Binyavanga Wainaina on “How to write about Africa”

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.

Posted by | Comments (7)  | October 12, 2007
Category: Notes from the collective travel mind

7 Responses to “Binyavanga Wainaina on “How to write about Africa””

  1. Eva Says:

    Classic essay! It’s always good to keep this one in mind, I think. It’s amazing how easy it is to get sucked into the cliches of “Africa” even when you think you’ve been enlightened on the subject.

  2. POTASH Says:

    How to write about Africa has been so well received it has become spam on the internet.

    I like most of the essays Binyavanga and his fellow Kenyan writers are putting out as a reaction to the Kenyan Political Crisis. They are being run on the Kwani?- the Nairobi based journal Binyavanga edits- blog.

  3. amugasha kalengeka Says:

    For the first that I have read Binyavanga Wainaina. I have found him brilliant and untouchable of writers. I wonder why it took me long to discover such a brain. HOW TO WRITE ABOUT AFRICA is such a witty piece that any reasonable raeder cannot fail to appraise.As they say, “You Rock !”

    Student of journalism Masinde Muliro University

  4. Joseph Ombati Says:

    a good comment and africa needs to be represented appropriately

  5. Ndoriah Says:

    How to write about Africa II – The Revenge

  6. Everett Shiverenje Igobwa Says:

    A Response to Binyavanga Wainaina’s “How to Write About Africa” by Everett Shiverenje Igobwa Post-Doctoral Fellow, Carleton University, Canada, 2007

    In “How to Write About Africa,” Binyavanga Wainaina a renowned Kenyan journalist and writer explicitly presents the numerous ways in which Africa is incorrectly interpreted and represented; simultaneously, he implicitly educates the reader on the guidelines one should adhere to in order to judiciously render Africa in one’s writing and in general. Wainaina ascribes eight attitudes to the erroneous misrepresentation and skewed perception of Africa by the majority of media sources, which can be identified as ethnocentric, Eurocentric, ignorant, racist, problematic, helpless, hopeless and generalized. In this satire on how one should “correctly” go about writing on Africa, the use of a problematic voice is conspicuous. African people are deemed as being solely involved in periods of starvation, warfare or emigration. Wainaina is ultimately rejecting the way in which Africa is presented as ubiquitously conflict-ridden while positive efforts and occurrences of the continent are for the most part neglected. The problematic tone is in fact a myopic perspective of Africa; despite conflicts in certain countries, there exist positive innovations and occurrences economically, politically and socially on the part of Africans which fail to be reported. So, Wainaina mocks the problematic tone often used when representing Africa while writing in this satirical manner.

    In summary, Africa is thus presented under the rubric of the 3Cs namely Crisis, Conflict and Catastrophe. Similarly, Wainaina addresses the way in which Africa is represented as a helpless, dependent continent, always in need of assistance. He states, “Africa is to be pitied…be sure to leave the strong impression that without your intervention and your important book, Africa is doomed.” Wainaina “advises” the use of certain characters in one’s book, including “The Starving African,” who must be presented as “utterly helpless.” Moreover, it is suggested that these “helpless” characters flock to one’s central hero, who proceeds to “teach them, bathe them and feed them.” Often, Africa is presented as a dependent, needy continent; Wainaina no doubt has grievances with this media interpretation through misrepresentation, most likely because Africa has, since pre- colonial times, established its own sense of autonomy and self-reliance through trade routes and even through artistic mediums.

    Wainaina emphasizes, then, that the notion of “helpless Africa” is in fact entirely specious, irrelevant and a purely ignorant standpoint. Perhaps the most apparent tone of writing taken by Wainaina in his satirical advisory is that of representing a generalized, stereotypical Africa and African people. It almost seems as if he is poking fun at the ridiculous generalizations and homogenization often made about Africa, as he blatantly states, “In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country…Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions.” Wainaina also addresses the stereotyped African roles that are presented by many media sources, such as “The Loyal Page 1Servant,” “The Ancient Wise Man,” “The Modern African” and “The Starving African;” he disapproves of the misconception that all Africans fit into one of these categories. Wainaina, to further emphasize the generalizations and stereotypes ascribed to Africa, states at the end of his article, “the African sunset is a must. It is always big and red. There is always a big sky.” This puerile description embodies Wainaina’s dislike for the delusion of Africa as singular and homogenous, when Africa is in truth a vastly diverse continent, heterogeneous, in every imaginable way, from its environments, climate religions, people, cultures, education systems, music traditions and political institutions. To deny Africa’s unique nature is to submit to an outdated ignorance and a primordial paradigm that must be eradicated, as Wainaina subtly implies.

    Ultimately, Wainaina is advocating both a literary and general reform to the interpretation of Africa. No longer should problematic, helpless and generalized viewpoints be employed when writing of Africa; such perspectives hold absolutely no validity when Africa has in fact always been unified, diverse and independent in so many respects since time immemorial. Wainaina implicitly advocates these notions through his effective use of satire in his piece. In a very innovative manner, he communicates what must be avoided when writing about Africa while intentionally exhibiting those same errors himself; perhaps such measures are taken so that the reader may directly behold and comprehend the imprudence of presenting Africa in such a light.

  7. katumusiime jacob Says:

    Really Africa’s pride lies in the hands of the wainanas who decide to carry the whole load on their backs without fear or favour, without tear or fever.