Six Common Myths About Africa, Part I

It may be the Mother Continent, but to most Americans it’s just a faraway enigma. Here’s the real story on six popular myths about Africa.

It probably shouldn’t be any surprise that there are so many myths about Africa. After all, it’s a big continent — and according to the best scientific evidence, it’s where our species originated, well over 100,000 years ago. People are fascinated by Africa, and rightly so.

Sadly, a lot of our common knowledge about Mother Africa is just plain wrong. But we can fix that! In this two-part article, we’ll tackle six of the most egregious African myths, offering a more balanced view of the reality underlying them.

Myth 1: Africa is horrible overpopulated.

This is probably the biggest myth about Africa. The population density of Africa is actually fairly low; it’s similar to that of most of North America, and somewhat less than that of England. To look at it from another perspective, India has a larger population than the entire continent of Africa — and is a tenth of the size.

While we often hear of famines in Africa, overpopulation is not the cause. Nor is it lack of food. Sometimes the food is there, but military conflict, lack of transportation, bureaucratic inertia. And sadly, a simple lack of money among the hungriest people makes food unavailable to those who need it.

Myth 2: Most of the continent of Africa consists of dense jungle.

This myth about Africa is true only in Tarzan movies. Sure, there are some rainforests, but they comprise a relatively small proportion of the continent. African climate, topography, and vegetation zones are extremely diverse. For example, everyone knows that the Sahara, the world’s largest desert, is in Africa.

Africa also has one of the tallest mountains in the world (Kilimanjaro), a lot of open grassland, a great deal of savannah (a mixture of grasslands and small trees), as well as many non-tropical forests of various types, including pine forests.

Myth 3: The African jungles are crawling with tremendous numbers of elephants, lions, tigers, and the like.

Again, this is true only in Tarzan movies (thank you for this myth about Africa, Hollywood). First of all, no tigers have ever been native to Africa, at least in historic times. No bears, either, oh my!

While lions and elephants are native to Africa, lions stick to the aforementioned savannah and grassland areas, and so do most elephants. There are some forest elephants that live in the central African jungles, so Hollywood got that much right. But they’re becoming increasing rare, which brings up another point.

You see, there aren’t that many elephants and lions left, mostly due to us human-types. At last count, there were only about 20,000 lions left, and only because they live on wildlife preserves; African elephants are in similar straits.

Although this myth among many myths about Africa may have been true decade ago, it certainly isn’t now.