The Top 9 Myths about West Africa: From Wildlife to Topography!

Today’s article comes from Francis Tapon who is on a 4 year quest to explore Africa. Having already spent 1 year travelling around West Africa, Francis has decided to take on a new project to showcase “The Unseen Africa”. His goal is to delve deeper into the continent and showcase Africa for more than the wars and poverty we see on television. For this reason he has launched a Kickstarter campaign to create “The Unseen Africa TV Series”. Read on as he tries to debunk certain myths about West Africa, and scroll all the way down to support his campaign.


What comes to mind when you think about West Africa?africa1

Most people would struggle to answer that question. They would probably cite the same ideas they have about Africa in general.

If you’re a bit more knowledgeable, you might have a few specific ideas, but how accurate are they?

When I entered Africa in March 2013, I knew little about the continent. I had never set foot in Africa, yet I was starting a four-year trip to all 54 Africa countries (see image on the right).

I began with spending three months in Morocco (which is considered North Africa, so we won’t cover it here), and then I spent the next year in every West African country.

Here are 9 commonly held beliefs about West Africa. I’ll confess that I believed a few of them before coming here. Learn why they’re false.

The Top 9 Myths About West Africa


9. West Africa doesn’t have anything like East Africa’s wildlife



While West Africa doesn’t have the quantity and diversity of wildlife that East Africa has, you might be surprised by just how abundant and varied the wildlife is. For example, when I was in The Gambia, monkeys were jumping all over me (see pic above). I also saw warthogs off a highway in Senegal.

In addition, there are thousands of elephants, although they are vulnerable to extinction. Today, they represent just 1.5% of all of Africa’s elephants.

When I was in Koure, Niger, I learned about the 300 giraffes that hang nearby during the rainy season.

Meanwhile, when I swam in the Niger River in Niamey (see photo above), the locals told me to stay away from the deep section because just a months before a hippo had killed someone there. A hippo on the outskirts of a city with one million residents? Who would have thought!? In fact, hippos are spread out throughout West Africa, albeit in decreasing numbers.

There’s also the pygmy hippopotamus in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Côte D’Ivoire.

Finally, West Africa even has a few hundred lions scattered throughout the region.

8. West Africa is dangerous

Yes and no. Yes, West Africa has a high homicide rate. According to the UNODC, 15 out of every 100,000 inhabitants are murdered every year.

On the other hand, it’s highly unlikely that they will kill a tourist since most murders are between people who know each other, often intimately (just watch a show about forensic detectives who solve murders).

West Africans might rob you. That’s what happened to me after spending one month in Accra. It was 9:00 p.m. and I was walking a few seconds with my Samsung Galaxy S4 in my hand. I thought, “Anyone could knock this out of my hand, so I better put it in my front pocket.” So I did. About 5 seconds later, someone pushed me from behind, reached over my shoulder, slipped his hand into my shirt’s front pocket, snatched the phone, and ran away.

However, such a theft could happen in any capital city. I was robbed twice in Moscow, for example.

OK, so far I haven’t convinced you.

How about this: I camped at least 100 nights in random places off the side of the road throughout West Africa and never had a problem.

Another example: my car broke down in the middle of nowhere at night in Northern Mali. I waved down a random car who helped me find a mechanic. My car broke down many times all over Africa, often in inconvenient places where I was vulnerable, yet Africans were always happy to help.

Still unconvinced?

Process this: Last year I picked up over 1,000 West African hitchhikers.

So what happened?

The only thing exciting that happened is that several of them invited me to stay in their homes to slept and eat. I accepted their offer and saw a bit of The Unseen Africa.

7. If West Africans aren’t starving, then they’re skinny


I’ve never see so many fat asses in my life. Although the men are often trim, the women are usually overweight. For example, in Dassa and Bohicon (two towns in Benin), it was extremely rare to find a thin woman over 25 years old.

Of course, there are exceptions, like the svelte Senegalese. And yes, malnutrition is a problem in the poorest homes. And yes, West Africans have asked me for food (but those who ask are not like the emaciated Africans you see on TV).

In fact, West African culture is about sharing and nobody is allowed to go hungry. If you’re hungry, then you knock on the door of any of your relatives (and you do have a lot of relatives), and they will always give you something to eat.

Moreover, Islam (the dominant religion in West Africa) encourages Muslims to give to beggars. Thus, begging is pretty effective in Islamic societies.

In conclusion, West Africa’s big problem isn’t starvation, it’s obesity. The next West African charity you should support isn’t Oxfam, but Weight Watchers.

5. Most West African slaves went to the United States

From 1519 to 1867, only 6% of all slaves shipped out of Africa went to the United States. The vast majority went to South America (especially Brazil) and the Caribbean.

West Africa certainly produced the majority of the slaves around the world: six in 10 African slaves came from West Africa. And West Africa supplied the bulk of the slaves that went to the Americas—including the United States. However, the United States was only a relatively minor player in the global slave trade.

4. West African slaves no longer exist

In Mauritania, 10-20% of the population is a slave. Although they abolished slavery in 1981 (yeah, they were a wee bit late to the party), they didn’t criminalize slavery until 2007 (OK, way late to the party). As a result, the practice is still widespread.africa4

I met several child slaves, like Fali, a 10-year-old Beninese girl (photo on the right). Africans never call such child “slaves.” They euphemistically say that they are un enfant placé (a placed child). Fali’s poor parents sent her to work for a richer family. The rich family feeds Fali, but does not send her school. Instead she does housework. The rich family sends some money to her parents to compensate.

A 2003 study showed that in Cote D’Ivore “28 percent of all children worked, with 20 percent working full time. About 23 percent of the children ages 10 to 14 and 55 percent of the children ages 5 to 17 carried out an ‘economic activity.'”

Compared to other continents, Africa has the highest percentage of people who are still slaves. Slavery started in Africa, and it will probably be the last continent to still practice it. Africans enslave their own people more than anyone else.

Mariette, a Beninese woman, was looking over my shoulder when I was researching slavery. When she saw a gruesome photo of a whipped slave, she raised her voice and said to me, “Why did you do this to us? How could you enslave us?”

I replied, “Why do you still enslave each other today?”

3. West Africans all look the same


First, there are the tan skinned Berbers, Tuaregs, and Arabs that are especially prevalent in West Africa’s Sahara.

Second, the style of dress changes. For instance, the Beninese are famous for their colorful clothing. Even the men will wear bright flashy colors that you might only see in San Francisco’s Castro District.

Third, the Sahelians tend to be thin and tall. Perhaps it’s just genetic or diet driven. Compared to coastal West African, Sahelians eat more meat and yet fewer calories because of the extreme heat. The coastal West Africans, in contrast, eat more root vegetables, like manioc. For whatever reason, they tend to be shorter and more stocky than those from the Sahel.

Fourth, coastal West Africans show more skin than those in the interior. This is partly driven by religion – Islam encourages people to cover up and Muslims dominate the Sahara.

2. AIDS is a widespread epidemic in West Africa

In the USA, 0.6% of the population is infected with HIV.

In West Africa, it’s 0.7% to 3.4%, depending on the country. Although that’s significantly higher than the USA, it’s not a widespread pandemic. Russia and Estonia, for example, have higher HIV rates than Liberia, Niger, and Senegal.

The real HIV problem is in Southern Africa, where HIV infection rates can top 20%.

1. West Africa is one big jungle

Africa from space

Not exactly.

I believed this myth because I spend an embarrasing amount of time looking at NASA images, like the one above and this one. Such satellite imagery gives you the impression that most of West Africa is a lush green zone (aside from Mauritania and Northern Mali).

However, after spending one year in West Africa, I learned that while thick jungles do indeed exist, their zones are limited.

What you’re more likely to see is sparse woodland. In fact, the Sahel encroaches into many West African countries. It’s remarkable how fast the coastal lushness turns to sand.

And of course, there’s no jungle in the many major cities that line the West African coast: Dakar, Bajul, Freetown, Conakry, Monrovia, Abidjan, Accra, Lome, and Cotonou. And then there’s Africa’s megalopolis: Lagos. It had a population of 10 million in 2010, but by 2050 experts expect it to have 40 million. West Africa’s green jungle is becoming a concrete jungle.

The map below is an accurate depiction of the vegetation density that I saw on the ground, not from my flying saucer.


The Unseen Africa Kickstarter Project

Did you appreciate how I debunked some myths about West Africa? Then you’ll probably love The Unseen Africa Kickstarter Project which will run until June 25, 2014! It’s all about debunking our common views of Africa.

I’m producing a ground-breaking travel TV series that will reveal the sides of Africa that CNN and National Geographic never show. Please check it out, pledge as much as you can, and spread the word!

Francis Tapon, author of Hike Your Own Hike and The Hidden Europeis creating a TV series and book called The Unseen Africawhich is based on his four-year journey across all 54 African countries.

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  1. Incredible post! I’ve for a long while been itching to go to Africa, yet have just had it to Morocco in this way. Africa has entranced me since I was in first grade. Much thanks to you for composing this up as I know its opened my eyes to West Africa and scattered a few myths I accepted to be genuine.

  2. says: Lukasz Basisty

    I have always wanted to travel to Africa, but the continent’s safety factor has kept me away from it till date. However, reading your article I get this feeling that the insecurity issue of Africa has been blown out of proportion. Hopefully, I will be doing some more research in this context and if everything turns out well, I would be planning a trip to the Saharan desert very soon. Thank you so much for this article.

  3. says: Sigurdur Bjorgvinsson @redheadexplorer

    Great post about West Africa, I had no idea about those facts. It seems like we don´t hear all the story on the news media. Your insight is important to us, like how you have picked many hitchhikers and only had positive things to tell about them. I would love to travel around West Africa one day.

  4. says: david

    I always had this impression that Africa was overall quite friendly but then random events of crime are probably more frequent there than elsewhere. lack of oil in most countries of Africa keeps them poor if only these guys had the oil like the Nigerians they would be so much better off.

    1. says: Joost

      Off the top of my head, something like $8 billion of oil profits Nigeria should have had just vanished, i.e. into the pockets of a handful of people. Oil doesn’t necessarily a well-off country make.

      I just spent almost 5 years in Guinea Bissau (unfortunately didn’t see Francis!), which has no petroluem industry, or any other for that matter, and is dirt poor. The people are the friendliest I’ve ever met.

  5. says: Catherine

    If I’m honest I did believe a few of these myths before I started reading. I love reading things like this though, that force me to reconsider. I definitely know a lot more than I did before, and for that I am really grateful.

  6. says: David

    Very very well put Sam we couldn’t agree more. We run overland trips through many countries in West Africa, and it is a constant struggle to challenge the common misperceptions people have about the region. The media is, mostly, responsible for this, deciding to only ever report on the negative.

    To prove them wrong, here is a short promo video from Ghana/Burkina Faso/Ivory Coast/Guinea/Liberia/Sierra Leone, it shows of the best of the region!

  7. says: RLP

    Mariette, a Beninese woman, was looking over my shoulder when I was researching slavery. When she saw a gruesome photo of a whipped slave, she raised her voice and said to me, “Why did you do this to us? How could you enslave us?”

    I replied, “Why do you still enslave each other today?”
    That’s very intectually weak too actually compare what is happening in Mauritania to the Transatlantic Slave trade. That’s is the vomit inducing. Mariette is from Benin not Mauritania. Very weak and childish.You just lost all credibility with me.Your just another coward European trying to appease your guilt.

    1. Mauritania isn’t the only West African country with slaves today. All West African countries have a relatively high percentage of their population enslaved. Benin is particularly bad as this indicates:

      In fact, standing next Mariette when she said that was Fali, the Beninese slave pictured in the article.

      I’m not trying to “appease my guilt.” I have no guilt at all about slavery since I’ve never owned slaves and I had no control over what anyone was doing before I was born.

  8. says: Elena@Elena's Travelgram

    Okay, I’m now looking forward to your book! Traveling to Africa is one of my biggest dreams, yet the information is scarce and you read a lot of contradicting stuff and few real life experience. Your post’s amazing!

    1,000 hitchhikers!!! Wow, impressive 🙂

  9. says: Frank

    Excellent article. I lived a few years in Southern Africa (Zambia) and really not too familiar with West Africa. One thing I’ve heard though – very hot and muggy. True or myth? Southern Africa was dry, mostly savannah like terrain; sun always hot but quite refreshing in the shade.
    Very true about HIV in Southern Africa, it’s a tragedy. But not too many fat asses 🙂
    Frank (bbqboy)

    1. Frank, it’s true. West Africa is constantly hot and muggy almost everywhere. When you get in Mauritania, Mali, and Niger, it’s hot and dry.

      Exception: December and January are just warm to hot. And in the mountains of Guinea, you’ll find cool nights sometimes.

  10. WOW…this entry blew my MIND! I never realised how little I knew about West Africa!

    My fiance wants to go to Africa but I’ve been dragging my heels on it as, to be honest, I was quite worried about safety. In fact, out of the whole of the continent, West Africa is the last place I thought about going. I can’t believe how ignorant I’m sounding here, lol.

    How safe would you say it would be for a woman, if she was travelling with her male partner? (aka what I’ll be doing).

  11. says: The Problem Is White

    African DID NOT “enslave THEIR OWN PEOPLE more than anyone else”. This is a fallacy that White people enjoy perpetuating to minimize the dubiousness of their color based kidnapping and slave enterprise. People on the African continent were not “ONE PEOPLE”. Being on the same continent or even near the same lakes and rivers did not equate to one nation and another nation of people being “One of THEIR OWN”. No more than Germans and Brittons were the same people. This common lie perpetuated by White people and others who are either deceptive or ignorant fosters this stupid notion that various people in Africa were dragging their cousins and aunts and grandmothers and children to the European’s slave ship and markets to hawk them off for trinkets. No such thing happened.

    You also make the claim that “slavery STARTED IN AFRICA”.. in what year and century did it “START” in Africa that it was not common and in place across Mesopotamia, Asia and various parts of the East and among non-Africans? Do tell.

    1. I agree that Africans are not one people. In fact, even West Africans are not one people as I point out in Myth #3. I’m glad we agree.

      I hope we also agree that humans started in Africa. Since the dawn of recorded history, there have been records that slaves exist. Therefore, it’s logical to assume that since humans started in Africa, that slavery started there too.

  12. says: Sen

    Great read I must say and being a West African myself, I can relate with these but for one… the point about slavery… points number 4 above.

    While I wont go into statistics and figures or even dates as you have shown in the case of Mauritania ”In Mauritania, 10-20% of the population is a slave.”
    Here is the other way to look at it and I am not necessarily talking about Mauritania here but other West African countries where I come from or have lived.

    Looking at the image of Fali, the 10-year-old Beninese girl above, I see her smiling, looking well fed, having some form of freedom and liberty, I see the house in the background which suggests she is not being chained or locked up, I see her carrying another toddler which must belong to the ‘slave masters’, yet she seem happy to have the boy and you could see the mutual trust, I see her dress well so on… here is my point and its no defence or attack, just explaining exactly how things are… Its is common practice for the less privileged failies in the far villages or even border nations to wilfully (not captured from them even though that too might happen in other cases and thats called evil not slavery) send in their wards to average to rich families where they get to help out in home chores and so on, basically a helper, like we have au-pair and stuffs in the western world.
    Often times we find younger kids doing this chores and they are easily to stay with families and adopt their ways of life (not that I subscribe to kids doing such but its not in my prerogative to decide for families)
    The agreement between such families and the helper children could vary, some will be to send in money to their parents (no one pays the family of slaves during slavery), it could be that and in addition to sending them to school or helping them to lean a chore of their choice.
    Generally these kids or house maids or helpers… etc do return to their families a few times a year like on short breaks and would willingly return to their families back in the city and where the families are good hearted, they will drive the helpers back their families in the village by car, drop them off and pick them up when they are done.

    These are what I see happen often but this depends on the abilities of the foster family so to speak… However I wont deny that evil ones abound and awful stuffs happen but this is not the focus of this discourse.

    Thank you.

  13. says: Zoe @ Tales from over the Horizon

    This was a great post. I thought it was really interesting. That four year trip sounds amazing. I’d love to do something similar.

  14. Great post! I’ve always wanted to go to Africa, but have only had it to Morocco so far. Africa has fascinated me since I was in 1st grade. Thank you for writing this up as I know it’s opened my eyes to West Africa and dispelled some myths I believed to be true.

  15. I loved reading every bit of this. Such a great little history lesson as well. I didn’t know many of those facts about slaves. When he discusses the obesity, it makes me wonder if they are some of the countries that send the girls away to binge eat to gain weight quickly and be more desirable! I spend time in Uganda and they were the nicest people. I can totally believe that he picked up hitchhikers and camped out. I love hearing the positives of places with so many negative stereotypes!