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Speaking About Africa: The Danger of a Single Story

The greatest enemy of any one of our truths may be the rest of our truths.
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Harare Regional Library. Photograph by Book Aid International.

Africans have always spun their own narratives, and interpreted others from the broader world. Hieroglyphics described ancient Egypt to modern man. The anti-colonial dramas of Négritude roused passions around the Francophone world. In 1949, after rejecting the Roman alphabet, Solomana Kanté invented the N’Ko writing system, which revelled in the tonalities of West African Mande speakers and was used by devotees to translate all manner of scholarly and religious texts. Julius Nyerere translated Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” and “The Merchant of Venice” into Kiswahili. Painters, historians, thespians, writers, filmmakers and musicians have all uploaded their stories into a greater narrative, some of whom have names which resonate globally, like Chinua Achebe, Fela Kuti, and Chéri Samba. And so have journalists, whether in the vaunted pages of South Africa’s Mail and Guardian or the infamous broadcasts of Rwanda’s Radio Télévision Libre de Milles Collines.

But there has long been a chorus of simplifying, erroneous, corrosive, and misleading narratives informing the popular impression of Africa outside the continent. These stories are historical, journalistic, and artistic. For Western audiences, imagining a true portrait of the continent, one that includes its banalities alongside its sensations, is a reverie too often disturbed by narrative productions suffering shortcomings in structure, spirit, and knowledge. Aside from the prejudices of early Western historians, there are also the conflict-constructions of both journalistic and dramatic storytelling to shade the picture.

All of these narratives – past, present and forthcoming – combine to give the world an ever-complicating impression of an immensely complicated place. They have been created over time by outsiders and insiders alike, as well as people whose identities borrow from both categories, like members of diasporic communities or the children of colonial settlers. They engage in dialogue with each other, holding conversations that enlighten the picture of Africa. But, in the Western imagination, stereotypical stories of famines, cheetahs and bullet-belts eclipse nearly everything. Increasingly, as with any serious effort to understand the world, it’s up to audiences to think critically, compare widely, and suspend their conclusions.

Visible transition: The symbolism of the Kony2012 backlash

Jason Russell could not have seen it coming. The backlash against Invisible Children and their Kony2012 campaign spread quickly enough, but such is speed these days that it seemed glacial as Russell’s video championed 70 million hits in a few days, with a reported $5 million in donations. Not only were the stories of Joseph Kony, Uganda, Sudan, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) told through the narrowest and self-aggrandising of views, a broader impression was lent to millions of young people that one could learn enough to contribute to profound events in only a matter of about 29 minutes of brain-dope.

But there was a backlash, maybe on an unprecedented scale. By way of a comparison, the movie Machine Gun Preacher, a 2011 biopic flick based on the life of Sam Childers was another LRA narrative. It sailed into the popular imagination on a raft of misrepresentations, portraying Africa as a stage for monstrous, American criminals to gloriously reinvent themselves, canonising late rebel leader John Garang, promoting violence as the primary solution to a conflict it denuded of all its bulging nuance, and singing the praises of Jesus Christ as saviour. There were plenty of bad reviews, but nothing on par with the denial of Kony2012.

But Machine Gun Preacher, with its $45,000 opening weekend, didn’t have anything like the reach of Kony2012. Within six days of the latter’s March 5 release, it tallied 100 million hits on YouTube. Criticism poured in from major media entities like The Guardian and Washington Post, and Al Jazeera English hosted a Uganda Speaks forum and ran op-eds from preeminent African and on-the-ground voices. A Ugandan group also called Uganda Speaks launched its Kony2012 initiative to “recapture the narrative”. After a while, it seemed that most people who knew anything about the LRA knew that Kony2012 was a phenomenon of reductionist activism for a war already over.

It’s not likely that the critics reached entirely the same audience as Invisible Children. And even though the criticism did inspire a second video – ‘Beyond Famous’ – which sought to incorporate more Ugandan voices into its narrative, the impact of the first one, and really of Invisible Children’s entire existence, found a more prominent place in reality.

An April 29 New York Times article by Jeffrey Gettleman takes readers into the United States’ Kony-hunt in the Central African Republic, where General Carter Ham, head of the US Africa Command, has a Kony2012 poster on his door. An unnamed American official is quoted as saying: “Let’s be honest, there was some constituent pressure here. Did Kony2012 have something to do with this? Absolutely.” About two weeks later, in a positive development, US-supported Ugandan forces captured Caesar Acellam, a senior LRA commander. A layer of moral ambiguity emerges when one learns the chequered history of the Ugandan army, and indeed the ongoing allegations of human rights violations against it. Are entities like this where the world should be building capacity?

Ugwu’s reclamation

In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Half of a Yellow Sun, written about Nigeria’s Biafran War, the protagonist Richard is an awkward Englishman. Married to an Igbo woman, he finds himself writing propaganda for the Biafran cause, and at the same time struggling with different writing projects; a few failed efforts at foreign correspondence and novels that seem to go nowhere. Throughout the story, Richard struggles to integrate himself into the Igbo community, learning the language and scorning the reductionist worldviews of outsiders. Richard decides his novel will be about the war, but he still can’t complete it.

In the closing pages of the book, he confides in Ugwu, a peasant houseboy with a passion for reading who was conscripted into the Biafran army and participated in a gang rape. “The war isn’t my story to tell, really,” Richard decides; although he says nothing, Ugwu agrees. Richard survived the conflict, penned propaganda for its cause, and ultimately lost his wife to the violence. But the fractured war narrative laced into the broader story is written not by Richard, as the reader first assumes, but by Ugwu himself.

It’s a telling subplot, with tensions outside the text. In the winter 2005 edition of Granta Magazine, award-winning Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina offered up a satirical guide for storytellers setting their tales in Africa. He took aim at that vast landscape of clichés writers go to in an effort to bring verisimilitude to their works: buzzwords like “darkness”, “big”, “sky”, “shadow” and “sun”; characters like prostitutes and guerrillas, props like AK-47s and bowls of monkey brains. Ugwu’s reclamation of story runs all through Wainaina’s subtext.

In 2009, Adichie put a name to these tensions: The Danger of a Single Story. Speaking at an international conference, she recounted her childhood years absorbed in British novels. Her own first literary efforts therefore featured white-skinned characters, with sparkling blue eyes, frolicking through the snow and enjoying apples. It wasn’t until she discovered Achebe – whose novel Things Fall Apart she channels in the first sentence of her Purple Hibiscus – that Adichie realised people like her, and settings like Nigeria, could be explored in the graceful rhythms of fiction. When she studied in the United States, she found a less complete global narrative in her roommate who couldn’t believe she could speak English and was dismayed to learn her favourite music had little to do with bare-chested drum circles. Adichie didn’t fault her new friend, but understood that her view of Africa had been shaped by “a single story of catastrophe”.

"A violent babble of uncouth sounds"

During her talk, Adichie highlighted the journal writings of the merchant John Locke, who travelled to West Africa in the 16th century. His scribbles depicted Africans as “beasts who have no houses”, and suffer from bizarre anatomical peculiarities. The dominance of this type of story also finds its origins in the writings of explorer and stooge Henry Morton Stanley, whose work for newspapers, magazines, and book publishers was rife with the kind of clichés that so amuse Wainaina.

There is a tradition of overturning these narratives, but the cultural penetration seems limited. 20th century historians wrote about colonial conquest as if it happened to a bunch of lackadaisical brutes, too caught up in primordial throes to resist the imperious Europeans. A more complicated picture has recently emerged, detailing a variety of local responses to European domination, ranging from armed resistance to self-interested collaboration. The tit-for-tat continues in analyses of more contemporary events, as in The London School of Economics’ African Affairs Professor Thandika Mkandawire’s 2002 paper, ‘The Terrible Toll of Post-Colonial “Rebel Movements” in Africa’, in which he accuses prominent researchers like Stephen Ellis of racist renditions.

Probably one of the most enduring turn-of-the-century fictions with implications for Africa is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which has a long list of defenders and detractors. Among the latter group is Achebe, who, in a 1977 essay in the Massachusetts Review, categorised the book as “permanent literature”, one with a hallowed presence in Western schools, and its author a “thoroughgoing racist”. Achebe shrugged off any defence of the book, instead highlighting a pattern of racist developments from the nature of Conrad’s contrast between the Thames and the Congo to the author’s apparent reluctance to give his African characters the attribute of language, but instead “a babble of uncouth sounds”.

It’s been 35 years since Achebe wrote that essay. At the time, he identified a phenomenon much like the one Adichie isolated in her lecture. But Achebe added a worrying caveat: The telling of these stories had gone beyond wilful misrepresentation and into the realm of “reflex”.

Literature to the rescue?

While the Kony2012 backlash showed that simple and soaring narratives will not go unanswered, the fact is that a wider balance of stories is indeed emerging. Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, published in 1998, is an exceptional piece of fiction, an award-winner and Pulitzer nominee that utterly eschews simplicity in its story of independence-era Democratic Republic of the Congo. In 2006, author Dave Eggers partnered with Valentino Achak Deng to pen What is the What, a form-blending project originally planned as a piece of biographical journalism, but later presented as fiction to fill in the blanks of Deng’s memory growing up in war-torn Sudan. Christie Watson’s Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away, published last year, seems almost pleading in its entrance into Nigeria’s narrative landscape; she labours to bring hearty characterisation to her black cast, while her white characters are tediously trite and mono-dimensional.

But these are not the plots Wainaina is talking about. They hinge on events that typify the Western perception of Africa, namely civil conflict. In his 2011 memoir One Day I Will Write About This Place, Wainaina depicts a Kenyan childhood of choir practices, awkward school crushes, rampant acne, and radio DJs. When coups do surface in his Africa, they happen alongside these less sensational events, rather than eclipsing them. He deals with Private Hezekiah Ochuka’s 1982 coup and six subsequent hours of governance, with resulting body count, in two paragraphs that follow a quick vignette about his cracking voice, two inches of pubescent growth, and Michael Jackson dance moves. The conflict in Wainaina’s memoir is not so much with Kenya or South Africa, where he later sets up shop, but with his own destiny. Will he or will he not become a writer?

Taken together, Wainaina’s how-to and Ugwu’s reclamation are a kind of narrative gate-keeping. But at their most prescriptive, they flirt with xenophobia, especially in the silencing of Richard’s take on the Biafran War. As a character, Richard integrated himself into Igbo society, acquiring language and love, while at the same time promoting the cause. How much further does one have to go to get inside the gate? Why is his conflict with destiny beyond the kind of resolution Wainaina finds for himself? And if his actions are insufficient, then what about the narrative contributions of authors Alexandra Fuller and Mia Couto, two writers with membership in the second generation settler class? The former’s 2001 debut book and memoir, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, details her childhood in collapsing Rhodesia, and it vibrates with a tension pretty much defined against a backdrop of violence. (Incidentally, she’s a huge fan of Wainaina.) The latter is an award-wining poet, author, and biologist, known for The Last Flight of the Flamingo and dozens of other works; he is on the one hand acclaimed as Mozambique’s most important writer, and yet still accused of elitist urban credentials that segregate him from his lower-caste character material.

But misrepresentation can cut both ways. In her lecture, Adichie admitted to herself holding a similarly parodying story, not about Americans, but about Mexicans, her understanding of whom was both formed and tainted by United States popular media. In One Day I Will Write About This Place, Westerners who donate to African causes are typified as exclusively white and patronising, while the West is a multi-racial domain with a few enlightened minds. It happens elsewhere, too, like in Amma Darko’s Beyond the Horizon, published in 1995, which depicts Europe as a demoralising death trap of the soul for any African who attempts to live there. The immigrant experience may entail, increasingly, a galaxy of exhausting and sometimes fatal challenges, but it is not exclusively that. There are success stories everywhere.

All of this begs the question: Is it right to ask artists to run through a checklist of politically correct indicators before publishing their work? Or are partial truths of one kind acceptable if they lead to greater truths of another? And if conflict drives story, should some conflicts, like the Rhodesian war or resource exploitation and poverty in the Niger Delta, be off limits because they don’t tell the whole story of their true-life settings? Or does the real question, once we exclude actively racist art, have more to do with the receiving audiences, who, in forming impressions of the world, must seek out a variety of stories?

Defining the popular imagination...Or perhaps defying it

Unfortunately, we live in what Canadian author and literary critic Douglas Glover has called a post-literate age. Léopold Senghor, Senegal’s independence leader and champion of Négritude, once said it would be African writers and artists who would rebirth the culture, not politicians. But he did not see the arrival of the media era. As it is, none of the above literature will likely reach a mass audience and bring variety to the African narrative in the West, but the increasingly globalised field of media will.

That Africa is frequently sensationalised in Western media narratives is no great insight. Frederick Cooper, in his book Africa since 1940: The Past and the Present, traces the phenomenon to the Congo’s decolonisation, an image which is doubly reinforced in Nigeria’s Biafran war. It’s the kind of thing that promulgates a dramatic narrative. On the May 13, 2000, cover of The Economist, which carried an image of Africa’s landmass stencilled around the photo of an arms-toting African, the headline read “The Hopeless Continent”. The ghost of this depiction follows many storylines, like the reported misrepresentations in the BBC documentary The World’s Worst Place to be Gay?, and the unshakable prominence of coup, war, famine and dictator dispatches over other kinds of stories in media around the world. Freelance writer Travis Lupick summed up last year’s Horn of Africa famine news swell accordingly: “You know,” he posted on Twitter, “when there's a drought in Iowa, we don't write headlines like 'North America struck by drought'. Africa's a big place.”

But this is not just a case of the broader world imposing a reductive narrative structure on the continent; African journalists participate in the same melee. The most infamous example is the genocidal radio of early 1990s Rwanda. More benign examples can be found in Ghana’s 2011 media coverage of clashes between Fulanis and other northerners; it was sensationalist at best, and xenophobic at worst. A multitude of other problems, like low remuneration and politically - or ideologically - invested ownership, conspire to breed outcomes like blackmail journalism and hyper-partisan political coverage – and this from the countries that enjoy a free press. In others, pioneering journalism can get a person killed.

But as in the cases of literature, there are also neutralising forces in journalism. Al Jazeera’s “Africa Investigates” series brought African journalists like Sorious Samura and Anas Aremeya Anas to an international audience. In 2010, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation ran a four-part series called ‘Africa on the Move’ in which musical movements were explored alongside the ambitions of entrepreneurs. South Africa’s Mail and Guardian continues what Stephen Ellis has described as a tradition of enterprising journalism in that country. Meanwhile, scads of African journalists find employment with international entities like Bloomberg or Reuters. More recently, the BBC is about to transpose its Focus on Africa magazine to the broadcast realm, with a 30-minute daily broadcast anchored by Ghanaian Komla Dumor.

Conflict as a source of sensationalism

In his 2000 book Reporting Africa, Ellis defines news as “an attempt to represent reality by those employed for that purpose by organisations of mass communication”. He confounds that definition with layers of complexity about sources, subjects, national traditions, and industry economics. From that, one can extrapolate a carousel of particular horses ridden by particular editors, each trying to appeal to a particular audience. The subjectivity of reality becomes undeniable.

One common ground of rendering reality for all journalists is conflict. It may be unsavoury, but it cuts to the very heart of how any story, fiction or otherwise, is told. It’s what compels audiences to follow narratives, and audiences tend to follow certain types of conflict, sensational types, more readily than subtle ones. It’s why Anas and Samura (the latter well-known for his gruesome documentary Cry Freetown) focused on corruption for their Al-Jazeera documentaries, not college basketball. It’s why Aidan Hartley, a Kenyan-born journalist of the second-generation settler demographic, spent a career reporting conflict for Reuters, ultimately capturing his narratives in the memoir The Zanzibar Chest. This work leaves readers with the revelation that conflict stories are not just pernicious forces in the composition of an inclusive narrative, but also destructive to those who tell them. And it’s why editors continue to demand those kinds of tensions from reporters. They think it’s what audiences are geared toward.

For the most part, it seems they may be right. If identity is established not by what a person says about himself, but rather what is said about him, and how often, then it seems the real issue in understanding life is not entirely a question of how narratives are produced, but rather how they are ingested. Adichie has called for a blend of stories. As the number we receive increases, it becomes up to individuals to embrace them.

Think Africa Press welcomes inquiries regarding the republication of its articles. If you would like to republish this or any other article for re-print, syndication or educational purposes, please contact: editor@thinkafricapress.com

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Comments

Great article. And thanks for the Half a Yellow Sun plot spoiler. No point me reading the book now.