The idea for the column I’m linking to below, which was published in Awoko on July 19, partly came from reading a piece in the Humanosphere covering the controversy over a Scottish actress who wrote about her experiences in Zambia in a way many took issue with (because it was apparently inaccurate and full of stereotypes). You can follow the controversy under the hashtag #LintonLies. The Humanosphere piece also links to Kenyan author and journalist Binyavanga Wainaina’s brilliant and hilarious satire “How to write about Africa,” which should be a required how-to guide for everyone, and which I’ll definitely be coming back to many times.
That piece gives me tips on what not to do. But my column also came from thinking about in the last two weeks, how I should write about what I see here in Sierra Leone, and still not being sure of the answer. I’ve been adjusting to being here so quickly, and as a result everything seems normal, even if by the standards of the US or the developed world, it’s not. Should I feel normal or even hopeful in Freetown — or depressed all the time?
It seems there are two ways to look at, say, a street in Freetown. One is to be very aware of and point out all the problems — a broken down gutter system, starving stray dogs, pollution, dangerous and ugly traffic, dilapidated buildings, kids who are selling peanuts instead of being in school, and who may not know how to read…etc. ad nauseum.
My instinct and preference is to not get lost in these problems, for a lot of reasons. Doing so puts a mental distance between the observer and the country and its people. I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say it can dehumanize the people who live there. This is what people who write off a whole country as hopelessly broken do. It’s also where the worst paranoid fears and stereotypes come from. It’s unfair to the people in the country who are well aware of the problems and working hard to fix them. For all these reasons, I feel like it misses the point — misses what’s fresh, nuanced and interesting.
But at the same time…I’m torn. It’s obviously not good to be overly positive when the situation really doesn’t call for it. What messes with my head is that there just seems to be a conflict between, say going into a slum, interviewing people and painting a picture of everyday life that seems…just normal, and one slice of human existence — and pointing out what seems undeniably true on another level: that such a slum is a failure and a sign of a broken process.
Maybe this is a false conflict and I’m overthinking it. If for whatever reason you want to read even more of my overthinking, here’s the original column I wrote:
I recently read an article that made me think twice about how I should write about Sierra Leone while I’m here. In the article, published in the online publication the Humanosphere, which focuses on global development and poverty, reporter Tom Murphy outlines the controversy over a recent piece in the UK Telegraph by Scottish actress Louise Linton, in which she describes her gap year volunteering in Zambia at the age of 18.
The piece, which was an excerpt from Linton’s memoir, was fiercely criticized on Twitter and in opinion columns all over the web for mixing outright inaccuracies and clichés into a patronizing and misleading stew. People also criticized how Linton presented herself as a “white savior” in the piece, swooping into Africa from Scotland to help fix the problems Africans can’t fix themselves.
Linton’s own problem was being oblivious about how her writing and perspective came across. As writer Matt Hershberger noted on the travel website the Matador Network, Linton thought her writing was doing good in raising awareness of issues in Zambia. In an apology on Twitter, she said she was dismayed that it angered so many people.
The Humanosphere piece I read also mentions a famous 2005 satirical essay by Kenyan writer and journalist Binyavanga Wainaina called “How to write about Africa.” The piece hilariously and mercilessly pounces on all the clichés, subtle and not so subtle, that Western writers use when they write about the continent.
Read the rest here.