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Binyavanga Wainaina: Rewriting Africa

One of Africa's most renowned young authors discusses the need to challenge the dominant narrative about the continent.

Last Modified: 13 Apr 2013 09:27
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It is time to change our image of Africa. 

Critics say that for too long now, aid organisations, foreign diplomats, politicians and journalists have been stuck looking at this vast continent as a convenient photo-opportunity to illustrate victimhood and desperation.

And few men are more forceful in advocating a change in how we perceive Africa than Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina.

"If you look at the website in Kenya of any western embassy, they talk about partnership for development and then you see a lot of school children suffering and then being helped by the ambassador. But they don’t list the companies that are operating here. So it is the question of: What is the full picture?" Wainaina says. 

He feels that by leaving lots of stories under-reported, misreported or reported again and again, the West perpetuates stereotypes about this multi-faceted continent.

"In the last five years we have seen a multipolar world come. I am interested in a powerful Africa, and I really mean an Africa with Power in the globe, power with capital P… where we have our say and where our say means something."

-Binyavanga Wainaina

Wainaina found worldwide acclaim through How to write about Africa, his scathing satirical essay that is a mock tip-sheet for Western journalists writing about the African continent.

It includes lines such as: "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."

"The world of humanitarianism and aid in Africa is designed to keep people passive, dependent and [to] allow power," he tells Al Jazeera.

Wainaina concedes that the "starving orphan" is often a reality on much of the continent, but he adds:

"The question is not so much the question [of whether we should be] talking about it. It’s that, since the 90’s in particular, but throughout the relationship between Africa and the West, that is the dominant narrative. If you go back to the 19th or 18th century it was the child, the willful child that needs to be contained or controlled, or who can be enslaved. Now it’s the child who needs your breast."

"A significant amount of coverage, probably the vast majority of coverage on Africa by the West, reinforces the pre-existing idea … The existing narrative must be a dependent and collapsed place. And then, oh maybe there is a good news story if you are lucky,” he says.

"I am interested in a powerful Africa, and I really mean an Africa with Power in the globe - power with capital P… where we have our say and where our say means something."

Talk to Al Jazeera sat down with Binyavanga Wainaina, one of the continent's most influential young authors, to explore why the world is still not understanding Africa, and how to break the lens of media distortion. 

Talk to Al Jazeera  can be seen each week at the following times GMT: Saturday: 0430; Sunday: 0830, 1930; and Monday: 1430. 

 Click here for more  Talk to Al Jazeera

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