Kai Krause's true size of Africa map

Designer Kai Krause's map depicts a more realistic Africa. Each colored portion represents the land mass of a real country, including the United States, China and India. (Image: Kai Krause)

Any map is a political document. What they do and do not choose to show will inevitably shape your worldview.

From the names we call a particular territory (think Northern Ireland versus Ulster, for example) to where we draw our borders, maps have always been used to denote and reinforce a favored understanding of how the world "is." This argument is hardly controversial. What's sometimes less recognized, however, is that the political and cultural significance of maps doesn't just end with the boundaries and labels we demarcate the map with. Our representations of the geography itself is both influenced by, and contributes to, the worldview from which it was created. 

Africa is a prime example.

A few years ago, designer Kai Krause created an unusual map for an exhibition: a map which sought to depict the true size of the African continent. The result, shown above, was so mind-bending to many (particularly in the West) that it soon became an Internet sensation.

Here's how Krause describes the project

It was a very simple premise that I had seen done a number of times before - never claimed it to be a novel invention - but had a slightly new twist in mind: Africa is so mind-numbingly immense, that it exceeds the common assumptions by just about anyone I ever met: it contains the entirety of the USA, all of China, India, as well as Japan and pretty much all of Europe as well - all combined !
But why does this matter? The predominant "Mercator Projection," so familiar from every single world map you ever saw in school, was designed primarily to facilitate trade and travel (you can easily draw straight lines from point A to point B to show a trade route), not to accurately represent the world by size. As Krause himself points out, any time you take a three-dimensional object and turn it into a two-dimensional representation, there will inevitably be distortions.

Those distortions, while unavoidable, color our understanding of what the world around us really looks like. And when we have a distorted or compromised view of the world, we are less able to identify where best to dedicate resources and/or who should have a voice. 

The debate over how to provide power to the 1.2 billion people who lack access to reliable electricity, for example, can and should be informed by an accurate understanding of the regions that currently lack access. The fact that Africa is so geographically immense, and populations are so dispersed, gives credence to those who are arguing that a democratized, distributed and renewable-powered energy system for Africa makes so much more sense than copying the outdated, polluting and centralized energy grids that were developed for densely populated industrialized countries. 

Of course maps alone cannot be held responsible for the ways that Africa and Africans have been marginalized on the global stage, or how it has been under- and misrepresented in mainstream Western culture. From racism to imperialism to a globalized economy, there are countless factors at work in shaping the global status quo. Maps both contribute to, and are influenced by, the predominant worldview. As Krause's fascinating projection shows, they can also be used to challenge it. Perhaps the last work should go to the creator of the map himself: 

"Here is to Africa achieving the stature that it deserves to have…"

For the data heads out there, you can download the full map and data sets used to create it here

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