Binyavanga Wainaina on Westerners and Africa

Last month, Binyavanga Wainaina had some interesting thoughts on Westerners ideas of Africa in this interview on Speaking of Faith.

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…A lot of people arrive in Africa to assume that it’s a blank empty space and their goodwill and desire and guilt will fix it. And that to me is not any different from the first people who arrived and colonized us. This power, this power to help, is just about as dangerous as hard power, because very often it arrives with a kind of zeal that is assuming ‘I will do it. I will solve it for you. I will fix it for you,’ and it rides roughshod over your own best efforts.

From How To Write About Africa (Granta 92 2005)

Always use the word ‘Africa’ or ‘Darkness’ 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’. Note that ‘People’ means Africans who are not black, while ‘The People’ means black Africans.

Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress.

In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country…

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. Describe in detail 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.

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. Elephants are caring and are good feminists or dignified patriarchs. So are gorillas. Any short Africans who live in the jungle or desert may be portrayed with good humor (unless they are in conflict with an elephant or gorilla, in which case they are pure evil)."

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

Back to the interview:

…that precisely is the problem. That you need this kind of weird shock appeal so someone is like, ‘I’ve got to do something.’…there will be someone with a child just like that looking at you and telling you, ‘Click here and send a dollar.’ So you pay some guilt money. But then after a while, you’ve paid some guilt money, and next year you’ll need something more horrific to notice, because you get more and more numb the more and more horror you witness. So you have this campaign that’s going, you know. I don’t even know how much our GDP has fallen because of just the ubiquitous photographs of us looking like that. I don’t know for every dollar given in that way how many dollars of somebody wanted to invest in a business in Nairobi have gone away.

…And so the ethics of those pictures to me, I mean, really, I can’t tell you how much they are upsetting, because someone just keeps telling you the urgency of the situation. People in Darfur are dying. I’m like if you have to dehumanize people to that degree, for them to die, if it is that the Western audience is so inattentive to a possible genocide that that is what you have to do, don’t do anything. Leave us alone…

…if you want to talk about grassroots organizations that work and change a country, you go to India, because they pretty much do them themselves. And because they have really no shrift for the usual nonsense. And the thing about Africa is it may be that we are poorer or weaker somehow so people with the craziest ideas, I mean, things that they tell their cousins they want to do they’ll be like, "You’re crazy… you can do it and you can get money.’

Lots of other great stuff in this interview. (Click here for the full transcript.)

I think Utube has a couple of interviews of him too, but I haven’t watched them yet.

Just keeping myself honest.

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5 thoughts on “Binyavanga Wainaina on Westerners and Africa

  1. Jeremy Cook says:

    Hah! I did a google search for Wainaina’s email and guess what came up #2!??

    • Ben says:

      Interesting. I’m never sure how Google figures these things. As you can see, I really appreciated your link seriously. This was a great interview. The “How to Write about Africa” is bound is classic. Thanks again.

  2. Simon says:

    I was thinking more about this yesterday. The problem is that most caricature is based on at least a small degree of truth.

    While I know her effort was humorously slanted, I have struggled often to recount my experience without involving these cheap shots. I have struggled to not use these audience grabbing facets of life in Africa. Because tribalism, the sun, and social upheaval *are* present in Kenya. Is it anecdotal or degrading to talk about rain whenever I tell people about Seattle?

    So its a ‘damned if you do or if you dont’ situation. Because if you mention the latent strength of Africa or its serious problems, you’re profiteering by use caricature, and if you don’t mention it, you’re not wholely recounting what happened. Some days I’m so fraught with this concept that I am afraid to mention Kenya at all.

    Is it just as mundane and unimaginative to criticize the West for using caricature? Because I could use instead some imaginative suggestions to talk about Kenya with respect and love.

  3. Simon says:

    Edit: Oops, that last sentence came out wrong. I could use some suggestions on how to talk about Kenya without diving into these stereotypes, but upholding what I respect and love about it. Many people my age could; I meet people (with some regularity) who have been to Kenya.

  4. Ben says:

    I’ve gone through a couple of mental reiterations of a response…As you know, it’s been a topic that has come up several times on this blog. If you look under the category “Africa”, portrayals of Africa might even be the prevailing theme.

    Here are a few questions, I ask myself. What is the overall attitude of my audience towards Africa? What kind of overall impression of my experience in Africa are they getting? Am I reinforcing negative stereotypes? Am I portraying whites as saviors or potential saviors? Do I give the same balance of praise and critique that I give my own American society? Frankly, some audiences simply can’t handle complexity; for them, it has to be black and white, either/or.

    My rule of thumb–for American audiences that are already bombarded by negative images of Africa is more often to emphasize my positive experiences and impressions–which, for me far outnumber the frustrating ones. I’d rather live in this community than I would in the US. When I’m talking about a tough issue, I try to ask myself, how do my Kenyan friends feel about this portrayal?

    It also helps to understand the underlying reasons why things are the way they are. For caricatures involving people’s response to poverty I found the old classic “Blaming the Victim (1979?)” helpful. You mention tribalism. In my own experiences, Americans are no less tribalistic than Kenyans. Witness racism, or the shameful rhetoric surrounding politics, or even the ways some Christians talk about people from other denominations. The main difference is that America has had longer to develop the institutional infrastructure to reign in the gangs of thugs (and politicians who egg them on) who exploit it. Think about how America was during the “Wild West” days, or even during pre-civil rights era not even 50 years ago. We tend to have double standards.

    It’s hard to go wrong talking about your real friends which should include Kenyan stock brokers, PhD thinkers, pastors, pilots, entrepreneurs, etc.

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