Constructing Africa

Africa is one of  seven continents on the planet, and it is one of the most diverse regions in the world. The land mass hosts a wide range of ecosystems from arid deserts such as the Sahara and Kalahari to dense tropical forests such as the Gombe. The coastal perimeter consists of several thousand miles of beaches that include world class resorts and significant marine fisheries. African mountain ranges include the snow-capped peaks of the High Atlas as well as the volcanic attraction called Kilimanjaro. All of these features are interconnected by a complex network of waterways that include rivers such as the Niger, Nile and Congo Rivers; lakes such as Lake Chad and Lake Tanganyika, and fertile estuaries such as the Nile River Valley. The rich ecological diversity on the African continent has provided the foundation for a tremendous amount of cultural diversity. Africa is one of the most culturally diverse areas in the world. It hosts more languages and cultures than any other continent on the planet. Despite the tremendous amount of diversity in Africa, the continent and the people connected to it are oftentimes represented as a homogeneous place occupied by a homogeneous group of people. In many ways, the manner in which Africa has been represented, or constructed, is a reflection of the recent history of relations between Africa and the rest of the world. As we move through this course, we will explore the many ways that colonialism has contributed to pejorative (negative) and frequently racist representations of Africa and African people. It is therefore necessary to take-apart, or deconstruct, those representations in order to improve our understanding of Africa, African histories and African cultures.

Constructing Africa through space and place

We can begin by first acknowledging the differences between ‘space’ and ‘place’. According to Setha Low & Denise Lawrence-Zuniga (2003), space consists of built forms (such as buildings, roads, and monuments) and landscapes (such as lakes, prairies, and mountains). Space is arbitrary, it exists on its own. Yet, space becomes place when humans attach meanings to space, and those meanings shape the way people treat the space and behave in that space. For example, the space where a landmass reaches the ocean is called the coast, and there are specific meanings associated with a coast that affect how people treat the space and the way people behave in the space. If a section of the coast is called a ‘beach’ then most people would associate the space with recreation and a particular set of activities and clothing. Imagine we built a structure on the beach and called it a ‘classroom’ or ‘laboratory’. Although it is the same ‘space’ we would associate a different set of ideas, behaviors, and activities in relation to the space called ‘laboratory’ than we would with the space called ‘beach.’ At the same time, we might perceive the people associated with the laboratory quite differently than we would the people associated with the beach. This is because the meanings ascribed, or given, to space in order to make it place are oftentimes transferred to the people who inhabit the place.

The theory behind space and place, known as ‘place-making’, is a key part of deconstructing Africa because it is important to identify the ways that the space we call Africa has been made into a place through a process of assigning meanings to the landscape and the built environment, and those meanings affect the way people perceive Africa, they shape the activities that take place in Africa, and they inform the way that people connected with Africa have been represented.   Many contemporary ideas about Africa and African people are rooted in a legacy of European colonialism which produced and disseminated a multitude of negative representations that associated particular meanings to the continent and cultures. However, the meanings produced by European occupiers are quite different from the meanings produced by people who are indigenous, or connected, to Africa.

In our online discussion, we will analyze the film below called ‘Africa Speaks!’ which was widely popular during the 1930s. As you watch the film, consider the ways that the images and the commentary help assign meanings to the space called Africa and the people associated with Africa. Imagine that you are a viewer watching this film in the United States during the 1930s. How would this film affect your ideas about Africa? What type of meanings would you assign to the space called Africa and the people who live there? Can you think of ways that this film, and other forms of media like it, have shaped the way that people in the U.S. view Africa today? What type of images and meanings have shaped the way you view Africa and people connected to Africa?


In the second part of this course, we will take a closer look at the way that European film, art, literature, photography, news reports, and even science aimed to represent Africa and African people in a way that served the economic and political interests of European and American elites. For now, it is essential to familiarize yourself with the physical and cultural composition of the African continent by exploring cartographies and social geographies of Africa in the next two pages. It is also important that you make a special effort to familiarize yourself with the unique environmental and cultural composition of the country you selected as your ‘area of expertise’ because this is a key part of your first assignment.

For fun, try to guess the location of the images below.

Answers: A Marrakech, Morocco;  B Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania; C coastal Senegal; D Johannessburg, South Africa; E Nairobi, Kenya; F Casablanca, Morocco; G Sahara, Mali; H Nile, Egypt; I coastal Madagascar

As you can easily see from the images above, Africa is extremely rich in diversity  – both ecologically as well as culturally. As you move through this course, you will develop a deeper understanding of the unique experiences and situations that make Africa a very complex and fascinating continent.

So what have you learned so far? Check out the practice quiz below.

Your Score:  

Your Ranking:  

For Discussion: Introduce yourself to your classmates and name the African country that will be your focus throughout the semester. Explain why you selected this particular country. Each student must select a different country. Countries are first come, first serve – meaning that the first person to post the country as their selection gets to keep it. Therefore it is a good idea to have a few back up countries in case your first choice has been selected already.

After posting to the discussion, move on to Cartographies.