Oh Africa

Simple rules in writing about the dark Zulu.


Binyavanga Wainaina | April 2006 issue

Always use the word “dark” or “safari” in your title. Subtitles may include the words “Zanzibar,” “Masai,” “Zulu,” “Zambezi,” “Congo,” “Nile,” “big,” “sky,” “shadow,” “drum,” “sun” or “bygone.” Also useful are words such as “guerrillas,” “timeless,” “primordial” and “tribal.”

Never show a healthy, happy African on the cover of your book unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts— use these. 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 non-specific.

Make sure you show how Africans have music and rhythm deep in their souls, and eat things no other humans eat. Do not mention rice and beef and wheat; monkey brain is Africans’ cuisine of choice, along with goat, snake, worms and grubs. Make sure readers know you are able to eat such food without flinching, and describe how you learn to enjoy it—because you care.

Taboo subjects: ordinary domestic scenes, love between Africans (unless a death is involved), references to African writers or intellectuals, mention of school-going children who are not suffering with yaws or Ebola fever or female genital mutilation.

Your African characters may include naked warriors, loyal servants, diviners and seers, ancient wise men living in hermitic splendour. Or corrupt politicians, inept polygamous travel guides, and prostitutes you have slept with. The Ancient Wise Man always comes from a noble tribe. He has rheumy eyes and is close to the Earth. The Modern African is a fat man who steals and works in the visa office, refusing to give work permits to qualified Westerners who really care about Africa.

Among your characters you must always include The Starving African, who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked and waits for the benevolence of the West. Her children have flies on their eyelids and pot bellies, and her breasts are flat and empty. She must look utterly helpless. She can have no past, no history; such diversions ruin the dramatic moment. Moans are good. She must never say anything about herself in the dialogue except to speak of her (unspeakable) suffering. Your hero is you (if you’re writing journalism), or a beautiful, tragic international celebrity/aristocrat who now cares for animals (if you’re writing fiction).

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.

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.

Always end your book with Nelson Mandela saying something about rainbows or renaissances. Because you care.

Binyavanga Wainaina is a Kenyan playwright, fiction writer and founder of the well-received African literary magazine Kwani?.

Taken and adapted from Granta (issue 92, “The View from Africa,” winter 2005), the British literary magazine, www.granta.com.

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