In his eloquent diatribe “How to Write About Africa,” published several years ago in Granta, the Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina offers the following advice: “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.” He continues, “In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country…. 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.” Wainaina’s sarcastic suggestions point to a truth about writing on Africa: more often than not, it depicts the continent as nothing but a modern-day heart of darkness, where poverty, violence and disease overshadow the rest of human life and experience.
Of course, if writing about Africa seems preoccupied with poverty and violence, there is good reason for that: poverty and violence afflict the lives of millions of Africans. But Wainaina’s point–that writing about Africa deals with the continent as if poverty and violence were the only things to be found there–is a salient one. “Taboo subjects,” he reminds us, are not lurid acts but quotidian ones: “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.”
Wainaina lambastes Western writing about Africa, but as the literature of Africa is increasingly penned by Africans, it is worth considering how his criticisms might apply to native depictions of the “dark continent.” In two such books–Say You’re One of Them, by Uwem Akpan, and The Translator, by Daoud Hari–there is no shortage of poverty and violence. Akpan’s collection of short stories revolves around the lives of children facing situations of extreme hardship in countries like Nigeria, Kenya and Ethiopia. Hari’s book, a memoir, chronicles his work as a guide and translator for Western journalists and aid workers in Darfur from 2003 until Hari was granted asylum by the United States in 2007. Both books are first efforts from native writers who are making their debut at a time when the market is hungry for “authentic” indigenous voices (Akpan is Nigerian, and Hari is a member of the Zaghawa ethnic group, one of the tribes under attack by the Sudanese government). But though it is a welcome change finally to read African writers on African life, these books also share many of the flaws of their Western predecessors, betraying elements of the safari reportage that Wainaina justly criticizes.
Darfur has become a Western cause célèbre, and the fundamental facts of the conflict there–that the Sudanese government and its Janjaweed militias have undertaken the cleansing of various ethnic groups, and that this process has so far led to the deaths of at least 200,000 people and the displacement of 2.5 million more–are widely known. Hari’s account is the most recent in a wave of books and movies, several of them produced or promoted by such celebrity-cum-activists as Brad Pitt and Mia Farrow, that document atrocities in Sudan from the perspective of their victims. In The Translator, Hari recalls the chaos and destruction unleashed by the first government-sponsored Janjaweed attack on his village, which left many injured and dead, including a beloved older brother. Hari describes working as a scout in the early days of the conflict, when he often shuttled the homeless and wounded across the border to refugee camps in Chad, and discusses the many perils he confronted during his travels; these include his capture and torture by government security police while on assignment with Paul Salopek for National Geographic and, while assisting a British filmmaker, a near-death experience at the hands of rebels who mistook him for a spy.