Our family has embarked on virtual travels to various countries and regions. To explore these countries and their cultures, we have followed along with the festivals, cooked and eaten traditional foods, learned of traditional handicrafts with hands on exploration, along with many activities to immerse ourselves. Chronicled here are some of these activities.

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Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Africa is Not a Country

When deciding on which country to explore this year, my mind kept drifting to Africa. Although many countries were contenders (Russia, Brazil, Saudi Arabia to name but a few), Africa is a continent we have as yet to come close to. And then I was at a loss. My very limited knowledge and understanding of Africa was to nearly lump it as a whole. African dancing, ceremonial masks, drums and Nelson Mandela. Let's not forget The Lion King. Rather limited ideas even if just about one country, let alone an entire continent. Then again, that is why I have taken my family and embarked on our virtual travels - to expand our minds and ideas about this great yet small world we live in. 

School boys playing football (Zimbabwe)
Photo Credit: Dylan Thomas/UKAid
Not knowing which country to narrow it down to, I went to the internet. It was easy to see that it is common to refer to Africa as one place, one country. Knowing the regional differences that are found within a country, let alone a continent, this approach was not the route I wanted to take. Between school, work and life, we wouldn't have the time to explore any continent without being reduced to generalizations. The idea of choosing a country is to look past the surface and generalizations and dig deeper. 

Hamer tribe, bull jumping (Ethiopia)
Photo Credit: Achilli Family
This premise also had me worried that by studying one country, the girls would be led to the (rather common) assumption that all of Africa is represented by this country. Which is part of the reason why I deviated this year and chose a region, but more on that later. Before wandering off to our region, we took some time to learn more about, and note the differences that abound within the great continent of Africa.

Call to prayer (Morocco)
Photo Credit: Dominik Goleni
The Continent of Africa

  • There are 54 countries
  • There is a population of over 1 billion, and is the 2nd most populous continent
  • There are over 1000 spoken languages
  • It is three times the size of the United States - in fact, you could fit the land of the U.S, China, Japan and Europe, and still have room to play.
  • Before being colonized, Africa had up to 10,000 different states and autonomous tribes with distinct languages and customs
  • Across the continent, there are deserts, grasslands, tropical rainforests, savannah and the Mediterranean. 
In order to get an idea of some of the many differences to be found within Africa, we read the following book, while finding each country mentioned on a map. (Find printable maps of Africa here.)

Africa Is Not A Country by Margy Burns Knight (Affiliate Link)
Each page of the book focuses on one country with an illustrated short narrative of every day life children may experience within their country, with nearly 30 countries represented. It is a great, simple overview of the diversity found within Africa. There are children in cities, in parks, working farms, at the market, in the desert. There are scenes of every day life such as playing games, going to school, spending time with family. There is even a mention of refugee children in Rwanda, and Lesotho is illustrated in snow covered mountains, a rather unexpected scene. The book opens with a map of Africa and a few geographical facts, and ends with short facts about all 53 countries (at time of publishing) and an illustration of all of their flags.

We enjoyed this book, and any country that struck Elle's fancy, we looked up to get a better idea. We also checked out these few, though varied, countries at National Geographic for Kids.

Now that we've seen a little bit of the variety Africa and its many countries has to offer, we head over to the region of West Africa to learn about the diversity offered by its countries. 

West Africa
Photo Credit: Daniel Tiveau for CIFOR

You can find all of our posts with children's books about West Africa here.


  1. This is a great post. I have often seen geography programs that do that sort of thing...they will have France and China and Africa, for example.

    1. Thanks Phyllis, it's a strange assumption when you think about it, and one I didn't realize I had until I really started to considering this coming year.

  2. I am so looking forward to learning more about West Africa along with you. Your post on China are a wealth of information. Thank you for a wonderful intro to your upcoming year on learning and discovering West Africa.

    1. Thanks Frances! It's great to have you along for the ride :)

  3. Hmmmmm, now you've got me thinking. I have to admit when I've been cooking dishes for Around the World in 12 Dishes every time we come to Africa it's been a challenge finding the dish for the specific country, and then at least according to my online recipe books I'm searching the ingredients and style have all been very similar. So, I look forward to your studies this year.

    1. I haven't searched too many countries yet, so I'm not sure about the rest of Africa :) but I've come across a few Ghanian and Nigerian dishes I'm excited to try. I find reading fiction, and memoirs from the region often has a mention of dishes, I immediately look up which helps - but we don't all have the time for that!

  4. I'm a little sad not to be studying alongside you - we would have had such a lot of fun! Can't wait to learn more about West Africa. My knowledge on any parts of Africa bar Egypt are sadly lacking!

    1. I'm really looking forward to it! The beginning is always the most fun part, when I'm bursting with ideas :)

  5. I love your choice for 2014!

    I too am very ignorant of African culture and geography. I'm amazed that 1000 languages are spoken on the continent, and by its size!

    Have a wonderful year - I'm very excited to be following along. :-)


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