African liveability

The “Two Africas”: American Perceptions of the Continent


Joey Lyons, a Cape Town Partnership intern from Boston, looks at how the reality of Cape Town (and the rest of Africa) square up with his preconceived ideas.

Will you survive the next three months? How many safaris will you go on? Will your apartment have a dirt floor? Why would you choose South Africa?

My friends asked all kinds of questions before I left my home in Boston. As you might expect from people who live on the other side of the world, their perceptions of Africa were uninformed. However, there was value in their misconceptions: their ignorance helped me recognize my own.

A week before I embarked on my thirty-hour journey to Cape Town, I had an epiphany. I knew little about where I was going. My exposure to Africa has been limited and, like many Americans, I have often viewed the continent in one of two ways.

At times, we picture the “good” Africa, filled with colorful tribes and majestic animals. At a young age, I, along with millions of Americans, witnessed this idealistic portrayal of the continent when I watched The Lion King. As we grow older, Americans learn that there is more to Africa than the Disney fairytale. We discover the “bad” Africa, where poverty, famine, war, and crime are ubiquitous. American news tends to emphasize this perspective, for tragedy attracts human interest, which, in turn, draws clicks and views. The “good” and “bad” Africa myths are both prevalent and damaging. By focusing on these extremes, Americans neglect the great variety of African experiences. The unfortunate result is that many Americans do not recognize that the vast majority of Africa’s 1.2 billion people live beyond these stereotypes.

Over the years, American mass media has embedded in national thought the idea that Africa is a starving, disease-ridden, and war-torn continent. One study, titled The Mass Media Effect: American Perception and Attitude toward Africa, explored this topic. It found that “positive images of Africa are limited to vegetation and other wildlife while the existences of people, not to mention industrial civilization, are totally ignored.” Instead of highlighting human achievements in Africa, the media often exhibit a sort of Afro-pessimism, devoting their coverage to topics such as violence, dictators, disease, and refugees. The word frequency table below demonstrates how American newspapers concentrate on these issues. The press associates Africa with violence so closely that the term appeared more often than the subject—“Africa”—itself.

US Newspaper content graph

While many problems afflict Africa, the consistent American focus on them weakens our appreciation of the continent. As E.J. Murphy notes in his novel The African Mythology: Old and New, “to understand modern Africa, one must understand that there are many modern cities, significant numbers of middle class people, well developed systems of communication, health, education and welfare, and properly functioning governmental structures.” The American media and education system have largely failed to expose its citizens to Africa’s dynamic economy, heterogenous people, cultural richness, and intriguing history.

Take my former school as an example. St. Mark’s is one of the top secondary schools in the nation and provides a wide range of course selections. When I attended, the history and social sciences offerings included European History, The Atlantic World, Mediterranean Civilization, East Asian Civilization, United States History, United States Government, Economics, a Globalization Seminar, and the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. In this syllabus, African history is notably absent. In its omission of Africa, St. Mark’s’ history curriculum is sadly representative of most across America. Research shows that little information about Africa is taught in high schools. The impact of this omission is severe. A national survey of seventh and twelfth grade students’ perception of Africa shows that their impressions of Africa included the words “savage, uncivilized, native, spears, witchdoctors, huts, dirtiness, and lack of history.” Before coming to Cape Town, I must admit that this was also my impression of Africa.

While preparing for my time here, I researched South Africa’s and, more specifically, Cape Town’s troubled history and current social climate. Given the apprehension that moving to a new place elicits, my main concern was learning about Cape Town’s crime and racial tensions.  I feared that I might be entering the “bad” Africa. Having been here for two weeks, however, I know that I was foolish. Capetonians are nicer than most Americans I have met, and the city is more modern and vibrant than most I have visited in America. Despite this reality, I worry that, since the majority of Americans will never visit Africa, they will continue to accept the false narrative that Africa is backwards, dangerous, and antiquated.

In the coming months, I look forward to exploring Africa’s sprawling, urban centers as well as its vast, rural expanses. While doing so, I hope to develop a more complete understanding of this complex and beautiful continent.

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