How to Write About Africa

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this Granta article since I read it:

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.

In a related article, this post from the Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group (AIDG) blog talks about “development porn”: manipulative images of the developing world that conform to oversimplified first-world beliefs about third-world countries and may not necessarily depict the natural state of the people and places photographed.

Haitian girls pose for a Haitian-American woman:


Haitian girls pose for a white American man:


BTW I recently started reading the Global Voices aggregate blog, an international blog portal that translates and publishes sociopolitical blog posts from all over the world. I find that it helps me to cultivate a more international perspective, one that lacks first-world filters and comes straight from bloggers from all over.

In many ways I’ll take blognews over mainstream news, because I find that bloggers have faster, less fettered access to information. For example, when destructive floods hit my town a few years back, the first really good images I saw of the devastation were taken by the friend of a friend and sent to me in an email. I watched the same level of swiftness of response and depth of coverage emerge after the 2004 Asian Tsunami when South/Southeast Asian bloggers, not mainstream news organizations, offered the best and swiftest coverage of the destruction.

And those closest to an event are, I think, those most and best aware of all the complexities surrounding an event.

More and more I wonder if people can’t be divided into to two groups: those who are aware of the complexity of situations and those who see only the surface of things. Which is in itself a reductionist way to see the world, but still a guideline for me when deciding whom to trust.

4 responses to “How to Write About Africa

  1. Pingback: Tuesday - WordPress PoliSci « oldephartteintraining

  2. Very good points… Thanks for this thought provoking post. One of the few I take time to read for the time being.


  3. Boing Boing on Vanity Fair’s current “Africa-themed” issue:

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