For the longest time, I maintained a very strict cease-and-desist policy when it came to books on and/or about Africa written by non-, pseudo- and soi-disant Africans. My cue to toss a book aside with great force would be a blurb like: ‘Ryder Rainer-Dreadnought has an MA in Journalism from the University of Somewheretshire. He lived in Tanzania for a year. He now lives in Los Angeles with his stepsons Casablanca, 14, and Adonis, 12. He is married to fashion model and actor Sultana Proudhorn. When he isn’t writing, he likes to ski and take his two Labrador retrievers and three Rottweilers out for a swim. This is his third book on the region.’
Now, this isn’t to say that I have something against the city of air-brushed and photo-shopped angels, or the models that live there. Or even that I am against skiing, raising five dogs and living your dream with a Sports Illustrated cover girl. No. If you have all the above going for you, more power to you. My bone has always rather been the fact that a person like Ryder is unlikely to know anything worth knowing about Africa, never mind that he ‘dearly, dearly loves’ Africa and feels its pain in all the right places. Of course, you might ask, ‘what is worth knowing about Africa?’ I will probably have no ready answer. I will most surely change the topic and say, ‘you know how it is. You can’t help but think OK, this dude has been here for twelve months and he thinks he knows what’s what. Newts and salamanders, man!—I’ve been here all my life and sometimes I’m not even sure I know what the problem is.
I was convinced that all such books were close-minded, lop-sided and subjective affairs, and that the sort of analyses they attempted rarely ever left the ‘BECAUSE AFRICANS ARE BLOODTHIRSTY SAVAGES. DUH?’ building, the sort of heart-of-darkness logic that would leave any African, modern or otherwise, seething. Then, one weekend, I was asked to do some book-sitting for a friend while she bucketed along to some exclusive event. I unexpectedly found myself vis-à-vis Bill Berkeley’s The Graves Are Not Yet Full. As you can imagine, I spent the better part of that day wondering what this might mean. Was it a sign? Were the gods testing me to see how long I could resist the infection? I had passed the first test, which included sharing the same three dimensional space with It’s Our Turn To Eat for over a year and not even being tempted to touch it with a fifty-foot bargepole – with flying, jumping and somersaulting colours. Would I pass this test?
As it turned out., no. I would like it to go on record, today, here and now, that I tried to resist the temptation. Really, I did. In the end, though, I relented. I couldn’t keep avoiding these books. At some point, I was going to have to read one. I figured I’d best deal with them sooner, when I could afford to have an opinion, rather than later, during my ach-who-gives-a-damn-as-long-as-I-have-my-pension days. So I read the book. I have since book-sat, among other books, The Shadow of the Sun, I Didn’t Do It For You: How The World Used And Abused A Small African Nation and The Wizard of the Nile: The Hunt For Africa’s Most Wanted. The thing with these books is that once you start reading them, you won’t want to stop until you’re done. Some of them are well written and appear to be very well researched. That I will concede. Still, few people would say that they always offer untainted explanations to the sort of woebegone phenomena that abound here; there’s always the risk of bumping into bits that make less sense than a folivorous frugivorous Edward Cullen does. Moreover, the jury’s still out on which people these books are supposed to be benefiting.
Overall, my response remains a mixed one. Shock. Indignation. Sometimes resignation and lethargy. Sometimes depression. Sometimes, an unnameable, eerie feeling. You know how you’d all be in class making the sort of 100 decibel noise that drives every class teacher insane and then everyone would suddenly go quiet?—and your neighbour would whisper something like ‘Satan has passed’ afterward?—or how, after getting a sudden weird feeling and a wave of goosebumps, your granny would say something like ‘a night dancer has stepped over your grave’? Yeah, that’s what it was like for me after reading these books. Read them only if you can afford to go about like a zombie for a few days. After the Graves Are Not Yet Full, I said to myself, ‘kumbe this is what the gods have been protecting me from? Well, then, this is the last book of its kind I am ever reading.’ It wasn’t, of course.
Recently, a couple of friends and I were mulling over our reactions to these books, wondering why they elicited the sort of response they did. Why, for instance, were we shocked when some of the stuff in some of these books is stuff we are actually acquainted with? Stuff we know. Stuff our very own journalists have been trying to talk about for ages. The stuff of open secrets. Stuff you can occasionally glean just by talking to the right people—corruption; tribalism, our ability to use and hurt each other far worse than any colonialist ever could. With our journalists, the attitude we adopt is one of, ‘Okay, okay. Stop screaming already. We heard you the first time. Geez!’ or ‘Dammit!—can’t you see that Anderson Cooper is on? Try to keep it down, will you!’ With Ryder Rainer-Dreadnought, it is, ‘My word. This dude has got insight.’ Sometimes, we even give him a standing ovation.
Why do we not sit up and take some sort of exceptional notice when something has been written by a local journo? Is it the ISBN and the £17 price tag?—are these a necessary part of the package that appeals to our modern sense of credibility? And why aren’t our journos writing books like these, anyway? Oh, wait. They couldn’t possibly write actual books of that sort because that would be unpatriotic and treasonous. Worse, they might have to spend the rest of their lives in exile. Far worse, stray bullets might stop by their doorsteps to ask for directions to the supermarket. Sorry, my bad. Actually, my worst. It was a foolish, misplaced question. Sorry, again. Let’s just pretend this never came up.