Africa – a big place

We’ve only ever seen Africa from Spain – on clear days, driving down the road from Ronda to the coast, you see the towering Atlas mountain range in Morocco shimmering in the distance. And here we are on the extreme other end of that massive continent.

One strange thing about Africa is that Europeans and Americans easily underestimate how big the place is – and studying geography at university I learnt we can safely blame that misunderstanding (partly at least) on geographers and maps.

Most of us agree that the earth is round, and to represent a globe on a piece of flat, non-round paper or PC screen you need to distort the depiction of the earth’s surface to make it usable. This warping favours the bits at the top and bottom of the map – meaning that North America and Europe/Russia seem to be much larger than in reality. You can point fingers at Gerardus Mercator, a Flemish cartographer who devised the much-used projection (initially to help explorers sail around and colonise things without falling off the edge).

Here’s a Mercator map:

We all grew up with this type of map, understanding that Africa is about the same size as Canada, about twice the size of Europe and perhaps just a few icebergs smaller than Greenland. It’s just so wrong.

This way of showing the world understandably been criticized as promoting cultural bias – as it has us Euromericans and the Australians at the other end thinking we’re pretty much on top of the planet, sizewise, and depicts the colonised and politically insignificant areas around the equator much smaller than they really are. Even the UN agrees we shouldn’t use this map for these reasons. This particular map is of course culturally biased in two ways – as it’s a Yankee version that places the USA firmly at the centre of things, and certainly not near the physical or political left of anything.

Now look at this Robinson projection map:

… and at this rather elegant Fuller projection world map, which not only takes away the land mass bias, but does away with the whole north=up=good, south=down=bad thing that has confused and saddened many generations:

Or better still, have a look at the photos of our inflatable globe map beachball that came free with the South Africa road atlas (and probably the first beachball with Kosovo depicted as a separate country):

Beachball Africa

Beachball Europe

These maps, and especially the beachball, do a much better job at showing the real size of things – and the true size of Africa is now revealed; a full three times the size of Canada (which is also cheating by inflating itself with all those lakes and bays), nearly three times bigger than Europe (including all the dodgy non-EU bits in the east) and a whopping 14 times of frigid little Greenland.

At 30,221,532 km2, Africa is a big place.  South Africa makes up just 4% of that land mass, but is still the size of Germany, France, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Iceland all lumped together. And we’ve just moved to a very exciting part of it.

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One response to “Africa – a big place

  1. Great post! Unfortunately the Robinson map image seems to have disappeared though.

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