But Africa IS a Country
I recently came across this brilliant essay by Binyavanga Wainaina (first published in 2005):
Wainaina, a Kenyan writer, exposes the stereotypes and cliches used by non-Africans when writing about Africa. The entire article is a must-read, but here is an excerpt:
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.
After reading the article, my first response was to ask myself how much and how often I subscribe to these stereotypes of Africa in my own writing. I am certainly guilty of romanticizing our continent to those who have never been there and have used my token-status as the ‘exotic African’ among non-Africans to my advantage. After living abroad for many years, it also has become much easier to simply ignore the stereotypes or become complacent with them because they are so dominant. Outsiders just don’t understand.
This is one of the issues which puts anthropologists (the people who are supposed to study ‘other’ people ‘correctly’) in such a bind, and I must admit irks me greatly as I have written before. If you would like to see for yourself, there is a whole site dedicated to ‘the indigenous tribes of Africa’ in the most typical anthropological style. This is what anthropologists love to do — describe and document every aspect of people’s social and cultural existence, typically as outsiders. Admittedly we are not guilty of doing this only in Africa, but indigenous people (the most prized objects of research in the discipline) tend to be treated the same wherever they are found — South America, Australasia, Canada, Europe and the world over.
The often ignorant approaches used by the Western media in their coverage of all things Africa are all too familiar to many of us. They are not hard to find. I’ve come across some excellent cringe-worthy ones just this week. ‘Out of Africa, fashion’s new black’ was published in the Life and Style section of The Age newspaper. The article itself is about the ongoing Melbourne Fashion Festival, but in order to know that you must get past the opening paragraph which reads:
ANGELIQUE Deng was 12 when she arrived at Kakuma, the “hot and dusty” refugee camp in northern Kenya that would be her home for more than two years. Her real home was in Tonj, in south Sudan, where she lived with her parents and younger siblings until civil unrest forced them to flee. Her memories of Kakuma, which means “nowhere” in Swahili, are full of sadness, because it was here she watched her mother die. “I didn’t know what was happening. I thought she was just going to sleep,” she said. Her mother had been sick from a malarial infection.
In just these opening lines we have a big part of East Africa summarized for us: refugee camps, civil unrest, malaria, death, sadness and grief. How much bleaker can it possibly get?
Another stellar example was Newsweek’s review of the new television show The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency titled ‘Put on a Happy Face.’ You can read the review to see how the author questions the overly optimistic and escapist tone of the show, seeing that “there are no wailing babies with swollen bellies, no violent political uprisings and nary a hemorrhagic fever to be found.” We all know that Africa (Botswana in this case) couldn’t possibly be that great and is in fact ridden with HIV and infidelity as the author reminds us. A recent CNN video titled ‘African Albinos become prey’ (on the tragic killings of Albino children in Tanzania) is more characteristic of the narrative that often accompanies ‘deviant traditional practices,’ particularly ‘witchcraft’ which continues to be a popular stereotype associated with indigenous African peoples.
The challenge: how do we (as responsible writers, both African and non-African) present real stories and experiences that show the realities of the continent without perpetuating unrealistic and detrimental stereotypes? Africa is not as destitute, hopeless or ‘primitive’ as it is often portrayed to be, but at the same time not purely exotic and romantic. We need to find a good balance and design a more accurate image of our continent before we are sucked into all this negativity.