Archive | December 2011

How to Write About Africa

A satirical article by Binyavanga Wainaina, founding editor of the literary magazine Kwani? and winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2002.  Originally posted in Granta 92: The View from Africa.

Food for thought – once I’m done learning to enjoy monkey-brain, goat, snake, worms and grubs and all manner of game meat, of course.

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. 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. ■

Binyavanga Wainaina

Tijamalira (Why We Cry)

My grade 10 Academic English teacher once said:

“Read, read, read, read, read… and then read some more.”

I’ve been doing Mr. Kehoe proud, especially since discovering the blog of Travis Lupick, the current rights media print intern at the Daily Times who self-identifies as (a) “writer. news junkie. obsessed with music. and I don’t sleep very much.”

Based on what I’ve read of Travis’ blog I’ve got some big shoes to fill at the Times, but I’m hoping our seemingly similar interests will at least ease the transition.

Also music-obsessed, tonight I read and write to the reggae sound of Lucius Banda (pictured above).

Once a politician and a member of parliament, top Malawian musician Lucius Banda was convicted of forging his Malawi School Certificate for Education – academic qualifications that enabled him to stand for parliament – in 2006 and served a prison sentence.  Banda’s political career ended with the conviction, but the popularity of his protest music in Malawi has endured (despite being banned by MBC state radio).

Listen to his summer 2011 track Tijamalira (Why We Cry) here:

Lucius Banda – Tikamalira (Why We Cry)

People of Africa, including Malawi, have realized that it is their responsibility to speak out and hold their government accountable.

Malawians refuse to be nothing.

We shall say something even if it means going to prison.

So what?

Malawians have to embrace the concept of active citizenship.

Because this is their country and, believe it or not, there’ll never be another Malawi.”

– lyrics from Lucius Banda’s Tikamalira (Why We Cry)

“Only god knows the truth” isn’t good enough

I’ve been tuning in to Malawian current events to prepare for my placement as the media rights print officer at the Daily Times newspaper in Blantyre beginning January 2012.

Through a mix of online news articles, Facebook group posts and Twitter feeds I’ve begun to build files on political, economic, legal and human rights issues – the coming 2014 presidential election, the arrest of the former general manager of the Malawi Housing Corporation on corruption charges, the emergent uranium mining industry, the Law Commission’s charge to review repressive sections of the Penal Code and Police Act, various student protests and the use of force by the Malawi Police Service (MPS) to put a stop to them, to name a few.

A shortage of story ideas at pitch meetings certainly won’t be a challenge I’ll face.

Although I can’t claim a full understanding of all factors embroiled in these issues from my office in Ontario, I have observed explicit tones of distrust in government as well as an indirect disenchantment with the efficacy of the media to attain and issue the truth.

Coincidentally a comment posted by a user under the name “truth” has been my most recent motivator.

Under “University student death ruled suicide –police”, a September 25 Nyasa Timesarticle referring to fourth-year engineering student and political activist Robert Chasowa who was found dead on September 24 at the Polytechnic, the commenter posted:

“onry (sic) God knows the truth to those behind this murder,may (sic) Robert’s soul rest in perfect peace.”

The sentiment of the comment stopped me mid-scroll  that a commenter could be so ready to assume that transparency and accountability were out of reach.

So strengthens my resolve.  As the media rights print intern I will promote rights media – the process of writing, collecting, editing, producing and distributing media that creates societal dialogue on human rights issues – in Malawi.

Because I believe in the power of open and free discussion to create positive change.

Because “only god knows the truth” isn’t good enough.

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