From Chinua Achebe to Binyavanga Wainaina, so much has been said about the pernicious obscuring of African humanity in writing about Africa. The volume and passion of writing in this area means that it is very, very disheartening to see that this type of writing can get published (even self-published) and an excerpt can get space in a ‘respectable’ paper.

Joseph Conrad’s  Heart of Darkness, was much vaunted at the time of publication, but as African writers began to enter into the literary arena, the cracks in his prose were pointed out. In his critique Achebe notes:

Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as “the other world,” the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where a man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality

(Achebe, Chinua. “An image of Africa.” The Massachusetts Review 18.4 (1977): p 783.)

Achebe explains further the dangers in this type of writing, he says it portrays:

Africa as setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor. Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril.  p. 788

And it perpetuates and makes us think only of :

the stereotype image, about its grip and pervasiveness, about the willful tenacity with which the West holds it to its heart; … about books read in schools and out of school, of churches preaching to empty pews about the need to send help to the heathen in Africa…p 792

Binyavanga Wainaina’s piece How to write about Africa, describes Linton’s prose so accurately, it may have been used as a guide.

Broad brushstrokes throughout are good. Avoid having the African characters laugh, or struggle to educate their kids, or just make do in mundane circumstances. Have them illuminate something about Europe or America in Africa. African 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.

But let us take a look at the excerpt as produced by The Telegraph

How my dream gap year in Africa turned into a nightmare (Excerpt from ‘In Congo’s Shadow’)

(She went to Zambia! Not Africa! Not Congo! Why does Congo have a shadow? Why is Congo included in the title?)

Two hours had passed – maybe three. I couldn’t tell. The dense jungle canopy above me had eliminated what little moonlight there was and plunged me into inky blackness deep in the Zambian bush. (I reiterate, she went to Zambia, no jungle in Zambia, it is Savannah, grassland like much of Africa and the rest of the world, no jungle! no jungle at all. Which means that there would be no inky blackness and no bush. Why do we have the word ‘bush’ here? Dictionary meaning = ‘wild or uncultivated country.’ See above about Savannah which is grassland, even when wild, no bush)

I lay very still, listening for the armed rebels and wondering how long it was until daybreak, not knowing if I’d survive to see it. (unnecessary sense of terror)

With my body shaking and my brain frozen with fear, it was hard to remember how I’d ended up there, 6,000 miles from home. An 18-year-old Scot and former pupil of the prestigious Fettes College (contrast the prestige with the wild jungle, bush etc),

I had come to Africa with hopes of helping some of the world’s poorest people. (Because the prestigious Fettes College equips you to ‘help’  all of Africa’s poor. An 18 year old who has the arrogance that she can help Africa. The creators of the instagram account for ‘Sviour Barbie’ want people to “stop treating ‘third world countries’ as a playground for us to learn and gain real life experience from“. Because this story has at its most basic message, how good she is, despite how bad Africa is.)

But my gap year had become a living nightmare when I inadvertently found myself caught up in the fringes of the Congolese War (Which one? the 1996–1997?  or 1998-2003?).

Gunshots echoed through the bush and seemed to be getting closer. I couldn’t imagine the awful, sporadic acts of violence that were being committed as the village was ransacked. Fear and anger for the children consumed my thoughts. Part of me wanted to jump up and make it all stop (And how will you be achieving that? The same way you plan to make all the poor countries rich? By your very presence?), but then I heard shrill screams and shrank back into my hiding place.

As the night ticked interminably by, I tried not to think what the rebels would do to the ‘skinny white muzungu with long angel hair’ if they found me. (I really do not have words for this…)

Clenching my jaw to stop my teeth chattering, I squeezed my eyes shut and reminded myself how I’d come to be a central character in this horror story. (I know! I know! You wrote it?)

I could hear the voice of my mother, Rachel, in my head: her soft Scottish accent always sparks memories of my childhood on the outskirts of Edinburgh, where I grew up with my brother, sister and our many pets – even a boating lake and a secret garden. We had everything we could possibly want and were very happy – until the day when cancer took our mother from us and everything changed forever. She was only 53.

My sister fled to college and then went travelling, while my brother threw himself into work, following in our father’s footsteps in property. Needing my own escape and hoping to continue my mother’s mission to do good works in faraway places, I’d accepted a position as a volunteer at a commercial fishing lodge in Zambia. It was the most remote country on the list I was given and the one most in need. (In need of what exactly?)

“Find a bolt-hole as soon as you get there,” my father pleaded. “Somewhere to hide, just in case.” I’d laughed and assured him I’d be fine but now here I was on the jungle floor, in a fragile minefield of vines crawling with potentially lethal creatures – including the dreaded rain spiders, up to twelve inches across. (DREADED RAIN SPIDERS???? IN ZAMBIA??? OSANOBUA!)

My innocent dreams of teaching the villagers English or educating them about the world now seemed ridiculously naïve. (Why do you want to educate them about the world, do they not live in it? Is there anything you could learn about theirs? Since you obviously did not realise that it was NOT filled with dreaded rain spiders that are a foot long!)

With a cheery smile, I’d waved goodbye to Dad and jumped on a plane to Africa without researching anything about its tumultuous political history or realising that my destination – Lake Tanganyika – was just miles from war-torn Congo. (Ok! that is it! This sentence is filled with so much pernicious stereotyping, it deserves to be the posterchild for that trope. 1. Plane to Africa? There are over 200 airports in Africa, you cannot take a plane to ‘Africa’! She did not research the history of the continent?! If you were going to Madrid, Spain, would you research ALL European history? As for the rest, ok let us look at a picture…)

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So she was going to Lake Tanganyika, which was somehow in Zambia and miles from war-torn (everywhere in Africa is war-torn apparently, we need more tailors) Congo (note that she does not specify which Congo, Hint: there are two Congos in Africa). Ok. Shior!

Life was idyllic at first, a gap year student’s dream. My new home was beautiful and I made close friendships with the local Bemba people. I learned some of their language, planted a vegetable garden and created a little school under a Mukusi tree, writing about my experiences in my diary. I was still struggling with the loss of my mother and found special comfort in my bond with Zimba, a six-year-old orphan girl with HIV who called me “Ru-eese”.

(Somehow Bemba-is spoken in Tanganyika which has moved to Northern Zambia. Why not just say Simba? hmm? Revealing someone’s HIV status? Not cool. The people behind the Saviour Barbie instagram say that aid workers should act in the same way they would back home. “For example, nurses in America are not allowed to take Instagram photos of their patients and post emotionally captivating blurbs about how tragic their life is.” They note that in the US, and other Western countries “it was decided that a person’s privacy is more valuable than the need of the caretaker to have an emotional outlet” and the same standards should apply in Africa. )

But I soon learned that Africa is rife with hidden danger. (Since you travelled the whole of the continent???) I witnessed random acts of violence, contracted malaria and had close encounters with lions, elephants, crocodiles and snakes (Boo hoo hoo!). As monsoon season came and went, the Hutu-Tutsi conflict in neighbouring Congo began to escalate and then spill over into Zambia with repercussions all along the lake. Thousands of people were displaced and we heard brutal tales of rape and murder. (Again  pile of misinformation! Hutu and Tutsi conflict in Congo??? Spilled into Zambia? Tell me more, CNN missed that one!)

Then one day, without warning, armed rebels descended on our bay. Taken by surprise, I spent a night huddled with others in an old straw hut, hoping not to be found as we listened to the engines of the rebel boats drawing near. The next morning, I was faced with a dreadful dilemma. Should I stay and care for Zimba, risking my life? Or flee to the safety of my family and break her heart? (Personally I blame the makers of Tears in the Sun) The rebels would surely return and the plane to take me home wasn’t due for several weeks. Torn, I wept for my mother and for myself as I hadn’t wept in years. (Stupid question, I know, but if the plane was not due for weeks, where was the she fleeing too that Simba sorry, Zimba could not go?)

A mail plane arrived unexpectedly a few days later and – with its propellers still rotating – its pilot offered me a ride. But as I made the decision to board, Zimba ran wailing from the village and begged me to stay. So I did, but within days the rebels came again. (Yay! Saviour!) This time, I had no choice but to flee alone in a desperate attempt to stay alive. For hours on end, I remained on the jungle floor with no idea if I would make it or if any of the people I had come to love would survive. During my months in Africa I had become part of the same story that my mother started when she spent time administering medical treatment to the natives of Papua New Guinea as a young woman, but suddenly my story didn’t look like it was going to have such a happy ending.

How had I come to be in such a place and for what? To prove myself worthy of her? She would never have wanted me to end my days like this. That was when I knew, deep in my heart, that it was time to go home. (Such a place??!!)

My time in Zambia, and especially that long night in hiding, is imprinted on my mind now as a defining coming-of-age moment. It was the point at which my appreciation of the fragility of life – already shaped by my mother’s death – was fully realised.

Now that I’m a grown woman living in California and pursuing a very different dream – as an actress and film producer – I know that the skinny white girl once so incongruous in Africa still lives on inside me. Even in this world where I’m supposed to belong, I still sometimes feel out of place. Whenever that happens, though, I try to remember a smiling gap-toothed child with HIV whose greatest joy was to sit on my lap and drink from a bottle of Coca-Cola. Zimba taught me many beautiful words but the one I like the most is Nsansa. Happiness.

White people are not incongruous in Africa, certainly not in Zambia. The problem with this type of writing about Africa is that it denies equal humanity to African people. It reveals that this denial is entrenched, embedded deep in our collective subconscious and may never be overcome. And that is truly sad.

7 COMMENTS

  1. Where do I begin with this… A) Skinny white muzungu with the angel hair – who refers to themselves as that. B) Did they not teach her simple geography in her private school, even I knew that I was going to England and not Europe when i left the comfort of my parents (yes! everyone makes that difficult trip abroad to help the less fortunate). and wasn’t she going to volunteer in a commercial fishing lodge – how did she then have notions of teaching English and teaching them about a world they live in when she clearly doesn’t even know what country she is residing in. While we are it, let’s address her, She accepted the volunteer position – stately like it was a ministerial position besotted unto her for her prior humanitarian efforts when we all know you have to apply for these positions and fund raise or already have funding means for the period of your stay in “Africa”.

    And excuse me, if there was an actual conflict in Congo-Zambia-Africa, what happened to the British Consulate. I personally know this is where one goes in times of conflict when on foreign soil and the British are quite good at extracting their citizens – i know because i had loved ones in Sierra Leone in the 1990s who managed to get out in 2 days – the most terrifying thing they endured was driving to the hotel amidst bullet sprays and even met the rebels in their hotel room, tried to run but were told to get their bloody passport and some cash and run. These people were white, British people by the way. So pardon me if I do no believe a mail plane could land (without been shot down, and the escape plane wasn’t due for another few weeks…because we like to keep to our schedules).

    Aunty Foluke, I can carry on but i haff tiya for this Saviour Barbies o. I should perhaps publish my account on how my notion of England was dented when I went to educate he English people about a post-colonial world. {insert distinct eye roll}

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