Spilling Ink on Africa’s Fires

By Tolu Ogunlesi


Every time I find myself at Lagos’ Murtala Mohammed International Airport, a glance at the foreigners’ queue makes me wonder how many of those sweating Caucasians are there on a mission to spill ink on Africa’s endless fires.

It is of course an open secret that the continent teems with ‘anonymous’ white men and women destined to build enviable reputations from material from the ruins of what the Economist Magazine once proudly termed “The Hopeless Continent”. In recent months I have become deeply fascinated by the possibilities of assembling images of Africa as painted by outsiders – the Gospel of Africa according to Saints Blixen, Kapuściński, Forsyth, Dowden, Maier, Wrong; to mention just a few.

“For the last 20 years the news from Africa has been unremittingly bad,” the second line of Anthony Daniels’ essay Not as black as it’s painted, (originally published in The Spectator) declares.

Daniels is to a significant extent correct. This was 1987. Twenty years before then would have been 1967, the year that the Nigerian Civil War kicked off. In those two decades Nigeria, self-acclaimed Giant of Africa, saw 30 months of civil war, four coup d’états, and one horribly mismanaged oil boom.

But he soon strays into dubious territory, adopting that deadly attitude (a potent mix of condescension and incontrovertibility) that the colonial adventure seemed to implant deep into the European DNA. A few sentences later, after a litany of peculiarly African woes – desertification, population explosion, AIDS – Daniels jokes: “Perhaps most depressing of all, one is now grateful for a President who, however dictatorial, does not actually eat his opponents.”

And then the guns emerge, blazing. Four examples:

“As I remarked, no doubt cruelly, to several young African radicals, even if Africa were to unite economically, it would still scarcely amount to Switzerland.”

“Africa is so technically backward that it would be cheaper to ship things from Mars than to produce them on the continent. An arms embargo on South Africa has produced an arms industry; an arms embargo on the rest of Africa would produce bows and arrows.”

“There is little in traditional African culture that is compatible with a modern economy, and much that is inimical to it.”

“Very few Africans have – can have – the faintest notion of the depth of the cultural and scientific tradition necessary to produce a Mercedes, or even a simple light bulb.”


There is no doubt that ours is a continent that teems with stories; many of which are plain depressing. But in my opinion, redemption lies in the 'deserving-ness' of all our stories – The Good, The Sad, The Wobbly – to be given equal attention. Chimamanda Adichie has spoken often about the danger of “the single story”, the single perspective. And I recall the brilliant words of the novelist, John Berger, that “never again shall a single story be told as though it were the only one.”

There are those stories simply waiting to be unearthed. There are many that have already been unearthed, but are now forgotten, abandoned to gather dust. There are the ones that have been polished half-heartedly, so that the sheen they give off is a dull one. Africa’s stories are like its population, constantly exploding. But they all need to be told or retold; the untold, half-told and mis-told.


The earliest stories I read about Africa were of course told by outsiders who had come to assume the position of insiders. I remember King Solomon’s mines. The tales that made their way to me, told by Africans, tended to feature hyper-intelligent animals – the tortoise and the hare. The ones that had human beings were uni-dimensional: Wise, kind kings under whose rule kingdoms expanded, and who were succeeded by weak, evil sons under whom things fell apart; evil stepmothers who attempted to poison the innocent children of innocent co-wives: the Dark Continent expressed in Black and White.

The other black beings of my childhood were the golliwogs in Enid Blyton’s stories. In Binyavanga Wainaina’s famous satire, How to write about Africa (essentially a guide for foreign journalists) he advises: “Taboo subjects: ordinary domestic scenes, love between Africans (unless a death is involved), references to African writers or intellectuals, mention of school-going children who are not suffering from yaws or Ebola fever or female genital mutilation.”

Wainaina adds: “Your African characters may include naked warriors, loyal servants, diviners and seers, ancient wise men living in hermitic splendour. Or corrupt politicians, inept polygamous travel-guides, and prostitutes you have slept with.”

In other words: Abandon Complexity All Ye Who Enter Here.

[PS. That mention of “prostitutes” makes me remember a name I failed to include earlier: Paul Theroux, another ‘veteran’ of Africa.]



Anthony Daniels remarked in his essay that “[e]xpressing pessimism about Africa is …the order of the day.” This was twenty three years ago. Nothing wrong with pessimism, if you ask me. My continent – littered as it is with Amins and Mugabes and Zumas and Gaddafis and Mubaraks – has by default always inspired pessimism. And pessimism – with its potential for colour – far more easily than optimism, makes for great literature. (Recall the famous quotation: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”)

Even African writers are generally agreed that their land is a rich mine of unsettling stories. In his 1975 essay, Morning Yet on Creation Day, Chinua Achebe wrote: “I would be quite satisfied if my novels (especially the ones I set in the past) did no more than teach my readers that their past – with all its imperfections – was not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God's behalf delivered them.”

Achebe was honest enough to admit the “imperfections” of his land. Chimamanda Adichie has written about how Things Fall Apart opened her eyes to the possibility that fully-formed Africans could inhabit fictional worlds. In a similar vein Zimbabwean writer Tinashe Mushakavanhu has spoken of Dambudzo Marechera’s House of Hunger. None of those books is a flattering portrait of Africa, none is meant to be a starry-eyed depictions of paradisiacal bliss.

Therein lies the key to the kind of books that Africa needs – those ones patient enough to navigate the contested territory between the continent’s “imperfections” and the “savagery” that perfunctory observation would seek to impute to the continent. Even the cruel, condescending Daniels admits that Africa’s depressing character “is profoundly misleading if it is taken to mean that Africa is a continent of unrelieved gloom and misery.”