Wednesday, June 20, 2007

"How to Write About Africa"

Here is an excellent piece from Granta on how people tend to write about Africa.

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 always 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 country.

I wish I could say I'm completely immune to the suggestions in the piece, but I'm not.

UPDATE/CLARIFICATION: The Granta piece is a satire. Several people have written me asking if I agree with the points. Being here now and reading that article, I understand perfectly what the author is talking about. I don't agree with everything, but I think the author is trying to make the point that Africa- the continent- is so diverse but many people approach it as if it were homogeneous and/or hopelessly tragic. The worst tends to come out of Africa in the media, but there are plenty of good things- things that us Westerners can identify with- you never hear about. Before coming to Angola, I was sure that I was stepping into a country full of land mines, war and Ebola, because that's all I could find about it before I arrived. Yes, those things are/have been problems, but there is much more that you never hear about. I think that's the point of the piece.

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