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Part 1 "How to Write About Africa"

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Anna Boicken

on 20 October 2015

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Transcript of Part 1 "How to Write About Africa"

Remembering Binyavanga Wainaina
Understanding the Root of the Problem
Taking a Look Back
My Advice --
How to Write About Africa

Preconceptions and Misconceptions
What are our preconceptions shaped by?
If you take a look at these Google image searches, you can see how “Africa” and “Africans” have taken on a restrictive identity.

Bearak, Barry. "Why People Still Starve." The New York Times.
The New York Times, 12 July 2003. Web. 25 July 2014. <http://www.nytimes.com/2003/07/13/magazine/13AFRICA.html?module=Search&mabReward=relbias%3Ar%2C%5B%22RI%3A5%22%2C%22RI%3A16%22%5D>.

Molefe, T. O. "South Africa’s World Cup Illusions." The New
York Times. The New York Times, 24 June 2014. Web. 25 July 2014. <http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/25/opinion/molefe-south-africas-world-cup-illusions.html?_r=0>.

Wainaina, Binyavanga. 2005. "How to Write About Africa. Some
Tips: Sunsets and Starvations are Good" Granta no. 92:91-97. http://www.granta.com/Magazine/92/How-to-Write-about-Africa/Page-1
The preconception experiment was tested on 45 individuals. With a time limit of one minute, each individual was asked to silently write down any words they thought of in association to 1. Africa 2. Africans 3. African men 4. African women and 5. African children.


Africa – The continent of Africa was associated with words such as “desert”, “wildlife”, “safari”, “war-torn”, “underdeveloped”, “third-world”, “slavery”, “poverty”, and “exotic.”

Africans – Africans are described in a variety of forms –“smart”, “religious”, “athletic”, “passionate”, “strong”, “hard-working”, and “beautiful.” Many make reference to “traditions”, “dancing”, “slavery”, “tribes”, “apartheid”, “culture wars” and some, but not all generalize by dark skin.

African men – Stereotypes of African men exemplify them as “fathers”, “fighters”, “leaders”, “violent”, “controlling”, and “hard-working”. For those with personal experiences, they describe men by their kindness and respectfulness.

African women – Other than being a mother and having domestic duties, generalizations about African women are wide-ranged. Some write “covered up” while others write “naked”. Some participants see them as “care-takers”, “struggling”, second tier and “submissive” to men, while others see them as “driven”, “strong-minded”, “providers”, and “loving”. Many are thought of by their appearance such as “carrying baskets”, having “water jugs on their heads”, and wearing “head wraps”.

African children – Preconceptions show children are like all others in the world—"fun", “innocent”, “playful”—but most are also “hungry”, “poor”, “orphans”, and lack education.

While some of these preconceptions are true reflections of reality in certain places, they do not reflect the entirety of Africa as a whole. Africa is too complex of a place to be confined and limited by a few choice words.

Several of the test subjects pointed out in post-survey reflections instances in which the media or personal experience has influenced them. For example, one man said he drew from the scenes of movies, while another discussed the information he had learned from a neighbor, and yet another recalled information he’d seen on the news ranging from foreign affairs to the most recent happenings at the FIFA World Cup. One of the reflections that struck me the most was when a female respondent talked about how her friend’s mother, Nigerian born, does not want to bring her daughter to Africa because of its dangerousness. I thought it interesting that her friend’s mother did not just want to bring her daughter back to her home country, Nigeria, but was fearful of the entire continent.

As a media news outlet, the Times should be careful of their word choices and the stories they choose to publish because such actions motivate the thoughts, choices, stereotypes, and yes, the preconceptions that have thus far been explored.

Binyavanga Wainaina’s “How to Write About Africa”, the inspiration behind my updated guidance, highlights the preconceptions and clichés shrouding Africa and its people that Western writers and readers cling to.

“How to Write About Africa” points out the problematic character of many of these representations which often treat this immensely diverse continent as if it is a homogenous country. Its strong dosage of irony and sarcasm expose the Western tendencies to judge Africa and African people. The following are a few powerful quotes reflecting the ineptness of some journalism:

• “‘People’ means Africans who are not black, while ‘The People’ means black Africans”
• “Treat Africa as if it were one country”
• “Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions”
• “Avoid having the African characters laugh, or struggle to educate their kids, or just make do in mundane circumstances”
• “African characters should only exist so that they can 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…”
• “Always end your book with Nelson Mandela saying something about rainbows or renaissances. Because you care.”

Here are some past articles that demonstrate Wainaina’s argument.

1. “Why People Still Starve” by Barry Bearak
This article, analyzed by Professor Robin Turner and my colleague Emma Huening, presents one narrative in depth focusing on hunger and poverty in Africa. It portrays the “Starving African” making us pity African people, and want to do something to help because they lack food and security, they eat bugs and anything they can find, and live with their only goal of survival. According to Turner, he fails to acknowledge that “neither hunger nor famine are specifically African phenomena.”

2. “World Cup Impact on Africa” by T.O. Molefe
Another colleague of mine, Andrew Carlburg, discovered this article and points out instances of when the author’s writing is very stereotypical such as when he suggests black, impoverished people care more about soccer than the wealthy, white inhabitants. "Football in South Africa is seen as a black sport which it is to a large extent (in the country’s media or at matches), despite a long and deep history of football among some white South Africans."

After looking at this evidence, you should heed to the following advice. Leaf out ignorance. Continue up the tree.

1. Provide cultural context and framework.
Africa is not a country; it is a continent. There are many different nations and communities in Africa that have different lifestyles, social practices, histories, and problems. It is important to emphasize the differences of these regions instead of using generalizations that imply certain aspects about the entire continent.

I have to wonder how Africa can be confined to such large generalizations when different regions often reflect polar opposite features. For example, the South is comprised primarily of Christians and the North of Muslims. The northern half has language families that are predominately Afro-Asiatic and the southern half, predominately Niger-Congo/Con-Kordofanian. Breaking down the country even further, no country is guided by the same principles or share the same characteristics. For instance, Nigeria has passed laws against same sex marriage, while South Africa recently promoted a service announcement showing their support and acceptance of it.

2. When discussing a specific community, movement, or threat that faces a group in Africa; provide a framework for your reader so they can better understand the people who are affected.
Ask what kind of lives they lead? How are their unique ways of life being affected by your story? Pay special attention to the details and the diversity of Africans of different nationalities, groups, etc.

Though people may face similar situations, don't assume they are exactly the same. Though both Senegalese and South African women are confronted with gender equality issues, the problem originates from different sources, i.e. religion, familial dynamics, and societal hierarchy.

3. Don’t overuse buzz words
like: tribal, nomadic, poverty stricken, war torn, starving etc. It’s true that there are instances where words such as these are accurate descriptions, but the buzz associated with them generates a very stereotypical picture such as that of the “starving African child” with protruding ribs and sad eyes. We have developed a calloused reaction to such buzz which has generated less and less interest in these plights. It’s in the best interest not only for your story, but also for the people involved if you can paint the picture with more detailed and individualized touches.

4. Focus on the achievements and celebrations equally with the tragedies and plights.
Western media tends to portray a very one-sided story where the bad outweighs the good the continent has achieved. The entire continent of Africa is not engulfed in turmoil and danger like many have been led to believe. There are 54 countries, some of which are very safe. Writers should show focus on achievements and celebrations; they should not patronize, and always be genuine.

5. Don’t let your stories fall to orientalism and exoticism.
Just because Africa is distant and unfamiliar does not mean it should be romanticized or dramatized for the purpose of sensationalism. Cut out the sensation. Be a writer, not a flashy showman. Connect with readers using good journalism and straight facts.
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