I try to be careful about how I write about my life here in Senegal, aiming to be respectful and not fall into cliche. There’s a hilarious essay by Binyavanga Wainaina which you can read here: “How to write about Africa.”
I made sure I read it thoroughly during the writing process of both of my books. I’m not claiming I haven’t fallen prey to some of the hackneyed phrases white folk so often mention when talking about Africa – one of which is discussing the continent as if it is one country as opposed to more than 50 nations, countless ethnicities, languages and cultures. But I do try to talk about the realities of modern Senegal: the fact that yes, I may be watching a bunch of guys dancing all night in grass skirts for their initiation ceremony but they’re also wearing trainers, wrap around shades and have tied old cd’s to their arms for decoration; the art festival attracting Africans and others from across the globe; how Western technologies are transforming villages and being used in innovative ways. I’m somewhat limited by living in a small rural village with limited communications, but as time goes on I’m sure I’ll write more about African innovation.
So it was with some amusement that I read the story of Louise Linton, whose article “How my dream gap year in Africa turned into a nightmare” appeared in the Telegraph this week to promote a book about her experience. This has created an outraged social media storm, mainly from outraged Zambians who can’t believe the lies she’s written about their country.
Thankfully, Squirting Milk at Chameleons (available here if you haven’t already) has received a positive response from the Senegalese and Gambians who have read it and one Gambian journalist went as far to say that I have come closer than most to understanding his culture as an outsider.
But I must admit, I did have a quick scan of my new book. One of the criticisms of Linton’s book was the child, Zimba, that she befriended. Zimba isn’t even a Zambian name. I immediately thought of the girl we kind of adopted: Jumbo. That’s not a local name either, but for the record, Khady and the others called her that due to her fondness of “jumbo” stock cubes. But although I play slightly with chronology and change some names for privacy reasons, it’s all true. If anything I tone down the truth. The truth would be unbelievable.
As some of the commenters in this Guardian piece point out, why make things up when everyday life in different cultures is so interesting? Even a trip to buy a toilet seat here invariably leads to adventure. Or is that just me?