Sunday, April 25, 2010

How to write about Africa...

Sunsets and starvation are good ways to start...

Always use the word 'Africa' or 'Darkness' or 'Safari' in your title. Subtitles may include: 'Zanzibar', 'Masai', 'Zulu', 'Zambezi', 'Congo', 'Nile', 'Big', 'Sky', 'Shadow', 'Sun' or 'Bygone'. Other useful words include '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 a 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 just one big sandy, useless country. It's dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people (who are starving). Or, it's hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don't get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries and 900 million people who are all too busy dying and warring and emigrating to read your book anyway. The continent's 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, patronising and unparticular.

Make sure you show how Africans have music and rhythm DEEP in their souls, and eat things no other humans eat. Don't mention rice, chicken, beef, wheat; monkey-brain is an African's cuisine of choice, for example, along with goat, snake, worms, grubs and all other 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.

Stay away from: Ordinary domestic scenes, love between Africans (unless a death is involved), references to the many African writers and 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' kind of tone. Establish early that your liberalism is impeccable, mention near the beginning how much you luurve Africa, how you simply fell in love and just can't live without her. Africa is the only continent you can love—take advantage of this. If you're 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 yet dominated. Whichever angle you choose to take, be sure to leave the strong impression that without your intervention and your cherished book, Africa is doomed.

Your African characters can include naked warriors, loyal servants, diviners and seers, ancient wise men living in hermitic splendour. Or, corrupt politicians, inept polygamous travel-guides, and of course, prostitutes. The Loyal Servant behaves like a seven-year-old and needs a firm hand; she's scared of snakes, amazing with children and always involves you in her 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 fat, who steals and works in the visa office, refusing to give work permits to qualified Westerners who really care about Africa. He's 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. He could also be an Oxford-educated intellectual turned serial-killing politician in a Savile Row suit. A cannibal who likes Cristal champagne and alligator boots, whose mother is actually a witch doctor.

Among your characters you MUST, always, include The Starving African, wandering the refugee camp (naked), waiting for the benevolence of the West. Her children have flies on their eyelids and over-sized pot bellies, her breasts are flat and empty. She must look utterly helpless. Useless. Incapable.

She can have no past, no history; such diversions ruin the dramatic moment. Moans are good too. She must never discuss anything about herself other than her curent (unspeakable) suffering.

Be sure to include a warm and motherly woman, with a rolling laugh, who is particularly concerned for your well-being. Just call her Mama. Her children are all delinquent.

Now, all 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 of course, is you (if reportage), or a beautiful, tragic international celebrity/aristocrat who now suddently cares (if fiction).

When talking about foreign exploitation of Africa, feel free to mention the Chinese and Indian traders. World bank employees. You can blame the West for Africa's situation. But NEVER be specific.

Broad brushstrokes throughout are great. Avoid having the African characters laugh too much, or struggle to educate their kids, or just make do in mundane circumstances. Have them illuminate something about Europe or America in Africa. You see, these 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. Understand?

What you can describe, in detail, are naked breasts (young, old, conservative, recently raped, big, small) or mutilated genitals. And dead bodies. Or, even better, naked dead bodies. 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 that's what you want on your dust jacket. Don't feel queasy about this: you're trying to help them remember? By getting aid from the West? It's the only way, after all.

As for animals, treat them with the grace and complexity they truly deserve. They speak, while proudly tossing their manes, and they have names, ambitions, dreams and desires. They also have family values: see how lions teach their children? Elephants are caring, good feminists and/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. But still, don't you dare. Big cats have public-school accents. Hyenas are fair game and have vaguely Middle Eastern accents.

After celebrity activists and aid workers, the conservationists are Africa's most important people. Do NOT offend them. You can't. Otherwise you won't get invited to their 30,000-acre plantation, sorry...'game ranch'...oops. Sorry again, 'conservation area'. Oh yes. The only way you'll get your blessed, blessed chance to interview the celebrity activist.

Finally, you'll need a nightclub called Tropicana or something, where mercenaries, corrupt nouveau riche Africans, prostitutes, guerrillas and expats all hang out.

Always end your book with Nelson Mandela saying something about rainbows or renaissances. Because, you care.

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