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Sunday, June 17, 2012

Yes, Virginia, There is Winter in Africa: Common Misperceptions About Africa

Kruger National Park, South Africa
By: Meisha

Sally Struthers, "Tarzan," the media, and films such as "Blood Diamonds" have done a disservice to the perceptions of Africa and Africans.  For anyone planning a trip to Africa, feeling afraid to visit Africa, or desiring to visit Africa, here are the facts on a couple of common misperceptions about Africa.

1) It will be “Africa hot!”:  I am writing this post from my room in South Africa, while sitting under three blankets, one of which is an electric blanket.  Right now, it is winter in South Africa and where I live, at night, its 37°F or 3°C.  It snows in Lesotho and you can go skiing in Morocco.  So yes there are some countries that get “Africa hot,” but even they have a rainy or windy season where it gets "chilly."  

2) As a person of African descent, I will be welcomed back to the motherland by my brothers and sisters: This is what I like to refer to as a “Roots” experience. You know, we conjure up images similar to the last scene of the “Roots” mini-series where Alex Haley is welcomed back to Africa with big hugs from his distant African relatives.  Sorry to tell you that won’t happen.  Even if you go to Juffreh, the Gambian village where Kunta Kinte hails from, you won’t have a “Roots Experience.”

In fact, you will probably quickly realize how American (or insert other nationality here) you are.  If you are lighter skinned like I am, you will also have to come to grips with being called, white or mixed.  Even if you are the exact same shade as the locals in the country you visit, you will still stand out as a foreigner and be treated as such. 

However, you will feel a connection and see the cultural similarities.  You may be able to have experiences that non-Black people are not afforded.  And I still do recommend that every person of African descent visit Africa.

3) There will be animals everywhere: Lions, Tigers, and Bears oh my!  Unless you are in a protected wildlife park like Kruger National Park in Southern Africa or the Serengeti in Tanzania you will probably not see wild animals.  I have seen the occasional pack of monkeys while traveling in South Africa and there were hippos, which were rarely seen, in the river near my home in Benin.   

Donkey "Racing," Dogon Country, Mali
What are more common to see?  Farm animals.  In more rural areas, you will see donkeys, chickens, goats, pigs and cows, roaming and grazing freely.  BTW if you are driving and hit one of these animals you will be required to compensate the farmer!

4) All of is Africa is a village: Yes, there are a lot of non-developed, rural areas in Africa where you can still find people living in mud huts.   At the same time though, visiting Accra, Johannesburg, Abidjan, or Nairobi, feels like you are in Europe or the United States. There is a booming middle class in Africa that live comparable to their Western counterparts.  We won’t even mention the wealthy upper class, but let’s just say they are living large, even from a Western perspective.

Rooftop Bar, Johannesburg, South Africa
5) You are helping to alleviate poverty by giving away money: I understand the sentiment behind giving away money, candy, and whatever other small tokens you were able to stash in your luggage to beggars and children.  And I get over tipping or over paying because you can’t imagine only paying ___ when you would usually pay ___ at home.  However, what you don’t realize is that you perpetuate the myth that all foreigners are wealthy, normalize begging as a means of income, and establish a handout mentality. Plus, for those of us that live here, we are then constantly harassed to give people everything from money to the shoes on our feet.

If you would like to help, I recommend funneling your donations thru a local religious institution, school, or non-profit or supporting local artisans and small businesses.  Staying at a small, local hotel instead of Sofitel and trying street food instead of 5-star dining it every night has a stronger, more sustainable impact on economic development. 

Ndebele Women, Cultural Village, South Africa
8) Traveling in Africa isn’t safe. So yes, there are some countries in Africa that have political unrest, but the majority of Africa has had stable democracies for decades. And yes, there are men walking around with machetes, but they are farmers. And the only people with guns I have seen have been the police. Coming from an American city like Philadelphia where the murder rate is pretty high, in some ways I feel safer here then I did at home.  I have even hitched hiked multiple times here, while I would never do this in the U.S.  Like any place, there are the muggers and pickpocketers that prey on tourists but a little street smarts and common sense can keep you from falling into their traps.

7) Africans don’t speak English.  The English colonized a large percentage of Africa. Former British colonies, like Nigeria, will have English as on one of their national languages along with several traditional languages.  And even where English isn’t one of the national languages, English is taught in school.  So you may actually meet people in Africa that not only speak better English than you, but more languages than you!

Zulu Men Dancing, Cultural Village, South Africa
8) All Africans are Black.  Colonization brought people from all over the world to settle in Africa.  There are people of Indian, Asian, and European descent that have lived in Africa for several generations and consider themselves just as African as their black brethren.

9) Africa is one homogenous continent.  One of the best parts of traveling in Africa is experiencing the diverse cultures. This can be done by not only traveling to different countries, but traveling within one country.  Northern Africa with its heavy Arabic influence is very different than Southern Africa with its strong British influence.  Likewise, in a single country, one might find 30 different cultural classifications each speaking a different language.


  1. Nice article Meisha, and a bit of an eye-opener! However, I have qualm with the usage of 'Africa' as a continent, instead of referring to specific countries. I am well traveled, having stayed in Canada-Ottawa before; and have traveled the U.S.- New York and the neighboring counties; New Zealand; Asia-S.Korea; Japan; Malaysia; China; Philippines; not mentioning a few countries in Africa. The exposed, and educated ones don't generalize in terms of the "continent"?.....so weird! It's like saying America. What is really America? Canada? Venezuela? Peru? Mexico? the U.S.? the same thing applies to Asia. Where in Asia? Philippines or Japan? (As an example of countries that are so different in terms of development). I think in opening the peeps' minds this should be the starting point.

    I also find it bizzaire that at this time in age we could still have people who think the whole Africa as a continent is the same so to speak? As in not knowing that there are different countries in there, same as I indicated above in my first paragraph. Yeah, right that in as much as there are cities that are 'highly' developed, specifically Johannesburg; Cape town.....might include Durban as well; and other cities in other countries, may-be, there are still places that are less developed. Funny enough, this becomes the focal point of the narrow-minded travelers. Whilst a lot of people are homeless/starving and job-less in the U.S.

    Cape town and Johannesburg for instance, are generally upbeat comparatively speaking. I like what you stated in your blog above that, they are preety-much the same as in the U.S. Same as what Oprah once indicated during her interview with David Letterman. I'm adding that, they are also at par with the other western countries that I've been to. No difference at all, rather in South Africa for instance, we have a lot of U.S. natives who came with the mentality of "Africa" thinking it's a cheap, dingy place to be in and they ended-up getting frustrated and couldn't cope. These cities are even way expensive! Travelers do google Cape town, by the way it has been termed the most beautiful city in the world. The 'ghettos' I've been to in Harlem- New York are preety much the same as the ones in Soweto.....you even get the far developed spots in Soweto.

    Same thing applies to the surburbs in Johannesburg and Cape town, if you are amongst the averagely paid earners from any of the western countries could be astonished seeing areas that are even far above the ones you are used to from back home. And hello, they don't come cheap. I wonder what these ignorant people have in mind when in S.A. for instance, we have Caucasians; Asians-Indians & Chinese or others; Brown people- mixed races; Blacks. Hence, in South Africa, a U.S. native look just the same as the natives....may-be even South Africans being 'better'? Even wonder if the travelers have been to places like Sun City in the North-West Province.
    And, a point of correction, S.A., or any other country in Africa don't call themselves "Africans" but they call themselves with their individual countries, e.g. S.Africans; Morrocans; Nigerians; Namibians et al. hence, the Charlize Therons of this world will proudly say they are South Africans. And, rightly so, S.A. is an english speaking country. Being a developing country, obviously, there will be little/moderate english usage in rural areas. However, far better than in most Asian countries....other than Philippines. This is because english is a medium of instruction in S.A.

    Well, thanks again for your greatly written blog. I just felt like I have to shed more light at this stage, being from Johannesburg- Sandton and I warmly invite U.S. travelers to my city....even though we have a lot of peeps who migrated to S.A....and continue to get more.

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    2. Alright Ms. Sandton!!! Thanks for providing some clarity and from a native South African perspective. I wholeheartedly agree with you on your qualms about referring to Africa like it is one country vs. made up of numerous countries. I do find though that many of my friends, in the U.S. and abroad, are just as proud to be African as they are to be from their country of birth/nationality/origin. And that there are some cultural commonalities that unite them, especially when living abroad. Similar, to how as an American I can easily relate to Canadians. Admittedly, I also wrote this post to speak more to an American audience (because we do tend to refer to Africa as a continent not individual countries) and for the less educated or should I say less traveled. You would be surprised how many educated people still believe some of the above about Africa in general. I hoped this post would allow them to open up to learning more about individual countries. And hopefully even visiting. Slowly but surely we will get there and change misperceptions and minds. Thanks again for your feedback though will keep in it mind for future post! Cheers!

      BTW-check out this video that prompted this post

  2. Oh ps. yep, Meisha you're damn right in South Africa we have four seasons.....not Summer only. As I'm talking, Johannesburg is experiencing a O degree celcius!

    Thanks again.

    1. BTW would love to connect with a fellow member of the community. I actually live in the NW near Rustenburg (which you ironically mentioned above in your reference to Sun City). I get to Pretoria and Joburg from time to time if you are interested!

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