how to write about africa

How to write about Africa, from Granta. As someone who has written a handful of stories from Africa, I can tell you it’s awful hard to open your eyes and step past the stereotypes. And I don’t mean racial stereotypes — I mean writerly stereotypes.
“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.”
The African middle class gets horribly undercovered, and stories do tend to rob Africans of their individual agency. In Western stories, things always happen to Africans; Africans rarely do much worth mentioning. (It’s at least somewhat symbolic that the sine qua non of modern African heroes is Nelson Mandela, a man most famous in the West for sitting stoicly in prison for 27 years.) This happens with even the most well-meaning reporters; hell, it probably happens more with the most well-meaning reporters. My funeral story from Zambia probably falls in that category.
What’s strange is that these stereotypes don’t go back as far as you might imagine. The “beaten-down, pathetic” stereotype (better or worse than the old “savage” stereotype?) only became dominant in the ’70s or so, by my reading — after Biafra, after Idi Amin, and gaining speed with the Ethiopian famines and AIDS in the ’80s. Which is why it’s so bracing to read stuff from Africa in the early ’60s, with the sense of optimism that came with decolonialization and men like Nkrumah and Kenyatta and Nyerere and Kaunda. Africa didn’t seem helpless.
Getting past those stereotypes is, to me, what that “Cultivating Loneliness” essay I linked to a while back was all about: Having the courage to write what you see, not what the 20 people before you have seen.