Hassan Ghedi Santur

For over a week, social media has been ablaze thanks to a memoir written by a Scottish actress by the name of Louise Linton. It all started on July 1st when an excerpt from her memoir called “How my dream gap year in Africa turned into a nightmare” was published in the lifestyle section of The Telegraph. 

Just the title of the book gives it all way. In Congo's Shadow: One Girl's Perilous Journey to the Heart of Africa harks back to Victorian tales of the innocent white woman who goes to the dark continent, the kind of nauseating narrative tropes that African readers have been subjected to for far too long.

Linton has been lampooned in tweets and Instagram posts that have gone viral, and she has since apologized. She has been accused of fabricating her near-death experience with Congolese rebels conducting cross-border raids into Zambia. Several village residents have come out saying that no such raids took place. Linton has also been accused of exhibiting a classic case of “white savior complex”, a widespread disorder that has deluded countless 18-year-old white boys and girls from the West into thinking they can solve the continent’s many problems by spending a summer in “Africa” as voluntourists.

Most of us who have been baffled by the memoir in question have not read it. Nor do we personally know Louise Linton. For all we know, she might have had the noblest of intentions. But that is actually besides the point. Linton has done what Europeans have been doing for centuries. For many westerners, Africa has long been a faraway place of romantic adventures and self-discovery; a place to test their inner strength and reaffirm their humanity. But their stories of Africa often have nothing to do with Africans. In fact, in most cases, Africans are at best totally absent and at worst, deadly obstacles. Africa is merely a backdrop, a beautiful, magical backdrop, but still just a backdrop. This mentality is painfully evident in pop culture. Remember Taylor Swift’s video for her hit song “Wildest Dreams” in which she and her safari-suited lover frolic in some unnamed African country with the requisite lions and elephants in the background and not a single dark-skinned African in sight, not even a decorative spear-wielding Masai.

And who can forget the infamous 60 Minutes segment “The Ebola Hot Zone” in which correspondent Lara Logan travelled all the way to Liberia to cover the Ebola crisis of 2014, only to air an entire segment in which not a single African person, not a doctor, a nurse, a mayor of affected towns was interviewed on camera. And there was Kony 2012 and the #BringBackOurGirls fad.

The one thing Louise Linton’s memoir and the other examples I mentioned have in common is the ever-ubiquitous “white gaze” on Africa and by extension, Africans. It has been with us for centuries and has been all-pervasive in most writing about the continent. Thankfully, in literature at least, this white gaze is being challenged by a cadre of young, gifted African-born writers who are at last writing about their home continent from the perspective of Africans and who are in the process slowly re-writing Africa.

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Tucked between the Consulate General of Algeria and Maggie’s Place, an Irish style pub in midtown Manhattan, stands an inconspicuous building that one could easily miss if not for the large, red banner blowing over the entrance that reads, “Center for Fiction.”  I have come to speak with Maaza Mengiste, the Ethiopian-American novelist who is a deserving member of what the New York Times in a recent article called, “New Wave of African Writers With an Internationalist Bent." 

Mengiste is expected at the center as the guest of a book club which has selected her debut novel Beneath the Lion’s Gaze about the Ethiopian revolution of 1974 and the last days of the legendary Emperor Haile Selassie. I wait for her on the second floor in a tastefully decorated saloon with gleaming hardwood floors, deep leather armchairs, and a few busts of famous Western writers and thinkers.

Many young African novelists living in the West such as Maaza Mengiste, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Taiye Selassi, Leila Aboulela and NoViolet Bulawayo owe their careers in large part to places like the Center for Fiction, MFA programs, writing retreats and fellowships that have served to foster their prodigious talents. Thanks to these opportunities, this new wave of African authors has come to be included in the rarified literary spaces historically held by white, European men.

In coming to prominence, many young African writers have successfully managed to re-appropriate their material from “the white gaze,” which the blogger Julian Abagond describes as “looking at the world through a white person’s eyes…It is the world as told by white people for white people.” And it seems most African writers and readers have their own personal battle with the white gaze.

For ‎Chinua Achebe, it was Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. For some, the white gaze brings to mind Karen Blixen of Out of Africa fame. For others, it’s Paul Theroux, the author of Dark Star Safari. For Maaza Mengiste, it is Ryszard Kapuściński, the Polish journalist and poet who gained worldwide prominence for his ethnographic chronicling of various African countries including Mengiste’s country of birth, Ethiopia. “His depiction of Africa and Africans is so stereotypical, so heavy handed and very condescending in tone,” she tells me, her exasperation flaring up for a brief moment. She says she spent many years struggling to reconcile what she calls Kapuściński’s talent as a writer and his racism. “How was I going to negotiate those [offensive] moments in his writing with the fact that he’s a very talented writer?” Mengiste asks. “Part of what we have to do is put those two aspects of the writing together. I think many people in the West are not ready to admit that Kapuściński was racist. Until we have begun to address people like him, then we haven’t begun to really address the way Africa has been depicted.”

Replacing the traditional European canon of literature with new African writers does not entirely eliminate the problem of the white gaze, Mengiste explains. “People want to read your book and find foreign policy suggestions,” she says with a weary smile, adding that she is often treated as stand-in for her entire birth country rather than a single author telling her version of the story of Ethiopia.

Dr. Souleymane Bachir Diagne, professor of philosophy and literature at Columbia University says the white gaze in literature has deep roots in anthropology that he describes as “the study of the other.” He observes that, “the other by definition is other than us. So you study others expecting a manifestation of their otherness and in so doing, you make them even more other than they truly are. This was the birth of anthropology. It has changed [but] that discipline has been pervasive for all approaches to Africa.”

African literature is often assessed in anthropological and ethnological terms. Dr. Diagne says that, “if a novel or a poem is produced by an African, what you’re looking at is not really a novel as a novel or the poem as a poem. You are not looking at its writing; you are looking at what it documents.”

For decades, great postcolonial novels such as Things Fall Apart were read and admired by many in the West not for their literary and esthetic qualities but as a window into a distant, exotic universe called Africa. This, Dr. Diagne asserts, has had the deleterious effect of flattening these great novels to mere documents of ethnography. “As someone who teaches African, Francophone literature,” Diagne says, “what I teach my students is to get rid of that anthropological approach to literature and to adopt a truly literary approach. Literature does tell you something about the society where it’s produced but not in this way in which you negate its literary nature and flatten the text.”

Other African fiction writers of Mengiste’s generation also speak of a similar tendency to “flatten” their works into a social or political treatise. “Being called an African writer can sometimes to be ‘a big, unwieldy label for all the different types of people we are and all of the different types of stories we are telling,” Nadifa Mohamed tells me over a transatlantic Skype interview. The Somali-British novelist exploded onto the literary scene in 2010 with her debut novel Black Mamba Boy. Her second novel The Orchard of Lost Souls set in Somaliland during the civil war was published in 2013, and Granta Magazine included her in its coveted Best of Young British Novelists.

Like many of her contemporaries who were born in Africa and educated in the West, Mohamed studied history at the University of Oxford. She, like many of her peers, has benefited from this cross-cultural pollination that makes these stories an amalgamation of African roots and Western experiences. This group of writers move through languages, cultures and (not inconsequently) airports with an ease and privilege that their literary predecessors rarely enjoyed. In telling their very African stories and have in the process come to occupy the position of intermediaries in the global north-south divide.

When I ask Mohamed why we are now seeing the explosion of young African literary talent, she gives me a one-word answer: opportunity. Africans have been writing about their experiences for a long time but she says, “the problem was getting published. The difficulty is writing what you want and seeing it made widely available.” However, that seems to have changed in the last decade or so. Thanks to the international success of novelists such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie whose work has been translated into 30 languages, publishing houses in London, Paris and New York have woken up to the fact that readers around the world do want to read novels by African writers with African characters at their center.

“What we have now is an opportunity to be read,” Mohamed says. Since the publication of her two novels, she has been invited to literary festivals in far-flung corners of the world from India to Peru. “It’s so exciting to take a Somali story to Peru,” Mohamed says. One of the great things about taking her books around the world is what she calls “the shock of recognition” she detects in readers. “It was great to see people empathising with what I was talking about because they had felt something similar…and you think, wow, this little book I wrote in my bedroom five years ago has got this life and is creating a bridge between my mind and all these other people’s minds.”

Novels with Africans at their center are no longer the commercial risk they were once viewed as in the publishing world. In fact, these days, it can be a selling point. At a recent Frankfurt Book Fair, the debut novel Behold the Dreamers by Cameroonian-American newcomer Imbolo Mbue made international headlines when the manuscript was bought by Random House for a reported one-million-dollar advance.

As in the publishing world, in journalism too, the white gaze is gradually dying out with more African journalists getting the opportunity to tell their own stories. The growth of digital native news sites from Johannesburg to Nairobi and Mogadishu to Lagos is having a positive effect on how the continent is covered and perceived by the rest of the world. Who tells the stories of Africans has historically been about power. And that equation is slowly but surely tipping in favor of Africans themselves.

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Leaving the room where Maaza Mengiste and I spoke at the Center for Fiction, I found a small group of middle-aged white women gathered at the door, clutching copies of Mengiste's Beneath the Lion’s Gaze. They seemed eager to have me leave so they could start their book club discussion. As I exited the building, I wondered how many of those women have ever been to Ethiopia or any part of Africa for that matter. How many of them had their first impression of Africa via Heart of Darkness or Out of Africa? For this one night, at least, I thought to myself, they would have an African writer to tell them about Africa. Or more accurately, to tell them about Ethiopia for there is really no such thing as “Africa.”

Hassan Ghedi Santur is an Associate Editor at Warscapes. He is a Somali-Canadian freelance journalist. He is currently based in New York City where he is pursuing a Master's degree at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in politics and global affairs. He is the author of the novel Something Remains. Twitter @hgsantur