Last year, I wrote about the many different map projections that exist, and how each distorts spatial and geographic features in one way or another. I briefly touched on how Africa is particularly understated in size, a fact that other sources have noticed as well, such as The Economist, which provided this very telling map:
For a more detailed and comprehensive picture, here is another (and much larger) infographic courtesy of io9 (click to enlarge):
This is also relevant to the growing concerns about the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which has led to much of the continent being a no-go zone for visitors, airlines, and businesses — despite the fact that, as an NPR piece points out, much of Africa is far and away from the main infection zone.
The Ebola outbreak is centered in four countries in a relatively small part of West Africa: Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria. There has also been one reported case in Senegal and a small, unrelated outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The distance from the heart of the outbreak to Nairobi, Kenya — where Korean Air canceled all flights on Aug. 14, citing fears over Ebola — is roughly 3,300 miles. That’s about the distance from Orlando, Fla., to Juneau, Alaska. So, geographically speaking, canceling a trip to Kenya is like canceling a trip to Disney World because of an Ebola outbreak in Alaska.
In fact, Africa is so large that many cities in Europe are actually closer to the Ebola outbreak than are cities in eastern and southern Africa. Johannesburg is more than 3,400 miles away — farther than both Paris and London.
Of course, Africa is hardly the only part of the world to be erroneously portrayed; as I discussed at length in my aforementioned post, every map projection thus far conceived exaggerates or underestimates one or all spatial dimensions. It is fascinating to see how much different the world is from the maps we grew up with and took for granted as fully accurate.
But it is also disheartening to see how such misconceptions, especially as they pertain to marginalized parts of the world, can reaffirm or worsen biases — e.g. Africa is a monolithically unsafe place, despite its incredible geographic, ethnic, and sociopolitical diversity.
Note, none of this is not intended to call into question the validity or usefulness of maps as a whole, since different projections serve different purposes, and must necessarily supersede other concerns. This is just an important caveat to keep in mind when analyzing any map, something many cartographers also tend to advise.