Africa, even in the post-colonial era, has often been called the "dark continent" or referred to as "darkest
Africa," mainly by people who have never set foot in Africa and apparently pictured it as one vast jungle upon which the sun never shined. Some have evidently relied on the words of tourists who visited Africa and never took off their sunglasses. ("You wouldn’t believe it, Bob, even their sugar was dark!") It’s been left to writers like me, who’ve spent years in Africa, to help shed some light on it. But to no avail.
As National Public Radio ombudsman (ombudswoman?) Alicia C. Shepard wrote in her blog, NPR newscaster Jean Cochran had to apologize recently for saying on Valentine’s Day that President Bush was off on a visit to the "dark continent."
"I had no idea the term would be found offensive," said Cochran, who
joined NPR in 1981. "I will concede antiquated but I was unaware it was
‘racist and irredeemable,’ as one person put it in an email. I was
floored. Am I insensitive? I don’t know how that could be since I
didn’t know there was anything to be sensitive about. I understood the
term to refer to the African jungle. It’s a canopy blocking out the
light. A geographical term." [Link]
I could be wrong, but I think someone has been watching one too many Tarzan movies. Most Africans have never been to a jungle. The closest I’ve ever come to being in a jungle was in Baltimore.
Cochran is correct in one sense. Originally, the term "dark continent" came into use in the 19th century to describe a continent largely unknown and mysterious to Europeans. Explorer Henry M. Stanley used it in his 1878 book, Through the Dark Continent.
In fact, it is still used today, but in context. Because of the
dearth of electricity on much of the continent, satellite imaging from
outer space depicts much of Africa at night as literally a dark continent. An article in The Economist
last July, on how investors view Africa, refers to it as the "dark
continent." "With all this concern of offending people, it is important
for people to understand why and where the term exists," said Neal
Weintraub, an author of four books on investing, who provided NPR The Economist example. [Link]
I don’t buy that reasoning for the term’s longevity. I don’t think it has anything to do with electricity, even if Bill Gates has more lights in his front yard than Lusaka International Airport.
It’s all about ignorance, a whole bunch of people who are still, despite our best efforts, in the dark.