I was recently perusing back issues of the UK-based literary magazine Granta— yes, I lead a very busy life– and came across Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina’s wonderful essay “How to write about Africa”. In his satirical piece, Wainaina skewers clichéd travel tales about Africa, by offering advice for anyone looking to compose the stereotypical African travel essay:
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.
He also takes exception to the all-too-common portrayal of Africans themselves as uncomplicated stock characters, while animals are often depicted as complex and multi-dimensional:
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…
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.
Wainaina’s criticisms of travel writing about Africa certainly ring true, and he makes his point with a good deal of dry wit and panache. But there’s also a note of sadness in his critique, as he seems to plead with the rest of the world to feel something other than pity for Africa. He believes the continent is not just a hopeless monolith, but a place filled with real people and possibilities. That, it seems, is a message too often ignored.
Take a minute to check out Wainaina’s July ’07 Vanity Fair piece “Generation Kenya”
For the introduction to Granta 92: Africa (in which Wainaina’s piece is found), give this a look.