Monthly Archives: June 2010

How to Write About Africa

Yesterday I attended a panel event as part of the Luminato festival in Toronto titled ‘African Issues and the Challenge of Artistic Response’. One of the speakers, and the main reason I attended was Binyavanga Wainaina. Wainaina offers extensive insight into the Western medias’ portrayl of the African continent. Wainaina’s humorous and satirical style make listening to him a delight. I encountered his article ‘How to write about Africa’ a few years ago and it is one of my favorite pieces of writing. I’d like to share it in this blog post as it summarizes many of my own discontents with western images of Africa. Enjoy.

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.

Taboo subjects: 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.

Throughout the 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.

Your African 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).

Bad Western 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.

Broad brushstrokes 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.

Describe, in 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.

Animals, on 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).

After celebrity 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.

Readers will 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).

You’ll also 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.

-Binyavanga Wainaina



Filed under Africa, Art, Binyavanga Wainaina, Current Events, Development, How to write about Africa, International Development, Politics, Power of Whiteness

The Globalization of the English Language

*All images were ‘borrowed’ from google images, from actual agencies advertising ESL products/classes.

I have recently started a new employment position teaching foreign students ESL in Toronto. Previously, I taught overseas in Taiwan in a similar position, although now I am teaching adults and in the past I was teaching children.  The majority of the classes I currently teach emphasize presentation style, accent reduction and conversation skills. For one of my morning classes last week, I prepared a presentation for the students to illustrate the style and tools I wanted them to use in their own subsequent presentations. My presentation topic was the Residential Schools of Canada, not just because my friend had this presentation ready to go from a previous class but because I thought it would be a good introduction for the students to First Nations groups of Canada.

In my ill equipped, overheated classroom, I started up the powerpoint presentation and went through the various slides outlining the tragedy of the residential schools. Butchering the complexities of the residential schools I presented the topic in the necessary basic English, and it sounded something like this:

  • The aboriginal peoples of Canada were taken away from their families
  • They were put into schools run by non-aboriginals
  • They were given English names
  • They were not allowed to speak their own languages
  • Their cultures were presented to them as backwards, while whiteness and ‘European’ culture were presented as the right way

As I went through my presentation, I saw the perplexed looks on my students’ faces. While the end of my presentation was met with silence, I wondered if any of the information made sense. Then a student slowly raised his hand asking, ‘So, do you think the residential schools were a good or bad thing?’. That made very clear my failure at simplifying my presentation topic, sorry aboriginal groups of Canada. I tried to reiterate the above points and while my second attempt may not have provided any clarity to my students it did sharply bring out the parallels between residential and current ESL schools. Before I address these, here is a necessary disclaimer:

**Note to everyone reading this entry, it is not my intention to lessen or in any way diminish the cruelty and devastation cause by the residential schools in Canada. I firmly acknowledge the wide reaching impact of the residential schools on aboriginal communities, which is not comparable to ESL schools around the world. The parallels I observed between residential schools and ESL schools is not to suggest that they come from the same history, unravelled the same way and have had the same impact. This blog entry materialized from the presentation I gave on the residential schools and my consequential questioning of the globalisation of English and the relationship ESL schools have with power**

The loose parallels I observed were these:

  • ESL students, many from ‘Asian’ countries (the majority of my students are from South Korea) often leave their homes and families not by force, by rather out of necessity to learn English in order to succeed in their chosen career path.
  • The teachers in these schools, whether in Asia or in North America are of ‘western’ origin
  • The students are almost always given, or have user friendly English names, Yu Rim Kang= Agnes, Seong Man Ryu= Owen, no need for the English teachers to bother with the pesky pronunciation of their given names
  • Both schools I have taught at are English immersion, students speaking in their mother tongue are punished
  • English and western cultural customs are often presented as more valuable than their own languages and customs (get rid of those chopsticks, time to use a fork)

As the English language has become the basis for international business, it is arguably necessary for those from countries where English is not the first language to learn it. Comparing this global domination of the English language and subsequent explosion of ESL schools, to residential schools of Canada speaks to ideas of power and social control. While many may argue they are completely incomparable, I would suggest if forms of power and control are examined, similarities can be identified.

I have been involved in heated debates regarding the character of power and social control. As is evident through mainstream discourse and images, power and control are still often portrayed as an overt force ie: those ‘third world’ military regimes with their oppressive methods, Muslim countries who force women to wear headscarves etc. In comparison those of us in relatively peaceful, western societies do not encounter these types of social control and are therefore ‘free’ to live how we want etc.

I am not claiming that the above scenarios are not forms of control or oppression, but rather these easy to identify means of power/control are not the only forms. There has been a plethora of work done on covert forms of social control, which is often refered to with the term ideology. Marx, Gramsci, Althusser and Foucault are only a few scholars that theorized about power/control. Althusser’s idea of the RSA (Repressive State Apparatus) and ISA (Ideological State Apparatus) calls into questions forms of control in so called peaceful societies. In very simple terms, the RSA exerts control through violence while the ISA controls through the dissemination of specific ideologies.  Althusser’s concept of ISA is explained as:

Our values, desires and preferences are inculcated in us by ideological practice. Ideological practice consists of an assortment of institutions called Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs), which include the family, the media, religious organisations and, most importantly, the education system.[51] We derive beliefs about ourselves through learning what it is to be a daughter, a schoolchild, black, a steelworker, a councilor, and so forth ( /22247455/Louis-Althusser).

Althusser therefore argues we are not born with an innate ability to know how we should function and be in society but learn it through certain mechanisms. For example images on television, in magazines and from observing parents or other members of society, may be a way individuals ‘learn’ how they must act in society (ie our goals in life should include having a career where you make money, buying a house and a car, having a few children and perhaps some animals). Althusser and many other academics argue that this ISA is a form of social control in many societies. Using ISA as a basis to analyse ESL as a necessary second language in relation to development speaks to a few points. The intertwined nature of development and international business with English, makes it necessary for individuals or nation states that want to ‘succeed’ to adopt the language. This domination of the English language, while not an overt form of control surely allows for specific powers to have advantages over others. Especially in relation to development, the globalisation of the English language often means that development projects implemented overseas are communicated in English. How many NGO websites claiming to help the rural poor of a ‘third world’ village, are only in English? This domination of English is also related to a whole range of issues about respecting individual culture, identity etc.

While I am very interested in Althusser’s theory of ISA and discussions regarding oppression/ control, this blog entry has been sitting on my desktop for far too long and my ability to neatly tie up the end of it has failed. So instead what I want this blog post to do is to question western ideals of social control and to push readers to question the dominance of the English language and its use in development practices.

If I can stop just one Korean student from adopting the name Susie, then I will have succeeded.

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Filed under Althusser, Canadian residential schools, Development, Economics, ESL, International Development, ISA, Politics, Power of Whiteness