Africa — Perception Versus Reality

From Botswana to Ghana: We ask locals about the African stereotypes they find the most damaging, and what they wish travelers knew instead.

Photography by Thom Pierce

Ask someone who has never been to Africa what comes to mind when they hear its name, and it’s likely you’ll be painted one of two pictures: one of a dusty jeep driving through vast plains teeming with wildlife, or another less savory one filled with poverty, violence, and fear.

Africa is so much more than these stereotypes. At Airbnb Magazine, we believe that the best way to see a place is through its people, so when our colleagues told us they were hosting the Africa Travel Summit in September, we had them ask attendees from countries across Africa: What misconceptions would they banish forever if they could? And what do they want people to know about the place they call home? We worked with photographer Thom Pierce to capture the locals on camera, and see whether they could cast the continent in a new light.

— Janine Kahn, Digital Editorial Lead, Airbnb Magazine

Sarah Waiswa

Sarah is a Uganda-born and Kenya-based documentary and portrait photographer keen on challenging the narrative on Africa with her contemporary spin on visual poetry.

Q: You talk a lot about the existing narrative around Africa with your work. What will it take to change it?

A: “For a long time we were really dependent on formal media to tell us what was happening in the world, and what was happening on the continent. And obviously those dominant narratives are oftentimes sensationalized when it comes to Africa. So social media kind of gave everyone else — particularly young people — the opportunity to share what was happening in their communities, what their stories were. And I think that kind of changed how people started to see Africa; when they started to see these new kind of stories coming out.”

“Social media has given us the opportunity not to sit and wait to be discovered or to be validated to tell our stories. So the fact that we can we can share what we see and get our stories — African stories — out there, I think it kind of took away that dominant power. It has absolutely been instrumental.”

Cynthia Mothelesi

Cynthia is the founder of Happy Soul Adventures, and specializes in creating custom, local-led itineraries for visitors to Gaborone, Botswana.

Q: What is your favorite thing about your city?

A: “When you come to Gaborone, it’s very slow and very small. But once you get to meet us, the locals, we get to show you how colorful our small city is. We have a lot of interesting experiences to offer to all of our visitors coming to Botswana.”

Q: What do you wish more people knew about Africa?

A: “I wish people [knew] that Africa is love. We’re so motivated, we’re so hungry, and we’re so passionate about our continent. Personally, there is not place I would rather be than my Africa.”

Q: What African stereotype do you wish would disappear?

A: “I don’t want you to come to Africa to come and see the safari. Okay, come see the safari, but then give us, the locals, the chance to show you how we live. We are so proud of our culture we are so proud of who we are, and we want you to be a part of it.”

Sabine Lehmann

Sabine is the executive director of Attractions Africa, and the former managing director of Table Mountain Cableway. One of her claims to fame is successfully having Cape Town’s Table Mountain voted as one of the New7Wonders of Nature.

Q: What is your favorite thing about your city?

A: “My favorite thing about the city is the fact that it has a national park within the boundaries of a city — Table Mountain National Park.”

Q: What do you wish more people knew about Africa?

A: “What I wish people knew about Africa: That it’s safe. Ninety-nine point nine nine percent safe. Enjoy it. And feed your curiosity, and just explore, be brave.”

Minister Najib Balala

Najib is a career politician who has served Kenya in various capacities since the early 90s. He is currently the Cabinet Secretary for Tourism in Kenya and the Chair of the Regional Commission for Africa at the UNWTO.

Q: What do you wish more people knew about Africa?

“I don’t like this image of ‘Africa is only safari.’ That’s why the brand of Africa [has] Africa recognized as a country rather a continent. We are one big continent. We don’t have one product. We have diverse products.”

“I get American clients, and they tell me they didn’t realize you have beaches in Africa. We are an island of the sea! So how do we get people to appreciate [that] there are beaches in Africa? Maybe better than the Caribbean.”

“There is beyond safari, there is beyond the beach, there is beyond just a city….now people want to participate and learn, so when they go back they have benefited and experienced something new in their lives.”

Francis Doku

Francis is a media strategist and journalist from Accra, Ghana, and the general manager at MG Digital Limited.

Q: What is your favorite thing about your city?

A: “I think the thing about Accra is what some are referring to as organized chaos … if there’s one thing that you would like about Accra, or Ghana for that matter, is the weather. Our weather is sunny almost all year long.”

Q: What African stereotype do you wish would disappear?

A: “There’s a lot of perceptions about Africa that are wrong. One of them is the fact that everywhere you go in Africa there’s violence. So I think that anybody who has been in Africa will know there is nothing so far from the truth.”

Q: What do you wish more people knew about Africa?

A: “The people of this continent are very welcoming and very warm. It really doesn’t matter where you come from. Any city, any town, any country you go to, people are willing to welcome you, show you their city, show you their town.”

“We are, above all, very welcoming of people regardless of their race, color, nationality or wherever they come from. We want everybody to come to Africa.”

Mamosa Maile

Mamosa and her mother, Maria, host visitors to Khayelitsha Township in Cape Town, South Africa, through Airbnb.

Q: What is your favorite thing about your city?

A: “Cape Town is a very innovative city. There are a lot of things you that you can do. That is the number one tourist export. Because when the people come here, there’s a lot to see. There’s a lot to experience. People want to feel how our people live. […] Now the thing that is happening, people from the town, from the city suburbs, they move, they come to Khayelitsha [township] for the vibe, because Khayelitsha has got the vibe.”

Q: What’s it like to stay with you?

A: “When people come to our place, we sit down with them. We share our history. We share our food, our experience. And some of the people [who] stay with us become part of the family.”

Fhatuwani Innocent Mukheli

Innocent hails from Soweto, South Africa, and is the co-founder of Iseeadifferentyou, a creative agency that looks to expand black representation in Africa’s advertising industry.

On storytelling, and changing perceptions:

A: “We believe that storytelling is one of the most powerful things we have in this social media era where you can share things instantly and also tell your own little story. […] We need to start telling our own stories. We need to start sharing our lives and show the positive side of our experiences in Soweto; preserve our heritage and also own it.”

“We decided to change the perception of what people thought of our Soweto by populating the Internet with great pictures, with style [and] fashion. We are not just known for thuggery or for crime; we are also known for talent, for happiness, for joy.”

Demola Ojo

Demola (pictured at left) is a Lagos-based journalist for THISDAY, a daily newspaper in Nigeria.

Q: What is your favorite thing about your city?

A: “My favorite thing about Lagos? The hustle, the bustle, the energy of the people. You need to feel it.”

Q: What do you wish more people knew about Africa?

A: “The people are so warm. Africa is beautiful, naturally. You have to see the beaches, the white sand, the wildlife. The landscape is so diverse. Just come to Africa. Africa is not a big black hole. It is a thriving continent with a lot of potential.”

Editor’s note: Interviews have been lightly edited for clarity.