Travelling to Africa for the first time, it’s hard not to hold a certain image in your head. An image informed by nightly news bulletins and aid ads and maybe the seminal 2006 film Blood Diamond (great accent, Leo). That sort of prejudice is kind of inevitable, but it’s one that’s really undeserved. Africa, when you travel there, is a far more interesting, complex, beautiful place than 99% of the media would have you think. Spend a week roadtripping through Nairobi, or cruising the coast outside Cape Town, and the myths get busted, one by one. Here are some of the big stereotypes/inaccuracies we’ve come across in our travels. Get ready to jetpack down from that ivory tower.
1. Africa is a country
NEWSFLASH! A country, Africa definitely is not. All too often when people talk about this vibrant, diverse continent that’s home to over 54 independent countries and 1 billion humans – they reduce it down to a single nation.
In reality, Africa’s the world’s oldest populated area, and the second largest continent on the planet. It is vast, and the cultures that exist within it are even more so. South Africa, for instance has an incredible 11 official languages (the UK has one), while across the continent, there are over 1500-2000 local languages spoken every day. Plus, our ancestors all came from regions in Africa – cool, right?! Apart from Ethiopia and Liberia, the continent was also completely colonised by countries like France, Belgium, England and Germany – although most gained independence after WWII.
2. Africa isn’t safe
War, famine, child soldiers, terrorism, crime, incompetent; if you believe the media reports, Africa sounds incredibly dangerous. But (apart from a few well documented areas) it’s not, and you really can travel extensively throughout the continent without any problems.
We won’t deny the continent’s got a few issues here and there, like everywhere on earth. Avoid certain dangerous countries and you’ll be fine. For a start, Botswana, Namibia, Malawi, and Ghana are some of the most stable on the continent, while Morocco, Kenya, and Tanzania have been huge tourism hubs for years. You’re more likely to be killed with kindness by happy locals than be in any real danger at all. Be wary, exercise common sense, and enjoy the warmth of friendly, welcoming locals.
3. Africa and its leaders are corrupt
We’ll be honest here; many countries, politicians and people in Africa are more than a little corrupt. But it’s simplistic to assume corruption exists everywhere and with everyone.
Remember that Nelson Mandela guy? The revolutionary anti-apartheid politician who became president of South Africa? Yeah, he’s one of the most revered men in history and actively stood against corruption. Heard of Ellen Sirleaf, Liberia’s president? She won a Nobel Peace Prize for promoting safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peacebuilding work. No corruption here. It’s obvious Africa has some supreme and uncorrupt leaders.
Stories of travellers having to pay a bribe at a border or to get out of a situation are commonplace in Africa, however we’ve never encountered an incident like this. Most young Africans we met were working hard to make corruption a thing of the past.
4. Africa is technologically backwards
Come on guys, you didn’t expect Africa to still be on dial up did you? Most countries in Africa have access to 4G and wi-fi, especially in the south. Almost everyone we met had mobile phones, including the Maasai warriors of Kenya and Tanzania (crazy, we know). Across the continent, African banks have created innovative mobile-friendly banking systems that have revolutionised small business in rural areas, and many farmers are empowered with vital information for their harvest each season via mobile apps.
Africa is also at the forefront of solar technology, with Morocco building the world’s largest solar power plant. From our experience, Africans are the most capable self-taught engineers and problem solvers, and if you don’t believe us, read ‘The Man Who Harnessed The Wind’.
5. Dangerous animals roam freely
Well obviously this one is as true as that yarn about Australians riding to school on their Kangaroos, right?! Guys…?
Animals like to stick to their own patch, not those that humans occupy (not to mention that many have been driven from populated areas by poaching and urban sprawl). You’ll rarely see a large or dangerous animal in cities or towns, other than a fellow human. There is one little pest you do need to be careful of though: baboons. They tend to lurk pretty close to cities and towns and are partial to a cheeky food grab from your backpack.
6. Africa is cheap
This one is interesting, because for the most part, living in Africa is cheap (South Africa is super cheap for quality living). However, to actually travel through Africa is quite expensive.
Getting to Africa is a huge cost, with flights generally a lot more expensive than to other regions of the world. Think of the basic economics of supply / demand and you’ll understand why. Be prepared to pay quite a lot if you want to safari too, especially through famous southern African national parks such as the Okavango or Etosha Pan. Overland tours are popular yet expensive (you do get bang for your buck though), while local transport can be relatively cheap if travelling shorter distances.
Accommodation-wise, from luxury lodges down to shabby guesthouses, the prices were a lot higher than we’ve experienced elsewhere, and backpacking is generally not catered for. Camping is a cheaper option, but you’re still going to have to shell out about $8USD per night for a camp site. Food, on the other hand, is reasonable, especially if you’re eating like a local – which you should!
7. Africa is poor
Yes, poverty is a problem in Africa and there’s certainly no sugar coating that. Wherever you go, you’ll be subjected to it in one way or another. However, not all Africans are poor, just as not all African nations are poor. South Africa ranks 30th in the world for GDP; but the issues at play are more about the equal distribution of wealth.
Also, it’s important to note that Africans are far from poor when it comes to family, community or a general zest for life. They’re resourceful, creative, and entrepreneurial, and some of the less fortunate people we’ve met were also the most friendly and hospitable. Legends.
8. It’s hot all the time in Africa
This one time, in Africa, we got caught in a blizzard. Sure, it was at the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro but it goes to show that Africa has very dramatic climates. There’s even ski fields in Lesotho. Both northern and southern Africa experience cold winters with frost, while tropical areas through central Africa can have monsoon like conditions for periods of time.
The climate around the peak travel season is perfect, with warm days and cool nights (pack a warm jacket for those chilly evenings though).
9. There’s nothing to see apart from animals
Really? There’s a lot wrong with this misconception. Let’s start with Cape Town, which on top of having the most incredible natural beauty of any city we’ve seen, has a thriving hipster and art scene to match any city in the world (looking at you, Berlin). Then there’s the rich colonial history throughout the continent, including historical cities including Maputo and Stone Town.
What about the pyramids of Egypt? Great Zimbabwe? Lalibela in Ethiopia, Timbuktu in Mali (yes, Timbuktu exists in real life), the Fes medina… Africa is the cradle of modern man after all, and has a huge array of historical sights. Oh, there’s also the rock art from the early San bushmen of southern Africa, dating back over 20,000. Africa is so much more than animals, believe us.
10. Africa needs our help
Thanks to the media, and well-meaning (but damaging) charity adverts that show sad, malnourished children with begging eyes, there’s still a perception in the west that Africa is poor, helpless, and in need of our superior help.
While it’s great to want to positively impact the world, sometimes this view that we have to go there and ‘fix’ Africa by doing charity work actually ends up perpetuating the cycle (seriously, check out white saviour barbie on insta for the best take on this).
If you really want to help, buy a ticket and visit. Spend your money in locally run guesthouses, order from cafes, travel with taxi drivers, buy stall-holders and shop owners. Travel with a responsible tour operator with strong ties to local communities. Get to know the locals, break down those barriers, try to understand each other – you might learn a thing or two as well!
Want to do Africa properly? You’ll need an Intrepid small group adventure.