Review: How to write about Africa by Binyavanga Wainaina

7 Jun

(Read this essay here)

Binyavanga Wainaina is a Kenyan writer. He won the 2002 Caine Prize for his short story “Discovering Home”. He is the founding editor of Kwani? (So What?), a literary magazine.

This is a satirical essay about the common prejudices held by foreigners or non Africans (who write books) about Africa. According to them, “Real Africa” is where it is “hot and steamy”, with “thin people who are starving”, their “prominent ribs” showing, waiting for food from the West. Much of Africa’s plight is brought to light: the landscape, the tribal practices (FGM), corruption, name it. Africans are helpless, only other people can right things; the West is Africa’s Messiah.

No wonder anyone who wishes to publish a book about Africa(to raise awareness) must interview the conservationist, the people on the ground, who have lived from first hand, the African experience. These people are to be found in their “30,000 acre game ranch or conservation area”, but one must not make the mistake of asking them how much they pay their labourers.

Wainaina offers advice of how to increase sales: mentioning the light in Africa, the sunset, having a photo of “a heroic looking conservationalist” on the front cover, describing how one has come to love Africa, and cannot live without her etc.

This essay makes for some awesome read, lots of laughter and much thought.

It made me remember the first time I interacted with non-Africans and the questions they asked: if I had a pet lion, whether there are leopards on the streets, if I had ever ridden an elephant and whether I had met so-and-so who lives in Congo(I am Kenyan). For them, Africa is one country, teeming with game, with wide open spaces lots of heat, and  all manner of diseases.

I could see the incredulous faces as I explained the cold mornings (numb fingers, teeth chattering) going to school on a July morning in the highlands.

For sure, I have only seen lions, leopards and elephants in the game reserves and parks. Not in the backyard, and certainly not in the streets.  There are no tigers in Africa, thank you very much. Even a five-year old boy could tell you as much.

Oh, Africa!

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