Speaking Beyond Stereotypes!

Derefe Chevannes

How many times you heard folks referring to Africa, not as a continent but a country? It’s, “are you African?” rather than “are you from Kenya? Or, Uganda? Or, the Congo, even?”     

Or, how many images do we see daily with starving kids with big bellies lying in the dirt waiting to die? Or, how many times do we see lions, giraffes or hippos being the image of the African animal? Also, let’s talk honestly about images of corrupt politicians and bankrupted, poor nations that seem to represent all countries on the continent. How many times have we heard those narratives? And, it’s not that they are untrue, but that they are NOT representative of Africa’s vast diversity.

This is the problem winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing, Binyavanga Wainaina is having.The 41 year old Kenyan journalist and author has been in the news of late, with his published piece entitled, How to Write About Africa. Wainaina speaks to this issue when he says, “In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or, it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book.”
Wainaine expatiates about the ignorance and God-complex that often embody the Western writer who believes his particular account of the African ‘dilemma’ is not only accurate but also vital to the development of the continent.
Wainaina is asking us to use other colours to paint Africa, because things are just not black and white. And, I think that’s fair. He laments the prolific display of negative images about Africa and its people as helpless victims who are to be pitied and are emasculated of any sense of self-determination.
So, the next time, when you discuss Africa, for heaven’s name, be specific. And, when you talk about Africa, try to mention things other than “starving Children [with] flies on their eyelids and pot bellies.” Now tell me, what else can you say about the continent of Africa that most people don’t know? What, dare I ask, are some of its redeeming qualities?


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