It’s been a while, but every once in a while a big book on Africa lands in the bookshops. They’re written by journalists, former diplomats or Gordon Brown, and have names like ‘the state of Africa’. All the ones I can think of are written by white men, so straight away this one catches the eye. Dipo Faloyin is from Nigeria, and he purposefully overturns some conventions about the ‘big Africa book’ in Africa is Not a Country: Breaking Stereotypes of Modern Africa.
He writes in the introduction that Africa is all too often over-simplified. “A continent of fifty-four countries, more than two thousand languages and 1.4 billion people” is “spoken of as it if were a single country, devoid of nuance and cursed to be forever plagued by deprivation.” So the book takes on the task of creating a portrait of a vibrant and diverse continent, while describing the various ways that Africa is stereotyped.
We start with history, with the way that modern Africa was created by Western imperialists. The continent was divided up with the convenience of Western powers in mind, with no consideration for the people who actually lived on the land. An estimated 200 different ethnicities remain divided by arbitrary borders. Local kingdoms, with their history, heritage and existing relationships, were ignored. People groups with long histories of tension were pushed into new countries, “states unable to recognise themselves”. They were fragile, easily exploited by outside forces and internal corruption.
And then as countries struggled with poverty and conflict, the West re-cast itself as the saviour, endlessly portraying Africa as “functionally helpless in battling its own problems” and needing intervention.
Other chapters in the book look at the stereotype of Africa’s dictators, profiling seven of them to show the different stories that led to their rule, and how their impact on their respective countries varies. (And as Faloyin reminds us, “in reality, less than 10% of the continent is under authoritarian rule.”) We read about portrayals of Africa in popular culture, and the history of colonial plunder and the fact that Africa’s greatest treasures remain in Western museums.
These are heavy topics at times, but this is not a heavy book. It’s full of people, places and culture. There’s a feature on Lagos, “the blackest place in the world, sewn together by little more than optimism and vibes”. There’s a chapter on football rivalries, and the ongoing arguments over which country has the true recipe for jollof rice. The latter includes instructions for making the dish, which are wonderfully evocative, personal and impractical: “The oil should sizzle loud enough to compete with the sound of your uncle in the other room arguing with nobody about the state of politics in the region.”
Which brings me to a important thing about the book: it’s very entertaining. I regularly laughed out loud while reading in the living room, leading family members to ask what was so funny. A description of Rwandan president Paul Kagame, I’d have to tell them – a man who “exudes the energy of a person who carefully reads the terms and conditions before purchasing a candle.” A chapter on how to make a film about Africa is hilariously straight-faced satire. “The sun should ideally be rising” he advises film-makers on their opening shot. “A sunset will work too. Just make sure the sun is moving in one direction or the other.” And of course “the first sound we hear can only be from a lone deep voice chanting slowly in a non-descript African-sounding language.”
For all its themes of injustice and prejudice, this is not a worthy hand-wringing tome. It’s a celebration, an invitation to discover and to learn, to “engage with the continent as it actually exists – not with an idea, but with its genuine form.”