Just How Big Is Africa?

I happened to look at a map before I flew to Cairo to start this adventure. Turns out: 12,000 km is a huge distance. Like, massive.

Let me put it in perspective. Cycling this route through Africa is basically the equivalent of cycling from Los Angeles to New York three times in a row. We’re now about 2,000 km into the trip and it’s as if we just cycled from Seattle to San Diego during the past three weeks. Here’s another jaw-dropping fact: As the crow flies, Cairo to Cape Town measures a little over 8,000 km. That’s just under the distance from Beijing to Berlin. During the trip we’ll cross three important lines – the Tropic of Cancer, the Equator, and the Tropic of Capricorn – covering over 60 degrees of latitude, or over one third the distance from pole to pole.

I mention these facts and comparisons not only to give you some insight into the thought that runs through my head from time to time – namely, Holy s*@# what am I doing? – but also because there’s a larger point lurking behind these calculations.

Many of us are visual learners. And in terms of geography, size matters. When we think of importance, whether political or otherwise, size is often a subconscious influence. In the States, California and Texas both take center stage in national discussions, and it’s no surprise that they are two of the largest states in terms of landmass.

The problem is that the maps which we’re accustomed to seeing when we look at the world are wrong. This should be an obvious point: a map is a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional surface, so of course it’s going to be distorted in some way. But the distortion that we most commonly see is one that falsely portrays the relative size of Africa in relation to other continents.

Most maps in classrooms around the world use the Mercator projection. It looks like the map you see here:


A simplified description of what this projection does is that it maintains the approximate shape of countries, but does so by sacrificing the relative size of countries in comparison to each other. Countries that are close to the poles, such as Greenland, are massive compared to what they look like on a globe. In contrast, countries close to the equator, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, appear comparatively small. On this map, it looks like Africa is about the same size as Greenland, and about twice the size of the lower 48 states. India appears to be smaller than Alaska.

Other types of projections exist. Most relevant to this discussion is the Peters projection, which looks like this:


The Peters projection maintains the relative size of countries; if South Africa looks twice as large as Texas, it’s because it is. What it sacrifices is the relative shape of countries. Individual countries look distorted compared to what you would see on a globe.

Look carefully at the Peters projection. It will probably look surprising and, well, wrong. But this map is no more or less distorted that the Mercator projection, it’s just distorted in a different way. It is just as truthful about the world we live in, and yet the Peters projection tells us a different truth than the one with which we’re usually confronted. In this version of the world, Africa is huge and Europe is tiny. India is massive while Greenland is negligible. Whereas the Mercator projection emphasizes the horizontal sweep across Eurasia, the Peters projection focuses the eye on the vast vertical sweeps of Africa and South America. When the map is centered on Africa, the continent visually dominates all of the others. To give your brain another aid, here is a depiction of the number of other countries and continents that could fit within Africa:


And as a final mindbender, consider this. There is no reason why the North Pole should be at the top of a map and the South Pole should be at the bottom. The following map isn’t upside-down, it’s just a different way of seeing the world – but it’s one that prioritizes the Southern Hemisphere instead of the Northern:


(If you’re really a visual learner, you may appreciate seeing these concepts in a video. Here’s a great excerpt from the West Wing when the press secretary, played by my favorite Alison Janney, has an encounter with the Cartographers for Social Equality:)

These differences in size and position are not just psychologically important; they also tell a story about economics, anthropology, and history. Size has a substantial correlation with natural resources, for instance. It also points to the number of diverse linguistic and cultural communities that exist within an area. And it should come as no surprise that the maps we are most used to seeing are the ones that emphasize the importance of Europe and the United States, two areas that have held the lion’s share of geopolitical power over the past few hundred years.

The psychology of maps leads to strange assumptions. When I led visitors on tours of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, I would often point out that the doors of the courtroom were beautifully designed with Kente cloth patterns from Ghana and the Ivory Coast. I viewed this cultural borrowing as a metaphor for the requirement enshrined in the Constitution that South African courts align themselves with international law to the greatest extent possible without contravening domestic law. The Constitution also permits the courts to make use of foreign law where appropriate, which is one of the reasons why several of the justices hire foreign law clerks like me. A number of visitors reacted to this explanation with the query, “But is Ghana really international? Isn’t that also in Africa?”

More so than any other continent, Africa tends to be viewed as one large country. The World Cup in South Africa was seen as the World Cup in Africa; an outbreak of ebola in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone affected safari bookings in places as far afield as Tanzania and Botswana; writers like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie are often identified as African before they are identified by their nationality. In contrast, imagine someone classifying Victor Hugo as European without mentioning that he was French.

It is vitally important to see Africa as the vast and diverse continent that it is, not only to make forward strides in LGBT rights but for all kinds of humanitarian progress. The complexity of issues at play in a crisis such as the one occurring in Darfur makes far more sense with the recognition that Darfur is not simply a farflung and remote corner of the continent, but an area the size of France.

The cultural diversity of the African continent is overwhelming. Just within the Nuba mountains of southern Sudan alone, over 50 tribes speaking nearly as many languages maintain unique cultural traditions. These traditions are no less complex when they are communicated orally rather than in written form, even though there is a tendency to see unwritten histories as less important because they are harder to study.

One of the goals of the trip is to give myself a better education about the rich history and diverse traditions across the continent. I hope to impart some of what I learn to readers following the website, so be ready for future posts on a variety of topics that may seemingly have little to do with biking or LGBT rights. Meanwhile, thanks for the support as I continue the long, long way down. Or up.

Posted in Travel Blog.


  1. Great post, Nate. The confusion over how Ghana could be international for South Africa made my jaw drop! I am sure you handled that with great composure and diplomacy…

    Another interesting component to the problematic view of Africa as one country or culture is that it is a discourse which has been been adopted by some Africans (in the continent and the diaspora) as a means to form solidarity and feel a collective pride for “African civilization” (as if the different societies over this huge space and timeframe have this seamless connection and single identity). While it is a more positive message (Being “African” as a source of pride rather than shame) it nonetheless reinforces the idea that this is some concrete identity, whether that person is from Libya or Swaziland. It also demonstrates how identities, even if they are constructed by an outside mapmaker, can ultimately become internalized and very real to the people who believe them. Whether used to put down or raise up people or societies, I think it’s always good to question how much cartographic terms really can represent reality, and just what sort of compromises one makes when we use sweeping terms. The world is always way more complicated and nuanced than any representation (whether literary or graphic) can ever convey.

    Keep up the blogging! And keep faith in the power if your legs–you can do it!

  2. Thanks for the insightful comment Pauline! Another thing I’ve noticed, which may turn into a future blog post, is the way that country borders are internalized or at least noticeable. Especially in Africa, many of these borders were drawn in a manner that was entirely haphazard — and by foreign powers with no advice or consent given by the people living within those borders. And yet, there has been a marked and immediate distinction between the people and culture on either side of the two borders we’ve crossed so far (Egypt/Sudan and Sudan/Ethiopia). Will be interesting to consider further the effects of cartography as the trip progresses.

    • Totally! And it just goes to show that just becomes national identities are socially constructed doesn’t mean that they don’t become real. Which side of the “line” you are on can be a huge difference in terms of what education you receive, how you learn history, which army you fight in, and how you think of yourself in the world. And then, on the flip side, sometimes border regions are also incredibly demonstrative for just how fuzzy these cartographic/nationalist distinctions are!

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