How to Write about Africa

For me, writing about anything is hard.  Writing a 140 character tweet is hard because I want to sound smart, witty, thoughtful, motivational, and charming all at the same time.  Well, kinda.  If you look at my Twitter, you can see that most of it is not even my own tweets but quotes or articles I’ve shared.  Writing an essay for class is hard because I have this innate need to write everything accurately, coherently, and cohesively the first time.  Therefore, it always takes me forever and a day to complete an essay because I spend more time thinking than actually writing (though, I know this isn’t a good strategy to writing essays, and I’m working on getting over it).  Writing blog posts are hard because I want to be thoughtful and reflective, and I have a hard time expressing how I feel about certain topics.  Especially if I’m trying to be critical and/or if the topic is contentious (which is probably a lot of the things that I talk about in this blog).

The contentious topic in this case is Africa.

As a student who was educated in the United States, there is not much I know about Africa.  Not many people in the US have a in-depth understanding of what has happened or what is happening in Africa; Jon Stewart and Trevor Noah made a joke about this.  My formal education in primary and secondary school taught me American history and European history mostly, sprinkled in with some learning about the Rwandan genocide, blood diamonds in Sierra Leone, the Scramble for Africa (colonialism), the North African Campaign during WWII, and a few other things.  One of the reasons why I know about apartheid is because Trevor Noah came to my classroom.  My knowledge is not comprehensive, and a portion of it is of stereotypes.

These are some of the stereotypes I’ve heard about Africa:

  • Hot and the desert all around.  Dry.  Full of wildlife.  Lions, elephants, zebras.
  • HIV/AIDS crisis.  Malnutrition.  Malaria.  Ebola.
  • Everyone is poor and starving.  Bad infrastructure.  No modern technology.  No modern cities.  Lack of clean water and proper sanitation.
  • Poor education.
  • Constant civil unrest. Corrupt governments.
  • People in “African” attire made from bushes.  Dancing around fire pits.

Okay, these sounds extremely crass, but these paint the picture that all of Africa is incompetent and in need of help.  And lots of literature in the past have supported this view of Africa.  In response, Binyavanga Wainaina, a Kenyan author, wrote this satirical piece.  It’s quite sassy.

I’m not going to deny that some of these have some truth in them because yes, HIV/AIDS is a problem in many parts of Africa, and you can find lions, elephants, and zebras on this continent.  But, there is so much more than that, and I’m trying to be conscious about how I paint my representation of Africa.

Elephants in Africa! The time when I visited Gugulethu, a township.
Elephants in Africa! The time when I visited Gugulethu, a township.

There are “Politics to Representation” when writing about the the things that I write about.  Because there is so little representation of Africa in the US, and a lot of this representation is negative, it’s easy to think that Africa only has bad things.  Maybe Nelson Mandela is so famous is because he was thought of one of the few good things that have come out of Africa?  It is important to contextualize and historicize how things came to be.  It is important to understand how structures and individual agency contributed to how things came to be.

Within my limitations, I will not be able to do write the history and context of Africa, not even Cape Town.  But, as I have been doing, I will share my experiences and even be critical of my writing.  This will be a challenge for me, and I hope I’m doing well so far.

So, in the hopes of highlighting the uniqueness and individuality of people in Africa, I’m going to do something like the HONY project.  I am going to try to interview a few of the people that I’ve met here, who I have befriended and ask them about who they are.  I’m going to call it the PPP (People Profile Project or if you’re an economist, Purchasing Power Parity…).  I still don’t love this name, so it might change, but I really hope that I am able to come through with this project because I have met some really interesting people here.

Over and out.

PS. Read Wainaina’s satirical piece!

PPS. I mean “contentious” as in there is no one way to feel about the topic.

PPPS. Please don’t have high expectations for the new PPP.  I am a student first, intern second, blogger third.  And I still have to figure out how manage my time to feed myself and sleep!
Update (13 September 2015):

I came across this hashtag on Twitter: #TheAfricaTheMediaNeverShowsYou

There were just so many that I could have chosen from.

Update (17 September 2015): “Africans are All Poor and 15 Other Myths” #globalcitizen

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