In the past, Alex Trebek, beloved host of Jeopardy, may have provided the following clue to his three contestants: ‘cultural kaleidoscopes’, ‘vast and diverse landscapes’, and ‘wildlife encounters you could only dream about’.
The smartest of the bunch would have posed the question: What are things one could experience when visiting several of the 54 countries that make up the African continent? However, with the recent Ebola virus outbreak, this question may now read: What are things that people are missing by avoiding travel to the African continent?
The idea that African geography can be summarized into five questions is almost as absurd as the idea that a person can “catch” Ebola in the same way they can catch a cold. While I am a lifelong fan of Jeopardy, I can’t deny that these are worrying times, in which our international awareness comes from a nightly trivia show and from news reports that generalize by using the wide term, “Africa”.
Despite sharing borders and a continent, Americans and Canadians are steadfast in their belief that they are individual. With this in mind, a brief geography lesson is necessary. Africa as a continent is so large it can fit the USA, China, India, Europe and Japan within its borders, while fifty four nations make up its geography. Of these fifty four, only the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone have been identified as Ebola “hot spots”. Since these nations and the Ebola outbreak have been restricted to Western Africa, news coverage needs to be a lot more geographically specific.
In January of this year, Nicolas Kayser-Bril, co-founder of Journalism ++, a company “devoted to improving journalism through data”, wrote an article for The Guardian entitled, “Africa is Not a Country”. The title of the article is also the title of an app created by Kayser-Bril and his team, to examine how Africa has been represented in the media. When looking at 2012 and 2013 statistics from The Guardian regarding Africa, and comparing them to the Asian continent, the results are staggering. More than 5,400 articles mentioned only “Africa”, a stark contrast to the 2,948 that mentioned only “Asia”. This highlights the fact that despite both Africa and Asia being continents, encompassing numerous nations, Asian countries are far more likely to be named than those in Africa.
The media cannot entirely take the blame. As citizens of the world, we have an obligation to learn things for ourselves. Moira Smith, Manager of Africa and the Middle East for Toronto-based Goway Travel, likens the Ebola situation to when SARS hit Toronto in 2003. Smith reminded me of how horrified Canadians were when they found out that international travellers were avoiding Vancouver as a result of the epidemic in Toronto, located almost 4500 kms away. The difference with Ebola is that the distances between “hot spots” and tourist destinations are even much further apart.
Goway Travel has been around for more than forty years and Smith, an African herself, has more than thirty years experience of sending people to the continent. As such, she is quick to point out where Goway tends to send their clients. “The most popular area is Southern Africa. Probably about 45% of our passengers travel to Southern Africa, maybe another 30% to East Africa, and the balance would be made up of Northern Africa and the Middle East.”
Despite the fact that the World Health Organization has stated that risk of infection to travellers (even in “hot spots”) is low, people are cancelling trips or have stopped booking entirely.
The 2010 FIFA World Cup held in South Africa showed the world another side of this incredible continent, which now, unfortunately, seems to have been forgotten. Yes, Ebola is a horrific disease and deserves to be front and centre of any news cycle, but if our international awareness was at the level it should be, we wouldn’t be contributing to the panic, but rather to the solution.
A firm believer in the strength of the African continent, Moira Smith remains optimistic for the future and encourages people to continue travelling to Africa. “If you go to two continents in your life,” she says, “you have to go to Africa twice.”
A second year Media Communications student at Humber College, Canadian-born Laura Mulrine has done her fair share of travelling. Through strategic planning, she spent her undergrad living in Nova Scotia, England and Scotland. Her greatest travel accomplishment to date was visiting 16 countries in a year, during which she spent St. Patrick’s Day in Dublin. A chatterbox of note, Laura’s favourite part of any journey is the people she meets along the way.