How to Write About Africa -Binyavanga Wainana

I’ll be honest. I’ve never read a short story collection this short. It was only three stories long, and fit on 48-A6 size pages.  In general, a forty minute read worth of tongue-in-cheek reflection about Africa and the people who write about Africa or want to be a part of it.

Two of the stories are by Caine Prize Winner Binyavanga Wainana. The title story “How to Write About Africa” is a satirical but potent critique on how popular media writes about Africa.
He takes low swipes at the colloquial language that many writers use when describing what Africa is.

He starts the well informed wit by declaring , “Always use the word ‘Africa’, or ‘Darkness’ or ‘Safari’ in your title” summing up the narrow understanding of many when it comes to writing about Africa. A theme that runs through the short story is the apparent distinction between real black Africans and non-black Africans. Wainana notes that when referring to black Africans, simply use ‘people’, however when referring to non-black Africans, say ‘the people’. The device seems minimalistic but says a lot about how classes and racial stereotypes are perpetuated.

The stereotypes that he brings to note are numerous. For example, Africa cuisine consists of monkey brain and not rice and beef; Africa is one large country and not many countries in a continent; Africa is worth romanticizing but not deeply thinking about. She is a land of naked breasts and rotting bodies. A beautiful land with many red sunsets but plagued with HIV/AIDS, war and famine. Africa is in need of the writers wisdom and is to be doomed if the writer doesn’t intervene or write this book.

He also talks about characters when writing about Africa. The mindless loyal servant, the Ancient wise man who only comes from specific tribes, the modern African who is highly educated and works a government job which he uses either to keep white people out or to enrich himself. You can clearly see how Wainana has shown the boxes Africa and her people have been put in. You must fit characters in these boxes for your book to be considered about Africa.

What is indeed laughable and embarrassing is how animals are to be taken more seriously than people. ‘Nothing bad must be said about elephants or gorillas’. In fact animals must be more human in your story than the African native. The other persons more important than animals comprise celebrity activists, aid workers and conservations, after all Africa must be helped. And if you don’t finish your book with a reference to Mandela or rebirth or rainbows, you have failed to write about Africa.

All three stories are written humorously and the next one ‘My Clan KC’ continues to address some of the issues brought alive in the first story, particularly black Africans vis a vis non-black Africans. This story highlights the elitist culture of the white Kenyan whose ‘clan’ is so close knit and exclusive that even other white people do not just get in.

Wainana’s second story, and the book’s final story is called ‘Power of Love’. It’s an indictment of the fickleness and Africa-saving airs of the West. Basing on a popular song, he highlights the kind of ‘love’ for Africa that once in a while gets emotive reactions from the world, appears highly self-sacrificing and generous and makes the African seems like a helpless orphan with hands stretched out for help. One passage that puts all this in context is this “Last year I met a lovely young woman from England, all of 19, who came all the way to Naivasha, to a specific location very near a lovely lake, next to her boyfriend’s father. But these were not her concern. She was in Kenya to teach the people of some peri-urban location how to use a condom.”

You feel Wainana’s anger in his humour as he continues to expand on the issue he highlighted in his first story about how Africa’s most important people are celebrity activists, aid workers and conservationists. The fact that when a pop-star or conservationist garners attention on the basis of Africa, receives numerous amount of assistance to go live in Africa expensively as they try to fix some African issue, the world interprets it as love.

The collection asks some very hard questions while taking no prisoners. Do you know Africa? Or are you stereotyping it?

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