Why it’s hard to write about Africa



It’s hard to write about Africa, especially if you want to capture the truth.

A few years ago, I took an African pop culture course that began with Binyavanga Wainaina’s essay “How to Write About Africa.” His article sarcastically critiques the way Africa and Africans are portrayed by the Western media.

He further challenges people to look beyond the stereotypes and see the far more complex reality of Africans and their unique sense of modernity.

After reading his essay, I began to conceptualize Africa in new ways, but it was still hard for me to convey my newfound discovery of the true Africa to others.

Whenever people find out I have lived in West Africa, I’m asked questions like “Weren’t you afraid of the lions?” or “Didn’t it make you feel so blessed to be surrounded by such poverty?”

Both of these questions and similar inquiries deeply offend me. But more than that, they sadden me.

I wish people could see and experience the Africa I know. Throughout my experiences in Ghana, people have shared with me kindness, strength, joy and respect. I wish they could see beyond the wildlife, poverty and sickness they associate with Africa and see the people instead.

The great beauty of Africa is its diversity. It is a modern yet traditional continent. These qualities are juxtaposed and manifested in unique ways across the land.

Some areas have large shopping malls, universities and boutiques, whereas others are filled with open drainage, shacks and people begging for food.

Both images and environments are equally African. They just tell different stories and reflect different realities.

Attempting to deem which one is more authentically African is a poor use of time and energy.

The problem I always encounter when writing about my experiences in Ghana is capturing reality. Ghana is not perfect. There are many things that are in flux.

Yet, there are also a lot of great things happening. The trouble as a writer then becomes the choice of whether to focus on the progress made or critique the failures.

In a place as diverse as Ghana, there is not one story. There are many stories. Each individual has a unique experience and perception of his or her environment.

Therefore, I encourage each of you reading this article to read what other people have to say about Africa. Do not merely trust my personal opinions and experiences.

Instead, venture elsewhere and look for other people’s experiences, especially listening to Africans’ voices and opinions of themselves.

It is only through this curiosity one can learn about another group of people, and that is by realizing there are many ways of interpreting Africa and life around the world.

­— tmkennel@indiana.edu

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