How to write about Africa

Binyavanga Wainai

(This came to me by email.)
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.
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
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 lib eralism 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.
Your African characters may include naked warriors, loyal servants,
diviners and seers, ancient wise men living in hermitic splendour. Or
corrupt politicians, inept polygamous travel-guides, and prostitutes
you have slept with. The Loyal Servant always behaves like a seven-
year-old and needs a firm hand; he is scared of snakes, good with
children, and alwa ys involving you in his complex domestic dramas.
The Ancient Wise Man always comes from a noble tribe (not the money-
grubbing tribes like the Gikuyu, the Igbo or the Shona). He has rheumy
eyes and is close to the Earth. The Modern African is a fat man who
steals and works in the visa office, refusing to give work permits to
qualified Westerners who really care about Africa. He is an enemy of
development, always using his government job to make it difficult for
pragmatic and good-hearted expats to set up NGOs or Legal Conservation
Areas. Or he is an Oxford-educated intellectual turned serial-killing
politician in a Savile Row suit. He is a cannibal who likes Cristal
champagne, and his mother is a rich witch-doctor who really runs the
Among your characters you must always include T he 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. Her children are all delinquent. These characters should buzz
around your main hero, making him look good. Your hero can teach them,
bathe them, feed them; he carries lots of babies and has seen Death.
Your hero is you (if reportage), or a beautiful, tragic international
celebrity/aristocrat who now cares for animals (if fiction).
Bad Western characters may include childre n of Tory cabinet
ministers, Afrikaners, employees of the World Bank. When talking about
exploitation by foreigners mention the Chinese and Indian traders.
Blame the West for Africa’s situation. But do not be too specific.
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.
Describe, in detail, naked breasts (young, old, conservative, recently
raped, big, small) or mutilated genitals, or enhanced genitals. Or any
kind of genitals. And dead bodies. Or, better, naked dead bodies. And
especially rotting naked dead bodies. Remember, any work you submit in
which people look filthy and miserable will be referred to as
the ‘real Africa’, and you want that on your dust jacket. Do not feel
queasy about this: you are trying to help them to get aid from the
West. The biggest taboo in writing about Africa is to describe or show
dead or suffering white people.
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. Big cats have public -school accents.
Hyenas are fair game and have vaguely Middle Eastern accents. Any
short Africans who live in the jungle or desert may be portrayed with
good humour (unless they are in conflict with an elephant or
chimpanzee or gorilla, in which case they are pure evil).
After celebrity activists and aid workers, conservationists are
Africa’s most important people. Do not offend them. You need them to
invite you to their 30,000-acre game ranch or ‘conservation area’, and
this is the only way you will get to interview the celebrity activist.
Often a book cover with a heroic-looking conservationist on it works
magic for sales. Anybody white, tanned and wearing khaki who once had
a pet antelope or a farm is a conservationist, one who is preserving
Africa’s rich heritage. When interviewing him or her, do not ask how
much funding they have; do not ask how much money they make off their
game. Never ask how much they pay their employees.
Readers will be put off if you don’t mention the light in Africa. And
sunsets, the African sunset is a must. It is always big and red. There
is always a big sky. Wide empty spaces and game are critical?Africa is
the Land of Wide Empty Spaces. When writing about the plight of flora
and fauna, make sure you mention that Africa is overpopulated. When
your main character is in a desert or jungle living with indigenous
peoples (anybody short) it is okay to mention that Africa has been
severely depopulated by Aids and War (use caps).
You’ll also need a nightclub called Tropicana, where mercenaries, evil
nouveau riche Africans and prostitutes and guerrillas and expats hang
Always end your book with Nelson Mandela saying something about
rainbows or renaissances. Because you care.

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