Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Required Reading

I majored in African history* in college, partly because it was a soft major with more flexible requirements, and after dabbling in film, French, and English, I was a bit stuck, but more importantly, because the classes I took sparked a passion for discovering a history that I had never learned in school or through the news or independently. People ask me why I chose my major, or what drove me to want to do NGO work on the continent, or how I came to study in Senegal, volunteer in Sierra Leone, and work in South Africa, and I can't answer. I don't know.

I've always loved traveling, and when I was younger I certainly held a romanticized notion of "Africa," but when I decided to go to Senegal, I'd had learned enough at my pinko anarchist-fascist university, or whatever Fox News calls it, to know that my preconceived notions were 100% wrong. But I still wanted to go. And when I came back, I didn't call it "Mama Africa" or feel like I had some special connection to "Africa"--I loved Senegal, but it never felt like the home I'd never had. I used to collect masks, mostly of African origin, as a child/young teenager...I can't even tell you why this was a fascination for me. Perhaps, when it comes down to it, I like to learn about things that other people don't and I like to share that knowledge (often obnoxiously, I apologize). I've always felt that it's vital to know the forgotten things, the unknown things, to witness them.

Perhaps I'll come back to this sometime, but this post had a point before I tried to answer questions I still can't answer. In a seminar my senior year, I read the article "How to Write about Africa" by the Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina, and I ran across it again this morning. It's fantastic. Takes me down a peg or two every time I read it and think about what I've written about Senegal, Sierra Leone, and South Africa. Wainaina's article and the first article I ever had to read for my very first lecture in Main Currents in African History (talk about a broad topic...) on the word "tribe" should be required reading for anyone who is not from the African continent but is doing something in some way related to it, such as traveling, studying, or working. Funnily enough, these two articles were the first and last that I ever read for my major, both assigned by the same professor. Good bookends.

How to Write about Africa, Binyavanga Wainaina
Talking About Tribe: Moving from Stereotypes to Analysis, Chris Lowe et al.

*I realize that calling it "African history" is in itself sort of counter to what Wainaina is writing, but I wasn't allowed to specify my concentration below "African" because there were not enough classes offered in, say, Senegalese or pre/post colonial or even West African history to complete my major.

No comments:

Post a Comment