How Not to Write About Africa

It’s difficult to know where to begin with an NPR correspondent’s recent justification for using the term “Dark Continent” in a preview of George W’s trip to Africa.

“I had no idea the term would be found offensive,” said Cochran, who joined NPR in 1981. “I will concede antiquated but I was unaware it was ‘racist and irredeemable,’ as one person put it in an email. I was floored. Am I insensitive? I don’t know how that could be since I didn’t know there was anything to be sensitive about. I understood the term to refer to the African jungle. It’s a canopy blocking out the light. A geographical term.”

Zunguzungu has gone to town on the episode, quite rightly pointing out what a preposterous explanation she has given. Even Bob Geldof was struck by the light here (see below, I can’t quite seem to link to it). To think that Africa is covered in dense jungle which shuts out all but the most persistent photons is simply naive.
But is her non-apology apology offered up merely to appease the forces of political correctness, as some commentators have suggested? Can we not use the term “dark” when referring to Africa? I for one have no problem using it when done with a lightness of touch. Why not use it in a story about Uganda or South Africa’s power shortages? Or when talking about the unmapped heart of the Sahara or one of the unknown corners of the Congo basin?
Even one of its most famous occurrences, in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, is generally misunderstood: The darkness being a reference to the inhumanity at the heart of all men, seen in the white colonial’s attitude to the Africans he enountered, rather than any other of the many possible interpretations.
But while there are plenty of clever, thought-provoking ways today to turn around this old Victorian term, there is one way that I despise: To use it as Jean Cochrane did, to describe an entire continent just because you can’t think of anything else to say is the worst possible crime. It is a cliche. And an out of date one at that.
Anyone tempted to follow suit could do worse than read Binyavanga Wainaina’s brilliant How to Write About Africa, which begins…

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’. 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. 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.

There will be no prizes for anyone who now goes through my cuts and sends me a list of my offences.