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John Oliver Says U.S. Students Learn Virtually Nothing About Africa

Leif Parsons for NPR i
Leif Parsons for NPR
Leif Parsons for NPR
Leif Parsons for NPR

This week, comedian John Oliver, host of HBO's Last Week Tonight, released a back-to-school video that mentioned how little U.S. students learn about Africa and Asia. (P.S. Although Oliver tries hard not to curse, he does utter a naughty word or two.)

"You will leave school knowing as much about those two continents as I know about actor Penn Badgley," he said. "You'll know it's something that exists in the world, but you won't be able to give any facts about it other than the general shape."

If my own educational experience is any indication, Oliver is right. I graduated from a public high school in Michigan knowing very little about Africa. This proved to be something of a problem when I moved to Cape Town, South Africa, to cover the 2010 World Cup and began traveling around the continent as a reporter.

Five years and many stories later, I've filled much of my knowledge gap. So, to my fellow undereducated Americans — especially you students — here is a crash course in Africa. It's the basics, plus some trivia that will prove your worldliness at future cocktail parties.

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1. Africa is not a country. Please, please, please get this right. There are 54 countries and one "non-self-governing territory" (Western Sahara) in Africa. South Africa is a country, not the southern part of a country called "Africa." Similarly, West Africa and East Africa are regions of the continent, each containing many countries. In fact, there is a popular culture and media analysis website that takes its name from the common misconception that Africa is a country.

2. The map of Africa has changed — a lot. Before colonialism, Africa comprised thousands of autonomous groups with distinct languages and customs. By the early 20th century — the end of the "scramble for Africa" — colonists had taken control of every part of the continent except modern-day Ethiopia and Liberia. The national borders created by colonists were largely arbitrary. Many of today's ethnic and tribal disputes have their roots in these somewhat randomly assigned borders, which forced rival civilizations to coexist.

3. Africa is a land of many tongues. There is incredible linguistic richness. Arabic is the most common language, spoken by roughly 170 million people. Next are English (130 million), French (115 million), Swahili (100 million), Berber (50 million), Hausa (50 million), Portuguese (20 million) and Spanish (10 million). By some estimates there are more than 2,000 languages, many of them thousands of years old.

4. The world's deadliest animal is not what you think. When you picture Africa, you probably think of lions, cheetahs, rhinos and other potentially dangerous beasts. But as Bill Gates has pointed out, the animal that claims the most lives in the world is the mosquito: responsible for an estimated 725,000 deaths and millions of illnesses each year — primarily from malaria, which claims 90 percent of its victims in Africa.

5. The world's deadliest war in the post-World War II era is also not what you think. If you think casualties from the Vietnam or Korean war were high, consider this: The Second Congo War, fought in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, claimed more than 5.4 million lives, mainly from disease and starvation. The war lasted from 1998 to 2003, but fighting continued until 2008. That makes it the deadliest armed conflict since World War II.

6. Africa may be poor, but it's growing fast. Yes, Africa has the lowest GDP per capita of any continent: $1,576, compared with $2,941 in Asia and $32,007 in North America. But according to the World Bank, it's also home to six of the 13 fastest-growing economies: Rwanda (12), Tanzania (11), Mozambique (10), Cote d'Ivoire (6), Democratic Republic of Congo (3) and Ethiopia (1). Historically, many countries have relied on agriculture and mining to drive their economies. But Ethiopia and others are making advances in manufacturing and energy.

7. Hooray for Nollywood! Nigeria's film industry, called "Nollywood," is prolific. In 2006 — the most recent year for which UNESCO data are available — the industry produced 872 films. That was second only to India's Bollywood, which produced 1,091 films. Meanwhile, Hollywood itself unveiled a relatively meager 485 movies. UNESCO estimates that Nigeria's film and music industries together constitute 1.4 percent of the country's GDP, making it a key sector of the economy. As for the quality of these films? You'll have to judge for yourself.

8. It's the world youngest continent. The overall median age is 19.7. In Uganda (whose median age of 15 is the world's lowest) half of all people are 15 or younger. Many other countries — Benin, Chad, Malawi and Mali, to name a few — are close behind. By comparison, the median age in the U.S. is 37 and in Japan it's 46.

9. Benin is a world leader in twins. It's unclear why, but the small West African nation has the highest national average of twinning in the world: roughly 28 twins born per 1,000 births, more than double (of course!) the global average.

10. The 67th-richest man in the world lives in Africa. Aliko Dangote, a Nigerian cement magnate, was recently named the richest person in Africa and the 67th-richest person in the world. His net worth: $16.8 billion. Next on the list of African superelites are two South Africans: Johann Rupert, a luxury goods mogul worth $7.3 billion, and Nicky Oppenheimer, whose $6.8 billion comes primarily from the famous DeBeers diamond company.

11. It's got the world's fishiest lake. Lake Malawi is the ninth-largest freshwater lake — 365 miles north to south and 52 miles wide. Yet it's home to the greatest number of fish species of any freshwater lake system: more than 500, including more than 30 percent of the world's cichlids. Snorkeling in the 75-degree Fahrenheit water — which I highly recommend — will make you feel as if you're in the tropical waters of the Caribbean, not a landlocked lake in Southern Africa.

What other facts should students know about Africa? Tweet us at @nprglobalhealth using the hashtag #therealafrica or leave a comment below.

SOURCES: The CIA's World Factbook, Forbes magazine, International Monetary Fund, International Rescue Committee, National Geographic, Nigeria Bureau of Statistics, World Bank, World Health Organization, UNESCO

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