Monday, May 01, 2006

On Writing About Africa

The flaws in Western writing on Africa are not hard to find, and are often bizarrely consistent. For example, Wendy Belcher wrote in Salon how nearly every travelogue on Africa begins on an airplane. Others have noticed how there are usually more animals than people, how Africans can never seem to help themselves, how they just can’t see things the right way. But now Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina, editor of the literary magazine Kwani?, has offered a biting summary of shallow Western “impressions” that pass for insights. In a new Granta story How to Write About Africa, the Caine Prize winner advises writers to “Always use the word ‘Africa,’ ‘Darkness’ or ‘Safari’ in your title. Subtitles may include the words ‘Zanzibar’, ‘Masai’, ‘Zulu’, ‘Zambezi’, ‘Congo’, ‘Nile’, ‘Big’, ‘Sky’, ‘Shadow’, ‘Drum’, ‘Sun’ or ‘Bygone’.” When profiling Western conservationists, Wainaina cautions, “Never ask how much they pay their employees,” and notes that “African characters should be colorful, exotic, larger than life—but empty inside,” while “Animals, on the other hand, must be treated as well rounded, complex characters.” More complex, at any rate, than some travel writers. Kapuściński traveled all over Africa, and even to Latin America. Not satisfied with the short news dispatches he had to telex home, he also wrote longer pieces to be published later, which helped establish him as one of the best of the new writers using the tools of literature to illuminate their travels. And the things Kapuściński saw lent themselves to this well: He was thrown in jail, he heard Prime Minister of the Congo Patrice Lumumba speak before he was assassinated and he was almost burned to death by angry mobs in Nigeria. The tales are mythic, but it is his eye for the details of life that give The Soccer War its richness. “The so-called exotic has never fascinated me,” he wrote, “even though I came to spend more than a dozen years in a world that is exotic by definition. I did not write about hunting crocodiles or head hunters, although I admit they are interesting subjects. I discovered instead a different reality.” Elsewhere, amid the war and struggle and corruption, Kapuściński finds that, “There is so much crap in the world, and then, suddenly, there is honesty and humanity.” While the famous Naipaulian arrogance is evident here, Shiva also had a gift for the absurd details that make his harshest observations funny and compassionate and even moving. Today we can see that much of what he encountered is still relevant, and that his question back then was the right one: The gap was, and still is, wide indeed. But in the end, it is the dialogue he captured, the descriptions he rendered and the people he met that make this one of the best travel books of all time.

1 comment:

Vessel of Mercy said...

really enjoyed reading this piece. The damage done in the portrayal of Africans by non Africans is enormous.