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Friday, 16 October 2009

how to write about africa

I'll have to do a repeat posting. This is Binyavanga Wainana (from Granta 92) writing about how to write about Africa.

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.


I love Pieter Hugo's work - it's fantastic. It's also multi-layered, it reeks of urbanisation, industrialisation, fake machismo, the film industry (they have a film industry!) and the animals that do feature are mangy, mistreated objects of somebody else's (not our) curiosity. Not a safari or a sotto voce David Attenborough in sight.


db said...

Amen. And a nice essay too. An appropriate riposte, thanks for re-posting it.

mark page said...

They are Colin aren't they? Those pictures are just simply good pictures and I'm not sure why we are being made to feel guilty for liking them? Ssshhh is it an American thing?

colin pantall said...

I think it is a case of people projecting their own perspectives onto other countries.

I remember showing the Hyena Men pictures to a Somali. I asked him where the picture was taken and he said - Nigeria.

I said, How do you know?

He said, Because there's a chicken in the picture.

Different context, perspective and so on. A

Stan B. said...

It's about context guys, particularly in a country where half the people can't even find their own state on a map. OK, I made that part up (the truth is probably closer to 3/4).

When pictures of Obama in traditional African garb got thrown about as "proof" that he was every patriotic American's worse Muslim nightmare, you begin to get a sense of our bizarro parallel universe here.

Which reminds me, how come my link doesn't have any caps- who do I speak to about that?

colin pantall said...

I know stan, but Your context is the US, Hugo's is Nigeria and South Africa, although there is obviously an American element in there thanks to Yossi Milo.

The point is what counts as relevant and important in the US is different to what is relevant in Nigeria.

Strange fruit in Nigeria might be a strangely shaped banana, strange fruit in the US might be something altogether more horrific.

And Obama being identified as a muslim - is that racial or is that something else?

Stan B. said...

The original context is Africa, no doubt- but will the majority of his sales, publicity, and distribution occur there? We just had whites in black face impersonate the Jackson Five on Australian TV, and we know that racism is hardly dead in Europe. I'm speaking of where I know best, but it's hardly without global implication.

The Nollywood images may be perfectly innocent, complimentary and celebratory in Nigeria and other parts of Africa. But the racist connotations and symbolism in that particular imagery, no matter how naive or innocent the intent, can be found in scores of racist "literature" dating from slavery to the present here in the US, and beyond.

That is why some of us are concerned, and at least in this case, I think rightfully so...

colin pantall said...

There is that element in the Nollywood series - and there are sensitivities touched. So the pictures shouldn't be shown in the US? Or shouldn't be sold?

I think the representation of African-Americans is massively important, but this is the representation of Africans - and perhaps recognizing the difference is one step to overcoming racism.

You're saying the problem isn't with the images, the problem is the American perspectives of the pictures, lumping the pictures into one overwhelming US-Centric definition of race, just as the problem mentioned in the essay is talking about Africa as if it is one homogenous mass of peoples, races, religions, languages and skin colours.

But the pictures aren't about America - not from where I'm sitting or anyone else outside the US is sitting. Show these to people and ask them 'are they about America?' and the answer is no. They are about Africa, and quite specifically about Nigeria and they touch on the environment, urbanisation, wildlife, the African as viewer and viewed, the underclass and much, much more.

I think there is a problem in looking at the world/pictures through American eyes, especially when both the artist and where the work is made is not American.

Stan B. said...

No argument that I see these images (ie- Nollywood) through the eyes of an American (of color), just as there's no doubt that said images are a white man's representation of a segment of black Africa's "culture." Even if everyone in Africa was down with it, exporting them is a definite game changer, and a responsible artist should be able to acknowledge and address those concerns. I'm hardly screaming for censorship, but symbols are important, and can be misinterpreted and misused.

The inocuous and ancient life affirming symbol of the swastika was appropriated by those dedicated to death. And these pictures, if anything, are loaded with symbolism.

colin pantall said...

Absolutely - the key is making sure the pictures are read in an appropriate way (just as if you are in India, you read a swastika on a bajaj for waht it is) - and that might include the symbolism you talk of. For me the urban environment of the Hyena Men says a lot and in the Nollywood pictures, I see the repeated use of symbols, stereotypes and bad make up that reflects something of the Nigerian film industry and film as a whole. It also reveals an independent industry with mostly African viewers and points to that aspect of identity/fantasy/consumption.

On a completely but related topic, I watched King of Scotland on TV last night - and it was fascinating to see how you always need a white man to tell a black man's story.


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