How to Write about Africa, by Binyavanga Wainaina

An antelope at dusk
An antelope at dusk, with the African sun

This really good article by the Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina on ‘How to Write about Africa‘ was recently shared with me. It was published by Granta magazine.  One will be surprised to see that this is exactly the way Africa is depicted in Western televisions, magazines, news, and books. Such an interesting read, very satirical, and yes very thought-provoking.  This is not the Africa I know, but this is the Africa sold on Western media.  The entire article can be found on Granta.com.

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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’. …

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.

Africa
Africa

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. […] Continue reading “How to Write about Africa, by Binyavanga Wainaina”

Wangari Maathai, first African Woman Nobel Peace Prize Laureate

Wangari Maathai
Wangari Maathai

I once took a class in environmental and social changes, where I studied the work of Dr. Wangari Maathai.  Her boldness and her stand for truth made her a great role model for many African women, and Africans in general.  She was bold! “Wangari Maathai was known to speak truth to power,” said John Githongo, an anticorruption campaigner in Kenya who was forced into exile for years for his own outspoken views.  “She blazed a trail in whatever she did, whether it was in the environment, politics, whatever.”  Indeed, Wangari Maathai was one of the most widely respected women on the continent, where she played many roles: environmentalist, politician, feminist, professor, human rights advocate, and head of the Green Belt Movement which she started in 1977. She was scoffed at by the Kenyan Forestry department who thought that uneducated women could not fight the desert.  She told them ‘We need millions of trees and you foresters are too few, you’ll never produce them. So you need to make everyone foresters.’ I call the women of the Green Belt Movement foresters without diplomas.

Wangari Maathai receiving the Nobel Peace Prize
Wangari Maathai receiving the Nobel Peace Prize

As a star student after high school, she won a scholarship to study biology in Kansas (US), and went on for a Masters of Science at the University of Pittsburgh, and later a doctorate degree in veterinary anatomy at the University of Nairobi where she later taught and became chair of the department in the 1970s.  Wangari’s work started with the Green Belt Movement with the mission of planting trees across Kenya to fight erosion, stop desertification, create firewood for fuel, provide jobs for women, and empower the women of Kenya.  According to the United Nations’ data, her organization has planted over 45 million trees in Kenya, helped 900,000 women, and inspired similar projects in other African countries.  “Wangari Maathai was a force of nature,” said Achim Steiner, the executive director of the United Nations’ environmental program.  He likened her to Africa’s ubiquitous acacia trees, “strong in character and able to survive sometimes the harshest of conditions.

Maathai planting a tree
Maathai planting a tree

Her work was illustrated in one of my secondary school English textbook.  The government of Arap Moi was trying to build a skyscraper in one of Nairobi’s only parks, and she brought women who protested until the government abandoned the project.  She was beaten by police until she faintedWangari was not one to back down from her beliefsShe would go to jail for what she believed in.  For instance, her husband divorced her because he said she was too strong-minded for a woman.  When she lost her case in court, she criticized the judge and told him her mind, and was thus thrown to jail.

Oprah Winfrey and Tom Cruise congratulating Wangari Maathai on her Nobel Peace Prize
Oprah Winfrey and Tom Cruise congratulating Wangari Maathai on her Nobel Peace Prize

In presenting her with the Peace Prize, the Nobel committee hailed her for taking “a holistic approach to sustainable development that embraces democracy, human rights and women’s rights in particular” and for serving “as inspiration for many in the fight for democratic rights.”  Wangari Maathai has received many honorary degrees, including an honorary doctorate from the University of Pittsburg, her alma mater.  Check out articles by the BBC, CNN, her Interview on NPR, and the Huffington Post whose article is entitled “Wangari Maathai and the Real Work of Hope .”  Don’t forget to click also on the The Green Belt Movement website, and the movie “Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai.”   She once said that ‘we should all be hummingbirds‘: doers, and not spectators, even in the face of great challenges; do the best you canGoodbye Wangari, your work is not over, for Africa has been blessed with millions of Wangari Maathais who will continue your outstanding work.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o: world acclaimed Kenyan writer

Ngugi wa Thiong'o
Ngugi wa Thiong'o

Ngugi wa Thiong’o is a world-acclaimed Kenyan writer cut from the same cloth as African veteran Chinua Achebe. Ngugi is the author of several novels, plays, short stories, critical pieces, and children books. Ngugi reached fame writing in English, and then decided to write in Gikuyu, his mother-tongue. Today, his books are written in Gikuyu, and then translated into English. His first books Weep not child (1964) followed by The river between (1965) were on the secondary school syllabus in Cameroon, and a friend of mine used to love  reading The river between.

The wizard of crow
The wizard of crow

When Ngugi first started writing in Gikuyu, he was threatened by the Kenyan government, and in the late 70’s, the political overtone of his play I will marry when I want, got him arrested by the then vice-president Daniel Arap Moi (who later became president, and ruled Kenya for 22 years). After his release from jail, Ngugi spent two decades in exile, and tried returning to Kenya in 2004 under the new government, but was viciously attacked in his hotel and his wife was sexually assaulted… after that he returned to the USA where is a professor at New York University. His latest novel, The wizard of crow which is 1000-pages long, and which I own, discusses a dictatorship in an imaginary country in Africa.

Please enjoy an interview with Ngugi wa Thiong’o conducted by Granta magazine. To learn more about one of the greatest African literary geniuses, check out: http://www.ngugiwathiongo.com/, Wikipedia, Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams. If you have never read Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s books, I recommend that you start with The river between, Petals of Blood, A grain of wheat, and Weep not Child.