How to Write About Africa is a satirical essay by the Kenyan writer, activist and wit, Binyavanga Wainaina. It’s an interesting and illuminating read – a perfect antidote to the colonial narrative.
The essay was published in Granta in 2006.
Wainaina died in May 2019 aged just 48.
Here’s an extract from How to Write About 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.
Describe, in detail, naked breasts (young, old, conservative, recently raped, big, small) or mutilated genitals, or enhanced genitals. Or any kind of genitals. And dead bodies. Or, better, naked dead bodies. And especially rotting naked dead bodies. Remember, any work you submit in which people look filthy and miserable will be referred to as the ‘real Africa’, and you want that on your dust jacket. Do not feel queasy about this: you are trying to help them to get aid from the West. The biggest taboo in writing about Africa is to describe or show dead or suffering white people.
Animals, on the other hand, must be treated as well rounded, complex characters. They speak (or grunt while tossing their manes proudly) and have names, ambitions and desires. They also have family values: see how lions teach their children? Elephants are caring, and are good feminists or dignified patriarchs. So are gorillas. Never, ever say anything negative about an elephant or a gorilla. Elephants may attack people’s property, destroy their crops, and even kill them. Always take the side of the elephant. Big cats have public-school accents. Hyenas are fair game and have vaguely Middle Eastern accents. Any short Africans who live in the jungle or desert may be portrayed with good humour (unless they are in conflict with an elephant or chimpanzee or gorilla, in which case they are pure evil).
I’m speaking on Decolonising Culture at The Royal Academy in October 2019. I feel as though I should set How to Write About Africa on the reading lists for all attendees.
I might instead settle for Chinua Achebe‘s equally acerbic:
“Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”
Perhaps, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‘s:
“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”