Friday, November 11, 2011

How to Write About Africa – The Gokwe Kid style.

Today is of course a special day. One when we remember our fallen colleagues. I remember them very much, day after day, as I wrap up my memoir. It is of course also the day when Smithy and the boys told Harold Wilson where to shove his pipe. The rogue Rhodies picked the day on purpose. It was a clever propaganda shot.

To lighten up the tone a little, I thought you might like this bit of fun –

How to Write about Africa by Binyavanga Wainaina, appeared in the magazine The View from Africa and was first published in Winter 2005.

I read it with interest, totally forgot about it, and when I stumbled across it once again a few days ago, I decided to use it as a checklist for the contents of my African memoir.

How to Write about Africa

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’. (Aah, I don’t quite have that, but ‘Dick of Bushveld’, as part of the subtitle, does have an African theme.)

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. (Ooh, I have loads of tribal, primordial guerrillas in my memoir, but they play just a small nasty part as I had little time for them.)

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. (I have a picture of me arresting bad thief Robert Mugabe. He is wearing ‘Western’ style clothing, so are my fellow Ground Coverage constables. I am wearing a uniform, a sort of Whiteman’s Zulu outfit, so I am almost there.)

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. (Well, they weren’t when ‘we’ were charge. My memoir is set in the past - not today. Also, I must digress; for you have an oxymoron. You can’t have starving people alongside huge herds of animal - unless of course the herds are owned by Robert Mugabe or that slapper Grace. Also, I am not sure about all this ‘hot and dusty’ stuff. When I turned up in Gokwe it was bloody pissing down all the time and the ‘dust’ was giant pools of mud called ‘roads’.)

Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. (Nope, sorry, as much as I try, I can’t fit them in to my memoir. But! I do recall Alan shooting a monkey and our Black BSAP lads made some great monkey gland steaks out of it. But, they were not short people. But the monkey had a short life. Does that count? I have people emigrating. They are now called Rhodesian Diaspora (tend to be White), or Zimbabwean asylum seekers (tend to be Black)).

Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. The continent is full of deserts, jungles, highlands, savannahs and many other things, but your reader doesn’t care about all that, so keep your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular. (That is a bit of a pisser! Maybe I offer them a discount on the Ebook version. The printed version they would just use for rolling joints and I do not want to promote drug abuse. Hah-hah. Yeah. And this bit – ‘keep your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular’, I have some romance, but it is all evocative one sided and the cow dumped me, which I suppose is unparticular (what ever that bloody means!)).

Make sure you show how Africans have music and rhythm deep in their souls, and eat things no other humans eat. (Like Food Aid? Or genetically manipulated?) Do not mention rice and beef and wheat (I do in my memoir, and it doesn’t sound too good even by Whiteys standards!); monkey-brain is an African's cuisine of choice, along with goat, snake, worms and grubs and all manner of game meat. (I am not surprised at all. Serves ‘em right for kicking Whitey off the farms! I have some insect eating in my memoir, but you have to buy the book to find out.)

Make sure you show that you are able to eat such food without flinching, and describe how you learn to enjoy it—because you care. (I didn’t care one jot. The only thing I cared about was me and my ever scarcer contents of my wallet.)

Taboo subjects: ordinary domestic scenes, love between Africans (unless a death is involved), references to African writers or intellectuals, mention of school-going children who are not suffering from yaws or Ebola fever or female genital mutilation. (Hah, I got you there, I mention sex between Africans a few times and well maintained schools for well fed black children-  till the Gooks came and trashed the lot. African intellectuals? Mm, yeah, I mention some. Except that Kambasha bloke was a little too clever and did me over, over half a dead cow.)

Throughout the book, adopt a sotto voice, in conspiracy with the reader, and a sad I-expected-so-much tone. (Sadly I cannot do that. My voice tends to be of outrageous arrogance along with indignant whining of self pity. Occasionally I have a blotto voice. Blotto = drunk.)

Establish early on that your liberalism is impeccable, and mention near the beginning how much you love Africa, how you fell in love with the place and can’t live without her. Africa is the only continent you can love—take advantage of this. (I have plenty of that, till I decide the place is going tits-up.)

If you are a man, thrust yourself into her warm virgin forests. (Hah hah hah – you bet I was trying to thrust myself into (female) virgin forests. Still, I have no sex scenes at all. Too short really to warrant more than a Julius Caesar miss-quote –vidi, vici, veni.)

If you are a woman, treat Africa as a man who wears a bush jacket and disappears off into the sunset. Africa is to be pitied, worshipped or dominated. Whichever angle you take, be sure to leave the strong impression that without your intervention and your important book, Africa is doomed. (Nothing to do with me.)

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. (I have a few of these characters, but I gave the prostitutes a miss because I couldn’t afford them and it was generally frowned upon if White police officers hang around Black beer halls chatting up dark ladies of the night.)

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. (My loyal servant was called Thomas, and he washed my clothes. I can’t remember if he made my bed.)

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. (No he isn’t. He was my Boss and is a Whiteman.)

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. (In my book, Mr Kambasha, is no way as nasty as that, but he did do me over, over half a dead cow - as previously mentioned.)

Among your characters you must always include The Starving African, who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked, and waits for the benevolence of the West. Her children have flies on their eyelids and pot bellies, and her breasts are flat and empty. She must look utterly helpless. She can have no past, no history; such diversions ruin the dramatic moment. Moans are good. She must never say anything about herself in the dialogue except to speak of her (unspeakable) suffering. (Nope, sadly I have none of those. The only person who was starving now and then was me because I refused to pay for food.)

Also be sure to include a warm and motherly woman who has a rolling laugh and who is concerned for your well-being. Just call her Mama. Her children are all delinquent. (Aah Bless, I mention my poor old Mum quite a few times, and I was definitely delinquent enough to join the BSAP.)

These characters should buzz around your main hero, making him look good. Your hero can teach them, bathe them, feed them; he carries lots of babies and has seen Death. Your hero is you (if reportage), or a beautiful, tragic international celebrity/aristocrat who now cares for animals (if fiction). (The anti-hero is me and the other characters buzz around me making me look a total twat and it is all true.)

Bad Western characters may include children of Tory cabinet ministers, Afrikaners, employees of the World Bank. When talking about exploitation by foreigners mention the Chinese and Indian traders. Blame the West for Africa's situation. But do not be too specific. (Hah, I have them all, the bastards! And I clearly explain how sanctions made us almost 100% self sufficient and the budget balanced (except in my wallet), and the only big examples of handouts was me begging for fuel coupons.)

Broad brushstrokes throughout are good. Avoid having the African characters laugh, or struggle to educate their kids, or just make do in mundane circumstances. Have them illuminate something about Europe or America in Africa. African characters should be colourful, exotic, larger than life—but empty inside, with no dialogue, no conflicts or resolutions in their stories, no depth or quirks to confuse the cause. (Nope, sorry, no can do. My Black characters have dialogue, and are a great lot. Well most of them, except the Gooks.)

Describe, in detail, naked breasts (young, old, conservative, recently raped, big, small) or mutilated genitals, or enhanced genitals. Or any kind of genitals. And dead bodies. Or, better, naked dead bodies. And especially rotting naked dead bodies. Remember, any work you submit in which people look filthy and miserable will be referred to as the ‘real Africa’, and you want that on your dust jacket. Do not feel queasy about this: you are trying to help them to get aid from the West. (Unfortunately, this does occur in some form, but not quite as extreme.)

The biggest taboo in writing about Africa is to describe or show dead or suffering white people. (Who are you kidding! I was suffering almost immediately after joining the police!)

Animals, on the other hand, must be treated as well rounded, complex characters. They speak (or grunt while tossing their manes proudly) and have names, ambitions and desires. They also have family values: see how lions teach their children? Elephants are caring, and are good feminists or dignified patriarchs. So are gorillas. Never, ever say anything negative about an elephant or a gorilla. Elephants may attack people’s property, destroy their crops, and even kill them. Always take the side of the elephant. Big cats have public-school accents. Hyenas are fair game and have vaguely Middle Eastern accents. Any short Africans who live in the jungle or desert may be portrayed with good humour (unless they are in conflict with an elephant or chimpanzee or gorilla, in which case they are pure evil). (I have loads of animals, but unlike other Rhodesian memoirs, they tend to stay in game reserves and not be constantly falling into farmer’s swimming pools. Nor do they tend to talk a lot because I do all that, and couldn’t put a trunk in sideways.)

After celebrity activists and aid workers, conservationists are Africa’s most important people. Do not offend them. You need them to invite you to their 30,000-acre game ranch or ‘conservation area’, and this is the only way you will get to interview the celebrity activist. (Oddly, I do have a bit of that sort of stuff. See the posting below.)

 Often a book cover with a heroic-looking conservationist on it works magic for sales. Anybody white, tanned and wearing khaki who once had a pet antelope or a farm is a conservationist, one who is preserving Africa’s rich heritage. (That’s me! I had a pet snake for a while but it got out and there was a right hullabaloo about it all.)

When interviewing him or her, do not ask how much funding they have; do not ask how much money they make off their game. Never ask how much they pay their employees. (I did. The Yank youngsters made a buck a day – bloody fools as far as I was concerned.)

Readers will be put off if you don’t mention the light in Africa. And sunsets, the African sunset is a must. It is always big and red. There is always a big sky. Wide empty spaces and game are critical—Africa is the Land of Wide Empty Spaces. When writing about the plight of flora and fauna, make sure you mention that Africa is overpopulated. When your main character is in a desert or jungle living with indigenous peoples (anybody short) it is okay to mention that Africa has been severely depopulated by Aids and War (use caps). (Mm, to be honest, that is real ‘girlie’ type prose. Whilst I generally couldn’t be arsed with such nonsense, as I spend most of time talking about how wonderful I am - but, for the sake of sales, there are a few ‘Africa’ type descriptions. I mention the sun, as you would have to be blind not to notice it, and I use the word bush a few times. What is in it is long grass, thorny things and rocks and trees that should really be bulldozed down and made into a six lane motorway, as to be honest I hated walking in the friggin stuff! As for AIDs, it wasn’t around in my time, but war was.)

You’ll also need a nightclub called Tropicana, where mercenaries, evil nouveau riche Africans and prostitutes and guerrillas and expats hang out. (Well we had Club Tomorrow and the Le Coq Dor. Definitely filled with nutters, but not sure about the prostitute thing.)

Always end your book with Nelson Mandela saying something about rainbows or renaissances. Because you care. (Actually my book ends with a quote from an ex-door neighbour and it is not very flattering! But as if I cared.)

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