"Write What You Know"

It has been a decade since I’ve been in Africa, almost a quarter of a century since I lived there. But I did spend two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer working in agriculture in northern Togo and two as a Fulbright lecturer at the University of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso. I learned a great deal during those four years–and even a little about Africa. What I did learn is now out of date, of course. I know that.

One of the most important lessons, and one that I carry over into my journalism classes, is that you learn before you write. I like to quote Bob Dylan to my students: “I’ll know my song well before I start singin.’” When I talk about Africa today, I am careful as to what I say.

Which brings me to David Brooks. Again. This time, he is writing about contemporary Africa–something he clearly knows even less about than I do.

His piece is titled “The Real Africa.”

As if.

One of the things that drove me crazy in West Africa was the journalist in an air-conditioned, chauffeured car with a hamper of food, bottled water,

A street much like the one I lived on in Ouaga.

and a reservation at the one western-style hotel in the next big city. There was no way that person was going to learn anything at all about the “real” Africa.

One of the reasons I joined Peace Corps was that I did, indeed, want to find out a little about the “real” Africa. I was living in a large (400,000) city in an expat-style house with all the amenities (though in a mud quartier), associating mainly with expats and educated Africans, and only seeing the country (via my motorcycle or my van) on weekends and rarely via public transportation. Life in Peace Corps was quite different. Though I did have a motorcycle again, any real travel was by “bush taxi” and I lived in a round, mud-brick house with a thatched roof–just like my African neighbors with whom I shared the local water pump. As a result, over my four years I experienced both urban and rural life in Africa.

The stable for our oxen in Togo.

The stable for our oxen in Togo.

When I first read the Binyavanga Wainaina piece that Brooks discusses, soon after returning from my last trip to Senegal, I laughed. Wainaina did hit the nail on the head about American writers’ presentations of Africa. So enamored was I that I found other writings by the Kenyan–and quote from him in one of my books and, more recently, in my chapter “Another Colonialist Tool” in Parlor Press’s Invasion of the MOOCs.

Plowing as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Plowing as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Brooks twists him around completely. He plants Wainaina into an “us/them” scenario with himself joining Wainaina as “us.”

It’s true that we in America view Africa through stereotypes, but they don’t end with those Wainaina enumerates. They continue into neocolonialist visions of the sort Brooks presents in this article, a vision that has been promoted since the era of independence in the 1960s. I remember listening to the U.S. ambassador to Togo in the late 1980s wax poetic about how Togo was going to become a “tiger,” like the Asian “tigers,” countries that had been industrializing with amazing speed during that decade. It didn’t happen, of course. The ambassador knew as little about African cultures, needs, and possibilities as Brooks does.

When I was in Senegal, I did indeed see the signs of change that Brooks mentions, including proliferation of the cellphone. But I also saw things that distressed me. The countryside was littered with plastic bags and other debris–something unheard of two decades earlier when everything was made use of and Africans prided themselves on their cleanliness.

One of the reasons for change in Africa is that the rural population has been drawn into a monetary economy, resulting in more money for the lucky few and more poverty for the rest. Poverty (and population growth) has led to migration to the cities, where there is at least a chance that one will not starve. There is economic growth in Africa, as Brooks points out, but it is in no way equitable. Just go to the slums of Nairobi or Lagos and you will see.

Though I have not been in Africa recently, and cannot speak from personal experience about contemporary conditions, I have a number of African students who do go home–and I listen to them as they tell me about situations there. Things are not good–unless you are a member of one of the elite classes, who are richer now than ever before. The poor remain as they ever were.

Near the end, Brooks says that “Individual and social creativity is zooming ahead.” He provides no evidence for this, of course. And he does not mention that Wainaina, like many African artists and writers, has long since left Africa. Update: I am wrong about Wainaina. He does spend more than half the year in his native Kenya, teaching in the U.S. the rest of the time.

His last line, “Governing institutions are failing to perform the basic, elementary tasks,” is more of a reflection of American political positioning than any understanding of African reality, where government, even after independence, is dependent on European models and money and not on African traditions. That’s nothing more than an American placing his own political biases on a continent he doesn’t understand at all, much like what those Wainaina writes of do.

Suffice it to say that Brooks, once more, has hit his own foot instead of drawing quickly and smacking his target (which is what he thinks he has done–he must be shooting blanks, too). He illuminates his own ignorance and reliance on stereotype instead of (smugly) pointing out those of others–as I am sure he still believes he has done.

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