Africa has been in the US news more than it usually is (which isn’t saying much) because of the ongoing outbreak of Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) in West Africa. One of the things that is always shocking when a new place appears in the news is the degree of geographic cluelessness of Americans. When it comes to Africa, my experience indicates that people generally greatly underestimate its size and, distressingly, sometimes don’t realize that Africa is actually a continent made up of over 50 sovereign states. Africa is, in fact, huge. It’s easy to underestimate its size, in large part, because of the projections we use to render a three dimensional space in two dimensions of a map. Most common projections compress the area of more equatorial regions and the African continent straddles the equator.
There is all sorts of anxiety about travel from African countries as a result of the EVD epidemic in West Africa. The deal is that the epidemic is localized to the far western portion of the continent. Southern and eastern Africa, the destinations most likely to be visited by American tourists for example, are a long way from this part of the continent. While working on a paper with my colleague Simon Jackman today, I made an offhand comment about Freetown (Sierra Leone) probably being closer to Sao Paulo (Brazil) than it is to Nairobi (Kenya). Simon being Simon, said, “we can test that,” and he called up the wonderful Great Circle Mapper page. We figured out the distance from the Freetown to Nairobi airports, which turns out to be 3522 miles, and then plotted out a a circle with that radius centered on Freetown. The results can be seen here, and here is a screenshot of the resulting map:
So, what do you know, Sao Paulo is, in fact, closer to Freetown than Nairobi is. Cape Town and Johannesburg are outside the circle, but you know what’s in it? Pretty much all of western Europe. Of course, this doesn’t mean that Sao Paulo is socially closer to Freetown, but it is remarkable nonetheless. I just ran into this cool video of world air traffic on a 24-hour loop. One striking feature of this video is that there really isn’t much traffic between the corner of West Africa currently afflicted by EVD and just about anywhere in the world (including Nairobi!). Now, Nigeria would be a different story altogether. There are plenty of connections from Lagos or Port Harcourt to the rest of the world…
Along these lines of Africa being a big place, Kai Krause made this great graphic a few years ago showing the size of the African continent relative to a variety of other countries and other land masses.