A book must be the biggest act of presumption it is possible to commit. If you’re a white westerner writing about Africa, that arrogance reaches dizzying levels. What gives a spoilt bourgeois, who didn’t even grow up there, the right to interpret the continent for the world?
The only answer can be: I have devoted years on the continent to listening and learning; I have done my homework as conscientiously as I know how; and it’s just possible, because I have spent so much time learning to write accessibly about foreign cultures, that I may be able to serve as a bridge between two cultural viewpoints.
… I realised that my conversations with aspirant writers, and there have been dozens, had one thing in common: they all involved the male of the species. Africa is full of female reporters who tramp through Darfur’s refugee camps and grit their teeth during Mogadishu firefights. Yet not one of these indomitable females has ever called me for the Quick Guide to Successful African Book Writing. I think I know the reason. It’s the same one that ensured I tried my hand at being an author only after 16 years of journalism. Women probably see an Africa book as featuring Africa first, their own exploits second. They fear they know too little, have nothing original to say. Even in this neo-feminist era, they have a sneaking suspicion they are not worthy.
Which reminds me of the timeless How To Write About Africa. Here’s an excerpt, but read the whole thing:
Your African characters may include naked warriors, loyal servants, diviners and seers, ancient wise men living in hermitic splendour. Or corrupt politicians, inept polygamous travel-guides, and prostitutes you have slept with. The Loyal Servant always behaves like a seven-year-old and needs a firm hand; he is scared of snakes, good with children, and always involving you in his complex domestic dramas. The Ancient Wise Man always comes from a noble tribe (not the money-grubbing tribes like the Gikuyu, the Igbo or the Shona). He has rheumy eyes and is close to the Earth. The Modern African is a fat man who steals and works in the visa office, refusing to give work permits to qualified Westerners who really care about Africa. He is an enemy of development, always using his government job to make it difficult for pragmatic and good-hearted expats to set up NGOs or Legal Conservation Areas. Or he is an Oxford-educated intellectual turned serial-killing politician in a Savile Row suit. He is a cannibal who likes Cristal champagne, and his mother is a rich witch-doctor who really runs the country.