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Out of a liberal’s Africa

Misinformation about Africa has become a growth industry in the West.
~ Ama Biney

I think I need a new category called ‘pissed off’ pieces.  Cos every now and then I stumble across an article that makes me so mad I just want to hurl fury and insults.  Steeped as I am at present in the problem of re-presentation (particularly in mass media) of brown masculine bodies, this takes me away from what I’ve been trying to write for some weeks.  And yet its not unrelated.  I’ve been wrestling with Baudrillard’s notion of the hyper-real.  His idea that simulacra, likenesses or images, are not merely a re-presentation or distortion of reality; they function to hide the fact there’s no reality to stand in for.  Makes perfect sense to me – about how so much of what we take in, consume, is complete fiction.  Only we’ve eaten the same thing so many times we can’t imagine it tasting any different.  These images, and other forms of re-presentation are not merely benign fantasy.  They allow for things.  Imaginary sure, but with real life consequences.

Take Africa, and the pictures above.  I have a thing about tri-partite imaging at the moment, don’t ask me why.  From left-to-right: Africa the untamed (wild, bestial, savage – in need of taming, read: must be dominated), Africa the child (small, helpless, simple-minded – in need of good parenting, read: must be dominated) Africa the woman (seductive, exotic, inviting, ripe for penetration – in need of … well, need I say more? read: must be dominated).  So, a continent crying out for colonisation then – gotcha.

It is an entire book itself, documenting the mis-representation of Africa.  Actually the book has already been written.  Several no doubt.  Sadly they’re languishing on the dusty back shelf of the no longer-existent corner bookstore – “a(nother) book on Africa? Pffft, we soooo already know Africa”.  That is the power of multiple re-presentations; photographs, art, movies, television, novels, history texts, brochures and so on essentially showing the same thing – Africa the monolith.  Not the second largest piece of dirt on the planet housing 54 separate countries/nation states  (countries being colonial products themselves in Africa, but we won’t go there).  Not over a billion people comprising several thousand ethnicities and speaking just as many distinct languages.  Africa.  Singular, static, knowable.

Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina, knows about (mis)re-presentations-as-fantasy.  6 years ago he produced an article titled How to Write About Africa – a satirical and scathing critique of re-presentations in books, couched in literary advice:

Always use the word ‘Africa’ or ‘Darkness’ or ‘Safari’ in your title … Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these … 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.

Gotta love it, right?  Yet these simulacra of Africa persist.  Like in the article that today had me getting my rage on – a very liberal article, in a very liberal UK newspaper – The Guardian.  It is a selection of the Top 10 memoirs to come out of Africa.  Ostensibly a celebration of the fine writing to emerge in recent decades, upon reading the article I felt disturbed by the ease with which the descriptions Binyavanga pokes fun at above, emerge.  Along with the already highlighted images at the top.  From the very first line:

“Alexandra Fuller was born in England but moved to Africa with her family when she was two.  She left Africa in 1994 with her husband to move to Wyoming.”

So the author wasn’t born in the United Kingdom then?  She came from a country, but went to a continent.  Then left that continent to go to a State.  I guess we don’t need to know what African country she went to, after all: this is ‘Africa’.  {Image: singular Africa}

“The memoirs that have come out of Africa are sometimes startlingly beautiful, often urgent, and essentially life-affirming, but they are all performances of courage and honesty”

Celebratory, sure.  But in what situations or places does one require ‘courage’ and ‘honesty’?  Places that are quintessentially dangerous and dishonest of course! {Image: Africa the untamed}

“Far from the tell-all confessionals more usual in western memoirs, the African memoir lays bare the bones of what it is to be a child, survivor, or perpetrator of oppression and conflict.”

In the ‘West’ we are so refined and embarrassingly self-reflective: ‘we’ sit around navel-gazing apparently.  While over there its all madness, mayhem and violence.  Bonus for mentioning bones.  {Image: Africa the untamed}

“Wainaina’s Africa is not all glamorous poverty and backlit giraffes.  It’s an Africa in which the lost are perpetually leading the blind, and yet still somehow find their way home”

Ironically, Binyavanga Wainaina quoted above also makes the Top 10 list.  Given his critique I can’t imagine Wainaina having ‘his Africa‘ let alone decorating it with props.  The lost leading the blind … paternalistic?  {Image: Africa the child}

“What is often shocking, but very effective, is the humour evident in so many of these works, laughter being an essential survival technique for so many Africans”

I’m banging my head on the wall now… tears and everything.  And not of laughter.  Though laughter may be an essential technique for surviving re-presentations of Africa.  When survival is all that is possible, what can one do but laugh? {Image: Africa the child}

“one of the least sentimental books ever written about an African childhood (in this case, Sierra Leone)”

In this case, but you know – it could have been anywhere.  Cos its an AFRICAN childhood.  Would memoirs from Greece, Austria, Italy ever be drawn on to explore ‘a European childhood’? {Image: singular Africa}

“This autobiography from the woman who is Africa’s first (and, at present count, only) female head of state”

As opposed to where the writer now lives, where there have been … none!  The destruction of matrilineal tribal structures through colonial ‘civilising’ be damned…

“my own memoirs of Africa, are written from a white African point of view, but explore the ways in which the land possesses all of us who love it – regardless of ethnicity”.

The land possessed us, not the other way round, k?  If you were wondering.  And in case you missed it – Image: Africa the woman.  But to really cut to the heart of this statement I’ll refer back to Binyavanga’s brilliant 2005 piece:

Establish early on that your liberalism is impeccable, and mention near the beginning how much you love Africa, how you fell in love with the place and can’t live without her.

Even when you do.  Half a world away.  But I’m being unfair.  This isn’t about the author, who’s admiration for the memoirs highlighted reads as genuine.  After all, she’s recommending reading African writing.  Hence she’s no Andrew Bolt; however as I’ve said before the identification of ‘the racist’ in the form of an Andrew Bolt or a multitude of others, is always a red herring.  It is about an ideology of white superiority that draws its power from the limits and fixedness it places around the darkened ‘other’.  A racist ideology that circulates through mass communication we all participate in and are subject to.  It is about the ease with which the familiar images and stereotypes of Africa can slip through consciousness and out of mouths.  Or keyboards.  Without any evil intent.  That’s the power of hegemonic or dominating representations.  It is instructive in how a desire simply to celebrate and congratulate, can still fall prey to the re-production of yet another layer of colonial nonsense.  Particularly when we don’t realise the simulacra we draw on may present an Africa that is familiar, but not one that is real.  As Morpheus says in the movie The Matrix (which drew its inspiration from Baudrillard’s work) “It is the [Africa] that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth(s)”.

Thanks to Africa is a Country for the image (click on the image to go
to Mapping Stereotypes Project)

♦ ◊ ♦ ◊ ♦

For an interesting read on how even consideration of a single nation-state like Kenya, and its peoples, opens up diverse lived realities, go here.  It renders the notion of a singular Africa even more absurd.

Disclaimer: Written by a Māori woman who is not of, nor has ever been, to any part of Africa.  With no claim to know what Africa in its beautiful complexity is, simply to question what it perhaps is not.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Africa the child is one I see everyday on my college campus. Canvassers for Save the Children and Children’s International are all over campus, with photos of African and Latin American children. It’s funny when I walk past them and they seem sort of awkward, like they never expected to see a full grown African.

    Have you stumbled onto the Africa Is A Country blog yet? See here:

    October 28, 2011
    • Bearer of discomfort #

      Perhaps its because you didn’t have your AK47? 🙂 I have stumbled onto it now, and added it to my ‘follow’ list, thanks.

      October 28, 2011
  2. Kia ora, – I reckon Joseph Conrad’s hideously over rated and generalized book , Heart of Darkeness, holds a special place here.

    October 28, 2011
    • Bearer of discomfort #

      True Robb, I read a critique somewhere that would have agreed with you. I did wonder how to work the ‘heart of darkness’ line in there… bugger, forgot!

      October 28, 2011
  3. pip #

    Hi Bearer,

    I just stumbled across to your blog from He Hoaka. Wow, i’m really enjoying the clarity and detail and radical power of your writing. It’s stimulating and refreshing. Thank you!
    This piece made me think of some critical writing by Toni Morrison that I read, can’t remember the title… it was about the weight, the metaphorical burden that blackness carries in the white literary imagination (yeah, she talks about Heart of Darkness) … how all sort of things can be projected out from white psyches and onto black people/continents etc, because black people are not imagined as proper subjects, just metaphors.

    And how that’s actually kind of crap writing but it escapes everyone’s notice. I like that! She kind of turns the tables, says to the white literary establishment, it’s not that Black people are ruining your aesthetic project by bringing politics into it… racism was making you lazy and ruining your aesthetic all along, and this might help you get back on track. That’s what i took from it, tho was a while ago that i read it.

    thanks again for your writing,

    November 8, 2011
    • Bearer of discomfort #

      Thanks Pip! I’d heard Toni Morrison had written some great stuff along those very lines, now you’ve inspired me to go look it up, especially for the piece I’m writing at the moment. Thanks for your comments too – welcome any time 🙂

      November 8, 2011

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