Deborah Smith Johnston
with Barbara Brown

The following activities are adapted from the ìHow Big is Africa?î Curriculum Guide developed by the African Studies Center of Boston University (1998). Their primary purpose is to make students aware of the diversity that exists on the continent of Africa. It is not uncommon for people to make statements about Africa that reflect a vision of the continent as an undifferentiated whole. The best way to dispel the stereotypes about Africa that currently abound is through increasing knowledge about the peoples, regions, and countries that make up this vast continent.


Africa is Not a Country

Objective: For students to recognize that it is hard to generalize about Africa because its diversity is great and each of its 53 countries is unique.

Grade Level: Upper Elementary and Middle School

Procedure: In many nations of West Africa, traditional storytelling is performed by a griot, an oral historian who holds within memory the history of a family or community from past centuries to modern times. In telling a story, a griot often encourages the audience to interject comments, assuring him or her that the listeners are still awake and paying attention!

The following story was written to illustrate the common misuse of the term ìAfricaî in the course of our daily lives. Teachers can read the story aloud and ask students to interject the word ìWhere?î (meaning, ìWhere in Africa?î) whenever they hear a general statement made about Africa. Discovering answers to each ìWhere?î can provide the basis for follow-up activities as the class studies the nations of Africa.


ìThis morning, I poured myself a bowl of Cocoa Puffs for breakfast. The TV news was on, and I heard a reporter say that the President will soon be making trips to France, China, and Africa. That reminded me of what my teacher said in class yesterdayóthat the chocolate we eat may say ìSwissî but really comes from Africa.


ìAfter breakfast, I grabbed my backpack andóthough Iíd rather have taken Air Force Oneósettled for having Dad drive me to school. I flipped on my favorite station and we listened to some rock musicówhich everybody knows began in Africa. When Dad switched over to a news station to get the traffic report, we heard that famine and ethnic strife continue to be a problem in the country of Africa.


ìAt school, my teacher announced that we would be having a guest speaker from Africa later in the day. When our guest arrived, she told us that she comes from Zimbabwe, and pointed it out on a map. The first question somebody asked her was why Africa is so hot. She asked: ëWhere? It is hot in the equatorial regions, but thereís also snow on Mt. Kilimanjaro during much of the year.í The next question was how long children go to school in Africa. She asked: ëWhere?í Then she explained that going to school isnít the same in all countries, or even within one country, of Africa. City kids are likely to go to school longer than kids in rural areas.


ìI asked why there are so many endangered animals in Africa. She asked: ëWhere? Many countries do have endangered species, but some countries have also developed large parks and special programs to protect them.í It turned out that every time we asked a question about Africa, she asked us what country we were talking about.


ìWhen I got home from school, I grabbed a Coke from the fridgeóand remembered learning that its flavor comes from a tree grown in Africa. I thought about our guest, and began to wonder just where. I even wondered if they drink Coke in the countries where they grow kola nuts. Guess Iíll have to look it up.


ìThe more I learn about Africa, the more Iíd like to go there some day. The big question is: ëWhere?íî


Follow-up Activities

Ask students to use their eyes and ears and bring in references to Africa which they discover in the news, in advertisements, or in conversations. What kinds of statements are they? Do they treat Africa as if it is all alike? Have students create a bulletin board display of stereotypes of Africa. The more students are encouraged to recognize this problem, the easier it will be for them to avoid making sweeping generalizations about Africa in the future.

Next, ask students to collect pictures of various countries or regions of Africa for a bulletin board display that emphasizes differences among them. By comparing visual imagesóthe Kalahari Desert vs. the rainforests of coastal West Africa, a traditional farming village in Kenya vs. the modern capital of Nairobióstudents should develop a much more vivid sense of Africaís diversity.

Then have students choose specific countries of Africa and research some aspect of their geography, history, or culture. As each child reports to the class, other students will have the chance to form more distinct images of Africaís individual countries.


How Big is Africa?: Using Country Cutouts

Objectives: For students to understand the size of various continents, countries, and states of the United States in relationship to Africa; for students to create their own ìHow Big is Africa?î map using country cutouts like those shown on page 280.

Grade Level: Upper Elementary and Middle School

Procedures: Display the accompanying map, ìHow Big is Africa?î (Teachers can order a poster of this map from the African Studies Center, as indicated in the Teaching Resources section at the end of this article.) Use it to explore the following ideas with students:

n The places pictured inside the map of Africa include a continent, two countries, and two states of the United States. Which are which?

n Judging by this map, do you think size alone can tell you whether something is a continent, a country, or a state?

n How does the size of Europe compare to the size of Africa?

n There are 53 countries on the continent of Africa. Find out how many countries there are on the continent of Europe.

n Name all the countries you can on the continent of Europe. Now do the same for the continent of Africa. Do you know more about one than the other?

n Why do you think it might be important to understand the size of Africa?

Now provide students with an outline map of Africa along with the country cutouts shown on page 280. It is essential that the map and the cutouts be drawn on the same scale. (A map and cutouts of appropriate sclae are available from the Boston University African Studies Center.) Have students make their own ìHow Big is Africa?î maps. Begin with visual impressions and have students choose from the cutouts to fill Africaís land mass. Older students can try the math challenge involved in activity 4, which is based on Table 1.


1. Use the country cutouts to fill the continent of Africa. How many countries did you use? What are they?

2. Use a different combination of countries to fill the continent of Africa. What did you choose this time?

3. How many times can you fit a particular country inside Africa?

4. Use Table 1 to discover what mix of countries comes closest to filling Africa in actual square miles.


How Long Would it Take?

Objective: For students to get a sense of relative distances in Africa compared to other continents.

Grade Level: Upper Elementary to Middle School

Procedure: The places listed in Table 2 represent transcontinental distances on six of the worldís continents using either a north/south or an east/west axis. They are not necessarily the farthest points on each continent, but they do help students make distance comparisons. Have students calculate these measurements using a globe or atlas with a mileage scale, and either string (for the globe) or rulers (for the atlas). It may be helpful to calculate how long it would take to travel some of these distances by car (given equal roads and the same average miles per hour), so that students can compare them to the longest car ride theyíve ever taken.


Follow-up activities for history classes

1. Investigate the early exploration of Africa by travelers from other continents. What did Arab (e.g., Ibn Battuta), Asian (e.g., Zheng He), and European (e.g., Vasco da Gama) travelers believe about the size of the continent? How might these beliefs have shaped perceptions about the peoples and regions of Africa?

2. Cecil Rhodes was a late 19th century imperialist who dreamed of building a railroad and telegraph line from the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa to Cairo in Egypt. Do research and try to answer the following questions:

n Why has such a transcontinental railroad never been completed?

n How do the obstacles you discover compare with the problems encountered in building the first transcontinental railroad in the United States or in Russia? v


Teaching Resources

These resources and others are available from the African Studies Center at Boston University. Contact: African Outreach Program, Boston University, 270 Bay State Road, Boston, MA 02215. Telephone: 617-353-7303. Fax:
617-353-4975. Website:

How Big is Africa? Map poster with lesson plans, reproducible maps and cutouts to scale. Cost $9.95 plus $5.00 for shipping.

Africa History Facts on File (New York: Facts on File, 1993). (Middle-Adult)

Africa Inspirer CD-ROM (Tom Snyder Productions, 1997). (Grades 4-8)

Africa Project. Mapping Africa (SPICE [Stanford Program on International and Cross-Cultural Education], 1994). (Grades 4-10)

Africa Today 1996, Revised edition, World Eagle (111 King Street, Littleton, MA 01460-1527). (Good source for recent comparative statistics on specific African countries.) (Middle-Adult)

Boston University. What Do We Know About Africa? Video and teaching guide, 1996.




The ìHow Big is Africa?î map was developed by the African Studies Center at Boston University with assistance from Tina Chimombo and from the Cartography Program at Clark University, Worcester, MA.


Deborah Smith Johnston is a social studies teacher at Lexington High School,
Lexington, MA. Barbara Brown is director of the Outreach Program of the African Studies Center of Boston University.