After the conclusion of our tour at the David Krut Gallery this afternoon, I found myself immersed in a deep conversation with an American intern named Kelsey. She asked if this was my first time in Africa, and if so, if I was shocked and perhaps a bit heartbroken to discover there are not, in fact, lions leisurely roaming down every sidewalk. Our conversation quickly veered toward stereotypes and common Western romanticizations with other cultures and countries, which reminded me of an essay I once read in Granta.
The essay is entitled “How to Write About Africa,” and was written by Kenyan author and journalist Binyavanga Wainaina. In it, he satirizes the romanticization and idealism some people use when describing the continent of Africa.
Before I left Michigan to come on this trip, I was questioned more than once as to whether I would be sleeping on dirt floors with giraffes for roommates and goat brains for dinner. Furthermore, the other night, a few of us were discussing the stark contrast between the Africa of our visions and the Africa that is currently outside our windows. While some of the continent is, in fact, teeming with wild game and rampant with jungles, there are also cities and countries that are just as built up and modern as those in America. It’s interesting to compare our fantasies with the realities, and then question the source of all of our similar perceptions of this continent.
To quote, Wainaina, ““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.”
I think this article is especially relevant to read while we are in South Africa in order to gain a better understanding of the trouble that arises when we fall prey to such generalizations and stereotypes. We must constantly be researching and questioning the information that we receive to ensure it is accurate, and not accept other peoples’ words and thoughts as facts merely because they are written down in a book or even eternalized on the wall of a museum.