Tag Archives: Africa

“Africa is not one big zoo”

This sentence appeared in a note to author Curtis Keim from an appreciative reader in South Africa.  His book Mistaking Africa: Curiosities and Inventions of  the American Mind is a a brilliant effort to help readers begin to un-learn the many misconceptions that folks in the United States have been feed about “Africa” ( the continent with 54 countries, over 1,000 languages , and 900 million people. )  The person who wrote this note felt that companies always portray Africa as one big zoo full of safari parks and curious people.

Often people will say:  “Oh, I studied in Africa,  I’m going to Africa for a month, or I use to work in Africa” and I think woah that must be exhausting, and then of course I ask what country (even though I will be the first to admit that I can’t always picture geographically the country they will reference).  The point is to encourage folks to remember that we should be specific when speaking of this huge land mass.

Mistaking Africa would be the perfect summer reading companion if you are still looking for something.  Especially since there are a lot of people in the Burlington area and in the Burlington School District that come from many different places in Africa.  And also because negative images of Africa are pervasive in this world.

This book will be a great aid in exploring what you do on an individual level to acknowledge the diversity and complexity of the African continent in your social circles and in your classrooms.  Don’t forget to check out the “Learning More” section where Keim provides books, websites, and journals to help folks join the “conversation” about Africa.  (like http://www.pbs.org/wnet/africa/index.html)

So far my favorite chapter is on celebrities fascination with Africa in the “We Should Help Them” chapter.

Look at these alluring chapter titles!

Part One: Introduction
1. Changing Our Mind about Africa
2. How We Learn

Part Two: Evolutionism
3. The Origins of “Darkest Africa”
4. “Our Living Ancestors”: Twentieth-Century Evolutionism
5. Real Africa, Wise Africa
6. We Should Help Them

Part Three: Further Misperceptions
7. Cannibalism: No Accounting for Taste
8. Africans Live in Tribes, Don’t They?
9. Safari: Beyond Our Wildest Dreams
10. Africa in Images

Part Four: New Directions
11. Race and Culture: The Same and the Other
12. From Imagination to Dialogue

Appendix: Learning More

Also check out this great piece: “How to Write About Africa” by Binyavanga Wainaing in Granta: The Journal of New Writing.

Here, Wainaing uses irony to point out how “Africa” is portrayed in the media and in the minds of people around the world.  Wainaing prompts the questions: Where are the success stories? Why are they so hard to find? Here’s a sneak peek, in case you don’t get around to clicking on the link to read the full article.

“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.

…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.


As always, if you have ways in which you are positively painting the full picture of the continent of Africa please let us know!

Enjoy the summer reading~ do you have something we should be reading? Let us know by dropping a line in the comments section.