Those of us who live in Africa know how irritating it is to hear white people say things like, “I’m going to Africa”, when what they really mean is that they are coming to Kenya, Senegal or one of the 54 countries that make up the African continent. It is rare for these same white people to say “I am going to Asia” when they really mean they are going to Vietnam or India. Or to declare that they are visiting South America when they mean they will be touring Brazil or Argentina. 

For decades, and particularly since the late Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina’s seminal satirical essay, “How to write about Africa”, was published in 2005, Africans have been trying to convince the Western world that Africa is not one homogenous land mass of endless savannahs teeming with animals and exotic tribes who have no history.  But because the narrative about Africa is largely written by non-Africans, the mythologisation of the continent continues unabated. As the writer Paul Theroux once noted, “Because Africa seems unfinished and so different from the rest of the world, it attracts mythomaniacs.” 

As Wainaina tried to show, the myths and stereotypes about Africa perpetuated by the Western world, including the Western media, feed the egos and wallets of aid workers who make it their mission to “save Africa” and are useful backdrops for foreign tourists and adventure-seekers who are more interested in saving Africa’s wildlife than in trying to understand a continent and its people. 

Westerners only “see” Africans when they are dying, either as a result of conflict or famine. No one asks why the continent is so prone to conflict or famine. If they did, they might find that slavery and colonialism devastated entire African communities, which are still reeling from their effects.  They might also discover that conflicts in countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo mainly serve the interests of Western mineral companies and multinational corporations, who work in cahoots with corrupt African leaders and militias to siphon off these countries’ natural resources. So, the DRC, one of the most mineral-rich countries in the world, and which supplies the coltan that is used in our mobile phones, remains one of the poorest countries in the world.

International humanitarian and aid organisations have also pathologised Africans by portraying them as people who are incapable of taking care of themselves and are in constant need of help. Yet, as I show in my book, Lords of Impunity, aid itself has become a corrupt business, and those working in the sector quite often push people into further hardship because they keep them in perpetual dependency mode. The aid industry is based on the idea that there will always be a deficit of something somewhere in the world and it is the job of (foreign) donors and aid workers to help.  Africans, for some reason, are always in need of such help. Those of us who question the intentions and practices of the aid industry are quickly dismissed as “anti-development” or “anti-poor”. 

Since Wainaina published his essay, many Africans have taken it upon themselves to set the record straight by telling their own stories in their own words. Not that there were no African writers before; it’s just that they did not command the kind of attention that Wainaina and those who followed him did. 

In his debut book, Africa is Not a Country, the London-based Nigerian author, Dipo Faloyin, debunks the myth that Africans do not have complex identities or histories.  Clearly inspired by Wainaina (there is even a chapter in the book titled “There is No Such Thing as an African Accent and Binyavanga Wainaina is Still Right”), the author goes to show how imperialism, racism and deliberate distortion of the continent’s history by historians, filmmakers and writers, helped shape the narrative that Wainaina tried so hard to dismantle – the narrative that Africa is “poverty or safari, with nothing in between”.

The most compelling chapters in Faloyin’s book are those that talk about Africa’s stolen artefacts. The story of the Kingdom of Benin is particularly painful and revealing. It talks of how an ancient West African kingdom was looted and destroyed by greedy British officers hell-bent to laying claim to the territory and its proud people.  When the British invaded this kingdom, they looted thousands of priceless carved bronze artefacts (now known as the Benin Bronzes), which now sit in the British Museum, despite repeated demands by several African governments that they be returned to where they were stolen from. To add insult to injury, the British and other museums in Europe argue that they cannot return artefacts stolen from Africa because Africans cannot be trusted to take care of them, and that they would be safer and better kept in a museum in London or Paris. It is estimated that 90 per cent of Africa’s stolen artefacts are being kept outside the continent. 

Faloyin unpacks what Wainaina meant when he said that African waafriters’ writing should not be shaped or influenced by Western notions of what it means to be African.  They must not write primarily for Western audiences and should not be constantly seeking the West’s approval.  If Wainaina were alive today, he and the Nigerian author would have definitely met up for a drink and exchanged notes.

Author

  • Rasna Warah

    Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist with over two decades of experience as an editor, writer and communications specialist. She wrote a weekly op-ed column for the Daily Nation, Kenya’s leading newspaper, for many years, and has contributed to various regional and international publications, including, the UK’s Guardian, Africa is a Country, The East African, The Mail and Guardian, The Elephant, and Kwani? She has worked as an editor and writer at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) and has published two books on Somalia: Mogadishu Then and Now (2012) and War Crimes (2016). Her first book, Triple Heritage (1998), explored the history of South Asians in East Africa. Her latest book, Lords of Impunity (2022), examines the failures and internal contradictions of the United Nations and what can be done to transform this global body. She holds a Master’s degree in Communication for Development from Malmö University in Sweden and a Bachelor of Science Degree in Psychology and Women’s Studies from Suffolk University in Boston, USA. She is based in Nairobi, Kenya.