When people speak of Africa, they all too often refer to it as one heterogeneous block, as opposed to a vast continent containing more than 50 diverse countries. Even Joe Biden – Vice-President of the United States and once chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – has been guilty of such misconceptions, referring to “the nation of Africa” when he spoke at last year’s US Africa Summit.
That’s not the only misunderstanding: for most of us, our image of Africa is shaped by what we see on maps. And that image is completely inaccurate.
It’s not really the fault of the cartographers. Any attempt to reflect a sphere on a flat surface will lead to distortions. And as Nick Stockton of Wired explains, the goal of the flat-surface Mercator projection (on which most of the maps we’re used to seeing are based) was not to provide an accurate reflection of the world, it was to help sailors navigate the globe. Referring to the maps creator, Gerardus Mercator, Stockton says: “Though maps before and after have been better at showing us the whole earth, Mercator’s was the first that gave us a means for exploring it. Mercator never meant for his map to teach geography.”
But all too often, that’s exactly what it is used for. And that’s what leads some people to believe Africa is really the size of Greenland. It was to debunk this idea that Kai Krause, a graphical user interface designer, decided to create this map to show just how enormous Africa really is.
As with all maps, this one also has its flaws. “Krause seems to have used the shapes of the countries from a Mercator projection, but has scaled up the outline of Africa, without changing its shape, to show the appropriate area,” points out the Economist.
But for Krause, this type of observation misses the point. As he explains on his website: “This was not at all an attempt to create an accurate map.” It was instead his way of showing just how much the rest of the world underestimates Africa – not just in size but in many other aspects. Krause hopes his work will play a small role in changing perceptions about the continent: “Here is to Africa achieving the stature that it deserves to have,” his explanation concludes.
Author: Stéphanie Thomson is an editor at the World Economic Forum
Image: A man is photographed on a square decorated with a giant world map. REUTERS/Rafael Marchante