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Binyavanga Wainaina’s ‘How To Write About Africa’ and the Dangers of the Single Story

Written by Megan Sickmueller. How do colonial and orientalist ideas of Africa linger in the Western imagination? And what enduring problems do such false images maintain? Megan Sickmueller examines Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina's ‘scathingly satirical’ piece on this complex topic.


One must treat Africa as if it were one country… [of] 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. 

Summed up in two sentences, this is the representation of Africa by Binyavanga Wainaina in his ‘scathingly satirical’ piece, ‘How to Write about Africa’. This piece exposes the Orientalist narrative on the continent and highlights the neo-colonial tendency to reinforce structural stereotypes and prejudices. 

‘How to Write about Africa’ provides a Westernized view of the continent as a homogenous place and people, dependent on the charity of the Occident. Its intended audience is Western journalists who continuously reinforce narratives of Africa as being on the one hand, dependent and weak, and on the other, a place of significant natural beauty and culture, ideal for a holiday to escape ‘reality’. Wainaina’s diction plays into a Eurocentric fetish for exoticism, issuing instructions to use words like ‘Darkness’, ‘Safari’, ‘Zulu’, and ‘Shadow’ when talking or writing about Africa. As a tool for reinforcing a singular narrative, he consistently promotes the usage of ambiguity and generalizations when describing the continent. In describing African people, Wainaina emphasises the distinction between using ‘The People’ for Black Africans and ‘People’ for Africans who are not Black in order to maintain the idea of sameness of Black African identity. Furthermore, he lays out a dichotomy of African characters. Here, the first group is identified as ‘naked warriors, loyal servants, diviners and seers, ancient wise men living in hermitic splendour,’ and the other, ‘corrupt politicians inept polygamous travel-guides, and prostitutes’. 

Indeed, Wainaina warns readers to never use, ‘a picture of a well-adjusted African… unless that African has won the Nobel Peace Prize’ in order to prevent another image of Africa to emerge. Wainaina promotes the constant reminder of desolation and hunger bearing down on the continent, the need for the white saviour and the simplicity of ‘The People’ in order to achieve a representation that caters to the Western mindset, particularly to philanthropists. 

In an interview with Al Jazeera, Wainaina spoke about how the Western media reinforces stereotypes and pre-existing ideas of Africa, continuously exhibiting the image of the starving orphan since the 1990s. He stated that ‘the world of humanitarianism and aid in Africa is designed to keep people passive, dependent and [to] allow power’ in the form of neo-colonialism and neo-liberalism. This is an application of passive authority, in the sense that neo-colonial aid influences decisions and policies by promoting dependency. The link between this 21st century narrative of the continent and its colonial history is direct and visible in two ways. The first is the foreshortening of African history pre-partition.   The ‘modern’ history of Africa from a scholarly Western perspective is fascinated with the colonial era yet the longue durée is often dismissed in scholar’s works, and so the effects of imperialism on present day Africa are often neglected. This is highlighted by Wainaina when he states: ‘blame the West for Africa’s situation. But do not be too specific’. Ambiguity and generalisations stem from this concept of ‘presentism… [which] drives much scholarly output, whether consciously or otherwise’. Secondly, colonialists ‘served their own interests best by a rigid group identity and a racism increasingly shorn of old-fashioned paternalism’, a continuity so clearly seen today in the Western perceptions of Africa and Africans as dependent, homogenous and unusual in comparison to the Western concept of the ‘modern norm’.  Thus, the implication to the study of contemporary Africa is that the entire narrative will be forced to accommodate an African perspective by a power shift, which will most likely result in the destabilization of the Occident. 

There are a few elements of the Western perceptions mentioned above to expand on, particularly its reductive nature, ambiguity and saviour complex, which result in the possessiveness Western powers feel over the continent. The homogenous nature of the Western narrative of Africa is a consequence of 

the obsession with the modern [that] has led to the marginalization of the deep past, which means in effect that historians are increasingly fixated on the tip at the expense of the iceberg.  

Thus, the limitation of research into pre-colonial Africa in relation to power implies the fear of Occidental nations of being upstaged or squared by the rich histories of the continent. The idea of Africa as a ‘savage’ and ‘dark’ place would thus be redundant and the continents’ global platform would be, as Wainaina desires, worthy of legitimate attention. The idea of obscurity, brought up repeatedly in Wainaina’s essay, fortifies the reductive nature of the Western perception as it leaves space for presumptions which often justify the imposition of international policies and non-governmental organisations under the cover of international aid. On a political platform, NGOs especially have been ‘placing the blame for structural problems on African governments’ and acting as a surrogate government in the meantime. From this political substitution emerges the trope known as ‘white saviourism’. This is solely a self-serving gesture which opens the door for others to see it as an act of charity because ‘without your intervention… Africa is doomed’. Victimizing the continent and its people is a method of attaining and maintaining superiority glossed over by the label of philanthropist. Infiltrating a country through the guise of humanitarianism results not only in their imposition on political, social and economic platforms, but also reduces the legitimacy and evolution of a powerful Africa. This is not to say that all international aid is negative, but simply that relations between the West and Africa are mostly relations of inequality and dependence relative to power. In Wainaina’s sentimental descriptions of white saviours, he draws upon the Western perception of the helpless African in desperate need of a hero to explain the possessiveness felt by the Occident as a by-product of ‘salvation’. The dramatized nature of his words merely shows how absurd the Western image is of Africa. This places the accountability for the study of contemporary Africa on Western scholarship and media, challenging them to report the complexity of the relations rather than a simplified version. 

Illustrated by Melanie Wu.

A notable challenge in the re-representation procedure of Western narratives is how African people are depicted. As mentioned earlier, Wainaina suggests the use of ‘The People’ as a collective term for all Black Africans, thus establishing a lack of heterogeneity. He exhibits this idea through generalisations such as: ‘make sure you show how Africans have music and rhythm deep in their souls, and eat things no other human eats’. This brings the question of authenticity to light; what criteria needs to be met for one to be classified as authentically African? Culture and tradition have often been the standards used to define authenticity; however, a serious problem emerges when they are juxtaposed with modernity. Contradictory elements of stagnation and evolution, preservation and transformation often come to mind when thinking about culture and tradition. This kind of mindset, like the Western narrative of Africa, is outdated. Conceptualizations have immobilized the definition of culture and tradition into a global standard, and in Africa’s case, this definition ‘can mark not simply mental colonization or capitulation to cultural imperialism, but an aspiration to overcome categorical subordination’.

The idea of a single story itself is a Western tradition of describing Africa as it ‘show[s] a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become’. The two examples used by Wainaina of a Westernised single story is the ‘fat man who steals and works in the visa office, refusing to give work permits to qualified Westerners who really care about Africa,’ and ‘The Starving African’, who is always a helpless woman. The former image is slowly being drawn to a close. Talk of corruption as an ‘African problem’ is taking its place, even though grand corruption is part of a global system, described by Wainaina as a ‘system of rot’ when talking about Kenya; the rotten side of a neo-colonial country that never fully reformed. The latter, though a very real concern across the continent, is still a dominant narrative that victimizes African women and reduces them to a shell for charity, taking away their humanity in the process.

This projection of Western ideology has produced a ‘Third World Woman’ as a singular monolithic subject in some recent (Western) feminist texts, which have colonized the material and historical heterogeneities of African women’s lives. How an African person is described is thus one of the serious implications to the study of contemporary Africa brought to life through Wainaina’s essay. It challenges the notion of the single story, which has thus far been the dominant story in Western media, and consequently the power dynamic that comes with it. 

All in all, Binyavanga Wainaina’s piece exhibits an Africa of Western conceptualization through the lens of satire and criticism. It is the neo-colonial constructs of homogeneity and dependency that he is challenging and that, in turn, he uses to challenge the works on contemporary Africa. Therefore, the implication for the study is not the content in Wainaina’s essay, but rather, the reality behind it. The Western narrative of Africa has been exploited by Western authors, scholars and media to such an extent that there is only a single view of Africa shared in the minds of Occidental populations. The solution to the single story is thus the equal distribution of power to the narrative because 

the consequence of the single story is this: it robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of an equal humanity difficult. It emphasises how we are different, rather than similar. 

Written by Megan Sickmueller

Bibliography 

Wainaina, Binyavanga. “How to Write About Africa.” Accessed February 25, 2021. www.granta.com/how-to-write-about-africa/. 

Wainaina, Binyavanga. “Binyavanga Wainaina: Rewriting Africa.” Interview by Al Jazeera. April 13, 2013. Video, 25:00. https://www.aljazeera.com/program/talk-to-al-jazeera/2013/4/13/binyavanga-wainaina-rewriting-africa/. 

Ferguson, James. Global Shadows. New York, USA: Duke University Press, 2020. 

Freund, Bill. The Making of Contemporary Africa: The Development of African Society since 1800. London; New York, NY: Palgrave, 2016.  

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses.” Feminist Review 30, no. 1 (1988): 61-88. 

Ngozi, Adiche, Chimamanda. “The danger of a single story.” Filmed July 2009 at TEDGlobal. Video, 18:33. www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_ngozi_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story. 

Radelet, Steven. Emerging Africa. New York: Brookings Institution Press, 2010. 

Reid, Richard. “PAST AND PRESENTISM: THE ‘PRECOLONIAL’ AND THE FORESHORTENING OF AFRICAN HISTORY.” Journal of African History 52, no. 2 (2011): 135-55. 

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