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10/24/2014 05:32 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What Are Some of the Biggest Misconceptions About Africa?

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Answer by Jake Freyer, African Studies major at Harvard College

  1. Africa is fertile. By and large, it's not: lush, tropical rainforests look really green, but in fact have some of the poorest soil anywhere. Europeans were surprised to find how difficult it was to grow conventional crops in most parts of Africa.
  2. There is one Africa. Africa is a continent with over a billion people, who live in more than 50 different countries and speak more than 2,000 different languages. There are definitely large cultural groupings, and many Africans feel some sense of unity, but it is really an incredibly diverse place.
  3. All African languages have clicks. Very few of them do. Like I said before, there are more than 2,000 languages spoken in Africa, and maybe a few dozen employ click consonants. Aside from the well-publicized examples in isiXhosa and isiZulu (which actually are major languages of South Africa), almost all "click languages" are spoken by no more than a few hundred people.
  4. Africans were illiterate before colonization. Most were, but writing was brought to sub-Saharan Africa from the Middle East at various points. (This is also how writing got to Europe.) The Arabic script has been used by black Africans to write Swahili and Wolof for many centuries, and Ethiopia has used its Semitic-derived script for well over a millennium. Some others were exposed to writing but rejected it (interesting story), and it just never made its way to the rest.
  5. Africa lacked civilization before European contact. If you define "civilization" as big cities and writing and centralized states, then this is partly true. It is important to recognize, though, that Africans' environment often made farming difficult (poor soil), urbanization irresponsible (tropical disease) and husbandry impossible (disease again). These were the main ingredients that led to "civilization" elsewhere, and Africans adapted to make their own civilizations that best suited their surroundings. Many exceptions to this rule--the Swahili city states, writing in Ethiopia, higher learning in Timbuktu--did involve adapting concepts imported from the Middle East, though before long they became fully African. And, as always, there are glaring exceptions: the architectural marvels of the Great Zimbabwe, advanced medicine in Bunyoro (Uganda) and others. The truth, as always, is nuanced.
  6. You can generalize about Africa. You really can't. See above.
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