How to be an African expert

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Here at Democracy in Africa we like to keep you informed about the best of the rest of the web. And our essential reading for this week is Duncan Clarke’s savage blog ‘How to be an Africa expert’, which bears comparison to Binyavanga Wainaina’s classic satire, ‘How to write about Africa’ (scroll down for links).

Like all great critiques, Clarke’s blog, which sets out to lampoon the recent trend for excessive Afro-optimism, is funny because it is true. He starts as he means to go on, noting that:

‘Thinking Africa is complicated, requiring years of trawling through thousands of books on economics, history, social science, anthropology and politics. No mean task, but one luckily simplified lately by numerous self-styled “Africa experts”, political spin artists, sound-bite junkies, arriviste journos, think-tankers, policy wonks, random bankers, distant academics, market honchos, corporate suits, public relations acolytes and self-proclaimed politicians.’

He continues to offer some sage advice for the up and coming Africa ‘expert’ – advice which will resonate with anyone that has sat through an event with the words ‘Africa’ ‘Investment’ and ‘Forum’ in the title:

‘First things first: pick a theme of unrestrained optimism. Shed any Afropessimism or proclivity for realpolitik. Use terms like “dynamic”, “emergent”, “middle class” and “last investment frontier”. Remember it’s about unrestricted growth beyond history or capacity, since both are “adjustable”, the former by revisionism, the latter by “new technology”. Go for catchy sound bites: “Africa is rising”, the “African Century” or “Africa’s Moment”. Dwell only on what is going up, not what might go down. Remember, one’s political risk is another’s commercial treasure.’

Clarke’s eye is equally sharp when considering the many commentators who appear determined to argue that new technologies and trade will simply lift Africa out of poverty without actually looking at the evidence:

‘Make sweeping generalisations, such as “mobile telephony has transformed Africa”. Don’t mention that Africa is 2% of world GDP, its domestic savings record poor, the debt profile has been heavily engineered with write-offs, and its power industry approximates Spain’s. Ignore economic shocks that lurk ahead: that’s Afropessimism.’

As I read Clarke’s critique, I thought about how much times have changed. It was only in 2005 that Binyavanga Wainaina delivered his satirical masterpiece, ‘How to write about Africa’. Many of Wainana’s complaints were similar to Clarke’s – the assumption of ‘expert’ positions by people with a limited understanding of the continent and its people’s and jaundiced view of its prospects. But there is one striking difference between the two pieces. While Clarke rails against Afro-over optimism, Wainana vented his fury against the Afropessimism of the time.

For Wainana, the problem was not a tendency to exaggerate the continent’s prospects, but to focus exclusively on its misery and to exploit negative stereotypes about Africa for the sake of ‘art’. He therefore began his satirical advice to would-be authors with the following gambit:

‘Always use the word ‘Africa’ or ‘Darkness’ or ‘Safari’ in your title. Subtitles may include the words ‘Zanzibar’, ‘Masai’, ‘Zulu’, ‘Zambezi’, ‘Congo’, ‘Nile’, ‘Big’, ‘Sky’, ‘Shadow’, ‘Drum’, ‘Sun’ or ‘Bygone’. Also useful are words such as ‘Guerrillas’, ‘Timeless’, ‘Primordial’ and ‘Tribal’.’

In place of the willingness of ill informed futurologist to predict a golden future for the continent that Clarke describes, Wainana highlighted the tendency for western authors Africa to focus on corruption, greed, and poverty.

‘Your African characters may include naked warriors, loyal servants, diviners and seers, ancient wise men living in hermitic splendour. Or corrupt politicians, inept polygamous travel-guides, and prostitutes you have slept with… The Modern African is a fat man who steals and works in the visa office, refusing to give work permits to qualified Westerners who really care about Africa. He is 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.’

And where Clarke sees ‘unrestrained optimism’, Wainana poked fun at the bleakness of western depictions of Africa:

‘Among your characters you must always include The Starving African, who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked, and waits for the benevolence of the West. Her children have flies on their eyelids and pot bellies, and her breasts are flat and empty. She must look utterly helpless. She can have no past, no history; such diversions ruin the dramatic moment. Moans are good.’

Clark’s piece is superb, but going back to Wainana gave me pause for thought. Towards the end of his piece, Wianana advised his imaginary students that ‘When your main character is in a desert or jungle living with indigenous peoples (anybody short) it is okay to mention that Africa has been severely depopulated by Aids and War (use caps)’, sending-up the tendency for books, movies, and news stories about Africa to focus on conflict and disease.

Maybe a touch of Afro-over optimism is not such a bad thing after all…

Click here for Clarke’s ‘How to be an Africa expert, publihsed by Business Day.

Click here for Wainana’s ‘How to write about Africa’, published by Granta.

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