So You Want to Write on Africa…

So You Want to Write on Africa…

by Conor Godfrey on March 17, 2011

I was going to continue exploring why some people, or states, support pariah regimes (this time with a more sympathetic view towards the supporters), but I was side tracked by a wonderful article from GRANTA magazine entitled “How to Write About Africa”. (The article is actually from a while back)

Please read it. It is not so long, and it will make you laugh, and maybe cry a little on the inside.

“How to Write About Africa” is a spoof how-to for would be journalists or novelists writing on Africa.

It offers advice like; “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.”

These are taboos; “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”.

One last excerpt.

After forbidding would-be writers to discuss normal African family life or run-of-the mill dreams and ambitions, the author states that…”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.”

You get the idea.

In the last few years I think serious journalists have begun to realize their Africa play book was not only out of date; it was absurd.

African authors, inventors, artists and other public figures have brought actual African perspectives to the fore, and BBC and RFI programs on Africa now routinely feature African commentators. From time to time BBCs African perspective podcast is quite good.

I remember the first time an African-American friend of mine took me through Disney movies and pointed out how all the lazy, slovenly but good natured characters with bad diction had southern African American accents, all the hyper, overly risky and violent prone characters had Latin American accents, and suspicious, shifty eyed traders inevitably sounded Middle Eastern.

I wondered how my entire childhood this blatant negative stereotyping escaped me….

(By the way- Disney heard this criticism loud and clear, their modern stuff has been much better. But if you haven’t been given this tour, go back and check out the classics like Jungle Book, Dumbo, Aristocats, Aladdin, the Little Mermaid…you will cringe.)

I get that same feeling now when I read articles on Africa that fit the GRANTA piece’s spoof advice.

But Africa writing has come a long way in the last five or so years…

This is what New York Times writing on health looked like in 2004.

This is the tone of 2010.

This is what an article on African education looked like in 2004.

This is what it looked like in 2010.

I am obviously cherry-picking from hundreds of articles, but in my opinion these are reasonably representative samples.

When you read the 2004 pieces you might say- “well how can someone talk about this awful situation, be it health or education, in a positive way?”

That is not the journalist’s job. The state of health and education in many African countries was, and still is, in need of serious work.

But in 2004 the journalists rolled around and wallowed in the helplessness and misery of it all.

The 2010 pieces touched on the barriers to health and education, and then went on to evaluate what people are doing about it.

In other words, I am not asking that people write only positive articles about Africa, simply that they use the same intellectual and investigative tools that they apply to other regions of the world.

A nuanced description of the problem- a 3d portrait of some of the people it affects—a briefing on the obstacles—and an overview of how people/institutions are dealing with it.

Spare me the wallowing.

As always, I am exempting the horrible situations in some conflict zones where misery over-rides other aspects of life. These are, thankfully, few and far between.