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  • Ways of Seeing Africa
  • Susan Williams1 (bio)

'In the West', claims Molen Kete Asante in his recent History of Africa, 'the ignorance of Africa is palpable, like a monster that invades our brains with disbelief, deception, and disinterest, yet is everywhere around us. We are victims of probably the most uninformed educated people in the world on the subject of Africa'.2 It is hard to disagree, given many Western assumptions about the nature of life in any African country. So prevalent are these ideas that Binyavanga Wainaina, a Kenyan writer, offers in his essay 'How to Write about Africa', which struck such a chord with its readers it has since achieved iconic status, some sardonic tips to authors aspiring to write about the continent. 'Always', he advises,

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'.3

Such representations of Africa inform the background against which the annual Africa Bibliography is published. It seems appropriate, therefore, to look at them more closely. The Bibliography's range and inclusiveness, which embody a significant and compelling literature by Africans and non-Africans alike, reveal a nuanced, rich picture. But this picture is not consistent, by and large, with the perception of the continent from beyond its shores.

The most common cliché about Africa is failure. In the very first sentence of Dark Star Safari (2002), Paul Theroux delivers his grim verdict on the state of the continent: 'All news out of Africa is bad.'4 He then proceeds to illustrate this verdict with a bleak account of his overland journey from Cairo to Cape Town. This dismissive view infuriated Barack Obama as he travelled aged twenty-six to Kenya, the land of his father, for the first time. On the flight from London to Nairobi, he records in his memoir, Dreams from My Father, he read a portrait of several African countries by a Western journalist who was 'an old Africa hand'. The first chapters of the book gave an account of colonialism and the early heroism of independence figures like Kenyatta and Nkrumah, followed by a drift towards despotism that was attributed to the politics of the Cold War. But by the third chapter,

images from the present had begun to outstrip the past. Famine, disease, the coups and counter-coups led by illiterate young men wielding AK-47s like [End Page vii] shepherd sticks — if Africa had a history, the writer seemed to say, the scale of current suffering had rendered such history meaningless.

Poor buggers. Godforsaken countries.

'I set the book down', records Obama, 'feeling a familiar anger flush through me, an anger all the more maddening for its lack of a clear target'.5

This picture of Africa as 'Godforsaken countries' is myopic at best. For its history, as Molefi Kete Asante has shown, is 'a major part of the history of the world, since Africa's contributions to humanity are fundamental and expansive'.6 Moreover, many African countries have produced one of the most remarkable achievements of the twentieth century — namely, the triumph of majority rule over the moral wrong of colonization and white, racist minority rule. One characteristic of this struggle was the determination of emergent African leaders — many of whom had spent long years in prison — to create non-racial societies and to call on their citizens to forgive the white settlers and colonizers.

Until now, Nelson Mandela has been widely regarded in the West as unique in Africa for his values of reconciliation and forgiveness. But, argues Graça Simbine Machel, who was the first Secretary of State for Education in newly-independent Mozambique and is the widow of President Samora Machel, the South African spirit of forgiveness is widespread and part of a pattern through the continent. 'It is there in our culture', she said in an interview following her marriage to Nelson Mandela. 'When we are faced with such a challenge we draw from that culture which is very deep inside ourselves.'7

Quett Ketumile Masire, formerly the second...


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