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to write about Africa
from Granta 92: The View from Africa
Published: January, 2006
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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).
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.
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