On Writing About Africa

Travel Blog  •  Frank Bures  •  01.17.06 | 9:42 AM ET

The flaws in Western writing on Africa are not hard to find, and are often bizarrely consistent. For example, Wendy Belcher wrote in Salon how nearly every travelogue on Africa begins on an airplane. Others have noticed how there are usually more animals than people, how Africans can never seem to help themselves, how they just can’t see things the right way. But now Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina, editor of the literary magazine Kwani?, has offered a biting summary of shallow Western “impressions” that pass for insights.

In a new Granta story How to Write About Africa, the Caine Prize winner advises writers to “Always use the word ‘Africa,’ ‘Darkness’ or ‘Safari’ in your title. Subtitles may include the words ‘Zanzibar’, ‘Masai’, ‘Zulu’, ‘Zambezi’, ‘Congo’, ‘Nile’, ‘Big’, ‘Sky’, ‘Shadow’, ‘Drum’, ‘Sun’ or ‘Bygone’.” When profiling Western conservationists, Wainaina cautions, “Never ask how much they pay their employees,” and notes that “African characters should be colorful, exotic, larger than life—but empty inside,” while “Animals, on the other hand, must be treated as well rounded, complex characters.”

More complex, at any rate, than some travel writers.