Monday, 6 December 2010

How to write about Africa

I just came across this fantastic satrical piece on cliches of Africa written by Binyavanga Wainain and published in Granta Magazine:

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.

Read the rest at Granta Magazine. 


  1. Great text, which reminds me of the movie "Das Fest des Huhns", it's really worth seeing it!

  2. If you hear the song, you'll get that it advocates Africa, which is asking for us to lend our eyes and ears to listen to their problems. Despite the sweet smiles during the World Cup, Africa wants other nations to help them in fighting diseases that are killing their citizens. Let the eyes of the world focus on the health of Africans. That's why it says "this time for Africa."

  3. Africa is place hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving, but as we said 20th century of Asia same said for 21st century of Africa. That is the reason world other developed and developing country doing investment their in health related programmed in other sector also.

  4. This will help spread the word about the desperate situation in Africa. People in Africa needs to have better access to even the most basic health care.

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  5. I greatly enjoyed Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible, not least because it is very temporally specific. I'm not sure if she got the details right, and it is from the perspectives of a bunch of white Americans, but the world doesn't feel *mushy* to me.
    My favorite new satire, The Book of Mormon, tackles this trope semi-explicitly - in one of the songs, the 19-year-old white Mormons sing about how they are Africa. It is appalling, and right on the nose of 99% of narratives I've seen/read...!!

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