The following excerpt is one of the most powerful things I’ve read in a long time (which is saying a lot considering how many books I’ve read in the past 6 months). It explains everything I have been trying to articulate since I moved to Uganda. I kind of just want to walk around and make all the Westerners I come into contact with read it…
From the book Everything Good Will Come by Sefi Atta, a Nigerian-born author:
“If ever I did come across a book by an African author, it was in London, in a neighborhood where I’d gone to buy plantains, in a bookshop with kente cloth drapes. None of the books I encountered had characters as diverse as the people I knew. And African authors, it seemed, were always having to explain the smallest things to the rest of the world. To an African reader, these things could appear over-explained. Harmattan for instance. You already knew: a season, December- January, dust in the eyes, coughing, chilly mornings, by afternoon sweaty armpits. Whenever I read foreign books, they never explained the simplest things, like snow. How it crunched under your shoes, kissed your face both warm and cold. How you were driven to trample it, then loathed it after it became soiled. All these things! No one ever bothered to tell an African! This never occurred to me, until an English friend once commented on how my accent changed whenever I spoke to my Nigerian friends. That was my natural accent, I told her. If I spoke to her that way, she would never understand. She looked stunned. “I don’t believe you,” she said sincerely. “That is so polite.”
After I’d come to terms with how polite I was being, I became incensed at a world that was impolite to me. Under explained books, books that described a colonial Africa so exotic I would want to be there myself, in a safari suit, served by some silent and dignified Kikuyu, or some other silent and dignified tribesman. Or a dark dark Africa, with snakes and vines and ooga-booga dialects. My Africa was a light one, not a dark one: there was so much sun. And Africa was an onslaught of sensations, as I once tried to explain to a group of English work mates, like eating an orange. What single sensation could you take from an orange? Stringy, mushy, tangy, bitter, sweet. The pulp, seeds, segments, skin. The sting in your eyes. The long lasting smell on your fingers.
But people concentrated on certain aspects of our continent: poverty, or wars, or starvation: bush, tribes or wildlife. They loved our animals more than they loved us. They took an interest in us only when we were clapping and singing, or half naked like the Maasai, who were always sophisticated enough to recognize a photo opportunity. And for the better informed: “How about that Idi Amin Dada fellow, eh?” That Mobutu Sese Seko fellow, that Jean-Bedel Bokassa fellow, as though those of us who just happened to be living in the same continent could vouch for the sanity of any of these fellows.
We had no sense of continent really, or of nation in a country like mine, until we traveled abroad: no sense of the Africa presented outside. In a world of East and West, there was nowhere to place us. In a graded world, there was a place for us, right there at the bottom: third, slowly slipping into the fourth world. A noble people. A savage culture. Pop concert after pop concert for starving Africans. Entire books dedicated to the salvation of African women’s genitals. If only the women themselves could read the books, critique them: this is right, this is incorrect; this is total nonsense. If only Africa could be saved by charity.”