'How To Write About Africa'

This is a tiny booklet written by the Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina. He was featured in the issue of Vanity Fair that was published last year and edited by Bono. My friend KJ knows him, and I actually met him very briefly in January during the whole election crisis thing when a bunch of us met up at a bar in town.

Anyway, as some of you know, when I'm reading something great I really can't help but share. I laugh out loud and end up reading the best passages to whoever is near me. I picked up this little booklet of Mr. Wainaina's last year and I thought I'd share a few passages:

'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.'

'Thoughout 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.'

'After celebrity activists and aid workers, conservationists are Africa's most important people. Do not offend them.....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.'

'Expatriate (n): Also same as White expatriate. Black expatriate is an oxymoron. This is Africa.'

'Nairobi is crawling with $5-a-day, 25-year-old backpackers who came and loved and compassioned and are now the beneficiaries of $5 000 a month consulting for the United Nations....while Masters student from Kenya are selling fruit by the side of the road for a dollar a day, and live in Kibera slum, the only place where rent is cheap, but this may change since Ralph Fiennes went and loved Kibera.'

There is clearly a lot more in the book. I can safely say that every single expat I know (including this Black expat) has falling into (and some basically dwell) in at least one of the stereotypes/realities described in the book. I look around me at other expats here and wonder why they (we) are here. Or in general, why would anyone just 'LOVE' another country and choose to live so far away from their original homes? Anyway, I really could go on and one about this endlessly because I think it is really interesting with absolutely no clear cut answers. I've found that people do a lot of things for reasons that may appear absolutely bizarre to someone else, yet are very truthful to themselves. As for me, I'm still searching for my own reasons why I find myself constantly jumping from one place to another....

1 comment:

Ali la Loca said...

I posted this very thing on my blog a little more than a year ago, I think. It really hit home.

I could spend years writing about what drives me to live in countries other than the one in which I was born and partially raised. Fascinating stuff...what makes up our identities, where we feel at "home", what makes us crave adventure...

On the topic of THE EXPAT, at least in the way this person is described in your citation, I think it is stereotypically very linked to the relocated foreigner who works in development work. There are many expats working in regular jobs like supermarket manager, import/export, tv producer, farmer, etc. who do not necessarily fall into these categories quite as neatly.

I think there is a big distinction between those who leave their home countries to "save" someone else (or someone else's country), and those who leave home for other reasons, be it a job, a desire for personal growth, a search for one's roots, to get married, etc.

I am an expat, and I certainly struggle to understand what brought me here and what "home" means to me at this point in my life. However, I can also say that I don't feel like I fit in with the rest of the typical expatriate community here. What are the differences, I ask myself...

- that I moved here without a guaranteed job?
- that I have been quite poor for most of my stay in Moz, literally using the last cents in my bank account to pay rent and buy bread?
- that I have long-term plans to live here, and am not on a 2-year contract?
- that I hang out with "normal" Mozambicans outside the development crowd?

I have no idea...lots of self-analysis still to be done. :)