Loved this piece by Nanjala Nyabola for Al Jazeera.
So when a foreign journalist enters a space in which he speaks the formal but only understands the informal, a great deal will necessarily be lost in translation. I believe that it is in this space that most of the mistakes occur when writing about Africa. I argue that most Western journalists who come to Africa believe that they can get by because they speak English or even Swahili, but never really get down to the essence of what it means to be a South Sudanese in war for instance, an essence that is fundamentally related to the ability to be able to switch between the three or four languages and their attendant identities.
This switching matters to a large extent because it is in this switching, for instance, that many Africans comprehend the fluidity of ethnicity, which translates as hardened and immutable in English but is actually pretty malleable and utilitarian in sheng’ or in any other African language. It is in this switching that context is given – a Kikuyu or Dinka descriptor that modifies an English concept, and either attenuates or aggravates its meaning. The use of poorly translated or contextualised concepts, of hardened constructs in place of malleable ones, is thus an integral part of the broader frustration that Africa just isn’t being heard right. Yes, this person says that Tribe X is responsible for issue Y, but are they just using that as shorthand for a more complex phenomenon, like the interrelationship between class, ethnicity and power?
There is an easy way to resolves this of course: ask Africans what they think and have them tell their own stories, instead of co-opting them to undermine or reinforce existing narratives among the Western audience. But given the aforementioned racial hierarchy of knowledge in the Western public sphere, I doubt this will happen and we should all prepare ourselves for another bout of misunderstanding.
The debate over who speaks for Africa is going to continue raging for some time to come. Nanjala and the rest of us African writers represent a shifting paradigm that might not yet be accept by mainstream (read: Western news audiences). I’d like to think that what we signal is the rise of a cogent African narrative, written by Africans. The fact that Nanjala wrote the piece for Al Jazeera –– instead of a “Western” journalist or academician attempting to dissect a rising phenomenon –– speaks volumes.
I keep seeing so many great long reads written by Africans on main stream media outlets. I hope that this is a sign of great things to come, and that we all take the time to pay attention to these new rising voices.