How Africans Should Write About Africa

How Africans Should Write About Africa

It was Chinua Achebe who said, “Until the lions have their own historians, the story of the hunt will always favour the hunter.”

This simply means that if you don’t tell your own stories the right way, everybody else will tell it for you the wrong way.

For the longest time, African stories have either been written by foreigners, people who wrote about us from their own—and often biased—perspective or by Africans with a desire to appeal to foreign markets. So, you often have stories that are centred on poverty, sickness, death, corruption, safaris and luxury and white saviours who come to make everything better.

Writing about Africa in this way has given skewed ideas to the rest of the world about who we are. It’s fostered several grave misconceptions. For instance, many people are still surprised when they learn that Africa is an entire continent of fifty-tow countries.

Because a lot of the literature about us focuses on describing us as this small collection of homogeneous people who all speak the same barbaric language. This is further reinforced by the interpretation of said literature in film. The news media doesn’t help much either; Africa is presented as a place where there are little growth and innovation. Its natives presumably live in extreme poverty and illiteracy and are still afflicted by old diseases that the rest of the world has overcome. Even in 2019 you still find a lot of people outside our shores that think we live in trees or mud huts.

Luckily, African exports like Trevor Noah are doing their best to re-educate the west about this notion through different platforms.

But the change really has to start from within. In this time and age when everyone is urged to ‘live their truth,’ our truth as the lion is to narrate the hunting tale in our own words and our own way. If you are prepared to do this, then here are a few pointers:

a. Write honestly and avoid the dangers of a single story. Ours is a continent of several countries and different races. We’ve got black people on most of the continent, descendants of white and Arab colonialists and Indians in the north and south of Africa who live here and are called Africans.

Be aware of this and represent all these characters in your story as fairly as possible. This beautiful continent is home to over a thousand five hundred languages, and an innumerable number of layered cultural practices.

Diversity runs through our veins. It’d be a crime to write about us like ‘one’ people.

b. Don’t romanticise. Whether it is poverty or safari porn, the truth is that we’re much more than luxury travel spots and malaria. We are, like the rest of the world, constantly growing and evolving. While war and archaic customs are bestsellers, there’s a wealth of love, history, innovators, mythology, economic booms, music, spirituality, revolutions to write about. I’m not saying you shouldn’t state the obvious, but try and let ALL truths matter.

c. Own your words. We often read foreign novels in which terms are left unexplained and unitalicized. However, it is common in our literature to find words like moin-moin, either italicised or described as bean cakes. There is no need for this. To always anglicise our words is an unhealthy trend. You might be robbing your readers of the joy of discovering more by googling. And you’re robbing your culture of the opportunity to speak in its own tones.

Modern English utilizes borrowed words from cultures and languages from all over the world. Imagine if those cultures had given convenient Anglicisation of those terms? Then beautiful words like wanderlust, guru, karaoke, cigar and zeitgeist might never have existed. But if you MUST explain, tack on a glossary of terms at the end of your spiel.

d. Don’t be afraid to imagine an African past or future. Sometimes, in this part of the world, we get obsessed with writing stories that people can ‘identify with’ or what we term, ‘realistic’. While realism and identity are good things, it not advisable to limit our imagination to recent history. Readers know what’s realistic; give them something larger than life that they can escape into. In my view, that is one of the main functions of fiction.
Now, go tell our stories and tell them the right way.

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