How to write in Africa



I was asked recently to address a group of young writers, it was bad timing as I’d just been detained for 10 days at the pleasure of the relevant authorities. I felt I was a bad choice, I had nothing to tell them, and it wouldn’t have been sincere anyway. I thought about it, everybody tells you how to write about Africa, but not how to write while IN Africa. Apart from a few exceptions, maybe South Africa, it is a dangerous life to be a writer. We as Africans, we complain that our story is not being told and yet we shoot the messengers. I have spoken to various writers from different nations, at different stages of development. Our media goes through a cycle like a butterfly or something. There is the beginning where things are good, you are unknown, you have a small following but growing, then a boom as you expand and consume everything like a caterpillar. Then you are exposed to danger and you have to return to a cocoon, a serious time of trial where you transform into a butterfly, then you are free. My own nation Rwanda is where Kenya or Uganda was 16 years ago, the authorities feel they have justification to clamp down on free speech. Like in those days, the go-to sections for prosecutors are; sedition, incitement, treason, disrespecting officials, national security. It is part of the evolution of a nation to go from not tolerating to opening up. That is the first challenge you face as a writer, your own laws as a nation permit or restrict literature and arts.


A blessing and a curse –


Deciding to be a writer is a serious calling, it is your duty to express the views of people who might think like you. Even better, put yourself in the place of other people to understand and explain their beliefs. Writers are very empathetic people, often driven by a need for justice, to speak out, especially is our unequal societies. There s no better feeling than an acknowledgement from a happy reader, to think a person took time in their busy lives to read my ramblings is edifying in some way. Then there is the other side, as much as people love you, they will hate you as well. Trollers on the internet are a nuisance, many will insult your dead grandmother for a cheap shot. The internet is a horrible place, especially in Africa, words you write online can result in a bullet in the brain. The effects can be meted on your family, your friends can abandon you, pressing SEND can be the difference between life and death for some. Our societies use ostracism and social pressure as the first measure of control, you threaten privilege the moment you start to write the truth. I spoke an old vet, he said that is part of the deal, family members think you went out to damage them, like before you write you think ‘let me mess up my relatives.’ The most perverse thing is when people think that they deserve to suffer for your actions. People you love will say the most horrible things to you, things they can never take back, but after a few days and when things have calmed down then things are normal. Until the next time you write something power finds offensive.


Be fearless – those words are just FEAR and you must know when a real sentiment is expressed and when it is just insulting out of  fear speaking. Every good African writer has fallen foul of the authorities, you want to just write novels but daily life gets in the way. There is so much going on to document, and just life is fascinating. Besides, no one reads novels, but you can give it to them 2 pages at a time. Blog and never use a pseudonym, your name is your shield. If you write anonymously, you can die the same way. Be fearless, know that nothing is permanent, everything is subject to change and there’s no changing that. Find your voice, make your writing sound like talking, no heavy grammar and if it sounds like writing then it is stuffy. It must sound like your voice is leaping off the page, you must write how you talk because idiosyncrasies make you unique. Speak for yourself, hope to resonate with others but be honest to yourself. There is nothing more liberating than saying something that society can see but refuses to acknowledge, whatever the consequences, publish and be damned. Do not give into the emotional blackmail of those around you, conditional love is not real love. Even if you step back for a time, just to let things heal, and to remember what bonds you. There is no other profession than the arts and writing that demands you give it up for the good of society. No bricklayer is even told their bricks are a danger to society.


Against the tide – what bonds us is a prevailing narrative. Scientists like Noah Yuval Hariri believe that it was not biological evolution that spurred us but social evolution. Over the last few millennia our brains have been shrinking, our ancestors had to process a lot more information to survive, thousands of plants; some poisonous and some not, insects, animals, rivers. We have evolved socially while becoming individually stupid, we have experts to study and we use their knowledge instead of fending alone in the bush. What bonds us is fictional narrative; humans live in two worlds, reality and virtual reality simultaneously.  Millions of people can work together bonded by a common narrative, like a tribe which was born of a crocodile, just a common story you all believe in. The same with religion, football teams, nations, they only exist in our heads. There is no Rwanda, you cannot see a line of the borders that God created, it is all in our mind. This is why whoever controls the narrative controls the people, when you mess with that narrative, you mess with the pillars of society. The truth is, even if this life is a lie, we all deeply want to believe in this lie. This is why the job of a writer is sacred, it is to wake us up from the matrix, it is not a minor task and people will see you as a threat.  So take it seriously, but without fear. The fear is not theoretical, people are punished for speaking out in Rwanda. The same laws were made to prevent Genocide are sometimes misused to protect minor people, incitement, and the same colonial laws that kept colonialism in power so long. We kept them on the books because they underpin state power without accountability.


How can we believe that human rights reports are written to embarrass our nation? When Rwanda was rated low for Doing Business some 12 years ago, they did not expel the people who published the report, they looked at the benchmarks one by one and improved them. The same can be done for human rights, it cannot remain a blot on a perfect record, like passing 11 A’s and a D in the mix. To think that people hate you or are trying to embarrass you is wrong. Rwanda can work with its harshest critics and end this perception. Some people are able to talk sense to power without offending them, and that is a good position as long as your principles are not compromised, but it is tap-dancing around issues. To each their own, don’t shout if you are not shouty, be yourself. In the end people always come back, old veterans speak of being in the cold, then back in the limelight again. First they love, then they hate you, then they love you again. Life is a marathon and not a sprint, most just look at the next 100m but after it’s all said and done; you are one again. Africans are so emotional, we are always up in arms about what this person said. You decide to work within the system, to walk the tightrope, skirting the issues, explaining, excusing and deflecting. Then everyone forgets like it never happened. Write even if you never publish, when the time is right we will see them. We will remember this as the best of times and the worst of times.   Never take yourself too seriously, always laugh at yourself and at the ridiculousness of this thing we call life.


Rama Isibo


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3 Responses to How to write in Africa

  1. Thank you for writing this. I’m sorry you were detained. It happens but it is sad each time. To a future when it won’t happen as much.

  2. tgatete says:

    Merci Rama for this heartfelt piece. It resonates with me as you know; every single line. I hope you are doing well. We all go through that moment of low every now and then; the price to pay for offering ourselves. But you can always call me right? I didn’t even know you were detained. We should be able to help each other out and protect each other. I too believe we are doing something, I hope we drink to that one day when we are old and remember what an adventure it all was. All the best brother, take care.

  3. Anne says:

    Keep writing ..keep caring..

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