on writing about Africa (my 2 cents)



Recently, I’ve been missing my Uganda host family very much, pulling my thoughts back to Kampala.  The first time I built a life abroad on my own, I was in London.  I mostly brought back mostly stories of tourism, street fashion, and funny anecdotes about my day-to-day.  Because everyone knows what London is, was, and will be.

But last summer, in Uganda, painting stories about the life I built became more complex.  The stories I shared ended up being the same as those from London — tourism, the day-to-days, food, boda-bodas — because it was so much easier than trying to capture the reality of the “foreignness,” the struggle to cast off that “outsider” cloak, and accurately communicate what my Kampala looked, smelled, sounded, and felt like.   As it turns out, it’s difficult to paint a fair portrait of my Africa.

Journalist Jina Moore, in reviewing American news about Africa, discovers, “All I can imagine from these headlines is that Africa—all 54 countries, all 11.7 million square miles of it—must be a very deadly place.”  And that’s what so many of us imagine.  When I first found out I would be in Uganda over the summer, the first question I shielded was, “But that’s dangerous! How are your parents are allowing you to go?” (The answer–too late! Already accepted the job!)  I was somewhat aware of my own misconceptions, but I didn’t realize how deeply rooted they were.

Ms. Moore explains, “Ultimately, the problem with journalism from Africa isn’t about professional conventions. It’s about all of us—writers and readers, producers and viewers. We continue a storytelling tradition that hasn’t fundamentally changed since Joseph Conrad slapped Congo with ‘the heart of darkness’ label. Even stories that gesture toward something ‘positive’ can’t escape the dominant narrative: ‘Africa isn’t a lost cause,’ pleads one recent headline.”

Here’s the catch: “The problems are real, the children are real and many are in need of real support. The problem, however, is that the ‘African child’ has become a rather static and one dimensional symbol; a symbol that renders all children in Africa into unclothed, dirty, muddy and powerless creatures. It obscures the wide diversity in children and renders those that do not suffer ‘the African way’ invisible.”  Maria Hengeveld, How to Write About Children in Africa.

I started this blog to share my Uganda experience with friends and family, to share my story, and to show, as Ms. Moore states, that “Congo [Uganda], like America, is very many things, all at the same time. This should be obvious. Why would a foreign country be any less complex than our own?” But to be honest, I don’t know if 3 months living in Kampala qualified me to say anything at all.  Or whether I was so tongue-tied on how to express the complexities of that incredible, cosmopolitan, complicated city that I just… didn’t.  Express anything at all.  And now, thousands upon thousands of miles away, I’m struggling to remember the stories, communicate my (former) reality, all while remaining connected my present reality.

So, on a tangentially related note, how about these other mental tricks on my mind – the psychology of expert pick-pocketing.  The New Yorker has a fascinating piece on Apollo Robbins, master pick-pocketer, and how he does it.

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