Geography (or, Don’t you live in South Africa?)

Sorry, Sara, I’ve got to post another map. After three and a half years of living in Congo, I’ve collected three and a half years of stories about people assuming we really mean South Africa. It’s kind of funny, really. On a visit back home in Kansas once, I caught my Dad saying repeatedly that I lived in South Africa. I finally wrestled out of him why he was saying this. For one, it’s not too easy to say “the Democratic Republic of the Congo”—it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. (Which is why I almost always shorten it to just Congo; technically incorrect too, but it’s a place to start.) For another, he figures most people would have trouble relating to something so remote. South Africa is not just easier to say, it’s easier to hear.

He’s right. We travel home to Arizona usually about once a year to catch up on shopping, business meetings, and medical appointments. Time and time again I’ve had some variation of the following conversation, whether it’s with doctors, dentists, acupuncturists, hotel receptionists or sushi connoisseurs:

“So, where are you in from?”

“Oh, at the moment we live in Africa. My husband works in copper mining in Congo.”

“Oh really? That must be exciting.”

—more chit chat, a minute or two passes—

“So tell me, what’s it like living in South Africa?”

“Well, we don’t live in South Africa, we live in Congo.”

“Oh really? I could swear you said South Africa.”

It’s like a total mash-up in the brain. Africa = South Africa. Everyone forgets the former is a continent of over 50 countries, and the latter is just one of them. It might be confusing not just because of the similar name but also because South Africa is arguably the most-developed and well-known, at least south of the Sahara. It’s also got the biggest hub (Johannesburg) with all the big airlines connecting from Europe, Asia, Australia and the Americas. So the vast majority of tourists to Africa enter through South Africa. Thus, maybe people begin to think of them, subconsciously, as one and the same.

So, here’s my latest attempt to make the geography clear. For scale, keep in mind that South Africa is twice the size of Texas. Our Congo is the same size as Western Europe. And the entire continental United States could fit inside the Sahara Desert, that big yellow expanse to the north of us.

We don't live in South Africa

We don’t live in South Africa

Extra points for remembering that there are two Congos — the other is called the Republic of Congo, just to our west. And super-extra points for catching that Lesotho is accidentally included in my coloring-in of South Africa… I don’t know how to use my photo-editing tools properly!

We live in the extreme southern part of Congo, in a little town called Fungurume between Kolwezi and Likasi. Lubumbashi is our nearest big city, about 3 hours away by road (or 25 minutes by charter plane). We’re inside the bit that juts to the southeast, surrounded by Zambia. When we fly to Johannesburg we fly from Lubumbashi over Zambia and Zimbabwe. Johannesburg is in the northern part of South Africa and the flight takes less than 3 hours.

All right, all right, you get it. I know you do. We don’t live in South Africa. But we travel through there often, we talk about friends who live there (most of whom work in Congo and travel back and forth every 6 weeks or so), and we’ve taken a few exciting vacations there. So, now, away from the boring geography lesson and back to those vacation stories…!

7 comments

  1. In my experience, people often get confused and think of Africa as one country and forget that it a continent–made up of many different countries. I’m not sure why. . .

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    1. Maybe we think of everything like we think of the U.S…. one country, many states? Also there’s a problem with traditional Mercator maps that skew sizes towards the edges. For example Greenland on those maps looks the same size as Africa, when it is actually only 7% as large. So the thinking goes Africa is not so big, not so relevant. And third, we are only mimicking many politicians and media who make the same mistake… http://www.africaisacontinent.com/common-mistake

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  2. Thanks Jen … geography is good stuff to know! … vastness of the African continent just blows me away!

    Thanks too for shedding light on exactly “where you are” in the world!

    Uncle John

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    1. Thank you Jennifer for being so kind in wanting to educate people about our world. Often we are amazed at how we get confused on countries. Facts and how we perceive things are important. Dad

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      1. When I started grad school I had a brief but memorable conversation with a classmate about two countries in South America that I didn’t recognize (Suriname and Guyana). I made a crack about how they sounded like they belonged in Africa rather than South America. Pretty sure he thought I was an idiot. 😉

        The point is, geography is one of those things you don’t know until you really take the time to study it. Living or vacationing there, or knowing someone from there, is really the only way to bring it “home” for most of us.

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    2. You’re welcome Uncle John… and the “vastness” is so true! We’ve been in 9 other African countries on vacation so far (I haven’t written about most of them yet), so only 40-some left to go!! By the way, did you get the letter I sent you from Ethiopia/Seychelles?

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