African story tellers must take control of local content

By Mwaura Samora

NAIROBI, KENYA: Africa celebrated 50 years with a grand bash that brought together the usual congregation of heads of states in Addis Ababa. And although the condemnation of ICC and crying over missed dreams of improving the lives of more than a billion Africans were the main themes, one equally important issue was missing in the agenda. That is the fact that most African stories are actually told by non-Africans. To confirm this sad fact, you only need to pop in your nearest bookstore and check the names of authors of major titles dealing with themes like Congo crisis, the Somalia situation, infant mortality rates and food insecurity in Africa.

You are likely to find authors with surnames like Gordon, Maxwell, Simmons and others, all who share one origin; the West.

And as expected, the skewed perceptions on Africa saturate their works, which, reinforced by an equally biased Western media, is the root cause of this continent being perceived as cesspit of global misery.

This explains why a native ‘New Yorker’ or ‘Torontonian’ gets the shock of their lives if they meet a Kenyan who has never been bitten by a snake or whose country is not being ravaged by war, famine or HIV/Aids. The most tragic thing is the fact that African writers, either out of laziness or lack of initiative, hardly write factual books about the positive things happening in the continent to counter this pre-meditated negative publicity campaign.

While I believe scribes like the late Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Ousmane Sembene have done the continent a great service through their fictional work, facts are better told through factual books.

As Chimamanda Adichie, that rapidly rising Nigerian scribe, once said, facts are stranger, or stronger, than fiction. The content is not short of positive facts. We need more Africans doing factual titles on the success story of Rwanda for the last two decades, the gains made in Angola since the end of the civil war, the rise of the African middle class, the success stories of Kenyan athletes and the tremendous and rapid growth of the African information and communication technology sector.

Even stories of conflict hotspots like Darfur, Somalia, Congo and Mali need to be told from an African perspective, coming from eyes that are likely to see something the Western authors miss either through commission or omission.

Most of the factual work in Africa is done by academics, more often than not, as a requirement in pursuit of scholarly honours like PhDs rather than as a quest to inform the public. These scholarly tomes end up in university libraries where they gather dust until someone comes calling for class work research. Hardly does an ordinary reader in the street bother with such books.

African leaders, either for luck of faith in their own or a quest to avoid their stories being told by those who know the skeletons in their political closets, have mostly  authorised biographies done by foreigners. Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki and Daniel arap Moi are a few examples. But even the unauthorised works of major African personalities are still dominated by foreign authors despite the subject homeland swarming with seasoned writers.

Maybe he reason why African writers are obsessed with writing fiction is because it involves less physical work in terms of research, with the writers feeding the readers with a concoction weaved in thoughts and life experiences. For instance, it took Mark Gevisser eight years of research to write the hugely informative Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred. I wonder how many African scribes would be this patient.

Many will be quick to say that Africans don’t read, hence it matters less whether their story is told by locals or foreigners. But I will counter this by quoting Patrice Lumumba, who once prophesied: “The day will come when history will speak…Africa will write its history…it will be a history of glory and dignity”.