Monday, February 11, 2013

The view from Africa + A History of the World in Objects, continued (or: How to Write about Africa...)

This blog post is inspired by the reading challenge: 7 Continents, 7 Billion People, 7 Books - Reading Challenge 2013 and by the "It's Monday! What are you reading?" series, more about both, at the bottom of this post.

A different view from Africa
During Christmas time, a charity video with a twist turned up in Youtube: "Africa for Norway". It was the grooviest clip on continent-size stereotypes i have seen, based on the image that seems to be iconinc for Africa: a place that is suffering and needs donations. Which connects in a painful way to the book i recently read: "Tears of the Desert", an autobiography of Halima Bashir who tells about her life in a village in the Darfur region of Sudan during the escalating conflict. (more about that, here).

I knew that Bashir's Sudan book would be a harsh read, and so I ordered a collection that shares a wider and more diverse view of Africa, too: Granta's "View From Africa". Here's the introduction to the collection: "Africa is too large and diverse for generalizations. It has fifty-four nations, five time zones, at least seven climates, more than 800 million people ... South Africa and Burkina Faso have as much in common as Spain and Uzbekistan. And yet people do generalize ... This issue of  Granta contains fresh voices from Africa, in all their differences."

The collection includes writers that i knew from previous reads: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie from Nigeria, i still remember reading her powerful novel "Half of a Yellow Sun" (blog note),  or Nadine Gordimer, but many of the author names are new to me. Granta has an issue page with author list and with more info: Granta 92: The View from Africa

How to Write about Africa
One of the essays included in the collection is a satire, and received wide attention: "How to Write About Africa" by Binyavanga Wainaina, a Kenyan author, winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing, and founding editor of the African literary magazine "Kwani?". Granta has put the whole essay online, it's a great subversive play with prejudices:

Always use the word ‘Africa’ or ‘Darkness’ or ‘Safari’ in your title. Subtitles may include the words ‘Zanzibar’, ‘Masai’, ‘Zulu’, ‘Zambezi’, ‘Congo’, ‘Nile’, ‘Big’, ‘Sky’, ‘Shadow’, ‘Drum’, ‘Sun’ or ‘Bygone’. Also useful are words such as ‘Guerrillas’, ‘Timeless’, ‘Primordial’ and ‘Tribal’. Note that ‘People’ means Africans who are not black, while ‘The People’ means black Africans. 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. If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress.
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..." (- Binyavanga Wainainatext page at Granta)

A History of the World in 100 Objects
Also, i am still reading the "History of the World in 100 Objects". I started it a while ago, read it at the pace of 1 object per day, but even then it is still overwhelming (more here). So i paused for a while, but now started again at a slower pace, which is good timing, as i arrived at an object from Africa just now: The Ife Head from Nigeria. I also browsed the BBC page, with their interactive extra page.

This is episode #63 of the book, and by now, a lot of the objects connect to the theme of time and culture and migration – every object connects to the humans that made it and the ones that later owned it, and often these objects are connected to different places: the place the material is from, the place they were made, the place they were found. The chapter of the Ife Head also reveals the world view of the archeologists back then, with their deep-set prejudices, and how the Ife Head changed the view of a whole region, and continent:

“The Ife head..  It was one of a group of sculptures discovered in 1938 in the grounds of a palace in Ife, Nigeria, and they astonished the world with their beauty. They were immediately recognised as supreme documents of a culture that had left no written record .... The sculptures of Ife exploded European notions of the history of art, and they forced Europeans to rethink Africa's place in the cultural history of the world. .. The idea of black African civilisation on this level was quite simply unimaginable to a European a hundred years ago.

Parallel to the interactive page, the BBC still has the transcripts of the episodes online, including photos. Here's chapter of the Ife Head: A History of the World in 100 Objects / episod 63: The Ife Head

More books and links
....some reading notes and links from other book blogs, and from the comments:


  • another Africa collection, from Girlxoxo: "Like you, I wanted to balance it out by experience more diverse writing from African authors and picked up the book of short stories, Gods and Soldiers." 
  • a world book from Giraffe Days: "while the sun is above us is a Canadian novel set in Sudan, which I picked up for the Around the World in 12 Books Challenge. Somewhere along the way I decided to aim for more than one book per country this year, and I’m feeling determined to succeed in that goal."


And to round up the post, here the charity clip, "Africa for Norway":


Global Reading Challenge
This blog post is inspired by a Global Reading Challenge, more about it here: 7 Continents, 7 Billion People, 7 Books - Reading Challenge 2013 The idea of this reading challenge is to explore the world by books from different continents and countries, and by visiting various world lists while planning the reads, to encounter unknown angles and facts about our world. This challenge is still open for anyone who is interested to join.

The link is also listed in the "It's Monday! What are you reading?" series that is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey, participating blogs are listed in this Linky Book List

Previous reading blog entries are collected here: bookshelf: currently  reading... there also is a visual bookshelf, just click it to get there:

And my own new book... is Worl(d)s Apart. True.


Tanya Patrice said...

I was looking for a book related to Sudan as well, and got Slave, Mende Nazer, which is similarly about her experience with enslavement. Like you, I wanted to balance it out by experience more diverse writing from African authors and picked up the book of short stories, Gods and Soldiers. I haven't started reading it yet, but it looks promising.

Tanya Patrice

Dorothee said...

Hi Tanya! Interesting to read that you had the same feeling and also looked for a second book. looking forward to your reading note, and just checked out "Gods and Soldiers", will add it in this blog post, too, with link.

Shannon (Giraffe Days) said...

I remember hearing about the Africa for Norway thing - they interviewed the guy behind it on CBC radio and played the clip, it was so ironic and I loved the way he talked about Africa, about how we never look at the good side of Africa, the happy stories, the success stories - it's all doom and gloom and violence and death and tragedy, which isn't, I imagine, how Africans see it at all.

Great post Dorothee!