Writings of the general word's body

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Please Winona Rasheed, Africa is not a country

It is a constant source of frustration, despair almost, for the average African - this Western mindset that insists on seeing the African continent as one unfathomable mass of misery. From the language employed to describe Africa and Africans in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness to present day news-network-speak, we are faced with this daily, to the extent that we don't bat an eyelid most times. It's the reason why, when a Western celebrity or leader goes to a small corner of an African country, the headlines simply say he/she "went to Africa". As if Africa were one formless, unchartered space, as if Africa were the moon - some outer limit destination you venture into at your own risk.

It baffles me, this stereotype of an indistinct Africa. An Africa whose separate entities are not worth recognising or getting to know. Chicago can be Chicago, New York is New York; my television is currently talking about the US Democratic primaries results in Florida. No one presumes to think I don't know where that is, nor do they purport to enlighten me as to where it might be. I'm supposed to know, period. And if I don't know, that, frankly, is my own headache. The idea is that I ought to know Florida. Why then is the average Westerner excused from knowing about the parts of Africa that any educated person in the world should be ashamed not to recognise? Why is it only a mild educated joke that George W Bush once called Africa "a country"? Why didn't the Senate pass a vote of no confidence on him for the pitiful ignorance that should have rendered him unfit to rule the most powerful nation on earth?

I am tired of it. The West's lack of education, or the refusal to be educated, about Africa. The lack of curiosity about her except to the extent to which she reinforces deep seated stereotypes. Because of the unhelpful, unreflective language used to paint Africa, these attitudes seep into the collective unconscious and make their bed there. There's a book being promoted in London's bookshop windows right now. From the title, (Blood River) I can tell that it is about a journey up the River Congo (the same river on which Conrad's Marlow travels to the 'heart of darkness' to meet Kurtz); Blood River's subtitle reads: A Journey Into Africa's Broken Heart. First time I saw that subtitle, I gasped in the bookshop and my upper body jerked forward a little, as though someone punched me in the stomach. Africa's broken heart? How dire. Our heart, needless to say, is not broken.

So what do we say when literary editors who compile anthologies of writings by African writers go on the printed page and call Africa a "country"? That was my bafflement when I saw Winona Rasheed's foreword to a new anthology published by Author Me. Africa 2008 includes works by writers some of whom are not unknown to me, but Rasheed's foreword does those writers a disservice, to say the least. She compiled the anthology, and her foreword is not only an opportunity to rehash the most simplistic themes about Africa as exists in the Western imagination, but she goes on to describe Africa, somewhat condescendingly, as "this courageous country".

Honestly, I thought I was seeing things. Here was a book editor confirming in writing, in the most unambiguous way possible, what we have always suspected. From Winona Rasheed's name and her area of editorial interest (in this specific instance, Africa), you'd think she'd know better than to call Africa a country. How embarrasing.

Well, if you were thinking it was a one-off, a mistake, a slip or the printer's devil - think again. I clicked on an earlier African-themed anthology also edited by Ms Rasheed. Africa 2007 begins, "Africa, a vast country that is full of pain and suffering". Well, maybe we ought to thank God Rasheed knows Africa is vast; the "pain and suffering" we've heard before, so we can hardly sue for that. But Country?! Where's your radar, Ms Rasheed? Did you ever sit through a class in geography? I mean, what's going on here?

In fairness, it is not as though Winona Rasheed did not know of some countries in Africa. She does mention, after all, that the contributing writers come from Kenya, Botswana, Zimbabwe and what have you. Yet she still calls Africa a country. So what happened? A Freudian slip? A terrible slip that will require some clever words indeed, to explain why this 'slip' occured in 2 separate books over 2 years. No ordinary Freudian slip, that. And we know that Freudian slips only expose deeper things...
Or is it that the word 'continent' does not exist in her dictionary? Hardly likely, for she does manage to throw in, for good measure, the greatest of Africa clichés - "the Dark Continent". You couldn't make it up.

So, here's a few take-away snappy facts about Africa for Winona Rasheed, from something I read someplace, sometime: Africa has some 50 countries; the continent is 3 times the size of the United States; and you could fit the whole of Western Europe in the Sahara Desert and still have room to spare.

Worth remembering, when next you're thinking of putting together an 'Africa' anthology. If there is, to quote you, "yet another Author Africa Book", we don't expect to see Africa reduced to a measly country.


Petina Gappah said...

Well said, Molara. Well done.

Emmanuel Sigauke said...

"As writers from the continent, we appreciate opportunities publishers everywhere offer to promote our art, but we must not let ignorance discredit our efforts. On another note, Africa, which I believe is going through a massive literary renaissance, should grow and nurture its own editors and compilers. I doubt if the editors of African Writing Online or Kwani? would ever encourage anything that comes close to calling Africa a country. The African editors at Author-me, great writers themselves, should work more closely with their managing editor when compiling upcoming Africa anthologies." (from an entry at http://mukomana.wordpress.com/)

Waffarian said...

You have said it all. That "slip of the tongue" has been made too many times by too many people. As you said, it is ignorance, I have heard Americans refer to Europe as a country. I recently heard an entertainer list Nigerian States and African countries, all as states. He had been to different states in Nigeria, Lagos, Kenya, Abuja, Ghana, etc.

Imagine! I was speechless....he had travelled from one country to another and he did not even know it!

Talatu-Carmen said...

Are you SERIOUS?! How did she get to be an editor of an anthology of African writing, for God's sake...? But you err..., she DOES refer to it as a continent, at one point-- the "Dark Continent" no less. She has obviously not read Binyavanga Wainaina instruction on "How to write about Africa"...

But, actually, this brings up something that worries me. When African writers publish with Western publishers is this the way their editors commonly think about Africa? Does the editing advice such editors give end up compromising the integrity of the work? I remember hearing, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie say something at a reading about having trouble with the editor of Purple Hibiscus who didn't think "Americans" would understand what she was talking about. Does it come down to a question of audience? Why are people like Winona Rasheed putting together anthologies of African literature and what is their agenda if they characterize Africa as a "country" and the "Dark Continent" full of peril? The entire piece is condescending and simplistic. Who is the audience for this anthology?

Wordsbody said...

Hi Talatu-Carmen,

You are correct; she does mention "continent" - once - and I do point this out.

But note that 'continent' comes about as a result of the editor's citing of the oft-repeated (and demeaning) cliche about Africa.

My fear: if Rasheed had not followed the crowd (in fact everything in her editorials follows the crowd) and tossed in "the Dark Continent" - the word 'continent' might not have featured at all.

The single use of 'continent' is arbitrary; the double use of 'country', is not.

Talatu-Carmen said...


whoops... sorry i missed your reference to the "Dark Continent" cliche in my rush to be hoitytoity. i was attempting sarcasm there... but, yes, I agree with your analysis.


olufunke grace bankole: said...

thank you for this, molara. i too have read and heard otherwise 'intelligent' (and i use this word cautiously) refer to africa as a country. i find it difficult to continue conversation after this; it's as if the bar is already too low.

Unknown said...

It's everywhere, MW. Most Asians believe that all black people (whether black Americans or from the Carribeans) come from Africa and are mostly from Nigeria and South Africa (two of the most popular countries in the African continent).

Well, we Nigerians make the same mistake. I know many people who think that London is a country and who have no idea where the UK is. It's just a matter of lecturing the ignorant mind by all means.

Anonymous said...

This in response to Onyeka Nwelue:

The first scenario in your comment may be similar to when people in certain countries' first guess of where a black person in their midst is from is Jamaica. Because there are not many black people in those countries, and because they've maybe heard reggae and Jamaica is their first point of reference. As for the 2nd scenario, you've got me stumped. I don't know anyone in Nigeria who thinks London is a country. People in the villages may think vaguely of London as a Place with a queen ruling over it. They may have no concept of country or continents elsewhere because it is not directly relatable to their lives. This is because they are simple, rural people with no access to newspapers or television. Because they are illiterate. On the contrary, every educated person in most towns and cities in Nigeria knows of London as the number 1 city in the United Kingdom. They also know that the UK is in Europe. Maybe you ought to mix in different circles. Whatever the case may be, both your scenarios are a world away from this alarming case of a literary editor who describes Africa as a country.

Anonymous said...

Molara and co., una go tire well well! The average Westerner is just not interested in learning clear distinctions about Africa! In America, Africans make it worse - they say 'I'm from Africa' as opposed to saying 'I'm from (name of country)'I went into a public school in New York to do a presentation twice, and each time, I was asked if I could speak Swahili, even though my group had stated clearly my presentation was on Nigeria. I had to tell them that there was North, South, East and West Africa, which in turn had their own countries.
You say you lived in Lagos, and they want to know whether you know one Okafor, or Toyin they had worked with! Like everyone knows Mike you worked at The Empire State Building!
It's just so annoying! And I agree with Toyin T - the average educated Nigerian knows far better regions and countries around the world than the average educated Westerner!

Wordsbody said...


I don tire well well. Efen sef, all dat talkin-talkin' for inside di 'Africa Kontri' post don make me pass weak!


Anonymous said...

Hello everyone,

I just learned about this blog, and I want to speak in Winona's behalf.

As publisher of author-me.com, I am the one who should claim primary responsibility for failing to notice the error cited - referring to Africa as a country. I agree that this is quite serious, although I imagine that similar errors occur with many who have not had the opportunity to visit a distant country.

As soon as I can, I will re-issue the books with corrections to the foreword. Regretfully, with a book, the issues already sold will contain the error.

Please permit me to speak in Winona's behalf here, for I read your blog as an unfair personal bashing of her, with complete failure to recognize her work. She has worked for author-me.com for over 4 years and has freely (no compensation) devoted at least 20 hours a week to helping African writers and managing an international crew of editors. I believe that judging her person by this one error is unfair.

I do not mean to minimize the importance of the error, for ignorance of Africa and its situation is so prevalent in the USA that it distresses anyone who cares. When I listen to the news, I can count on hearing about Africa only when the most grievous events happen. And, as a result, our idiom is full of erroneous references to Africa. However, there is no excuse for author-me to perpetuate these errors, and we can only apologize for our mistake.

If you will, please give Winona the credit she deserves for working so hard in behalf of African writers, who deserve to have much greater opportunities in the literary world.

Thank you for your consideration.

Bruce Cook, Publisher

Anonymous said...

I think we shouldnt be too hard on Winona.It's an embarrasing mistake alright-not only to her,but to all Africans-but I would rather focus on the fact that she works hard to give emerging African writers a voice.

Anonymous said...

Dear Ms Wood,

This message is being sent in regards to your blog on African writings and literature. This is my first experience with your blog, and it has been bought to my attention that I made an error in a work done by me representing the fiction of African writers.

My name is Winona Rasheed, and I am asking that you please except my sincere apology in referring to Africa as a country instead of the continent that it is. This anthology of African writers will be revised so that it refers to Africa as a continent.

It was not my intentions to offend anyone with my mention of Africa. Author Africa 2007 and 2008, are a reflection of the works by some of our talented writers that we have on our website, www.author-me.com, authors who are inspiring and of whom we are very proud.

Regardless of the error, country versus continent, it does not take away from our writers, or any human being who has literary talent. That's what we are promoting in these two anthologies, not the question of Africa being as a country or a continent.

Does this error take away from me as the managing editor who compiled this collection of short stories? I believe it does not because the anthologies are not about me, it is the writers that they are showcasing. These books aren't about Winona Rasheed. These books even with the error in Africa's description, are about the heart of Africa and its people. It is about the talented artist who are making a name for themselves; and yes, I am proud to be able to help them accomplish this goal.

It is true, I made a mistake, but let the fact be known that no one is perfect...no one except God, and I do not claim to be better than he. For these anthologies, the best intentions were given, and I shall continue to give my best in compiling anthologies for African writers in the future; not because I have to, but because I want to, because it is a pleasure to work with such talent.

It is also true that in the minds of most people, Africa has been looked upon as a land of great promise, although it is also a land of suffering and war, famine and disease. However, we know that there is more to Africa then these atrocities. In compiling the anthologies, Author-me and Winona Rasheed are showing another side of Africa that most people do not get a chance to see, and that side is talent growing out of adversity, talent growing out of struggle. Would anyone say that Africa is a nation without conflict and turmoil? Is everything paradise and peaches and cream?

Africa has some beautiful and talented people and it shows on Author-me, and it shows within the pages of the anthologies, regardless of the mistake that is in the "foreward" message. The heart of the book is its content, and that to me is more important because that is where and when Africa speaks and can be seen. I do not make Africa shine, it is the writers who do that. I have not shortchanged them. However, your comments and bashing do not put the anthologies in a good light. Are you hurting me? No! You are hurting those whose works are being shown in the anthologies, because you aren't letting readers get past the first page with your negative response to the "foreward." I know this message is important in a book; however, it is the pages that follow which bring the greatest importance, and you and your readers have failed to mention that important factor. Remember, it is not the "foreward" that makes up an anthology, it is the artist and their content that make a book a treasure and the 2007 and 2008 Author Africa anthologies are without a doubt........a treasure.

Again, please except my sincere apology for my mistake in the description of Africa.


Winona Rasheed