Foreign Policy Blogs

Better Writing (And Thinking) About Africa


In The Guardian a few days ago Binyavanga Wainaina wryly provided  “How not to write about Africa in 2012 – a beginner’s guide” that really is more of a primer on the contemporary culture of the few remaining Africa correspondents for American and European publications. This article serves as something of an addendum to his marvelous 2005 Granta article, “How To Write About Africa.”

Better Writing (And Thinking) About Africa

Source: Google Images

A taste:

If there was a new map, Africa would be divided into three: 1) Tiny flares of horribleness – Mugabe, undemocratic, war, Somalia, Congo; 2) Tiny flares of wonderfulness. Mandela, World Cup, safari. Baby4Africa! A little NGO that does amazing things with black babies who squirm happily in white saviours’ hands because they were saved from an African war. My favourites are and Knickers 4 Africa – which collects used panties for African women; 3) The rest. Lets call this the “vast grassroots”. This part of Africa is run by nameless warlords. When the warlords fall, these places are run by grassroots organisations that are funded by the EU and provide a good place to send gap year kids to help and see giraffes at the same time. Grassroots Africa is good for backpacking because it is the real Africa (no AK47s to bother you, no German package tourists). The vast grassroots exists to sit and wait for agents of sustainability (Europeans) to come and empower them.

The way those of us who write about Africa is also intimately connected to the ways that we think about Africa, which in turn are tied to what we know about Africa. It seems clear to me that using the Africa desk (an increasingly anachronistic concept, I know) as merely a stepping stone to more prestigious assignments is profoundly problematic. Of course, this would require a culture change in journalism more generally that would allow for a privileging of actual knowledge and expertise over the amorphous methodological skill of doing journalism.

Top Image: Binyavanga Wainaina.  Photo credit: Flickr/Internaz



Derek Catsam

Derek Catsam is a Professor of history and Kathlyn Cosper Dunagan Professor in the Humanities at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin. He is also Senior Research Associate at Rhodes University. Derek writes about race and politics in the United States and Africa, sports, and terrorism. He is currently working on books on bus boycotts in the United States and South Africa in the 1940s and 1950s and on the 1981 South African Springbok rugby team's tour to the US. He is the author of three books, dozens of scholarly articles and reviews, and has published widely on current affairs in African, American, and European publications. He has lived, worked, and travelled extensively throughout southern Africa. He writes about politics, sports, travel, pop culture, and just about anything else that comes to mind.

Areas of Focus:
Africa; Zimbabwe; South Africa; Apartheid