How to write about Africa

From Granta 92: The View From Africa:

John Ryle:

The mistake is to generalize. The very word Africa—that sonorous trisyllable—seems to invite grandiloquence. Because the continent has a clear geographical unity it is tempting to hold forth about it. Cecil Rhodes wanted to colour everything imperial red from the Cape to Cairo; since then the tendency has been for Westerners—and often Africans too—to seek to impose a single reality, a general explanation, on the whole place. So one newspaper report can say that ‘Africa has never been more dangerous, nor more ready to join the rest of the world’; another that ‘Africa is coming together, taking its fate into its own hands.’ Which Africa is being discussed in each case? Can Botswana, that haven of stability, be more dangerous than ever? Is Equatorial Guinea ready to join the rest of the world? Is the African Union ‘taking its fate into its own hands’?

Binyavanga Wainaina: How to write about Africa

some tips: sunsets and starvation are good.
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.

One comment

  1. Wainaina’s piece is hilarious, but sad that these cliches are all too pervasive in a lot of Western writing. Related to this, have you noticed the very pronounced difference between the photographs of India by Western tourists and those by Indian tourists? I should follow Wainaina’s lead and write about that sometime.

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