[updated 2014] Every once in a while I bump into a certain article (How to Write About Africa), and I recently got pinged with the url to yet another reincarnation of it… I’m taking this as a sign that I should finally blog about this topic…
Now I could get squished by the sheer weight of the entire topic, so instead I’m just going to nibble at the edges of it and leave the heavy lifting to the masters like Binyavanga Wainaina (the original author, pictured at left). Here goes…
I had a recent conversation about the use of the word exotic (and it does pop up, ever so subtly, just the once, in the HtWAA text), and why it can piss off so many <begin-western-phrasing>ethnic minorities</end-western-phrasing>. It’s mainly because it’s acquired some other baggage, which baggage isn’t immediately obvious to well-meaning people who “slip-up” and describe someone as “exotic”.
While many peoples in different parts of the world have not escaped the “exoticism” of the West – and here I have to say that there are quite a few cultures and ethnicities whose pasts have been sufficiently trashed by the biological antecedents of (usually) these same Westerners that they’ve adopted a coping mechanism of self-exoticisation as a way of reclaiming a sense of identity/nationhood… but I digress – while several people toss and turn daily under the scratchy blanket of exoticism that colonists initially threw over the rest of the world, in Africa the extra precaution of itching powder was sifted into the folds to ensure that we would be thoroughly irritated, forever.
That extra bit of irritation goes by the name of perpetual historicisation.
So I will add to Wainaina’s masterpiece that, if you will write about Africans, the exoticism that he has already outlined for you will not suffice for a truly pedigree bit of journalism.
You must take the extra precautions of historicising your Africans: they should be guided by only the most primitive of instincts; the avenues of scientific (or hell, even rational) inquiry should not only be foreign to them but lost on them.
There shall be no computers, laptops, game consoles or GPS devices in the vicinity of your African and if there is, you must re-iterate their lack of interest or inability with the same. If you can, do a photo shoot with the shabbiest people in the shabbiest surroundings using a nice clean laptop – this will reiterate to the reader that technology really is out of place near Africans, but that this new movement/organisation you’re writing about is going to change all that.
In a similar vein, avoid pictures of bank towers, traders at the stock exchange, business women / businessmen undertaking commercial activities. Avoid any mention of the digital underpinnings of modern commerce (microfinance and banking via cellphones is allowed, because others have already exoticised this meme for you and it is therefore ready for use in your written masterpiece).
Last but not least, don’t mess with the first commandment of historicisation: No empowered Africans in sci-fi.
Should you find that you’ve broken the first commandment of historicisation, and still want your writing to hit the bestseller list, then I suggest you find all the references to technology and futurist gadgets in your tome, and replace them immediately with references to voodoo and magic. Your reader must be made to understand that voodoo and magic are the only ways in which an African can make sense of their world – even if that world is set a trillion years in the future.
Happy writing, and I hope your tongue is lodged firmly in one cheek!
ps: the title of this post is my favorite line from the how to write about africa text. :o)
image cred: wikipedia.