Africa for starters

You know the story about the blind men and the elephant?  Each man, after touching one small part of it, thinks he knows what the whole animal looks like.  Of course, none of them are even close.

Seeing Africa for the first time is a lot like that.

The second largest continent on Earth –12 million square miles ranging from deserts to mountains to rainforests and savannah,  55 sovereign nations, 1.2 billion people divided among 3,000 ethnic groups and 2,000 languages, with almost as many cultures.

That’s a lot to take in. Where to begin?

First, don’t start by researching Africa. Start at home, with yourself. What pulls your interest? Wilderness adventures? History and heritage? Music, dance, literature? Art and architecture? Food and fashion? Culture and spirituality? Science and technology?

Once you’ve narrowed down that list, now you’re ready to start researching African destinations. And whatever interests remain on your list, I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll find an African destination that can fulfill them.

And if you can’t, not a problem. We’ll find them for you.  We have friends, colleagues and contacts all over Africa who know where they are.

Next, it’s time to reduce Africa to a manageable size. The continent can be roughly divided into five regions, each of them the size of a small continent — North, East, West, central and southern Africa.

North African states border the southern Mediterranean Sea and occupy the Sahara Desert or the Sahel region.The popular destination countries there are Morocco and, of course, Egypt.

East Africa is famous for its wildlife safari vacations. You can witness the Great Migration and catch a glimpse of Africa’s Big 5 in the wild — the lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant and Cape buffalo — in countries like Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi and Mozambique.  Uganda and Rwanda also are home to the very famous — and very rare — mountain gorillas.

It’s also where you can meet the Maasai, a proud and noble people whose language is one of four formally adopted by the African Union.

Speaking of culture, there’s another East African nation that’s bound to grab your attention: Ethiopia, with more UNESCO World Heritage Sites than any other country on the continent.

And at the very tip of the continent lie the states of southern Africa — Botswana and Namibia with their well preserved nature, the emerging destinations of Angola and Zimbabwe. And the nation that defines the region, South Africa, a dizzying mix of natural wonder and urban vibe in a society still evolving and emerging from the apartheid era.

But if you’re looking for a relatively gentle introduction into the land we call The Mother Continent, your best bet just might be West Africa.

They’ve got some of everything — wildlife parks and nature preserves, surfing and saltwater fishing and more. Their cultures are a blend of rural tradition and urban modernity, with businessmen, lawyers and engineers trading their suits and ties in their nation’s capitals to don the traditional  in the countryside, where they serve as traditional chiefs and kings.

When you’re ready to get your hustle on, you’re ready for Nigeria. Its largest city, Lagos, is now an international capital for foodies, fashion and filmmaking. Nigeria is now the world’s second most prolific filmmaking nation after India. That’s right, Nollywood is hard after Bollywood.

Music? Almost everywhere you look. Ghana is the birthplace of much of Africa’s modern music, of which there are at least 50 different styles. When not developing its own beats and melodies with names like highlife, hiplife and Afrobeat, it was borrowing from the musical creations of its brothers and sisters in the African Diaspora, putting their own stylistic spin on everything from jazz to gospel to hip-hop to reggae.

And if you have any interest in the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade — especially if you’re descended from enslaved Africans — a visit to West Africa’s slave castles, of which more than dozen still survive, could be a personal quest.

West Africa has another major advantage: It’s easy to reach. From the East Coast of the United States, French-speaking Senegal is only about eight hours away, and English-speaking Ghana only about ten, both on non-stop flights.

Yeah, I know…I was supposed to be helping you narrow down your choices. Bit armed with these snippets of information, you should be ready to delve deeper. Right up until it’s time to fly.

–Greg Gross