How To Write About Africa

As the good folks at Boing Boing point out in this post, the article they reference here from Granta is not a new one. But it’s still a really excellent read. Or at least the excerpt is. What’s funny, is that I had this exact same notion recently when I was reading the newspaper. I realized that nearly every article I’d seen recently fulfilled some stereotype mentioned here. To wit: every picture I could recall had either an AK-47-toting soldier, skeletal children or tribesmen in it. Also, everyone of them seemed to refer to “Africa” as this singular entity. I am as guilty as the next person for holding on to these generalized notions of a whole continent, but it is true that the media are also to blame. How can we hold different perspectives when we are unable to consume different perspectives in our daily consumption of journalism? Anyway, I’m going to pull a part of the excerpt here from How to Write About Africa…an excerpt excerpt:

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. If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress.

In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. The continent is full of deserts, jungles, highlands, savannahs and many other things, but your reader doesn’t care about all that, so keep your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular.

Well worth a moment of self-reflection.