A while ago I joined a volunteering programme. We were about to leave our home country and go out in the world to spend a year in a foreign country. Yet, we did not know much about the country we were going to live in, nor about the communities. A friend of mine was about to go to Benin, in North West Africa. As excited as we all were, we told our friends and family about the adventure, which was ahead of us. But whenever my friend said “I am going to Benin!” her friends’ and family’s response was “Wow! You are going to Africa?! Really?!”
Africa is composed of 55 different countries. There is the highest linguistic diversity of this continent in the entire world, with over 1500 different languages. The African continent is over 30 million square kilometres; these are 22% of the entirety of land on this planet. On the continent we find a population of over 1 billion people, which makes Africa the second most populated continent on earth.
Despite all of these very impressive numbers, we have this image of Africa in our head as basically one country, not one continent. And yes, this continent is big, but it is not actually that big, is it? If we compare it to Australia or Greenland it might almost look the same size.
This is an optical illusion. The map we used in Europe over centuries is the Mercator Map. It was drawn in the 16th Century and it shows the countries of the world with the correct borders they have. This is very important if you have to navigate your ship aside the coastline of a continent, but it also tricks you. The world is a globe, a 3-Dimensional object, which you cannot represent perfectly in a 2-Dimensional map.
If you try to, the globe stretches and changes its dimensions. Therefore we have two different options here. When we picture the globe in only 2-Dimensions, we can, on the one hand, keep the borders of the countries as they are which is what the Mercator-Projection does. This changes the size of the countries in comparison with each other. On the other hand, we can keep the size of the countries in comparison with each other as they are which eventually changes the borders of the countries.
This gives you a very different picture of the world and it shows you how big Africa really is. You can fit all of China (9.597.000 km*2), the USA (9.629.000 km*2), India (3.287.000 km*2), Japan (378.000 km*2), Germany (357.000 km*2), France (633.000 km*2), Spain (506.000 km*2), Italy (301.000 km*2), Sweden (441.000 km*2), Norway (324.000 km*2), the United Kingdom (243.000 km*2), Greece (132.000 km*2) and all of Eastern Europe into the territory of the African continent and you will still have uncovered areas. If you need to prove it you can calculate yourself the size of all the mentioned countries and you reach 25.828.000 km*2 (+ Eastern Europe), which still leaves more than 4.000 km*2, which are uncovered.
That is the true size of Africa.
There is a second aspect of this phenomenon. If you take the globe there is no beginning and no ending. You can turn it upside down and it is still a map of the world. However, in 2-Dimensional maps we need a left and right, an up and a down. In other words, we need West and East, South and North. And we also need a centre. The maps we use in Europe are drawn from the European perspective because that is where the sailors since the 15th century started their journeys. But long before that the people in Asia, particularly in China, started travelling the world as well and they drew their maps with China in the middle.
During my volunteering service in South East Asia, I stood in front of a map and where there was Europe in my understanding, there was just water.
We have to keep in mind that we are being raised with a certain understanding of the world, by the books we read, by the news we get and by the maps we look at. However, the world is a much bigger place, and to overcome the challenges of our time we have to understand the world we live in, we have to get over the prejudices we have, known or unknown, and we have to be open to be surprised by the diversity our planet has to offer us and to understand the true size of humankind.