Last month, Binyavanga Wainaina had some interesting thoughts on Westerners ideas of Africa in this interview on Speaking of Faith.
…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.
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.’
I think Utube has a couple of interviews of him too, but I haven’t watched them yet.
Just keeping myself honest.