Wim Bossema

Essay | How to read about Africa


On 21 May 2019 after suffering a stroke, Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina (48) passed away.

On Thursday 24th October, 2019, a celebration of his life and works will be held at Studio ZAM. Guests will focus on two of his brilliant essays: ‘How to Write About Africa’, about the framing of ‘Africa’ in Western media, and ‘I Am a Homosexual, Mom.’

As a kick-off for that meeting Dutch journalist Wim Bossema, who has been writing on ‘anything African’ since 1980, mainly for the Dutch daily de Volkskrant, shifts his focus from writing to reading.

How to read about Africa? Well, I hope you immediately think of Binyavanga Wainaina. That his beautiful face appears in your imagination, his hairdos, his way of talking. And I hope your mind drifts back to his most famous piece of writing: the essay ‘How to Write About Africa’. That’s where we all should start reading about Africa.

In his sarcastic masterpiece, written more as an eruption, a cry from the heart, he shows us how we as readers are fooled by journalists and academics from the outside, like myself, how they repeat a set of clichés over and over again, romantic bullshit, and outright lies. They do so because they and their commercial publishers think that this kind of stuff is what readers want to read, something familiar. Something we as readers can identify with, see people like ourselves as helpers. That’s how we should not read about Africa.

Did you notice something in my lines above? These ‘we, the readers’ are probably not from Africa. In Binyavanga’s essay he gives ‘advice’ to non-African writers writing for non-African readers. They are from Europe or the US; readers anywhere on the African continent would never buy the fairy tales somehow related to their daily experiences; writers from the continent never write that way, only in mockery, like Binyavanga Wainaina did. He died this year, how he is missed.

Wainaina’s article went viral, surely on the social media of the diasporans from the African continent, unfortunately perhaps less so among practitioners of the ‘western press’.

He left us the guidelines to read the mainstream texts about anything African

He left us the guidelines to read the mainstream texts about anything African (those writers treat the continent as a country, remember, despite all the peoples, cultures, nations), by cutting the crap first. He left us some tools how to decode, some would say decolonize, articles and books written by people like me. You might find something useful underneath. But perhaps the not so hidden advice of Binyanvanga is to read different texts. Let’s heed that advice.

That brings us to number two. After Wainaina’s ‘How to Write About Africa’, read a classic novel. Which one is a matter of taste. Chinua Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart’ has been the reading starting point for a whole generation of schoolchildren in former British colonies in Africa, who are now in their sixties. Camara Laye’s ‘Le régard du roi’ might be that book for their peers in former French colonies. Those great novels have in common that the perspective is counter-colonial, the African point of view. The counter-narrative was the point in these early modern novels by African writers, this was the age of independence, of a new nationalism for new nations that still had to be built. You want more names? Ngugi wa Thiong’o (Kenya), Ayi Kwei Armah (Ghana), Ama Ata Aidoo (Ghana), Wole Soyinka (Nigeria), Buchi Emecheta (Nigeria), Mariama Ba (Senegal), Sembene Ousmane (Senegal), Tsitsi Dengarembga (Zimbabwe), Nuruddin Farah (Somalia), Alex LaGuma (South Africa)…. OK, enough name dropping. Check out the Heinemann African Writers series and for French the novels published by Présence Africaine.

African literature does not only appeal to African readers

For me personally it started with ‘A Man of The People’, a novel by Achebe. I, a schoolboy of 15 years in a provincial Dutch town called Groningen far away from Nigeria, was intrigued by the cover text on a little pocketbook in the public library. I just tell you this to highlight that African literature does not only appeal to African readers, never has. ‘A Man of the People’ marks also a shift in African literature: many novels left the anti-colonial perspective behind and moved to the present. Achebe ridiculed the post-independence politicians. I read about wars, about poverty, about exploitation, about women’s plight and struggles, about misuse of power and about imperialism and destructive forces of neo-liberalism. About love, friendship, loyalties and happiness, too. And more recently about migration, living in the diaspora and ‘afropolitan vibes’.

Point three. Strictly following Binyavanga Wainaina’s way of thinking, you cannot read about Africa, because Africa is a construct, a colonial and post-colonial parody of reality. Here I will deviate a bit from him. Nowadays it is fashionable to ridicule the idea of ‘Africa’, made up over the years by afrophiles like me, on websites like my favorite ‘Africa is a Country’. The writing there is all very smart, the criticisms are fair and often funny, but let’s not forget the pleasures of ambivalence and paradox. Not so long ago ‘Africa is a country’ was not a mockery of neocolonial viewpoints but the ideal of the great Pan-Africanist leaders. Both contradictory approaches are valid, I like to argue. As I put it in the headline of a review of an ‘Afrika’ special of the Dutch literary magazine Terras, in which many authors stated that there is no such thing as African literature: ‘African literature perhaps does not exist, but we enjoy reading it’.

‘African literature perhaps does not exist, but we enjoy reading it’.

So, really I would like us to go back to the Pan-Africanist texts by Kwame Nkrumah, C.L.R. James, Julius Nyerere, you name them, the Africa Must Unite generation. The experience of colonial exploitation is a shared past for all those diverse cultures and ancient nations on the continent. The fight for liberation created an African ideal. That’s almost forgotten because of many disillusions of the past half-century, but still I get re-energized re-reading those early Pan-African militants.

Point number four, and then I’ll stop. Read African historians (let’s assume they exist). So much is accessible nowadays online, a treasure trove without end. When I was a student in the Netherlands I wanted to study and write about African history, and I choose a country: Tanzania. While visiting that country, I found some historical studies published by The Tanzania Publishing House and The East Africa Publishing House and gave up that idea. Why should I, a young guy from Amsterdam (I had moved from Groningen), try to write about a Tanzanian historical subject? I learned that Tanzanian history students had gone out into the countryside to collect oral history, as was my dream too. A rather silly idea, given how I was struggling to learn some Kiswahili. I found a way out for my ambition: I could study the studies and present the result of the research to a Dutch public as alternative and additional to western writings about Africa. That is what I did at the University of Dar es Salaam, no far-off villages for me, but the university library reading typed and mimeographed MA-theses and doctoral ones. Very exciting, no kidding.

I wrote my historiographical master-thesis and published some articles, for instance in a magazine for Dutch history teachers, about the findings of Tanzanian historians. By now, all that has gone into oblivion. But today so much more is available and so much easier to access. Think of the Unesco-project of the General history of Africa, first all those big volumes with articles by all the great historians, later online. Or the conferences of Codesria. Websites like allAfrica.com. Magazines like Chimurenga, online and in print. The Ake Arts and Book Festival. Kwani?, where it all began for Wainaina. You might know more of these outlets than I do. Let me know.

But I have a small sore point to make. With all the wealth of critical writers and commentators, like the ones on Africa is a Country, an uneasy feeling creeps up on me: those writings are often so reactive, a response to western misconceptions, a critique. Important and necessary. But often I’m missing something. Binyavanga Wainaina’s ‘How to Write About Africa’ has a sad tinge to it: do we still have to argue this way, half a century after independence? Have the outsiders among us learned so little? Do writers of African descent still have to put so much energy into correcting? While they could devote their energy to writing more original things.

Do writers of African descent still have to put so much energy into correcting?

Let me slip in one more point, number 5. Read Wainaina’s autobiographical book: ‘One Day I Will Write About This Place’. No distractions by mainstream media here. Wainaina gave us highly personal memories and reflections about growing up in Kenya and schooling in Swaziland to read. That book was followed by a ‘lost chapter’, an even more honest and deeply moving essay about what he didn’t dare to write in the book, and wished he had told his mother before she died: ‘I am a homosexual, mum’. While reading these texts by Binyavanga Wainaina, you will discover your answer to my question ‘How to Read About Africa’, I promise.

Wainaina’s essay ‘How to Write About Africa’ here.
Wainaina’s essay ‘I Am a Homosexual, Mum’ here.


‘A Tribute to Binyavanga Wainaina’ will take place at Thrusday 24th October, 2019 at Studio ZAM in Amsterdam. The programme will be announced soon. RSVP This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..