writing about africa. . . a simple exercise or a skill?

When writing about Africa many times it is difficult to bring the proper perspective or ‘view’. So often people write about Africa with the view, that many of us have come to know, from the myths of Africa. The old myths of a ‘dark’ continent, Heart of Darkness, uncivilized, and savage to the new myths of a continent wrought with poverty, disease, and conflict, these are all too often emphasized in writings about Africa. That, I would say, is a poor representation of Africa, its many countries, and its many peoples. In her blog, Acumen Fund Fellow Jocelyn Wyatt, writes about her training in writing about Africa before being stationed in Kenya for eight months. She tells us of three views often evident in writings about Africa. I will allow her writing to continue this message. And I hope, that I can write about Africa with a critical eye and not with a jaded or an overly simplistic mindset. I hope to understand the intricacies of Africa and not look too far past the idea that all people are more alike than they are different.

From My Year as an Acumen Fellow – 3 Views on Africa:

The Acumen Fund Fellows have been fortunate to meet many inspiring leaders and engage in plenty of thought-provoking discussions over the past four weeks. The question about how to write and talk about Africa has been raised several times. In April, Jacqueline referenced “How to Write About Africa” on this blog and discussed it with the fellows during the first week of orientation. This piece exposes the simplicity of how most people write about Africa and inspired us to think about how to do it in a different way.

View 1 – The Outsider Who Gets It: Gayle Smith, currently a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, and former journalist and senior staff member of the National Security Council and USAID, spoke to the Acumen Fund fellows about her work in Africa and as a member of the U.S. government. Many people don’t understand the appeal of living in the developing world, and I often have trouble articulating it. After living in East Africa for 20 years, Gayle explained it well, It was easier and more satisfying to live there than in the U.S. There’s a sense there’s something bigger than you there. In D.C., there is nothing bigger than any of us. While working for various NGOs in Africa, Gayle saw that there were stories that needed to be told and insisted that the media print them. Gayle’s unique combination as an outsider with extensive experience in East Africa provided her an honest view of the culture, people, politics, and economy and her understanding of the complexities led to her success as a journalist.

View 2 – The Insider Who Exposes It: The book Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe is a powerful reflection on the introduction of western culture and colonization to a Nigerian village. When it was published in 1959, it was probably the first book written by an African that most Americans read. Achebe’s novel is honest and extremely critical of the colonial forces who he recognized did not see anything in Africa that was larger than themselves. As an insider, Achebe delivers us well-rounded and real characters and aptly describes the complex forces that pulled Nigerian villages apart.

View 3 – The Outsider Who Simplifies It: In the recently released movie, The Last King of Scotland, a young doctor from Scotland moves to Uganda to work in a rural health clinic. He becomes Idi Amin’s personal physician and gets caught up in the ruthless dictatorship. The film begins with colorful, stereotypical footage of Africa, people singing and dancing on the side of the road, a beautiful African woman seducing a young westerner, and an older white doctor and his wife “saving” a village of Africans at their rural clinic. As the movie goes on, Uganda becomes a much darker, more corrupt, and violent place as Amin’s rule becomes harsher. Even in a ‘flat,’ globalized world, we are frequently exposed to such stereotypical portrayals of Africa: one that is simple, happy and colorful, and the other that is dark, corrupt and violent. While an interesting story with strong characters, in an effort to simplify the context, the film does little to accurately showcase Uganda.

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