Background Noise


I’m sure a lot of you have already seen Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina‘s recent comment piece in The Guardian that riffed on his wildly popular piece from 2005, ‘How Not To Write About Africa‘. When I saw it I was reminded of a post on Reddit a couple of weeks ago:

How about we all just agree to not let this become a thing?

These business cards – which take lyrics from an apparently hit song that I seem to have missed entirely – are at first pretty funny. If you got one of these in a bar, you might be inclined to call this person for displaying some creativity and orginiality. However, if it was the eighth one you’d received that night you’d throw it away. If everyone is making the same joke it doesn’t work anymore.

There are far too many pieces about how no one knows how to write about Africa – the best of which is the original Wainaina one from 2005. They appear so regularly that I can’t help but ignore them these days. They’re related to the riff of comment pieces surrounding the ‘rebranding’ of Africa (recently featured in Vogue Italia and skewered expertly on Africa Is A Country) which I’ve written about before. Far from the coruscating clarity of that 2005 piece in Granta, Wainaina’s ‘updated’ one just became more background noise. The day after it was released, as though to confirm my underwhelmed reaction, an article appeared in The Huffington Post that listed common errors made in people writing about Africa.

I was not the only one a little weary of such pieces.

The last tweet is perhaps glib but might just be referencing something important – no matter how brilliant and thought provoking the ‘how not to write about Africa gang’ may be in taking down bad examples of lazy writing about Africa, very little of the light produced by these articles illuminates real constructive insight. This is actually the classic argument made against how development organisations present their work.

Stop talking about problem after problem after problem. What is actually being done? What should be done?

After a while, pointing out flaws becomes another flaw. Don’t get me wrong, it certainly has its place, it’s just getting to saturation point. When’s the last time you saw an article about all the great writing being done about Africa?

If everyone gets very good at showcasing how coverage of ‘Africa’ goes wrong we’ll be left with a lot of people very good at pointing out flaws, not a lot of people who are good at writing about Africa. As Wainiana’s 2012 redux article points out, there are less foreign correspondents in Africa (and everywhere – see this excellent book by former BBC News chief Richard Sambrook for more) than ever before. Attacking the ones there are probably isn’t making editors or publishers more interested in improving their coverage of the area. There must be other, better ways of addressing this issue.

So, how about we all just agree to not let this become a thing?

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One thought on “Background Noise

  1. Not so literal. Wainaina is a gud author tho.

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