“How to write about Africa” and “How to write about poor people”

In “How to write about Africa,” a classic satirical essay from Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina, the author pokes fun at those who recycle the same well-worn clichés about Africa, especially the portrayal of Africans as uncomplicated stock characters.

The following satirical “advice” for writing about Africa represents the tone of the essay pretty well:

Broad brushstrokes throughout are good. Avoid having the African characters laugh, or struggle to educate their kids, or just make do in mundane circumstances. Have them illuminate something about Europe or America in Africa. African characters should be colourful, exotic, larger than life-but empty inside, with no dialogue, no conflicts or resolutions in their stories, no depth or quirks to confuse the cause…

Read the rest of the piece, originally published in the literary mag Granta, here.

Over at Aid Watch, a blog which I recommended to you, humble reader, just yesterday, Bill Easterly has some satirical “advice” for anyone looking to write about the impoverished, particularly those in the developing world. A couple of suggestions from Bill and his readers are below:

  • Display pictures of poor children (alternatively women).
  • Don’t show pictures of poor men, who make your audience think of drunkards, wife-beaters, or janjaweed.
  • Assume that all poor people everywhere have the same interests and views on all subjects.
  • Write about the interests of the poor as entirely consistent with other good things, such as preserving the natural environment and fighting global warming.
  • Suggest specific answers that will end poverty in every possible situation, such as a package of microcredit, fertilizer subsidies, and a women’s handicraft cooperative.
  • It is not necessary to talk to any real poor people, they do not understand how to solve their problems anyway.
  • Suggest to the readers some demonstrative action that they can do to end poverty, such as wearing a white band on their wrist. How these actions affect global poverty does not have to be completely spelled out.

(It shouldn’t be necessary, but let me say this again: This. Is. Satire.) The lesson, if you haven’t caught it already, is that the world’s poorest people are still people, not merely vehicles for fundraising. Their problems are immeasurably complex and sometimes hopelessly intractable.

As travelers and as people who care about world poverty, we often do more harm than good when we spout off about people and problems we only think we understand.

For more, check out Part 1 and Part 2 of the hilarious but thought-provoking “How to write about poor people.”