By Alejandro Gutierrez
How To Write About Africa by Binyavanga Wainaina is one of the most extraordinary essays I have ever read. I have always been interested in knowing how Africans think about the world and how they think about other people perceive them. This essay, definitively, opened my eyes and the way I used to think. The interpretation, which the world at large maintains about Africa and Africans, appears cliché; we have socially constructed this fixed image of the culture. In this paper I will address three elements of How To Write About Africa: the first is related to the stereotypes that people have about Africans and how academics and writers refer to Africa; secondly about the images that Africans have about themselves; and third the reasons for, causes and effects of these images. Finally this paper will give some suggestion of how to addresses these issues.
Firstly, stereotypes and clichés about Africa abound in my mind. The images of Africa that the world knows are connected with safaris, jungles, animals, music as Binyavanga Wainaina mentions in his essay, but when it is time to talk about people it is connected with poverty, HIV/AIDS, conflicts, wars, or even the uneducated people. These constructions about Africa come from various sources- among them from the newspaper, television shows, and so on, but most of them are reinforced through academia and songs.
When students some where around the word but Africa need to read articles, books, or news about Africa they refer to Africa as
the poorest continent without making distinction among countries. For example, a vast majority of Hollywood films about Africa are somehow comical or tragic, constructing negatives images about Africans. I remember, The Gods Must Be Crazy, Shaka Zulu, Blood Diamond, and many more, even in my native language, Spanish, which promoted stereotypes about what Africa represents. The negative aspect about this is that these images do not represent the people of Africa. Africa is more than just safaris, jungles, poverty or AIDS. How To Write About Africa calls us to reflect with a more critical lens about Africa and its people.
Secondly when considering the images that Africans might have about themselves in relationship to the manner by which they are portrayed in the media, Africans may consider themselves as such. For example, the Hollywood film Blood Diamond touches upon one of these realities shared amongst many Africans who work searching for diamonds. However, this film depicts a white person as a villain and then as a hero. The image of the hero is critical because it will reinforce these fixed images of blacks and whites. On the other hand, the African character plays a role as a victim and always makes the wrong decision or loses. These images confirm for people, and not only among Africans, but also among other cultures, that Africans cannot be heroes and moreover that white people do no harm but instead white people can “fix” Africans and white people always win.
Thirdly, we must consider the cause and effect of these negatives images on Africans. Because of these films are so public, they create a stereotype in society about Africans. Usually, the depiction of a very obscure location propels this agenda forward. Yet when films such as The Gods Must Be Crazy, Shaka Zulu, and Blood Diamond send negative images of Africa, as a result people in the US, Mexico, El Salvador, Bolivia, Kosovo, or anywhere else for that matter, will share in these images of Africa. It is as if Africa is just one big country, meaning black, AIDS, poverty and misery. When in reality, the purpose behind making films should be to promote the values, identity, culture, and to preserve the essentialness of culture.
On the other hand, Hollywood films about the US, for example, do not always show the truth about the American culture. Many of these Hollywood films project an image of Americans that probably does not exist, but this image is generally good and broadly accepted by Americans. For example, Captain America shows an American with the “typical” characteristics: white, blonde, always hoping for a better look. When he becomes part of an experiment Capital America becomes strong and muscular. The use of steroids is accepted and he defends Americans from their enemies. The world has many images of beauty, honesty, and happiness, but unfortunately these images even in America are often of white people, whereas the images of a sad, poor and miserable people are often black people. The images of these classifications create social conventions among societies. White people need to prove that they fulfill these stereotypes and black people somehow need to be comfortable with that negative conception of them. To alter these images would mean altering the order or social behavior and could be considered abnormal.
Finally and as a conclusion, it is important to RETHINK our vision of Africa. Academics, writers and the media need to re-construct the image of fifty-four countries in Africa. We, the people, need to explore more about Africa and learn about their culture and identity. We, the people, need to de-construct and re-construct new and true depictions of fifty-four countries in Africa.
It is easy to absorb things that we do not experience, but we should not believe every thing we see or hear. If we, the people, could write and say things that have not been said yet about Africa this would probably be considered as abnormal behavior, however at the same time could also build a new image of Africa- an image that is crying out to be known, seen and heard.