The etymology of “Africa” is up for dispute. It was originally used by Romans, and there is debate as to whether it refers to a tribe, the Phonecian word for “dust,” the Greek term for “without cold,” or the Latin aprika, meaning “sunny.” If it is the last one, it has come, in terms of popular understanding, to be a term of irony. After all, we all know of Africa as the “dark continent,” a place of hunger and jungles, of war and disease. Most people instinctively write it off.

Regardless of where the name came from, it is pretty clear that the name, and the less flattering nicknames, are part of a millennia-long trend of outsiders imposing their own ideas onto Africa. From assuming it was all sunny to the pernicious race theories and violence that underpinned colonialism, to the post-colonial hand-washing and history-erasing, interspersed with spasms of guilt-laden charity, Africa has long been an idea rather than a place where people live. However, there are promising signs that the continent is shaking off the shackles of history, and is rising to take its place in the world. We’ll take a look at Africa rising, and what it means for your school.

map of Africa

Africa, a huge and hugely diverse continent, defies easy stereotypes and expectations.

The Myth of Africa

Let’s get one thing straight- there is no such thing as “Africa.” Sure, of course, there is a continent called by that name, but we use it as a shorthand to refer to over a billion people spread out over the second-largest continent on the planet. It has a huge amount of diversity- by geography, topography, and population, as well as many different histories, economies, and political systems. To talk shorthand about “Africa” is as futile as going on about “The North American spirit” to make some kind of collation between Manitoba and Chiapas.

That said, there are some generalizations we have to make in order to condense this into an article. We can start with the normal shorthand of “Africa,” which is essentially sub-Saharan Africa, and not the Arab/Berber/Maghrib regions in the north. This may or may not include the Sudan, and rarely includes Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Djibouti, although it generally does include Somalia, despite it being more of a Red Sea nation along with the latter three.

The point is that no one can really say what Africa is or what its boundaries are, other than lumping together a collection of nations as disparate as in Asia (no one would lump together, say, China, Armenia, and Qatar, although they are all Asian). But, in some ways, maybe this is a good thing. Maybe it means that Africa has finally become a fairly normal continent in the world’s mind, one that isn’t just a collection of miseries.

Failures and Promises

This isn’t to minimize the problems. Too many countries in Africa are still torn apart by poverty and disease, by a lack of stable governments, basic human rights, access to education, water, or capital. To pretend otherwise would be doing a disservice. There are those who would blame colonialism and its legacy, and others who would say colonialism ended a long time ago, and to get over it. It seems more reasonable to say that the tendrils of history are long and hard to suss out, but at the very least, post-colonial leaders received an excellent education in mismanagement and violence from their former occupiers.

Things might be shifting, though. As the Times reported yesterday in a fascinating piece, the African middle class is growing rapidly, and overall the continent has shown an explosive and consistent economic growth over the last decade. Indeed, it boasts the world’s fastest-growing middle class.

There are still enormous challenges. There is the argument that growth is just part of a commodities bubble, which will eventually crash, and anyway, isn’t truly spreading out to everyone. The amount of people in poverty has also risen, as the population continues to expand in defiance of global trends. Population itself is going to be a handicap for continued growth. But it is the population that is driving the change. After centuries of exploitation and racist cruelty from outside powers and decades of incompetence and venality from home-grown tinpot tyrants, there is an energy inside these countries that is growing despite terrible leadership. There is a sense of taking destiny into their own hands.

Bringing Africa to your school

If you are an international recruiter or the head of an international department, this presents an enormous opportunity. As the middle and upper classes grow in a more democratic way than before, there will be a growing need for global and technological education. Your school could be the first step to that, to help globalize the students of Africa coming out of generations of poverty. To give them the means to further their education, so that they can go back home, teach and build, and continue this Renaissance, which the cynical and the undeservedly world-weary guaranteed could never happen. But the cynical visions of others no longer hold the same power, as a continent takes control of its own destiny.


The international student experience is both challenging and exciting. Whether you are a student considering studying in America, their parent, the host family, the Head of School, an international coordinator, or even a potential classmate, there are as many opportunities for confusion as there are to learn. The ISPA is here to help bridge that gap, to ensure that this opportunity and adventure is met with the highest level of success.