Monday, May 4, 2009

white quotation of the week (binyavanga wainaina)

How Not to Write about Africa

Always use the word "Africa" or "Darkness" or "Safari" in your title. 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.

Throughout the book, adopt a sotto voice, in conspiracy with the reader, and a sad I-expected-so-much tone. Africa is to be pitied, to be pitied, to be pitied, worshiped or dominated. Whichever angle you take, be sure to leave the strong impression that without your intervention and your important book, Africa is doomed.

Make sure you show how Africans have music and rhythm deep in their souls, and eat things no other humans eat. Monkey brain is an African's cuisine of choice.

Establish early on that your liberalism is impeccable. Africa is the only continent you can love, because you care.

Your African characters may include naked warriors, loyal servants, diviners and seers. 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. Or he is an Oxford-educated intellectual turned serial-killing politician in a Savile Row suit.

You must always include The Starving African, who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked, and waits for the benevolence of the West. She can have no past, no history; such diversions ruin the dramatic moment.

Your hero is you, il faut partages, or a beautiful, tragic, international celebrity or aristocrat who now cares for animals. If fiction, describe in detail mutilated genitals, and dead bodies.

Remember, any work you submit in which people look filthy and miserable will be referred to as the "real Africa."

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. Never, ever say anything negative about an elephant or a gorilla.

Readers will be put off if you don't mention the light in Africa. The African sunset is a must.

You'll also need a nightclub called Tropicana, where mercenaries, evil nouveau riche, prostitutes, guerrillas, and expats hang out.

Always end your book with Nelson Mandela saying something about rainbows or renaissances.

Because you care.

That's Djimon Hounsou reading from the essay in a video produced for Bono's online magazine and music service, (RED)Wire. The full version of Binyavanga Wainaina's essay appeared in Granta. Wainaina himself offers further explanation of his essay in a three-part video that begins here.

Binyavanga Wainaina is a Kenyan author, journalist and winner of the Caine Prize for his short story "Discovering Home." He is the founding editor of the literary magazine Kwani?, and he has also written for The East African, National Geographic, The Sunday Times (South Africa), the New York Times and The Guardian (UK). In 2007, Wainaina was a Writer-in-Residence at Union College in Schenectady, New York, and he’s the newly appointed director of the Chinua Achebe Center for African Literature and Languages at Bard College.

[h/t: Jack Turner, Jack and Jill Politics; Renee also has a discussion of the video at Womanist Musings]


  1. "Animals, on the other hand, must be treated as well rounded, complex characters."

    huh? weird...

  2. Well, those lions in "The Lion King" and those elephants in "Dumbo" are a lot more well-rounded and complex than any human African characters that come to my mind in Western writing about Africa.

  3. yeah I know! people = mindless herd of many... animals = individuals that have traditions and rituals! it's bizarre the characteristics that some people choose to give to other people/animals...

    I was actually thinking of the Madagascar movies *rolls eyes*

  4. Gods, what a perfect narrator for this!

    Also posting to let you know, You got an award!

  5. I work with a man from Nigeria and I am learning much more about Africa (actually Nigeria, as Africa is a huge continent) than the National Geographics taught me as a child.

    Until recently I have been so clueless about most things outside of the U.S. I guess it's that wonderful education I received growing up in MN.:)

  6. When I came across the video it struck such a nerve with me. Even though I try to be very conscious in how I speak about people and places I know that my western privilege often influences my thoughts on Africa and its people. We all need to be more consciously aware.

  7. I had read this before. But this particular narration and video just makes it come alive. Wonderful!

  8. BTW, this piece illustrates so clearly why I am so loving "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" on HBO. I'm going to have to figure out a way to incorporate this video into my next post about the program!

  9. Ironic though that in the past, Bono has seen the citizens of Africa as helpless, he depends on the World Bank/Imf to sort it all out when he seems unaware that they make the countries obey strict guidelines in order to cancel debt. Here:

    Not to mention the other ignorant moves during Live 8:

  10. This site does bring up a lot of interesting points but I feel like you take pride categorizing "white people" into one lump sum, which in my opinion, is ignorant. I don't know if there is a blog called "Stuff Black People Do," but if there is, I would be just as disgusted. Racism still exists because of things like this. Because we all take such fun in pointing out differences. When are people just going to be looked at as PEOPLE. Not black, not white, just human. I understand where you are coming from, and the blog is entertaining but it's a double edged sword and maybe you should think about the shit you're writing. Ignorance is bliss, I guess. I can tell you're an intelligent person, I just don't understand why you don't filter the energy into something more positive?

  11. This post got me free-associating on Africa a little bit. My first thought upon reading this post was to poke at your point about Animals being treated as complex characters... taking issue with the idea that they (specifically elephants, whose society is fascinating and well documented) are not. But that wasn't really the point*. As an adult most of the reading I've done involving Africa has been by science writers, archeologists or editing the paper a friend of mine write following an internship with an organization that helps rural South Africans get the documentation they need from the government to get appropriate medical care. Most of his stories, that I remember, center around car trouble, farm life, and the universality of aggravating bureaucrats.

    It'd be interesting to hear your opinions (Macon, or anyone whose already read it) about a book of essays called "The Trouble with Testosterone" by stress researcher Robert Sapolsky, many of which are set in Africa (where he does field research on Baboons). I'd be interested in knowing what someone who is approaching the book (in particular the essays "Junk Food Monkeys", which is about landfills near wildlife, and "The Danger of Fallen Soufflés in the Developing World") from a non-stress reading perspective would see his portrayal of the Kenyan's he works with in the park where he does his research (and who later become subjects).

    About the idea that Africa is violent... Rwanda, Bosnia and the Green River Killer taught me that the most sickening acts of violence are committed by people who seem like you, like eachother, like nothing seperate or alarming. I've tended to assume that images depicting horrible events within Africa are necessary to wake the outside world up to specific atrocities that are too often and too easily written off by racist westerners who don't give a damn, but whose actions often create the conditions that incentivise violence (blood diamonds), or put money into the hands of local "bad guys".

    Books about Africa (not including stuff about Egypt/ancient Egypt) that I read as a kid include a picture bout about Aida, and a diary format book (sort of like Dear America) about a "princess" of a tribe in pre-colonial Angola. It'd be interesting to go back, figure out the titles of these books and look at them as an adult.

    *Totally unnecessary, but Dumbo isn't set in Africa, and elephants can also be from Asia.

  12. *applause*

    Wish I could somehow download this video onto virtual business cards that I could hand out whenever someone references a caricature of Africa (which, in MN, is pretty much every time an American mentions it, lol). Ties in nicely with your African homogenization post (and Chimamanda Adichie's video about the dangers of the "single story."). The bonus would be that I could counter ignorance @ low cost to me as a POC ::thumbs up:: (Adichie's run-in with her white, middle-class uni professor re: what = "authentically" African? Sooo familiar. Sigh.).

    The words are spot on. The fact that Djimon Hounsou narrates doesn't hurt, either. :o)

    Thank you for this blog. I've been reading. It's been helping me understand some of the encounters I've had in MN.


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