Wednesday, September 23, 2009

How NOT to Write About Africa

Not feeling particularly inspired to write myself tonight, I stumbled upon a brilliant piece of writing that I had found and read once before but had not recorded, and thought was lost to me. I was so happy to find it again. It is actually quite famous in some circles concerned with Africa, and it’s bitter satire hits close to home when you are an expat writing in general about Africa.

The piece was written in 2003 by Binyavanga Wainaina, a Kenyan author and journalist.

Many of you will know this piece (and it is always worth re-reading!), but for those of you who don’t, especially the writers and those who are not familiar with Africa – this is an eye opening commentary on how the west has portrayed Africa for so long. To me, it needs to be read, sarcasm and all. The stereotypes are disturbing and 'in-your-face'. It’s brilliant.



HOW TO WRITE ABOUT AFRICA
Always use the word 'Africa' or 'Darkness' or 'Safari' in your title. Subtitles may include the words 'Zanzibar', 'Masai', 'Zulu', 'Zambezi', 'Congo', 'Nile', 'Big', 'Sky', 'Shadow', 'Drum', 'Sun' or 'Bygone'.

Also useful are words such as 'Guerrillas', 'Timeless', 'Primordial' and 'Tribal'. Note that 'People' means Africans who are not black, while 'The People' means black Africans.

Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress.

In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don't get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. The continent is full of deserts, jungles, highlands, savannahs and many other things, but your reader doesn't care about all that, so keep your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular.

Make sure you show how Africans have music and rhythm deep in their souls, and eat things no other humans eat. Do not mention rice and beef and wheat; monkey-brain is an African's cuisine of choice, along with goat, snake, worms and grubs and all manner of game meat. Make sure you show that you are able to eat such food without flinching, and describe how you learn to enjoy it—because you care.

Taboo subjects: ordinary domestic scenes, love between Africans (unless a death is involved), references to African writers or intellectuals, mention of school-going children who are not suffering from yaws or Ebola fever or female genital mutilation.

Throughout the book, adopt a sotto voice, in conspiracy with the reader, and a sad I-expected-so-much tone. Establish early on that your liberalism is impeccable, and mention near the beginning how much you love Africa, how you fell in love with the place and can't live without her. Africa is the only continent you can love—take advantage of this.

If you are a man, thrust yourself into her warm virgin forests. If you are a woman, treat Africa as a man who wears a bush jacket and disappears off into the sunset. Africa is to be pitied, worshipped or dominated. Whichever angle you take, be sure to leave the strong impression that without your intervention and your important book, Africa is doomed.

Your African characters may include naked warriors, loyal servants, diviners and seers, ancient wise men living in hermitic splendour. Or corrupt politicians, inept polygamous travel-guides, and prostitutes you have slept with. (Image © Andy Davies/ardillustration.com)


The Loyal Servant always behaves like a seven-year-old and needs a firm hand; he is scared of snakes, good with children, and always involving you in his complex domestic dramas.

The Ancient Wise Man always comes from a noble tribe (not the money-grubbing tribes like the Gikuyu, the Igbo or the Shona). He has rheumy eyes and is close to the Earth.

The Modern African is a fat man who steals and works in the visa office, refusing to give work permits to qualified Westerners who really care about Africa. He is an enemy of development, always using his government job to make it difficult for pragmatic and good-hearted expats to set up NGOs or Legal Conservation Areas. Or he is an Oxford-educated intellectual turned serial-killing politician in a Savile Row suit. He is a cannibal who likes Cristal champagne, and his mother is a rich witch-doctor who really runs the country.

Among your characters you must always include The Starving African, who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked, and waits for the benevolence of the West. Her children have flies on their eyelids and pot bellies, and her breasts are flat and empty. She must look utterly helpless. She can have no past, no history; such diversions ruin the dramatic moment. Moans are good. She must never say anything about herself in the dialogue except to speak of her (unspeakable) suffering.

Also be sure to include a warm and motherly woman who has a rolling laugh and who is concerned for your well-being. Just call her Mama. Her children are all delinquent.

These characters should buzz around your main hero, making him look good. Your hero can teach them, bathe them, feed them; he carries lots of babies and has seen Death. Your hero is you (if reportage), or a beautiful, tragic international celebrity/aristocrat who now cares for animals (if fiction).

Bad Western characters may include children of Tory cabinet ministers, Afrikaners, employees of the World Bank. When talking about exploitation by foreigners mention the Chinese and Indian traders. Blame the West for Africa's situation. But do not be too specific.

Broad brushstrokes throughout are good. Avoid having the African characters laugh, or struggle to educate their kids, or just make do in mundane circumstances. Have them illuminate something about Europe or America in Africa. African characters should be colourful, exotic, larger than life—but empty inside, with no dialogue, no conflicts or resolutions in their stories, no depth or quirks to confuse the cause.

Describe, in detail, naked breasts (young, old, conservative, recently raped, big, small) or mutilated genitals, or enhanced genitals. Or any kind of genitals. And dead bodies. Or, better, naked dead bodies. And especially rotting naked dead bodies. Remember, any work you submit in which people look filthy and miserable will be referred to as the 'real Africa', and you want that on your dust jacket. Do not feel queasy about this: you are trying to help them to get aid from the West. The biggest taboo in writing about Africa is to describe or show dead or suffering white people.

Animals, on the other hand, must be treated as well rounded, complex characters. They speak (or grunt while tossing their manes proudly) and have names, ambitions and desires. They also have family values: see how lions teach their children? Elephants are caring, and are good feminists or dignified patriarchs. So are gorillas. Never, ever say anything negative about an elephant or a gorilla. Elephants may attack people's property, destroy their crops, and even kill them. Always take the side of the elephant. Big cats have public-school accents. Hyenas are fair game and have vaguely Middle Eastern accents.

Any short Africans who live in the jungle or desert may be portrayed with good humour (unless they are in conflict with an elephant or chimpanzee or gorilla, in which case they are pure evil).

After celebrity activists and aid workers, conservationists are Africa's most important people. Do not offend them. You need them to invite you to their 30,000-acre game ranch or 'conservation area', and this is the only way you will get to interview the celebrity activist. Often a book cover with a heroic-looking conservationist on it works magic for sales. Anybody white, tanned and wearing khaki who once had a pet antelope or a farm is a conservationist, one who is preserving Africa's rich heritage. When interviewing him or her, do not ask how much funding they have; do not ask how much money they make off their game. Never ask how much they pay their employees.

Readers will be put off if you don't mention the light in Africa. And sunsets, the African sunset is a must. It is always big and red. There is always a big sky. Wide empty spaces and game are critical—Africa is the Land of Wide Empty Spaces.


When writing about the plight of flora and fauna, make sure you mention that Africa is overpopulated. When your main character is in a desert or jungle living with indigenous peoples (anybody short) it is okay to mention that Africa has been severely depopulated by Aids and War (use caps).


You'll also need a nightclub called Tropicana, where mercenaries, evil nouveau riche Africans and prostitutes and guerrillas and expats hang out.

Always end your book with Nelson Mandela saying something about rainbows or renaissances. Because you care.

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33 comments:

Megan said...

This is excellent. I often feel the same way when I read magazine stories about the Canadian Arctic.

Odette said...

Thanks for posting that. Very funny! I'm sharing it with friends now. (a few of whom may write about Africa, but who, I trust, are able to distinguish between the many countries (& do not feel the need to make genitals or ebola the centerpiece of their writing).

Robynn's Ravings said...

What an eye opener. It sounds like whatever you do, don't paint anyone from Africa as just a regular person having a regular life. This could be rewritten to fit any stereotypes of any country. Powerful.

Darcy said...

Lol! i love this piece of work! jeezus, western writers really gotta dig deep to start portraying the continent in less stereotypical way! i love ur blog, as you r accomplishing this already.

Esi W. Cleland said...

I agree with this article.My response to it is that when people who know Africa write about it, over time, perceptions can change. My personal contribution is my blog at www.maameous.blogspot.com. I don't write about newsy stuff; not even good news out of Africa. My approach is to write about life in Ghana as we know it. Document all that is fun, interesting, and funny about life in Ghana from an insider's perspective. The fact that both Africans and non-Africans have responded so enthusiastically to this approach confirms my belief that you need not write about drastic horror stories or exotic things to make people pay attention to Africa and African things.

Sassy Scribbles said...

well you see? Even if you are too tired to make a post, you still did a brilliant job by sharing this. This is indeed an eye opener, I also live in a country that is suffering from lots of negative images portrayed by the media, but as a local, I am sure to know what kind of people we have become to overcome the past and what kind of future we are looking forward to.

The very essence of this piece is to look beyond the images and to realize that people who live among these countries deserve a chance to show themselves in a much lighter and positive note. Humans and Societies do Progress much to the dismay of the scrutinizing general public!

The pale observer said...

@Megan - thanks for commenting - yes, I think there is a tendency to fall on stereotypes and this piece shoves them all up into the spotlight. I know the same is done of 'eskimos'!

@Odette - yes I would hope that MOST writers about Africa can see beyond the harsh stereotypes!

@ Robyn and Darcy - thanks for commenting! It can sometimes be hard to avoid stereotypes as they are programmed into us!

@Esi - yes, your blog is excellent and we need more like it! The real Africa (which is extremely diverse) and need not fit any stereotype - and so importantly it's not from an outsider's perspective! Great stuff Esi!

Thanks Sassy! It's true that as societies develop and change, they must have the same media coverage they got for things in the past. Old stereotypes can only die when people are exposed to the well rounded view of a place and it's people! :)

Nevine said...

Very sad but very true, unfortunately. Yes, the stereotypes are quite a slap, but there's nothing unreal about any of them. The most unfortunate thing is that we all have stereotypes about those places in the world that we think of as "THEM", and sometimes, in our heart of hearts, we even have stereotypes about "US".

The pale observer said...

Great insight Nevine! Thanks for your comment. Stereotypes have their basis in reality, which is why they are so difficult. The problem with them is they are usually negative, and the exclude the other positives that exist...they are limiting and molding and they keep people down.

9uy said...

The two places which I call home (Israel, Iceland) "enjoy" many stereotypes which are for the most not so positive.

Stereotypes are the combination of human nature and broad ignorance. It is the fuel that drives humanity for centuries. We just need to learn to live with it and if possible try to educate people and put a mirror to their faces.

The pale observer said...

Hi Guy - perfectly said!!

Wine and Words said...

Sarcasm indeed! Thank you for sharing this and also for stopping by my blog. A fresh point of view is always appreciated!

The pale observer said...

@W&W - thanks to you too! it's great to connect across all borders & boundaries! :)

Scarlet said...

Ha! I love it! They should do a Cuban version of this. :)

blunt edges said...

WONDERULLLL!!!

thanx a ton 4 sharing it holli :D

The pale observer said...

Thanks ladies - yes it's excellent. Scarlet - perhaps you could write the Cuban version?

Betty Manousos:cutand-dry.blogspot.com said...

Very funny. BTW you left a comment on Bonnie and Clyde post of my blog . I don't understand what you mean by economics 101.
Have a great day!!! :)

Debbie said...

I was thrilled to see you on my blog..which brought me to yours! I was born and raised in central Africa..left as a teenager..and while it has been many years..Africa will always be in my soul..its a country that you never leave completely!

Captain Dumbass said...

That is flipping brilliant. This should also be addressed to Hollywood and adapted for every region of the world... or even the United States itself outside of California.

Renee said...

Holy crow Holli that was totally disturbing. Is that supposed to be serious, if so that is so disgusting and what a way to keep a whole people as a stereotype.

You have an amazing blog.

Love Renee xoxo

The pale observer said...

@Betty - I will check and let u know.

@Debbie - thanks as well!!! Yes, Africa gets inside you...

Captain - I agree - can you write the Hollywood one for us?

@Renee - thanks! This is written totally sarcastically by an African scholar... :)

Megan said...

I've been inspired. I've written my own version and linked back here. I hope that's OK, Holli.

The pale observer said...

Excellent Megan! I'm off to read it now! :)

Absolutely Normal Chaos said...

This is really, really good. Thanks so much for sharing this. I'm going to forward this to my friends and family. I'm from India and we oftenr suffer the same sort of typification that Africa does: snake charmers, elephants, poverty and malaria. And there you have it: the India that the West sees :)

Dutch donut girl said...

Wonderful post!

Stereotyping is a kind of gossip about the world, a gossip that makes us prejudge people before we ever lay eyes on them, “ says Robert L. Heilbroner, in an essay titled “Don’t let Stereotyping warp your Judgment.”

And I couldn't agree more.

The pale observer said...

@AbsolutelyNormal - thanks for the comment. Maybe you coulld ewrite the India version? One of my readers Megan did an amazing job writing the Arctic version - she links to it above - have a read!!! :)

Thanks for commenting! Stereotypes - dangerous....

fredwrite said...

This was twice as funny the second time as I read it out loud to my girlfriend. I'm putting you on my blog list. I found you on 9uy.info as a guest.

The pale observer said...

Thanks Fred!!! Will keep trying to entertain :)

peregrina feminina said...

I've come across this before. The one thing I have to disagree with is the part about sunsets. I've seen some amazing sunsets and sunrises in Ghana. They have the smog and Harmattan wind to thank for that, but still, they were amazing ;)

The pale observer said...

Hi peregrina - thanks for commenting! I think the writer acknowledges the great sunsets - he was just pointing out that it's what alot of foreign writers focus on when writing about Africa.

Katy said...

The last part is so funny to me because where i live in Togo there is a defunct hotel called the Tropicana which used to be a hub for expats, prostitutes, rich Africans, etc used to frequent in the 70's.

Ama said...

@Debbie - Africa is a country???? This after just finishing reading the post???? I am curious to know where exactly in Central Africa you were raised and wonder why you didn't just say it ...

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