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“African characters should be … larger than life—but empty inside”: Binyavanga Wai

Binyavanga Wainaina was a Kenyan writer, journalist and LGBT+ rights activist. In 2002 he won the Caine Prize for African Writing, and in 2014 he was named on Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people.

In honour of his recent passing in Nairobi at age 48, I want to take a look back on his most famous piece: his 2005 satirical essay entitled ‘How to Write About Africa’.


Binyavanga Wainaina. Photo by: Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images

There are two major points of critique in Wainaina’s essay. Firstly, Wainaina repeatedly references the homogenous imagery of Africa in literature. Secondly, Wainaina comments on the stereotyping of African characters and their lack of emotional depth.

Let’s break down these two themes and examine what they mean:

1. Homogenous imagery:

‘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.’

Wainaina refers to the typical image of Africa which has been impressed upon the minds of the Western population.

This trait can be observed by simply studying book covers, as noted by the blog ‘Africa is a Country’. One reader, Simon Stevens, made a collage of 36 African novels – all including the same image of an acacia tree and an orange sunset. These novels span across several geographic locations including Nigeria, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, Mozambique, and were written in vastly different styles. Despite their diversity, all of the stories are being advertised in the exact same manner, with a hazy romanticised sunset and natural imagery.


Book covers of African novels. Photo by: Simon Stevens

What Stevens observed was that even prominent writers such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie get the ‘acacia tree sunset treatment’. The irony being that her featured novel, ‘Half a Yellow Sun’, is actually set in Nigeria, and as twitter user, Jeremy Weate noted, this country is not known for its acacia trees. The irony is heightened by the fact that Adichie rose to prominence after her Ted Talk against the dangers of portraying a ‘single story’ of Africa.

But, thankfully, this is changing. Several publishing companies, such as the ebook site called Bahati Books, use illustrations by African artists for their book covers, creating a more dynamic view of the continent.

2. Lack of character depth:

‘…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.’ ‘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 can have no past, no history; such diversions ruin the dramatic moment. […] She must never say anything about herself in the dialogue except to speak of her (unspeakable) suffering.’‘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.’

Wainaina crucially takes note of several common literary tropes in relation to canonised literature which flatten African characters:

  1. the gendering of the continent and the reliance on rape imagery to depict the process of colonialism. This leads to cases of ‘fridging’, a term which describes instances where violence against women is used as a mere plot device to develop the arc of other characters.

  2. the poverty porn which demolishes African characters and implies their reliance on Western charity

Let’s take a look at some popular novels in which we can view examples of fridging and poverty porn.

Waiting for the Barbarians by South African writer J.M. Coetzee is a novel which uses the metaphor of sexual violence for the imperialist enterprise. The anonymous female character is a tortured captor, who remains silent for the vast majority of the novel. She serves to spark the development of the unnamed main character, who is the Magistrate for a colonial town. As the Magistrate begins to empathise with her, he eventually turns against ‘The Empire’ and its militaristic aim to beat down ‘the barbarians’ of the region. Crucially, he feels that in order to understand her, he would have to penetrate her surface, a process which causes him to guilty align himself with the imperialist state agents who had tortured her at the start of the narrative. In doing so, the novel constructs a very clear metaphor: to understand why invading a foreign land is unethical, one must first invade the foreign woman. She hence serves to spur on the Magistrates’ personal development, and lacks any real existence in her own right.

African characters are also portrayed as empty in the renowned novella, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. Through the unravelling of the main character, coloniser Kurt, Conrad constructs his black characters as eerie reflections of a corrupt Western consciousness. The African characters are not human beings, but mystical creatures obscured by darkness, poverty, violence, jungle and drum beats, designed to shock the white man and spur on his insanity. For example, Conrad writes:

‘They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now— nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation, lying confusedly in the greenish gloom. […] The black bones reclined at full length with one shoulder against the tree, and slowly the eyelids rose and the sunken eyes looked up at me, enormous and vacant, a kind of blind, white flicker in the depths of the orbs, which died out slowly. The man seemed young— almost a boy—but you know with them it’s hard to tell.’

In response to this dehumanising description of Africans, Chinua Achebe writes in ‘An Image of Africa’:

‘Africa as setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor. Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril. Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind?’

What Achebe remarks on in his criticism and what Wainaina conveys through his satire is that the continuous bombarding of images of Africans in pain robs them of any humane treatment in literature, and feeds into ideas of Africa being nothing more than a place of corruption and destitution.


HOD book cover by Penguin Classics: Deluxe Edition. Cover illustration by Mike Mignola.

Luckily, there are businesses who are interested in telling diverse stories from Africa. For example, as previously mentioned, the Caine Prize for African Writing, is a charity that puts together an anthology of short stories by African writers every year, centring on a wide variety of themes. The organisation also conducts annual writing workshops on the continent to ensure that Africans have the means to tell their own stories. With more publishing companies and competitions like this, we can ensure that we do not end up with a single image of Africa in our minds.

To conclude, RIP Binyavanga Wainaina. Your activism and poignant critique will forever inspire us to push beyond the limited perception of the continent. After all, Africa is not simply an impoverished place with acacia trees – it is a place of possibility, humanity and creativity.

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