In light of the controversial “Stop John Kony” video that exploded last week in most of the world’s consciousness, another video, starring Benin-born actor Djimon Hounsou (pictured), has been recirculated entitled “How Not to Write About Africa.”
With all the “Stop John Kony” brouhaha, a video Hounsou did back in 2009 has come back to life. The video is based off of an essay Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina wrote, originally entitled “How to Write About Africa.” In the essay, Wainaina writes:
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.
Taboo subjects [are]: 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.
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.
Hounsou collaborated with Wainaina to produce this:
Just like many other parts of the world, i.e., Syria, Lybia, most of America’s inner cities and don’t forget your random white bread high school (Cleveland and Columbine, anyone?), Africa has its problems. What isn’t shown, though, is prosperous and productive Africa. Obviously, not every tribe or klan is struggling with war and not every child is going to sleep with an empty belly at night.
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Ask yourself this, if Africa is so destitute and worthless, why have Europeans found themselves unwilling to leave much of the continent for hundreds of years, and why are the Chinese investing more money in Africa at such an aggressive rate?
Here’s the real question: What do Europeans and the West gain by continuing to paint Africa one dimensionally?
Black people everywhere need to be recognized for our diversity of experiences, feelings, realities, environments and overall ability. In order for us to effectively challenge the age-old stereotypes about Africans throughout the diaspora, we will need to take control of the media, making sure that we are green lighting film, TV, and news representations. We will need to be the ones to manage our conversations rather than having others manage them for us. And the conversation starts right here and now.