“Africa is a country,” some say with irony. Or derision. Or perhaps in sheer frustration, as those of us resident in some other part of the world try to share our interest in the vast, variegated topographies, cultures, and political constellations all called “Africa.” A critique of continents, the etymology of Ifriqiya, and a European fascination with Bilad al-Sudan are well-rehearsed elsewhere. Here in the U.S., we all operate politically and intellectually in a world-view shaped by the U.S. State Department and an area studies model of regions that presents Sub-Saharan Africa as separate from the Maghreb and Mediterranean Africa.
As Africanists, our stock-in-trade includes pushing back. As teachers, scholars, and commentators we poke and prod at constructed geographies, charting unities across previously demarcated sub-regions and identifying particularities in eco-zones or communities that are conventionally grouped with larger nations. In a post-modern landscape, geography is admittedly malleable. But that does not make it optional. I may be hopelessly old-school to say so: but to make sense of a place, you still have to find it on a map.
Before we can enable readers to follow our logic, students to engage with new ideas, and fellow commentators to write about Africa with more nuance and fewer stereotypes, they first have to know where we are. If you’d like a way to reinforce that “Nambia” and Zambia are different places; that there are, in fact, two Congos; or that geographically, Lesotho is more like Switzerland than is Swaziland, this simple interactive political map of Africa can help.
The map toggles between two modes. In study mode, the user can hover the mouse over a current map with national borders. This action highlights and labels individual countries.
In test mode, the users can drag a country name from the adjacent list and drop the label in the right place. If they’re correct, the label sticks. If not, they can try again.
I developed the map with undergraduate students in mind, but I’m aware that it’s not just college sophomores in the U.S. who struggle with the complexities of African geography. Although political boundaries are just one piece of that puzzle, this exercise may at least help dispel the notion that Africa is a country.
You’ll find the interactive study map here. Go on test yourself.