Novelists, NGO workers, rock musicians, conservationists, students, and travel writers track down my email, asking: Would you please comment on my homework assignment / pamphlet / short story / funding proposal / haiku / adopted child / photograph of genuine African mother-in-law? All of the people who do this are white. Nobody from China asks, nobody from Cuba, nobody black, blackish, brown, beige, coffee, cappuccino, mulatte. I wrote “How to Write about Africa” as a piss-job, a venting of steam; it was never supposed to see the light of day. Now people write to ask me for permission to write about Africa. They want me to tell them what I think, how they did. Be frank, they say, be candid. Tell it like it is.
I have considered investing in a rubber stamp. I have imagined myself standing at the virtual borders of Africa, a black minuteman with a rubber stamp, processing applications — where YES means “Pass go, pay one hundred dollars,” and NO means “Tie ’em up and deport ’em.” It’s almost a sexual thing. They come crawling out of the unlikeliest places, looking to be whipped. I am bad, Master Binya, beat me. Oh! Beat me harder. Oo! They seem quite disappointed when I don’t. Once in a while I do, and it feels both good and bad, like too much wasabi. Bono sent a book of poems. Someone wrote an essay, “How to Write about Afghanistan.” I shook hands with, not one, but two European presidents, who read my text and shook their heads: How bad, how very bad. I shared a cigarette in Frankfurt with the bodyguards of Yar Adua, the Nigerian president, who said they don’t like gyms back in Abuja because the wives of the big men come onto them and cause all kinds of trouble. They preferred hotel gyms in Europe. But German cigarettes were not as good as Nigerian cigarettes. German vegetables were not as good as Nigerian vegetables. German beer was, when you really looked, deep into the foam, not nearly as light and golden as Nigerian beer. When all is said and done, they said, stamping out their cigarettes and smelling of fine French cologne, Nigeria is the best place. Have you been to Abuja, they asked? No, I said. Abuja is ultramodern, they said, and we all looked out at the wet, gray, old, stained buildings in front of us.
One day a man I know called me in some agitation. He had just read “How to Write about Africa” and wanted to know why I would write about him as I’d done. I had said, “After celebrity activists and aid workers, conservationists are Africa’s most important people. Do not offend them.” I had offended him. I had not mentioned anyone by name, but he was personally affronted. Yes, he’s a conservationist, and, yes, he has hosted a celebrity or two — but he didn’t trade in game animals, and he paid his workers well. Sure, I said. It’s beyond the pale, he said. I have never really understood what that means, where that is, the pale, and why such a mild-seeming phrase promises interpersonal Armageddon.
“How to Write about Africa” grew out of an email. In a fit of anger, maybe even low blood sugar — it runs in the family — I spent a few hours one night at my graduate student flat in Norwich, England, writing to the editor of Granta. I was responding to its “Africa” issue, which was populated by every literary bogeyman that any African has ever known, a sort of “Greatest Hits of Hearts of Fuckedness.” It wasn’t the grimness that got to me, it was the stupidity. There was nothing new, no insight, but lots of “reportage” — Oh, gosh, wow, look, golly ooo — as if Africa and Africans were not part of the conversation, were not indeed living in England across the road from the Granta office. No, we were “over there,” where brave people in khaki could come and bear witness. Fuck that. So I wrote a long — truly long — rambling email to the editor.
To my surprise, Granta wrote back right away. The editor, Ian Jack, disavowed the “Africa” issue — that was before his time, he said. A year or so later, another Granta editor called. They were doing a new “Africa” issue, and they wanted my perspective. Sure, sure, I said. And then forgot. And then remembered, felt guilty, felt the weight of a continent on my back. I was blocked and more blocked. I drank a Tusker. Finally I wrote something about Bob Geldof. It was shit, said the editor — not his words, but he meant to say that, and he was right. So I went back to work. The deadline came. The deadline went. I was busy working on a short story, busy working on my novel. A cold Tusker. The new Kwani. The beach, in Lamu. The editor called with an idea — why don’t we publish your long crazy email? An extract, that is. Sure, I said, absentmindedly. He sent me a draft. Phew, I thought, absentmindedly. Cut, paste, cut, paste. A few flourishes here or there. Send.
It took an hour.
The issue came out, my article went online. It became the most-forwarded story in Granta history. I started hearing from friends, from strangers; started getting my own words forwarded to me with a cheerful heading, as something I might be interested in, as though I hadn’t written it. I went viral; I became spam. I started getting invitations — to conferences, meetings, think tanks. I started getting mail. Now I am “that guy,” the conscience of Africa: I will admonish you and give you absolution.
If I was smart, I would have waited a few years and made an iPhone app: a little satirical story about how to write about Africa every day, interactive and adaptable, for ninety-nine cents. Fuck Granta… thanks, Granta.
I was busy working on my novel. Then I was drinking chili-flavored vodka with the editor of this magazine, and before I knew it I had agreed to write a sequel to “How to Write about Africa.” Okay, I said, absentmindedly. So, here we are.