive. Missing so much of the details about life in any of the 54 countries – even more so the different regions in those countries – has real world consequences. As the African Union notes, the only way to move forward is to understand and accept the realities of each individual culture and subset. Only by this recognition can we meet people where they are, learn from each other, and begin building for a better future. Misinformation is yet another injustice, an obstruction of progress for many lives on the continent.
It’s far past time to overcome prior assumptions and learn about Africa’s highly diverse countries and regions, peoples and their cultures with respect. Maybe then we can stop mistakenly calling Africa a country and instead recognize the vast culture, history, and landscapes that set each destination within its expanse apart.
ecomadic is a sustainable tourism brand that empowers travelers to make more conscious decisions. By curating a marketplace to easily find and identify responsible businesses to support, and providing educational publications through our online green travel magazine, ecomadic is committed to helping empower travelers make responsible choices throughout their journeys.
Want to learn more?
African Culture, Tribes & Traditions (and our top pick of Cultural Tours in Africa)
15 Biggest Cities In Africa – WorldAtlas
Africa Culture and History
African Culture: Versatile Approach to Realize the Africa We Want
6 African cities leading the way to a green future – World Economic Forum
Africa Is Not A Country: 4 Facts About the Continent | Time
Colonialism in Africa is still alive and well | Letters | The Guardian
Spotlighting Sustainability: Urban Tourism in Sub-Saharan Africa – Center for Strategic and International Studies
9 Wonderful Eco-Friendly Destinations in Africa to Add to Your Bucket List
Sustainability in Tourism: The socio-cultural lens
Africa Is Not A Country: 4 Facts About the Continent – Time
Confusing a Country for a Continent: How We Talk About Africa – The Atlantic
Africa Is Not a Country and Other Things You Need to Know About the Continent – Heifer International
The business of voluntourism: do western do-gooders actually do harm? – Guardian
Namibia – Sustainable Travel International