‘How to write about Africa’ by Binyavanga Wainaina

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.

Find the rest of this hilarious and cutting essay here.

About bulletsandhoney
I read my first book when I was three, then my second one a few weeks later. It has carried on this way for decades with only temporary distractions of eating, fighting, loving, heartbreak and other such irrelevant biographical details.

13 Responses to ‘How to write about Africa’ by Binyavanga Wainaina

  1. stonelifter says:

    hmmmm africa-land of monkey brains and ebola. it is most amusing but sad also that the guy has it right,show nothing in africa that the rest of the world can relate too but bare breasts and ak 47’s,those sell. and what do you mean africa is not one country?????

  2. Wanga says:

    sad but true. This happen to be the modus operator for most reporters. We must strive to re-educate the world and not pepetrate thiese stereotypes.

  3. Lilac says:

    Yeah. I came from a small redneck town and we only had one black family there. When I went to the city I faced the real deal and have a great story about my waitressing in Sambo’s in Phoenix…I hope you get a chance to read it sometime. I think it is called Cinderella now.

    Anyway, when I moved to Saudi Arabia…my whole worldview changed from fear to wonder. Here were all these different peoples from different countries. No two alike, different alphabets and foods, religions and personalities.

    Those were good times. I learned so much there.

    My husband has a Sudanese secretary in Saudi now. The guy came into his office and wanted to talk to him a month or so ago. He said that he generally didn’t talk about himself much and then handed my husband a book of poetry which he has written and autographed. My husband was dumbstruck that this guy was a published poet.

    He brought me the book and translated some of it…in Arabic of course. A great poet it seems who apparently wanted me to have his book only he didn’t know it was for me.

    Thanks for the essay, its great. Well worth the read.

  4. Lilac says:

    Great article. Thanks.

  5. MMK says:

    lilac – thanks for sharing. Who is this poet dude, do you have a name?

    wanga – good luck my friend. re-educating a world that sets great store and has an intense need of the idea of ‘Africa’ is no mean feat.

    stonelifter – indeed. Africa is an idea foremost more than it is a geographical location. When outsiders – and even some Africans in their political stance – state that it one country, they only confirm that it is a singular idea. And in that they are mostly, sadly, correct. Africa is both an explanation of a (depraved) condition and an affirmation (of a kind of racial, borderless pride). This is what my friend PK has to say: We rarely — ‘we’ being
    Africans — rarely ever debate our Africanness unless it is called into question. And the only occasions that happens are when we are in the glare of a global spotlight or the ‘globalising categories’ of war, poverty and general underdevelopment. It is then that we feel ourselves compelled to ‘represent’, which often amounts to the historical defence against charges that have the vague stink of noble savage attached to them.

    And it is then that the contradictions begin to emerge. The connotations of Africa as being a negative experience — either of slavery or colonialism or misrule and poverty — are ones that we implicitly buy into away from home — buy into as the only common category that we can relate to since we are all so strange to each other in the first place. Home is that place where you are too busy re-categorising yourself in smaller and smaller units in order to deal. And I(mmk) add to this that home is rarely the taking on of bigger units of identity, these are usually merely stances in opposition to other units (like whiteness) that are perceived to be in opposition to your local interests.

  6. plez... says:

    This is a DEEP blog. I wandered in here from a post on another blog and have been reading your past posts for over 3 hours now! Simply amazing.

    Being in America, we never see anything more than was covered in that essay. There is hardly ever a mention of different countries, different cultures. As a Black person, all I know is that my ancestors came from “Africa.” I don’t know the region, I don’t know the language they spoke, I know nothing of the culture they had to leave behind.

    Sadly, most of what was learned about Africa came from black & white Tarzan movies and Mutual of Omaha’s “Wild Kingdom” when I was a child. There are no courses in grade school or college about different countries or current events there. Just piles and piles of rubbish about how the “Dark Continent” is slowly being dragged into the 21st century.

    Your post was very eye-opening. Thanks.

  7. ciiku says:

    I think Binya’s piece is excellent, and I’ve done my best to circulate it as widely as possible. I think also that the discussions on Africanness on this post are useful. Your friend pk is right that we rarely ever debate our Africanness unless it is called into question. And as an Black woman living in an African country, engagaing with the West on a number of levels, I think that this will always be the case.

    My Afro-consciousness is never as great as when it encounters racial bigotry, but that isn’t something that I live with every day of my life. My woman-ness is, on the other hand, a different thing altogether. That is my primary identify. In a way, mmk, whatever else you have working against you as a black student in London, being male isn’t one of those things. Whatever else I have working for me as a black professional in Kenya, being female isn’t one of those things.

    So I can read and laugh and enjoy and identify with this post and the article by Binya, but perhaps not quite identify with the urgency and primacy you attach to the discussion of Africanness.

    So in response to the comment that “Home is that place where you are too busy re-categorising yourself in smaller and smaller units in order to deal”, I say that home is that place where your Africanness is the one identity that requires no defending, allowing you engage with your other identities. Not so much the smaller units, but in fact, the more primary.

    Afterall, the African condition (the way in which black people are viewed and treated), is universal everywhere except in Africa. The female condition? Now there’s something that’s truly universal.

  8. MMK says:

    ciiku – thanks for sharing. Are there other parts of your identity that clash with your woman-ness. Are there identities in you at odds with this one you identify as primary? And of what is woman-ness composed of, are its elements a matter of timeless consensus or evolution? Is there any form of contention within that identity?

  9. ciiku says:

    Womanness – the clearest definition i can think of right now, is that it is a consciousness of a state of enforced secondary-ness, or at the very least other-ness, much the same way being black or African is. Regardless of how this may come across, being a woman in a heavily patriarchal society isn’t in any way a negative experience. It is, nonetheless, an experience of numerous assumed or imposed deficiencies based on an artificial construct (sex as a condition of birth) rather than capacity or capability.

    Growing up as a member of various communities, the ground was littered with many clues to my female otherness, and I don’t think I missed any after I first began to see them. Interestingly, the acts were (still are) almost always committed by “well intentioned” people. My African (read black) identity only really became defined when I took up my place as a member of the global community, which wasn’t until a little later in life. And maybe it is rather pitiful that both these identities are only sharply defined when they interact with opposing forces.

    None of my other identities clashes with my primary one, but I do think that were I a member of an(Other) category, say by sexual orientation, this linearity of my many identities would be markedly different. The fact that I am not “different” by sexual orientation (lesbian or bi-sexual for example) frees me to engage with my womanness much the same way that being male (and therefore the more privileged sex) allows you to engage with Africaness as your primary identity.

  10. MMK says:

    Ciiku – ‘being a woman in a heavily patriarchal society’; ‘artificial construct (sex as a condition of birth)’; consciousness of a state of enforced secondary-ness, or…other-ness’; ‘black or African’;’linearity’. It boggles my mind how watertight is the case, the massive scale of the identity boudaries and the lack of internal tension between these categories and the life of an individual.

  11. alexcia says:

    Having spent considerable time reading and writing about africa, the article highlights the good and bad about prose and poetry about african.

    Essentially many lame works camouflage as art by sprinkling a random phrase here and ther from one of Wainaina’s word list.
    But I suppose his intended audience is not African…but is that more salt to the injury.

  12. amegon says:

    I guess all identities are constructed as opposed to another. I remember an Englishman telling me he felt very much European when visiting America. But he felt very much Anglo-saxon when visiting France. And that in any case, he felt very much united to any Western person when visiting Japan.

  13. alex says:

    Off subject… does anyone here know the meaning or qualities behind the first name of ‘Ciiku’? Thanx in advance. – John

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