Is visiting Africa a stretch?

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (physician, writer, lecturer and father of the U.S. Supreme Court jurist by the same name) wrote:

“The mind, once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions.”

The sooner African leaders come to appreciate this, the better off we will all be. Many of the African leaders I meet with in my consulting activities complain about how Africa is portrayed in the U.S. media. Yet, they are without an effective, proactive, public relations strategy.

Tourism provides the perfect platform to improve one’s brand, by educating visitors who have hitherto been exposed exclusively to filtered media images. Before more U.S. companies and individuals embrace Africa as an investment destination, they need to be “shown around”. Living the experience changes perspectives and it changes lives.

Americans must be disabused of the broad stroke images of Africa as a poor, unstable place that is wracked by famine and war. Indeed, these problems are present, but I remind you that Africa is not a country. It is a continent that is made up of 54 nations. Look at Botswana, where proceeds from diamond mining are used to give citizens free education all the way through university. (You don’t see that in the richest country on earth). Ghana is one of the more stable economies on the continent. South Africa is booming and Nigeria is nipping at its heels.

Africa must not wait for others to tell their story. They must tell their own story! If you live on the east coast of the U.S. you can be in Dakar, Senegal in about the same time it takes to get to Los Angeles or San Francisco. Did you know that Delta Airline’s most profitable route, worldwide, is Atlanta to Lagos (Nigeria)?

Let’s talk national security. The best way to fight terrorism is (also) with education. The more we know and the more our African friends know, the more difficult it is to paint the west as anti-African or anti-Muslim and the more difficult it is for westerners to think of Africa as a basket case.

Questions for my African friends: What has your country done to educate Americans? Do your government leaders meet with other than mainstream journalists when they are in the U.S.? Do your tourism officials meet with tour operators and other travel professionals abroad?

A good stretch before a physical workout will help you to avoid injury. Stretching can be uncomfortable, but it’s worth the effort. If Africa is willing to stretch into a more constructive engagement with Americans and we are willing to learn more about a vast emerging continent by seeing it first hand, then stereotypes and inaccurate portrayals will cause less harm.

Do some stretching. It’s worth it.

EDITORS NOTE:  The featured image is a map of Africa produced in Amsterdam. It is a first edition circa 1689 using copper engraving.