Where is Africa?

Did you ever wonder why we speak of “Greenwich Mean Time” [GMT]? Greenwich, a small town south of London, has changed the clocks and watches of the world. There is nothing special about the so-called “Zero Meridian” which passes through Greenwich, because the same longitude passes also through towns in northern and western Africa. Why not name the world’s “mean time” after one of those towns? Why do Africans not rename the Greenwich meridian into the Gao meridian, to remind them not of an English palace built by Henry VIII, but of a great ancient capital in West Africa?

The fact that the whole world measures the time with reference to GMT is a leftover of “Eurocentrism”. It means that Europe was seen as the model and yardstick of normality in every respect. Colonialism was finally a result of this perception. People perceived Europe as the center of the world. Europe, in fact, developed the concept of the world in the wake of its voyages of discovery in the 15th and 16th century, and it also imposed its concept on the outlook of peoples of other continents, including Africans.

It is hardly possible to overestimate the enormous impact of Europe upon our perceptions of ourselves as Africans. Some of these effects are obvious, such as the choice of Greenwich in Britain as the “mean time” for the alarm clocks of the human race. Others are more subtle. We may ask: is Europe north of Africa? Is Europe up and Africa down in geographical terms as well as in income, power, intellectual capacity, and global status? Of course, the maps say that Europe is north of Africa and therefore up. But that decision was arbitrarily made by European mapmakers. Whether Europe is above Africa or below depends only on the vantage point in the cosmos from which an observer looks on the planet earth.

Even with regard to the size of the African continent, it is quite remarkable how far Eurocentrism has influenced cartographic projections. The most common worldmap, based on the Mercator projection, a 16th century cartographer from Germany. He shows North America as one and a half times the size of Africa, but Africa is, in fact, three and a half times the size of the US. On the Mercator projection Greenland in the north of Europe appears almost as big as Africa, which is ridiculous, because Africa is 15 times bigger. The visual memories of millions of children across generations have carried distorted ideas about the comparative physical scale of northern continents in relation to southern ones. Africa is a continent larger than China and India added together. Size matters!

Africa might have been denied its full credentials as part of the human family, but must it also be denied its size in square miles? Should we not include in every school atlas the alternative scenario of “turning the world upside down” with South America at the top and North America below, with Africa above and Europe beneath, in order to demonstrate the danger of Eurocentrism even in mapmaking?

Exactly 400 years after Mercator, another German, Arno Peters, produced in 1967 a world map that represents the size of countries more accurately. Peters has restored Africa to its real size, but he still puts Europe at the top of the world. May be, future mapmakers should put the globe the right side up, restoring a much needed status to the cradle of humankind, Africa, where human history first began.

Fritz Stenger

This article was inspired by Ali Mazrui’s book The Africans, Boston 1986.

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