What do we really know about Africa?

It’s fairly obvious to any casual observer that Africa has had a difficult past.

Thousands of years ago, Africa was the cradle of humanity. Humans first evolved in Ethiopia’s rift valleys, the Egyptian civilisation flourished in the Nile river valley and Alexandria was the ancients’ Silicon Valley, with a large library and scholars who promoted learning and innovation.

African ports were central to world trade. Cities on the Mediterranean coast were well known and influenced by Greek, Roman and Arab cultures, but there were routes along South and East Africa that had trade links with India and China long before Europe discovered them.

Through the period of colonisation, African slaves provided the manpower to generate wealth and economic activity in the Americas. The colonial powers saw Africans as tribal people who needed to be enlightened through Christianity.

It was only after the Civil Rights movement that African-American people got equal rights. Parents of Generation-X’ers and Millenials likely lived through a period of government-sanctioned institutional racism. Of course, such significant cultural effects cannot be eliminated in a single generation or two, which is why the terms ‘White privilege’ and the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter are still relevant.

Map of Africa in comparison to other countries

Map of Africa in comparison to other countries

But what about the people who were left in Africa?

To take the example of Congo (also known as Zaire), it has only recently come under democratic rule, having previously been exploited by Belgium as a colony, gaining independence in 1960 and then ruled by Mobutu for 30 years. By all means, it should’ve been one of the richest countries in the world – with nearly $24 trillion locked in its mineral wealth – and with outstanding ecological diversity on par with Brazil. This one country (the Democratic Republic of Congo), is the size of Western Europe – and yet, it forms barely a blip on our news screens and even then, never on the front pages.

Most experts on Africa agree that while the continent and its people have a lot to hope for, their present situation is largely the result of exploitation by countries in Europe, in America and now in Asia.

“Without the slave trades, 72% of Africa’s income gap with the rest of the world would not exist today” – Nathan Nunn, Professor of Economics, Harvard.

We had Live Aid in London and Philadelphia in 1985, when Phil Collins famously flew on the Concorde to perform at both venues. This was to help raise awareness and money for the famine in Ethiopia. That country may now have recovered but the troubles seem to have shifted to neighbouring Somalia, Sudan, Djibouti and Eritrea.

It is impossible to provide a summary of history in a short article or two; Africa is vast. It has over 50 countries and 20% of the world’s population. So far, it has been distant to us in the West, but with the refugee crisis the problems are now at our door and in our neighbourhood.

DR Congo size compared to Europe

DR Congo size compared to EuropeMany people are aware of this history and the current state of affairs. However, as Europe and the US become more politically polarised, it is clear that a significant chunk of our populations only has empathy for people who were lucky to have been born in the same geography as themselves.

What is needed now, more than ever, is human empathy that bridges these divides. The internet allows us to interact with anyone from around the world. This allows some vociferous arguments, but hopefully a period of rationalisation will follow.

This is partly why we launched Refugee Maps. We were surprised and inspired by the scale of the positive response to the Refugee Crisis – and so created a platform that could show at one glance the thousands of groups across Europe (and the world) who are working towards a better future.

To read more about the significance of some African countries in the refugee crisis, see:

Egypt: Supporting refugees, while recovering from the 2011 revolution

EGYPT’S proximity to Syria, Libya, Sudan and Somalia, both geographically and culturally, results in a large number of people seeking refuge in that country. It is home to over 260,000 refugees and asylum seekers, over half of whom are from Syria.

Where in the world is Eritrea?

Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, is a city developed by Italians in the 1920s and 30s to be the Rome of the East. Due to an upsurge in Italian interest in architecture during those decades, Asmara features buildings developed in several modernist styles and almost served as a ‘blank canvas’ for artists and designers.

A short story of Sudan

Many people have heard of Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, but not many know that Omdurman, which lies just across the Nile river, is Sudan’s largest city or that due north also lies Bahri, a city also known as Khartoum North. Together, the three cities: Khartoum, Bahri and Omdurman, are home to nearly 7 million people.