Africa – Not a Country but a Continent

One of the most famous blunders made by former U.S. President George W. Bush was, “Africa is a nation that suffers from terrible disease.” President Bush, like many others, misconstrued the fact that Africa is not a country, but a continent.

Africa consists of 54 different countries with a vast array of cultures, languages, religions, politics, agriculture, and cuisine. Many people assume that in Africa, people speak “African” or do not understand other languages; however, this is quite incorrect. In Africa, there are over 2,000 languages such as Arabic, English, French, Portuguese, and Swahili. Surprisingly the most spoken language is Arabic, with over 170 million speakers. Furthermore, English is the official language in 24 of the nations. “About 25 percent of the languages spoken in African countries aren’t recognized anywhere else in the world, which is a testament to its diversity and fullness.

There are approximately 200 independent countries in the world and a quarter of them are in Africa. In fact, Africa has a population of over one billion people and is the second largest continent in the world. To demonstrate the immensity of Africa, the USA, China, India, Europe, and Japan could all fit inside its geographic border.

Size of Africa. Source: Karl Krause, Creative Commons

People often view the countries in Africa as poor. While 218 million individuals live in extreme poverty, 1 in 3 Africans are considered middle class. Additionally, not all people in Africa live in “huts”. About 43% of individuals in Africa live in urban areas. In fact, there are more than 50 cities with a population of over a million people. Also, approximately 70% of Africa’s population is under the age of 30. So, when you combine this young demographic with diversified urban centers, you generate the possibility of innovation throughout the continent. Furthermore, their economy is expanding – out of the 10 fastest growing economies, 6 are in Africa. It is not possible to apply one concept to the entirety of Africa. Yes, some countries are poor, especially in sub-Saharan Africa; however, there are countries such as Nigeria, South Africa, and Egypt that are fairly wealthy. Nigeria exports the majority of the world’s oil, has a GDP of over $594 billion, and is projected to be one of the world’s largest economies in just a couple of years. While South Africa is a well-known tourist location, it also has the 18th largest stock exchange in the world. Egypt is one of the wealthiest countries in Africa.

In terms of landscape, Africa is quite diversified. While the Saharan desert covers one-third of the continent, there are also rainforests, mountains, and lakes. Africa’s largest vegetation zones do not comprise of deserts or rainforests, but, in fact, savannas which are tropical grasslands. There is a myriad of ecosystems in Africa. For example, the Sahara desert is the world’s largest hot desert and has over 300 species of wildlife such as the cheetah, ostrich, and hyrax. On the flip side, the Congo and the Nile are the world’s deepest and longest rivers, respectively. Africa is also home to numerous wetlands, specifically in the Botswana which includes saline lakes, freshwater forests, and massive floodplains. There are also tropical forests in Central and West Africa such as the Congo rainforest.


River Clouds Landscape Sky South Africa Scenic

Western media tends to only portray the negative aspects of Africa – violence, revolution, and wars. However, there is so much more to Africa than the negatives because it is not all danger and violence. For example, Zambia is quite peaceful and has had six presidents since becoming independent in 1964. Furthermore, it has never had a civil war. In Liberia, the former President was named by Time as “one of the top 10 female leaders in the world”. Additionally, she earned a Nobel Peace Prize for her work in women’s rights. Western countries tend to show Africans as powerless and reliant on Western aid to survive. In fact, many ads in the West embody this stereotype by depicting Africans as sad, lonely, and dirty children that need money. However, this is nothing further from the truth. It is thought that Western countries are the ones who help out Africans and are responsible for their well-being. But the truth is that African people who live outside of Africa send more money to their families than all of the aid combined from the Western countries. That is not to say that Western countries should not offer assistance when it is needed, but they must change their minds about what it means to live in Africa. Africa is not helpless, there are many projects created by African people. A Somalian woman, Hawa Abdi, implemented a health clinic, which has now developed into a “school, refugee camp, and hospital for over 90,000 women and children made homeless in the war”. Another example would be the Akon Lighting Africa project, which provides electricity the usage of solar energy to those in Africa.

There are also many assumptions about Africa being a place that is technologically backward. They see it as a place without phones, social media, internet, etc. However, Africa is quite the contrary by becoming “the world’s second most connected region by mobile subscriptions with over 754 million connections”. Interestingly enough, people in Kenya are 4 times more likely to have a cell phone than have access to a toilet. Moreover, at least 80% of African people have access to a mobile device. There are also many innovative advances for renewable energy such as hydroelectric power and solar panels. A lot of African countries are ahead of Western countries when it comes to sustainable energy. Kenya alone gets 50% of their energy from hydroelectricity, while in the UK and US, only 11% of their energy comes from renewable sources. In terms of creativity, Africa has numerous resourceful inventions such as traffic-regulating robots, a biomedical smart jacket that can diagnose pneumonia, and a device that fuses live neurons into a silicon chip.

There is no way to identify Africa as simply one thing. Africa is diverse in areas such as people, language, economy, landscape, technology, and innovations.

George Kimble captivated these sentiments best when he said, “The darkest thing about Africa has always been our ignorance of it.

Forgotten Countries and their Real Story: Middle East

The Middle East is a transcontinental region. When people think of the term “Middle East”, a host of thoughts come to mind such as deserts, burkas and Saudi Arabia. However, whether they are accurate is a completely different story. Most countries in the Middle East are often forgotten about, ignored, or misconstrued.


One of the most interesting questions to ask people is: Where is the Middle East located? Most people don’t even know what countries consist of the Middle East. One of the reasons why is, in the United States, geography is a dying subject. In fact, about three-fourths of the eighth graders in the United States test below average in geography. Furthermore, in most schools, geography is not required in middle school or high school. Out of the fifty states, only seventeen actually require geography in middle school and only ten in high school. The Middle East consists of fourteen countries shown in the picture below. What surprised me was how I found numerous websites that differed on what countries they thought were actually in the Middle East.


Middle East Map. Source: Wikipedia, Creative Commons

Arab vs Muslim

What does it mean to be an Arab? An Arab is defined as someone who identifies as being an Arab and whose native language is Arabic. On the other hand, someone who is Muslim practices the religion of Islam. Being an Arab and being a Muslim are not synonymous. For example, you could be an Arab who is not Muslim or you could be a Muslim but not an Arab. Furthermore, about 60% of people living in the Middle East are considered Arab. There are other ethnicities such as Persians, Turks, Kurds, and Jews.

What most people don’t realize is that there are over one billion Muslims in the world, the second largest religion in the world, and the majority are not in the Middle East. In fact, the country with the largest Muslim population is Indonesia. Also, the majority of Muslims live in Asia. While the majority of the Middle East does practice Islam, there are other religions practiced such as Judaism, Christianity, Baha’i, and Zoroastrians. Furthermore, there are different sects of Islam such as Sunni and Shiite.

Another misconception is that all the countries in the Middle East are considered Arab countries. However, that is not the case. For example, Saudi Arabia is predominantly Arab. This misconception may stem from the fact that much of the Islamic faith is written in Arabic. So regardless of which country you reside in, you would have some knowledge of Arabic.

Diverse Societies

There’s a certain stereotype in regards to the Middle East called orientalism that generalizes the region as deserts with roaming camels with olive-skinned people wearing robes, turbans, and garments that completely cover women from head to toe. The fact of the matter is that the style and environment depends on the area of the Middle East. We must also consider other factors such as education, socioeconomic status, and individual preference.  The veil is looked at as a form of modesty. The concept of modesty is meant to be applied to both genders and not just on women, and how each person interprets its meaning is different. Some countries such as Iran and Yemen do require veiling to go out in public; however, most people who wear a veil add their own twist to it. When considering the environment, the Middle East is geographically diverse. The Middle East seems to be defined by its deserts but there are also mountains ranges and rivers. One section of the world should not be defined as one thing. Many people see the Middle East as a backward “country” when it is, indeed, the contrary. Some of their cities rival those in the United States such as Lebanon, Iran, and Turkey. Demographic trends show that the Middle East has the “youngest population and it has the second highest urbanization rate in the world”.

Source: Creative Commons

“Disregarding the complexity, diversity, vibrancy, and humanity of people in the region leads to this ‘othering’ of the Middle East that is really damaging.”

One dimensional portrayal of women

A common misconception is that Middle Eastern women are oppressed and denied their basic rights because of their religion. Also, it is assumed, they must cover themselves with a veil because they are weak and passive. However, the concept of the veil actually came from Christian Byzantium, not Islam. Surprisingly, Islam gave women more rights than Western women, until the 19th century. In England, women were considered the property of their husband until 1882. However, Muslim women have always been able to keep their own assets. A more current example is when Muslim women are married they tend to keep their last name, while most Western women do not. Notably, in the Quran, Islam’s sacred book, it “states that men and women are equal in the eyes of God.” As you can see, Islam is not the determining factor behind women being oppressed. While religion can affect women’s rights, culture is the main factor driving the question of gender roles. As a result, you cannot assume all of the Middle East is the same and deem it as such. Depending on the region, women have different statuses and rights. While it is true that in Saudi Arabia women cannot drive cars, that is not true in other Middle Eastern countries. Women do have political and social rights in the Middle East, they just vary depending on the country. In fact, women have served as ministers in Iraq, Syria, and Jordan and as Vice President in Iran. That is not to say that the Middle Eastern women do not have problems, just that it is not as extreme as Western countries seem to think.

The Middle East deserves to be seen as diverse. By discussing location, religion, society, and gender people can gain a more open outlook on the Middle East. It is easy to let fear, ignorance, or the media dictate one’s perception; however, to change the cycle conversations must be created.


The Right to Stay: Gentrification-Induced Displacement

a sign that reads "Gentrification Zone, Poor people please leave quietly"
Gentrification Zone. Source: Matt Brown, Creative Commons

The Merriam-Webster definition of gentrification is – the process of renovating deteriorated urban neighborhoods through the influx of more middle class residents into that area. The process of gentrification is now a global phenomenon and is no longer confined to cities. Communities all over the world are experiencing mass societal development, often accompanied by restored housing, business investments, the formation of new infrastructure and public services such as coffee shops and park. “In most countries, evictions and expropriations are justified on the basis of some form of general interest of society – the so-called “public interest”  and this concept has often been abused to justify illegal or badly planned mass expulsions of people. The purpose of business investment in neighborhood revitalization is the production of social capital. Social capital is defined as “the interpersonal relationships, institutions, and other social assets of a society or group that can be used to gain advantage.”  Successful social capital and economic opportunities strongly attract and dictate where families choose to reside. In terms of gentrification, social capital is an advertising tool to attract white and more affluent families into revitalized areas.

Various positive aspects of gentrification, such as community development and increased job opportunities, certainly exist. However, negative implications to gentrification, most notably displacement, complicate and in many cases outweigh the benefits. Gentrification-induced displacement (GID) describes how residents may be forced to leave their homes as a result of increased housing costs, housing demolition, evictions, and ownership conversion of rental units. During the progression of GID, increased housing opportunities in gentrifying neighborhoods are more likely to be rented by middle income households, thus gradually decreasing the quantity of low-income renters. Eventually, these neighborhoods become unaffordable to low income residents, and force these lower-income residents to secure living in a less expensive neighborhood; these neighbors likely suffer from issues such as underdevelopment and poverty.

Displacement impedes on the human rights of those forced from their home neighborhoods. The right to adequate housing is addressed in both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, specifically stating: “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, [and] housing…” GID is both a human rights violation and an environmental justice issue. From a global context, the process of gentrification discriminates and targets minorities and low-income populations society. Marginalized populations do not have the political and economic influence to defend their families and communities from displacement. GID compounds these issues of marginalization, thereby multiplying the effects of structural violence on these vulnerable populations. This post will explore the policy prompting GID in two locations: Harlem in New York City, USA and Prabhadevi in Mumbai, India.

NY Night. Source: Travis Leech, Creative Commons

Harlem, New York

Harlem has been at the forefront of American black culture. After World War I, factors such as poor economic opportunities and harsh Jim Crow segregations laws in the American South, and the rise of industrial work opportunities in the North promoted the – the relocation of more than 6 million African-Americans from the rural South to the cities of the North, Midwest, and West from 1916 through 1970. In the 1900’s, African-Americans constantly battled the oppression of discriminatory housing policies due to blatant racism. In 1937, under the Housing Act, the US federal government developed the Home Owners Loan Corporation; this and other similar agencies were determined unfit and presented a ‘financial risk’ for investment by insurance companies, loan associations, banks, and other financial services companies. In reality, these agencies were deliberately racialized and designed to benefit more white and affluent populations. As a result, neighborhoods were ranked and color-coded based off race, with the color red representing African American communities. This process, known as redlining, is a method utilized by banks, insurance companies, and other financial companies to deny loans to homeowners who lived in these neighborhoods. As a consequence, neighborhoods deemed unfit for loans were left undeveloped compared to ‘white’ neighborhoods.

After the great migration, racial tension and rising rents in segregated areas in the North, resulted in African-Americans forming their own communities within big cities, thereby fostering the progression of African-American culture. Harlem in New York City, a formerly all-white neighborhood that by the 1920s housed some 200,000 African Americans, is the perfect example of the great migration. The relocation of low income African Americans into Harlem is known as the Harlem Renaissance, and during this period African American writers, musicians, and artists expressed their civil and human rights through their respective artistic media. However, towards the early 1980s, African-American culture and identity in Harlem began to and continues to face the threat of gentrification and subsequent displacement. In 1979, the areas in Harlem lying between 110th and 112th street and Fifth Avenue and Manhattan Avenue, located on the edge of Central Park, were designated for redevelopment by the Harlem Urban Development Corporation.  By 1982, 450 housing units displaced by the infrastructural development in that area were relocated into five different units of Section 8 federal housing for low income families. This is just one example of the displacement of low-income minority groups in Harlem.  Since the 1900’s, New York City as a whole continues to experience the effects of GID. The effects of gentrification in Harlem are highlighted by  the demographic shift happening in the city since the beginning of the 1900’s. In the 1950’s, African-Americans accounted for 98% of Harlem’s population; however in 2015 (just 67 years later), this percentage decreased to 65%. The effect of white “return” to Harlem expedites the process of the displacement of low-income African Americans.

Policies Contributing to GID in Harlem

In Harlem, the disproportionate escalation of housing rental prices, influenced by state housing policies, contributes to displacement. In 1969, New York City established and designated a Rent Stabilization Law (RSL), a form of rent control, to all six or more unit buildings built before 1947. Rent stabilization sets maximum rates for annual rent increases during lease renewal. Every year, the NYC rent guideline board meets to determine the annual rent increase landlords can charge tenants. Currently almost half of the rental apartments in NYC, about 1 million units with 2.6 million people living in them, are stabilized. Still, “rent-stabilized apartments are disappearing at an alarming rate: since 2007, at least 172,000 apartments have been deregulated. To give an example of how quickly affordable housing can vanish, between 2007 and 2014, 25% of the rent-stabilized apartments on the Upper West Side of Manhattan were deregulated.” The intention of this law is to protect tenants from unreasonable rent spikes, however, amendments to the RSL legislation in 2003 created a loophole allowing renters to subvert stabilization. The amendment to RSL legalized preferential rate – “a rent which an owner agrees to charge that is lower than the legal regulated rent that the owner could lawfully collect.” In theory, this amendment is supposed relieve the pressure of rent on tenants, but on the contrary, it provides landlords an opportunity to exploit lower income tenants. Under preferential rent, Owners have the choice to terminate preferential rent and charge the tenant higher legal regulated rent upon renewal of the lease, forcing tenants to either pay more rent or relocate to cheaper housing.

Evening in the Slums, Mumbai. Source: Adam Cohn, Creative Commons.

Prabhadevi, Mumbai

In Prabhadevi, Mumbai, gentrification gained prominence after the decline of textile mills. Post-industrial / neoliberal policies resulted in the sale of mill lands for large amounts of money to private developers. Gradually, huge mill landmass in the main part of the city became a central region for gentrification as land transformed from mills, to malls, and eventually towers. From 2000 to 2001, the area around standard mills was surrounded by 4 slums in which thousands of families resided. After the mills closed, some of the population left the area in search of employment in the suburbs while other families stayed in the area. From 2004 to 2005, the mill lands in Prabhadevi, Mumbai were sold to private corporate builders and remaining agricultural land was redeveloped into high end commercial or residential buildings. Land value and infrastructure continue to develop in this area, and consequently by the end of year 2015, 3 out of 4 slums were converted into Slum rehabilitation (SRA) buildings. The revitalization of these slums into high-rise towers attracted more affluent populations. In 20 years, Prabhadevi underwent a revolution from a rural slum to the down-town and cosmopolitan landmark of the city. The rapid development of the city also contributed to the rent gap between residents. The high-rise towers developing in this area are leased exclusively to the upper-class and elite.

In terms of both Harlem and Prabhadevi, “when rental units become vacant in gentrifying neighborhoods, they are more likely to be leased by middle-income households. Only indirectly, by gradually shrinking the pool of low-rent housing, does the re-urbanization of the middle class appear to harm the interests of the poor.”

Policies Contributing to GID in Mumbai

India’s federal policies play an important role in GID through three mechanisms:

  • The process of gentrification in India, which began in 1998, was greatly expedited by federal housing policies. “India’s 1998 housing and habitat policy emphasized the role of the private sector, as the other partner to be encouraged for housing construction and investment in infrastructure facilities. This resulted into rapid growth in private investment in housing with the emergence of real estate developers mainly in metropolitan cities.”
  • India’s 2002-2007 Five-Year Plan initiated the ambitious urban renewal program, renamed in 2015, “Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation” (AMRUT). The AMRUT program administered the rejuvenation of slums, pollution, and urban poverty in over 65 cities.
  • India’s federal governments 2012-2017 five-year plan’s main goal is to create a ‘slum free India’ by enshrining public-private partnerships in slum rehousing. “This five-year model gives developers access to valuable slum land in exchange for an obligation to rehouse the displaced slum dwellers in a portion of the multistory flats built on the site- a process known as transfer of development rights (TDR).”


Harlem and Prabhadevi are just two examples of what’s happening every day, all over the globe. As countries and communities continue to develop, land is inevitably going to be utilized and transformed for the sake of public interest. Unfortunately, land is a finite resource, which is the reason why gentrification-induced displacement is a prominent concern and reality for millions of people. As countries and communities continue to progress, we need to start asking ourselves a very important question: is displacement inevitable?  If so, what policies are in place to protect displaced people from further marginalization? What policies are currently effective in stopping the GID and how can we implement those policies in different regions around the world? Future research and policies regarding displacement need to address these issues in order to find a feasible and sustainable solution for future displacement. As a global community, we can continue to educate and empower each other to protect our rights, homes, and families.