How Not to Write About Africa - by Binyavanga Wainaina
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. 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 unparticular.
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 an African’s cuisine of choice, along with goat, snake, worms and grubs and all manner of game meat. Make sure you show that 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 from yaws or Ebola fever or female genital mutilation.
Throughout the book, adopt a sotto voice, in conspiracy with the reader, and a sad I-expected-so-much tone. Establish early on that your liberalism is impeccable, and mention near the beginning how much you love Africa, how you fell in love with the place and can’t live without her. Africa is the only continent you can love—take advantage of this. If you are a man, thrust yourself into her warm virgin forests. If you are a woman, treat Africa as a man who wears a bush jacket and disappears off into the sunset. Africa is to be pitied, worshipped or dominated. Whichever angle you take, be sure to leave the strong impression that without your intervention and your important book, Africa is doomed.
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 Loyal Servant always behaves like a seven-year-old and needs a firm hand; he is scared of snakes, good with children, and always involving you in his complex domestic dramas. The Ancient Wise Man always comes from a noble tribe (not the money-grubbing tribes like the Gikuyu, the Igbo or the Shona). 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. He is an enemy of development, always using his government job to make it difficult for pragmatic and good-hearted expats to set up NGOs or Legal Conservation Areas. Or he is an Oxford-educated intellectual turned serial-killing politician in a Savile Row suit. He is a cannibal who likes Cristal champagne, and his mother is a rich witch-doctor who really runs the country.
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. Also be sure to include a warm and motherly woman who has a rolling laugh and who is concerned for your well-being. Just call her Mama. Her children are all delinquent. These characters should buzz around your main hero, making him look good. Your hero can teach them, bathe them, feed them; he carries lots of babies and has seen Death. Your hero is you (if reportage), or a beautiful, tragic international celebrity/aristocrat who now cares for animals (if fiction).
Bad Western characters may include children of Tory cabinet ministers, Afrikaners, employees of the World Bank. When talking about exploitation by foreigners mention the Chinese and Indian traders. Blame the West for Africa’s situation. But do not be too specific.
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. 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. The biggest taboo in writing about Africa is to describe or show dead or suffering white people.
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: see how lions teach their children? Elephants are caring, and are good feminists or dignified patriarchs. So are gorillas. Never, ever say anything negative about an elephant or a gorilla. Elephants may attack people’s property, destroy their crops, and even kill them. Always take the side of the elephant. Big cats have public-school accents. Hyenas are fair game and have vaguely Middle Eastern accents. Any short Africans who live in the jungle or desert may be portrayed with good humour (unless they are in conflict with an elephant or chimpanzee or gorilla, in which case they are pure evil).
After celebrity activists and aid workers, conservationists are Africa’s most important people. Do not offend them. You need them to invite you to their 30,000-acre game ranch or ‘conservation area’, and this is the only way you will get to interview the celebrity activist. Often a book cover with a heroic-looking conservationist on it works magic for sales. Anybody white, tanned and wearing khaki who once had a pet antelope or a farm is a conservationist, one who is preserving Africa’s rich heritage. When interviewing him or her, do not ask how much funding they have; do not ask how much money they make off their game. Never ask how much they pay their employees.
Readers will be put off if you don’t mention the light in Africa. And sunsets, the African sunset is a must. It is always big and red. There is always a big sky. Wide empty spaces and game are critical—Africa is the Land of Wide Empty Spaces. When writing about the plight of flora and fauna, make sure you mention that Africa is overpopulated. When your main character is in a desert or jungle living with indigenous peoples (anybody short) it is okay to mention that Africa has been severely depopulated by Aids and War (use caps).
You’ll also need a nightclub called Tropicana, where mercenaries, evil nouveau riche Africans and prostitutes and guerrillas and expats hang out.
Always end your book with Nelson Mandela saying something about rainbows or renaissances. Because you care. ■
One Day I Will Write About This Place by Binyavanga Wainaina, is available to buy here.
COLLECTION OF YORUBA ORISHAS
Not to diss on Northern European mythologies but can we seriously have some fuckin’ recognition that there are religions and mythologies that are not Greek? Why the fuck did I learn about the Greeks 6 times but we never fucking talked about Africa or Central America or South America or Asia or even really the mythologies and beliefs of Native peoples of North America?
We know why.
So anyway, I was having this argument with my father about Martin Luther King and how his message was too conservative compared to Malcolm X’s message. My father got really angry at me. It wasn’t that he disliked Malcolm X, but his point was that Malcolm X hadn’t accomplished anything as Dr. King had.
I was kind of sarcastic and asked something like, so what did Martin Luther King accomplish other than giving his “I have a dream speech.”
Before I tell you what my father told me, I want to digress. Because at this point in our amnesiac national existence, my question pretty much reflects the national civic religion view of what Dr. King accomplished. He gave this great speech. Or some people say, “he marched.” I was so angry at Mrs. Clinton during the primaries when she said that Dr. King marched, but it was LBJ who delivered the Civil Rights Act.
At this point, I would like to remind everyone exactly what Martin Luther King did, and it wasn’t that he “marched” or gave a great speech.
My father told me with a sort of cold fury, “Dr. King ended the terror of living in the south.”
Please let this sink in and and take my word and the word of my late father on this. If you are a white person who has always lived in the U.S. and never under a brutal dictatorship, you probably don’t know what my father was talking about.
But this is what the great Dr. Martin Luther King accomplished. Not that he marched, nor that he gave speeches.
He ended the terror of living as a black person, especially in the south.
I’m guessing that most of you, especially those having come fresh from seeing The Help, may not understand what this was all about. But living in the south (and in parts of the midwest and in many ghettos of the north) was living under terrorism.
It wasn’t that black people had to use a separate drinking fountain or couldn’t sit at lunch counters, or had to sit in the back of the bus.
You really must disabuse yourself of this idea. Lunch counters and buses were crucial symbolic planes of struggle that the civil rights movement used to dramatize the issue, but the main suffering in the south did not come from our inability to drink from the same fountain, ride in the front of the bus or eat lunch at Woolworth’s.
It was that white people, mostly white men, occasionally went berserk, and grabbed random black people, usually men, and lynched them. You all know about lynching. But you may forget or not know that white people also randomly beat black people, and the black people could not fight back, for fear of even worse punishment.
This constant low level dread of atavistic violence is what kept the system running. It made life miserable, stressful and terrifying for black people.
White people also occasionally tried black people, especially black men, for crimes for which they could not conceivably be guilty. With the willing participation of white women, they often accused black men of “assault,” which could be anything from rape to not taking off one’s hat, to “reckless eyeballing.”
This is going to sound awful and perhaps a stain on my late father’s memory, but when I was little, before the civil rights movement, my father taught me many, many humiliating practices in order to prevent the random, terroristic, berserk behavior of white people. The one I remember most is that when walking down the street in New York City side by side, hand in hand with my hero-father, if a white woman approached on the same sidewalk, I was to take off my hat and walk behind my father, because he had been taught in the south that black males for some reason were supposed to walk single file in the presence of any white lady.
This was just one of many humiliating practices we were taught to prevent white people from going berserk.
I remember a huge family reunion one August with my aunts and uncles and cousins gathered around my grandparents’ vast breakfast table laden with food from the farm, and the state troopers drove up to the house with a car full of rifles and shotguns, and everyone went kind of weirdly blank. They put on the masks that black people used back then to not provoke white berserkness. My strong, valiant, self-educated, articulate uncles, whom I adored, became shuffling, Step-N-Fetchits to avoid provoking the white men. Fortunately the troopers were only looking for an escaped convict. Afterward, the women, my aunts, were furious at the humiliating performance of the men, and said so, something that even a child could understand.
This is the climate of fear that Dr. King ended.
If you didn’t get taught such things, let alone experience them, I caution you against invoking the memory of Dr. King as though he belongs exclusively to you and not primarily to African Americans.
The question is, how did Dr. King do this—and of course, he didn’t do it alone.
(Of all the other civil rights leaders who helped Dr. King end this reign of terror, I think the most under appreciated is James Farmer, who founded the Congress of Racial Equality and was a leader of nonviolent resistance, and taught the practices of nonviolent resistance.)
So what did they do?
They told us: Whatever you are most afraid of doing vis-a-vis white people, go do it. Go ahead down to city hall and try to register to vote, even if they say no, even if they take your name down.
Go ahead sit at that lunch counter. Sue the local school board. All things that most black people would have said back then, without exaggeration, were stark raving insane and would get you killed.
If we do it all together, we’ll be okay.
They made black people experience the worst of the worst, collectively, that white people could dish out, and discover that it wasn’t that bad. They taught black people how to take a beating—from the southern cops, from police dogs, from fire department hoses. They actually coached young people how to crouch, cover their heads with their arms and take the beating. They taught people how to go to jail, which terrified most decent people.
And you know what? The worst of the worst, wasn’t that bad.
Once people had been beaten, had dogs sicced on them, had fire hoses sprayed on them, and been thrown in jail, you know what happened?
These magnificent young black people began singing freedom songs in jail.
That, my friends, is what ended the terrorism of the south. Confronting your worst fears, living through it, and breaking out in a deep throated freedom song. The jailers knew they had lost when they beat the crap out of these young Negroes and the jailed, beaten young people began to sing joyously, first in one town then in another. This is what the writer, James Baldwin, captured like no other writer of the era.
Please let this sink in. It wasn’t marches or speeches. It was taking a severe beating, surviving and realizing that our fears were mostly illusory and that we were free.
Reblogging this so I can come back to it in the spring when I teach the Civil Rights Movement to my 5th graders.
Reblogging this for all the non-black people who like to quote MLK like he’s theirs.
Gendered reactions to male and female nudity.
By Lisa Wade, PhD
Last year in a post about the truism “sex sells,” I asked:
But whose sex is sold? And to who?
“If it was simply that sex sold,” I continued…
…we’d see men and women equally sexually objectified in popular culture. Instead, we see, primarily, women sold to (presumably heterosexual) men. So what are we selling, exactly, if not “sex”?
I argued that what was really being sold was men’s (presumably heterosexual) sexual subjectivity, the experience of being a person in the world who was presented with images that were for his titillation. Women do not live in the world this way. They are not exposed everyday to images that legitimize their lust; instead, the images teach women that they are the object of that lust.
In light of this, Sociologist Beth Eck did a series of interviews attempting to tap into what it felt like for men and women to look at male and female nudes. Her findings were pretty fascinating.
First, she asked men and women to look at naked images of women, including the one above of Cindy Crawford. Women viewing images of female nudes almost inevitably compared themselves to the figure and felt inadequate. Said one woman:
…the portrayal of these thin models and I just get depressed… I’m very hard on myself, wanting to be that way.
Women ended up feeling bad whether the model conformed to conventional norms of attractiveness or not. When looking at a heavy set woman, they often responded like this:
I am disgusted by it because she is fat, but I’m also… I need to lose about 10 pounds.
I don’t necessarily find her body that attractive… Her stomach looks like mine.
Men, in contrast, clearly felt pandered to as holders of a heterosexual male gaze. They knew that the image was for them and offered praise (for a job well done) or criticism (for failure to live up to their expectations). About Crawford they said:
Personally I think she is attractive.
I like that.
Both men and women, then, knew exactly how to respond to female nudes: women had internalized their object status and men had internalized their subject status.
Eck then showed them male nudes, including the one of Sylvester Stallone. Interestingly, both men and women felt uncomfortable looking at male nudes.
Men responded by either expressing extreme disinterest, re-asserting their heterosexuality, or both. They did not compare themselves to the male nudes (like women did with female nudes), except to say that they were both male and, therefore, there was “nothing to see.”
Meanwhile, because men have been trained to be a lustful sexual subject, seeing male nudity tended to raise the specter of homosexuality. They couldn’t see the bodies as anything but sexual objects for them to gaze upon.
In contrast, the specter of homosexuality didn’t arise for women because they weren’t used to being positioned as lustful. Eck explains:
When women view the seductive pose of the female nude, they do not believe she is ‘coming on to’ them. They know she is there to arouse men. Thus, they do not have to work at rejecting an unwanted advance. It is not for them.
Many women also did not feel lustful when looking at male nudes and those that did often experienced lust mixed with guilt or shame. Eck suggest that this may be, in part, a reaction to taking on the active, consuming, masculine role, something they’re not supposed to do.
Summarizing responses to the male nudes, she writes:
Men, over and over again, reject the seductive advance [of a male nude]. While some women welcome the advance, most feel a combination of shame, guilt, or repulsion in interacting with the image…
This is what it means to live in a world in which desire is structured by a gendered sexual subject/object binary. It’s not just “out there,” it’s “in us” too.
Source: Eck, Beth. 2003. Men are Much Harder: Gendered Viewing of Nude Images. Gender & Society 17, 5: 691-710.
Gypsum slab depicting a winged genius “Apkallu” from the Northwest Palace of king Ashurnasirpal II in Nimrud. The relief dates back to 883-859 BCE. Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA.
Photo by Babylon Chronicle
If you are a white woman and you want to call yourself a feminist, you must acknowledge that your whiteness affords you a privilege that shields you from a lot. You must also acknowledge that you are afforded privileges that some men in this country do not have. Racism and sexism are tightly intertwined. You cannot fight one while ignoring the other.(via thecouscousqueen)
if u are a cis girl, here are some things not to say to trans girls or transfeminine ppl
- you do makeup better than I do!
- you have better legs than I do!
- you’re prettier than I am!
these compliments are just a way the disguise your shock at the femininity of “fake” women, compared to you, a “real” woman. stop.
Liberals point out that we too use smartphones, laptops, wear shoes and eat food and claim that that renders our anti-capitalist points invalid -
But in a world where I can’t even buy food without indirectly participating in a massive amount of systemic violence, something is terribly, terribly wrong.