How to Write About Africa- Modern Authors Still Don’t Know

25 Jan

After reading “How to Write About Africa” I was reminded of two pieces I read earlier this week. The first is a Huffington Post piece titled “I Also Dreamed of Africa” and the second is a (humorous, but frustrated) critique of this piece titled “She Also Dreamed of Africa.”


In the Huffington Post piece, it is interesting to note how many of the tropes pointed out by Wainaina the author falls into- despite the fact she has never been to Africa. The entire point of her piece is how she has envisioned Africa since she was a child, and how she has fantasized about leaving her life to go live in the “wild” with the “natives.” One quote in particular came back to me after reading Wainaina’s piece: “Africa can be such an adventurous, dangerous and romantic place to be. Just the landscape is a vision — and there is nothing more breathtaking than an African sunset or sunrise.”

But at least this author thinks she could give back, by helping “the African tribes and communities thrive by teaching Western skills…” To this author, it is obvious that the people she would encounter in Africa are just waiting for someone like her to come teach them how to be better at surviving in their own landscapes and communities.

How is it in 2013 author’s can still be writing about Africa as a singular, exotic, destination waiting for their chance to experience it? I am glad that other publications were quick to point out the flaws in this piece, but the fact that it was published on such a mainstream website is telling of what is accepted when attempting to “write about Africa.”

Achebe’s piece, although originating in the 1970’s, still is able to explain why it is still common for authors to romanticize, criticize, and patronize Africa. The African continent (and its animals, as noted by Wainaina) are personified, while the various African people are stereotyped and marginalized. Achebe notes that the African people are not given the dignity of coherent language or individualism. The people of Africa only serve as foils to Westerners, much as the landscape only serves as a point of discovery and reflection for outsiders. For some reason, Western audiences still expect these stereotypes, and Western producers are only too happy to provide them.

Reading Heart of Darkness certainly gives a historical insight into colonialism, African exploration, and European perspectives of the continent and its people during the Scramble for Africa. What is surprising is how many of the ideas expressed in that book are still being expressed in modern works. It is unclear when realistic, multi-faceted perspectives on all the different people, environments, and circumstances in Africa will be produced by and for a Western (or at this point, global) audience. Maybe they will start by realizing they can’t write a single piece that encompasses an entire continent and a population of over 1 billion people. 


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