September 7, 2010

How to Write about Africa

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.

In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don't get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. The continent is full of deserts, jungles, highlands, savannahs and many other things, but your reader doesn't care about all that, so keep your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular.

Make sure you show how Africans have music and rhythm deep in their souls, and eat things no other humans eat. Do not mention rice and beef and wheat; monkey-brain is an African's cuisine of choice, along with goat, snake, worms and grubs and all manner of game meat. Make sure you show that you are able to eat such food without flinching, and describe how you learn to enjoy it—because you care.

Taboo subjects: ordinary domestic scenes, love between Africans (unless a death is involved), references to African writers or intellectuals, mention of school-going children who are not suffering from yaws or Ebola fever or female genital mutilation.

Throughout the book, adopt a sotto voice, in conspiracy with the reader, and a sad I-expected-so-much tone. Establish early on that your liberalism is impeccable, and mention near the beginning how much you love Africa, how you fell in love with the place and can't live without her. Africa is the only continent you can love—take advantage of this. If you are a man, thrust yourself into her warm virgin forests. If you are a woman, treat Africa as a man who wears a bush jacket and disappears off into the sunset. Africa is to be pitied, worshipped or dominated. Whichever angle you take, be sure to leave the strong impression that without your intervention and your important book, Africa is doomed.

Your African characters may include naked warriors, loyal servants, diviners and seers, ancient wise men living in hermitic splendour. Or corrupt politicians, inept polygamous travel-guides, and prostitutes you have slept with. The Loyal Servant always behaves like a seven-year-old and needs a firm hand; he is scared of snakes, good with children, and always involving you in his complex domestic dramas. The Ancient Wise Man always comes from a noble tribe (not the money-grubbing tribes like the Gikuyu, the Igbo or the Shona). He has rheumy eyes and is close to the Earth. The Modern African is a fat man who steals and works in the visa office, refusing to give work permits to qualified Westerners who really care about Africa. He is an enemy of development, always using his government job to make it difficult for pragmatic and good-hearted expats to set up NGOs or Legal Conservation Areas. Or he is an Oxford-educated intellectual turned serial-killing politician in a Savile Row suit. He is a cannibal who likes Cristal champagne, and his mother is a rich witch-doctor who really runs the country.

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. She can have no past, no history; such diversions ruin the dramatic moment. Moans are good. She must never say anything about herself in the dialogue except to speak of her (unspeakable) suffering. Also be sure to include a warm and motherly woman who has a rolling laugh and who is concerned for your well-being. Just call her Mama. Her children are all delinquent. These characters should buzz around your main hero, making him look good. Your hero can teach them, bathe them, feed them; he carries lots of babies and has seen Death. Your hero is you (if reportage), or a beautiful, tragic international celebrity/aristocrat who now cares for animals (if fiction).

Bad Western characters may include children of Tory cabinet ministers, Afrikaners, employees of the World Bank. When talking about exploitation by foreigners mention the Chinese and Indian traders. Blame the West for Africa's situation. But do not be too specific.

Broad brushstrokes throughout are good. Avoid having the African characters laugh, or struggle to educate their kids, or just make do in mundane circumstances. Have them illuminate something about Europe or America in Africa. African characters should be colourful, exotic, larger than life—but empty inside, with no dialogue, no conflicts or resolutions in their stories, no depth or quirks to confuse the cause.

Describe, in detail, naked breasts (young, old, conservative, recently raped, big, small) or mutilated genitals, or enhanced genitals. Or any kind of genitals. And dead bodies. Or, better, naked dead bodies. And especially rotting naked dead bodies. Remember, any work you submit in which people look filthy and miserable will be referred to as the 'real Africa', and you want that on your dust jacket. Do not feel queasy about this: you are trying to help them to get aid from the West. The biggest taboo in writing about Africa is to describe or show dead or suffering white people.

Animals, on the other hand, must be treated as well rounded, complex characters. They speak (or grunt while tossing their manes proudly) and have names, ambitions and desires. They also have family values: see how lions teach their children? Elephants are caring, and are good feminists or dignified patriarchs. So are gorillas. Never, ever say anything negative about an elephant or a gorilla. Elephants may attack people's property, destroy their crops, and even kill them. Always take the side of the elephant. Big cats have public-school accents. Hyenas are fair game and have vaguely Middle Eastern accents. Any short Africans who live in the jungle or desert may be portrayed with good humour (unless they are in conflict with an elephant or chimpanzee or gorilla, in which case they are pure evil).

After celebrity activists and aid workers, conservationists are Africa's most important people. Do not offend them. You need them to invite you to their 30,000-acre game ranch or 'conservation area', and this is the only way you will get to interview the celebrity activist. Often a book cover with a heroic-looking conservationist on it works magic for sales. Anybody white, tanned and wearing khaki who once had a pet antelope or a farm is a conservationist, one who is preserving Africa's rich heritage. When interviewing him or her, do not ask how much funding they have; do not ask how much money they make off their game. Never ask how much they pay their employees.

Readers will be put off if you don't mention the light in Africa. And sunsets, the African sunset is a must. It is always big and red. There is always a big sky. Wide empty spaces and game are critical—Africa is the Land of Wide Empty Spaces. When writing about the plight of flora and fauna, make sure you mention that Africa is overpopulated. When your main character is in a desert or jungle living with indigenous peoples (anybody short) it is okay to mention that Africa has been severely depopulated by Aids and War (use caps).

You'll also need a nightclub called Tropicana, where mercenaries, evil nouveau riche Africans and prostitutes and guerrillas and expats hang out.

Always end your book with Nelson Mandela saying something about rainbows or renaissances. Because you care.

The writer, Binyavanga Wainaina lives in Nairobi, Kenya. He is the founding editor of the literary magazine Kwani? and won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2002. His writing has also appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian, and National Geographic.

September 5, 2010

A Nation of Failed Promises

This piece appeared in one of Tanzania's leading daily's. I thought to share the failed vision of Tanzanian leaders, and their defiance in bailing the country out of slumber. Indeed, as the saying goes, "To change something, one needs to change oneself", and that sadly does not seem to be the order of the day in our potential-wrecked Tanzania.

A new ship after 15 years of failed promises

Addressing a huge public rally in Bukoba town in western Tanzania last week, the incumbent President Kikwete promised residents that the government would buy a modern ship to replace the capsized MV Bukoba, in order to ease the transport woes that plague Lake Victoria, especially between Kagera, and Mwanza regions.

The MV Bukoba, which had a carriage capacity of 450 passengers and 80 tonnes of cargo, capsized in June 1996 on its way to Mwanza port due to serious technical errors and overloading of both passengers and cargo.
Former President Benjamin Mkapa had promised a few months after the accident that the government would replace the ship, and he repeated the same promise in 2000, but up till the time he said goodbye to Magogoni State House, neither a modern ship nor a ferry had been bought to replace the MV Bukoba.

Now nearly 15 years later, Kikwete has made the same promise but it seems just as unlikely now as it was then.
According to procurement details from three different ship building companies, buying a modern ship with 600-800 passenger capacity and 100 tonnes of cargo space would cost no less than $250 million.

Kikwete has not specified where this money will come from, but it does not bode well that same administration that is promising this has also refused to raise the minimum wage to Sh350,000 citing lack of funds.

Furthermore, it would seem that a more efficient use of that amount of money in the region would be to invest in a road network connecting Mwanza, Mara and Shinyanga to Dar es Salaam. If $250 million were invested in constructing a modern tarmac road, Bukoba would be easily accessible, because, after all, there is still one of the biggest ships in the region plying the route between Bukoba and Mwanza.

The MV Victoria has the capacity to carry 1,200 passengers plus 200 tonnes of cargo, and only needs about $20 million to replace its two engines and modernise its technology. This ship has always been regarded as the mother of all ships in Lake Victoria due to its capacity, design and stability, but has historically lacked enough investment in its maintenance.

International airports for everyone?

That wasn't the only promise made by the ruling party’s presidential candidate last weekend, though. Kikwete also vowed that he would make Kigoma town the next 'Dubai of Africa' by constructing a modern international airport. But how do you make Kigoma the next 'Dubai' when Dar es Salaam, the commercial capital, is itself still battling outrageous traffic, caused not by the number of vehicles on the road but by poor planning? Dar es Salaam has only 170,000 vehicles with a population of 4 million, while a city like Johannesburg has 600,000 vehicles and a population of about 7 million, and yet Johannesburg has the capacity to accommodate its commuters while Dar es Salaam's workers spend up to 5 hours just getting to and coming from their offices.

Furthermore, is it even feasible to be targeting Kigoma in this way? Between Kigoma and Dar es Salaam or Bagamoyo, which one would be most effective as a duty free city? Obviously it’s Dar or Bagamoyo because of their strategic coastal locations, but for over five decades, Tanzania has failed to utilise the potential for these two cities to act as a transport hub connecting passengers and cargo in the SADC region.

With the Tanzania Railways Corporation in the 'intensive care unit', is it possible to make Kigoma another Dubai? At the end of the day, importers and exporters from DRC, Zambia, Burundi and Rwanda need a reliable railway to transport their goods to Kigoma. Railway is still the cheapest way to transport cargo within a short period, after seaways, and air freight is largely unrealistic. Speaking of which, Air Tanzania has all but died a natural death, and is now known as ‘Any Time Cancellation’(ATC).

The airline needed just $250 million to cover the down payment on four new Airbus A320s to enable the national carrier to resume its full role. This is because to order new commercial aircrafts, the buyer should at least pay 25 percent as down payments, while the rest would be paid after delivery pending on the agreements entered by the two parties.

But the company, and the government who is still the majority shareholder, does not have the money, and it’s another example of failed corporate governance…Kikwete's promises to build Kigoma an international airport seem all the more unlikely when looking at his past similar promises to other regions especially in Mwanza.

This is the same president who promised in 2006 at Kirumba stadium that he would make Mwanza the next 'Amsterdam' by building an international airport there and bringing in modern infrastructure.

Five years down the line, there is no international airport, and Mwanza continues to struggle with horrendous traffic due to poor planning in infrastructure. Over half of the city's 1 million inhabitants live in squatters or non-surveyed land. Its lucrative fishing sector is battling the global recession, stiff competition on the global market and rampant piracy on the world’s second largest freshwater lake.

Speaking of piracy, in 2005, while addressing the residents of Ukerewe in Nansio Town, President Kikwete promised to make Lake Victoria a safer place for all fishermen by ending piracy if elected.

Today, piracy is worse than ever, making fishing business in Lake Victoria a fruitless and dangerous endeavour for thousands of fishermen. Confronted by the worsening piracy in the area, Kikwete promised last week at a campaign rally in Buchosa constituency, in Mwanza region, that he would make piracy history if elected for a second term.

He said the government, with the assistance of the United States and EU countries, would deploy modern patrol boats in Lake Victoria, in order to establish security. The US government has also agreed to train the marine police divisions on how to combat piracy in Lake Victoria, the CCM presidential candidate added.

Though Kikwete's impassioned promises stirred the crowd, one has to wonder how seriously these vows can be taken when no notable measures have been put in place to stop piracy since his initial pledge in Ukerewere Island in 2005.

World record-breaking growth?

Then there's Ibrahim Lipumba a professor of economics and a man highly respected within academic circles for his intelligence and wit. He seems to be indulging in pie-in-the-sky promises as well, as last Friday while launching his campaign in Dar es Salaam, he promised to grow the economy by 22 percent if elected.

Where else on earth have you heard of double-digit growth that goes beyond 20 percent? What are the mechanisms to do that? Just by cancelling all mining exemptions?

By the way, let’s assume that all mining companies pay their taxes fully as required, then what will be the outtake? It couldn't be much more than $120 million per annum –maybe double that amount, to be generous. Even being generous, though, would not add up to the 22 percent economic growth that Lipumba is promising.

Professor Lipumba's track record isn't stellar to begin with – he was the key economic advisor for Ali Hassan Mwinyi, and during that period, the country was in shambles thanks to second phase regime that failed even to tax its people, let alone serve them.

When pushed on his role in the failed economic policies of that time, he says, “Well, my duty was just to advise…the advice can be taken or ignored.” It seems curious that, given that 80 percent of Tanzanians depend on agriculture for their livelihoods, that their would be more specificity as to how the candidates, and especially Lipumba, plan to invest in this sector and boost Tanzanian agriculture in the global market.

But instead, Lipumba is overemphasising mining exemptions, reducing overseas trips and putting a stop to privatisation, and wants Tanzanians to believe that doing that will make the economy will grow by a whopping 22 percent.

But, it doesn't seem to add up, even for those without degrees in economics. After attempting three times unsuccessfully to be the president of Tanzania, it seemed like Professor Lipumba still suffers from his usual ‘disease’ of thinking that he is always addressing intellectuals or university of Dar es Salaam students. But, the truth is that he is talking to ordinary people who are not very familiar with bunch of statistics plus investment multiplier theory.

A new constitution in 100 days?

Finally, there is the corruption crusher, a man with enough dirt on the government to bring it down; this is Dr Slaa, a former priest who left the altar for the political podium but has held steadfast to his moral high ground. Dr Slaa believes he can increase workers' compensation packages just by slashing the presidential salary, reducing overseas trips and fighting corruption. This is another illusion because even if he would implement this spending cut, the amount saved is too small to solve the current workers’ demand.

The biggest concern is the time he needs to transform this country. From what he said last Saturday, he only needs 100 days to produce a miracle in Tanzania. Healing the nation that has been adversely hurt by poverty and endemic corruption in just 100 days? A promise to produce a new constitution within 100 days should raise a red flag, given that the same promise was made by Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki in 2002, but Kenyans only ratified their new constitution a few weeks ago, after waiting for eight years.

Fighting grand corruption is certainly a must, but it also seems unlikely that the problem will be quashed in just 100 days.
That is to say, you could arrest all corruption suspects and remand them in our prisons, creating a media frenzy and international approval, but corruption clearly runs deeper in this country than front-page headlines and mug shots can cure.
There must be follow-through, institutional reform, and a better understanding of why individuals are committing corrupt acts in the first place.

This is a country where there are no options for financing a house, and yet everyone wants to own a house at any cost. The cost of vehicles is exorbitant, but our bus system is filthy, dilapidated and dangerous.
When borrowing interest rates hover above 25 percent, of course people are resorting to corruption and shoddy deals.
Although all three have promised to do so, no candidate has seriously talked about how he would raise government revenues while also cutting spending.

In this year’s budget, about 75 percent was devoted to recurrent expenditure, meaning just maintaining existing government operations, and the rest went to 'development' expenditure. Making pledges is one thing, but getting the financial muscle to implement these promises is the most challenging task.

While CCM has its vision that was first unveiled about a decade ago, both CUF and Chadema have no visions. What the two parties have done so far is unveiling their election manifestos, but none of them has dared to tell Tanzanians what is its visions for this country?

But, above all the voters will be the judge on October 31.

My View:

If someone is to learn the art of "robbing in daylight", come to the Haven of Peace where government promises and pledges fill the hopeless air of despair and misery for the commoners, whilst making a Heaven for themselves!