Read Part One here
“Africa is in the mess it is because of the visual imagery and language colonialists perpetuated as representative of the continent. Africa cannot change until we change the language and imagery.”
Renowned Ghanaian photographer Nana Kofi Acquah doesn’t mince his words when it comes to his mission. Part of a new generation of cross-platform and digital savvy storytellers, and a former journalist, he understands that culture is power, and that the images and ideas we consume dictate our perceptions of the places we live in, as well as the places we have never been.“Africa cannot change until we change the language and imagery”
Out of this generation of non-traditional content producers, few argue that books are entirely dead as a medium (which is lucky as global pacesetter Mark Zuckerberg seems to have just discovered them and be set on promoting them as if they are the hottest new app in town).
Kenyan blogger Wanjeri Gakuru points out that there is a Swahili saying for this: “Wema hauozi” = good things don’t decay = books never die. Travel listings may become outdated, but the cultural and societal insights they contain prevail.
But new kinds of communication offer opportunities – particularly that of reaching wider than ever before audiences in Africa, where prohibitive pricing has made first-hand print books and novels unaffordable for most. The steady increase in smart and feature phone usage, plus overall Internet access, has meant a slow explosion of social media in parts of Africa. This in turn means much more democratic, direct distribution to audiences. Both Gakuru and Brian Kamanzi, a South African-Ugandan travel blogger who concentrates on finding the eye-opening stories in his own back yard, use the Internet and social media to reach readers without a middle man.
Says Gakuru: “Travelling is a very deliberate act. Taking oneself from point A to B requires time, money, energy and that often nerve-wracking process of acquiring a visa. What’s exciting is that more Africans are now able to do this. I know a friend, Nyambura, who is currently travelling to Cape Town, South Africa via Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Mozambique. She is making this trip overland with a flight back to Nairobi from Cape Town.
“That she is African, female and a solo traveller is very important. By saving up to travel, another wonderful thing that a burgeoning middle class is allowing Africans in their mid-20s to achieve, Nyambura is now privy to different people, cultures, attitudes and stereotypes. And through her blog, all of us travel right along with her.”“Travelling is a very deliberate act. What’s exciting is that more Africans are now able to do this”
Have no doubt, this is political, as all travel is political, Gakuru explains: “Everything about travel is steeped in politics. From the visa application to the privilege of travel itself to prevailing attitudes in the places one ‘dares’ to visit, especially as an unaccompanied African female.
“One always enters a new space as The Other. And the idea of identity doesn’t just come up when crossing international borders or time zones, simply hopping across county lines is enough, as my trip to Garissa, Northern Kenya, taught me.
“I wrote a post titled This is not Nairobi: Snapshots of Berlin because I came up against myself a lot while there. It was my first time abroad and at first I could only understand the city in contrast to mine. I found myself clashing against my own thoughts, expectations and prejudices about the meaning of being black, especially African, abroad.
“I didn’t experience racism but I was very aware of my skin colour, kinky hair and inability to speak German. Part of the honesty required in travel writing is in telling readers what these foreign places really looked and felt like to you, knowing full well that yours is not the universal experience but a small fragment.”
One important function of travel writing is to enable the reader to experience another place, but another that is equally important is to allow readers to experience their home in new and thoughtful ways (especially when much interpretation has tended to be done by Westerners with their own agendas).
Gakuru, who recently attended a Farafina writers’ workshop in Nigeria (and produced this post, Suya), says that what may seem ordinary to locals is seen through a very different lens by visitors. “For instance, I was in Lagos recently and found out that they call the popular auto rickshaw ‘keke’ for the sound its engine produces, while Kenyans call it ‘tuktuk’ for the same reason. I remember voicing that observation in the presence of Lagosians and, like I hoped, they started to ask questions about whether we had this, that or the other in Nairobi.
“When you can make the local’s interest ran both ways, towards themselves and outwards, then you’ve succeeded as a travel writer. An outsider comes into a new space with their lived experience, opinions and expectations. Sometimes locals need that perspective to appreciate or question their lot.”
Meanwhile fellow blogger Brian Kamanzi makes a virtue of exploring the areas close to home for the stories that nobody would think to look for – the quiet struggles, the unspoken tensions, the moments of peace.
Says Kamanzi: “It is really very important to do travel writing about a place you are very close to. You can access a level of intimacy with the people, the political climate and the aesthetics of that place that can really add new information to the easily accessible narratives about cities (especially) that are readily available and written by people who have never lived there.”
Whether you are a travel writer, blogger or photographer, the ability to travel far from home to document new spaces depends on your resources, which is why the developing medium tends to be dominated by the middle classes. Language is also an issue, with material published in English likely to reach a wide audience, but Africa’s mother tongues all offering ways of communicating that deserve more exploration. But all are in agreement that you can produce excellent travel material by observing the places close to you with a unique, curious eye. Given that free blog accounts are available, publishing needn’t be an expensive business. Raw talent is, of course, still necessary.
But for those who do want to venture to different places, to experience the friction of the new and to see what it brings, resources can be tricky. Emmanuel Iduma, who is a Nigerian writer and literary editor, as well a regular participant in the Invisible Borders travel project, which has just returned from a Lagos-Sarajevo road trip, says that getting more writers and producers on the road is a goal.
“People are drawn to travel reports of any kind because it stimulates their curiousity and imagination. If we want to talk of African consumers, which I suppose means readers living in African countries and buying books there, I think the starting point would be a conversation about travelling writers.
“There are few initiatives that support this kind of endeavour. In 2010, the Chinua Achebe Centre for African Writing and Writers in collaboration with Kwani? and Chimurenga organised the Pilgrimages Project, and selected about 14 writers to travel to different cities, mostly new to them, and to write about it in the context of the FIFA World Cup. The writing that resulted has been published on the blog as a travelogue. Also, in the early 2000s, a group of scholars banded under the auspices of the Pan African Circle of Artists (PACA) and travelled by road across West Africa, I think on two occasions.”“People are drawn to travel reports because it stimulates their curiosity and imagination”
Invisible Borders itself was initially conceived as a collaborative road trip involving a group of different types of artistic producer, exploring both the physical landscapes they found themselves in but also issues of borders and identity (and, between the lines, the pan-African project). Understanding of one another in different African ‘nations’ can stoke solidarity, as preconceptions of difference are reduced.
Says Iduma: “…Travel of every kind is impacted by borders, and by cartography. In Africa people who travel today face unnecessary challenges as a result of their nationality. Although [West African] citizens can, in principle, travel without restriction, they are made to pay all kinds of fees when they travel by road… So it was clear to me while travelling that the colonial cartography project has been kept in force by the governments and bureaucracies in African countries.”
Yes, travel writing is political. It is used by Noo Saro-Wiwa to explore the personal impact of the political; by Chika Unigwe to interrogate ideas of being African in Europe; by Nana Kofi Acquah to convey messages of social solidarity and cohesion; by bloggers Wanjeri Gakuru and Brian Kamanzi to seek true stories of themselves and their neighbours; and by Emmanuel Iduma and Invisible Borders to query Africa’s present day physical and mental lines of separation. (Though it should be noted that Invisible Borders has not been free of politics itself, with a number of participants expressing concern about how the project is led, professionally and artistically.)
What could be more political than the means of distribution? As Gakuru points out, by using social media strategically, you can bring new audiences to your writing (or photography or film or podcast) online. Iduma agrees that technological developments are an opportunity to bring control of distribution closer again to the creators.
“I think there are new and exciting ways to promote literature. These innovations are arriving at breakneck speed, so I’m quite aware that the form of writing done on blogs and micro-blogs become obsolescent quickly. Think of the fate of the brilliant sentences we read and write on Twitter.
“When you talk of distributors, I can’t help but think of them as gatekeepers. As much as I’m interested in an audience on a global scale, I’m also interested in disrupting the power that these gatekeepers wield.
“…I think Western bookshops and distributors do not have to embrace a more diverse style of writing, because to agree to that would mean tailoring one’s instincts to their interests. I want to insist on a model that allows any kind of good writing to happen and any kind of good writing to be read.”
One person who is working within the Western system is Nigerian-British Ayo (Andy) Akinwolere, famous especially for being a presenter on legendary British children’s TV show Blue Peter, but who wants to use his mainstream success and platform to get meaningful and interesting African stories over to the British public. His current goal is to get a programme made examining the life of anti-Establishment musician Fela Kuti – he points out that a couple of programmes have been made on the man, but none by a Nigerian.
But representation of non-white people in the media industry in the UK (and many other Western countries) is pitiful. This in turn means that commissioners often don’t identify with a subject or understand its value if it’s from outside their worldview. While Akinwolere has been inspired by the likes of Louis Theroux and Nick Broomfield, as well as the new wave of documentary making by the likes of VICE, he says that he ended up finding popular presenters such as Michael Palin too colonial in style.
Akinwolere says: “The problem with travel programmes in reality is that they are still fronted by men mainly, and white men for that matter. I was watching a series called the Two Greedy Italians, and although they were men I fell in love with their relationship. They are two chefs, one is a well-known chef with a chain of Italian eateries and the other is not so well-known but his best friend. The series tracks their journey through Italy and its various cuisines, and through it you also learn about the relationship of the two men with God, the country and each other. It’s a great twist and less colonial as they are Italians talking about Italy. I wonder why we still can’t do the same for Africans.”
“Journalism in general (and I use blogging as a form of journalism) is important simply because it’s based on telling stories. There are many hidden stories from the continent that need to be told, to paint a richer narrative of Africa.”
African travel content can be intellectual or it can be popular, it can be domestic or it can be international, it can be fond or it can be critical. What is clear is that the game has changed, and that the production of stories about travelling by Africans, for consumption by Africans or indeed non-Africans but as a secondary audience, is increasing, and the genie is never going back in the bottle.
ADVICE FOR BUDDING STORYTELLERS
“For budding travel writers on a budget, you don’t have to journey very far to fulfil your ambition. Your backyard may not seem interesting to you, but it will be exotic to someone else. It’s just a case of observing your surroundings; being the fly on the wall.
“Treat any journey you make as a writing opportunity: if you’re visiting family in another part of the country or travelling somewhere for work purposes, take time to explore the area, talk to people and write about it. One doesn’t have to be a Western-style ‘explorer’ who has the luxury of travelling for the sake of it. You can pick a non-writing career that takes you places, then you scribble in your spare time. For example, lorry drivers, nurses and ship stewards may travel far and wide for a low salary, yet they will have some unique and juicy stories to tell.”
“I have long been interested in the relationship between the physical spaces we are in and our psyche, and this is something that I have tried to explore to varying degrees in my fiction. Setting is very important in fiction, and its choice is much more calculated than readers suspect. Every writing is subjective. What a good writer does is to try and make their subjectivity less obvious.”
“Social media can aid writers to expand into new territories. I found in my recent trips to Amsterdam and Berlin when I appended images or posts with #Amsterdam, #Berlin or the name of the location visited, these posts attracted shares and comments from people outside of my pool of friends and followers. There are accounts on Instagram, for instance, that encourage users to add certain hashtags so that they can easily find and repost those images. The travel writer ought to leverage this to their advantage. Interesting titles and SEO tagging on blog posts can help them appear higher in Google search pages.”
“I think we can make an experience relevant to others if it is relevant to us. I really think my writing is a exercise in finding relevance, and I’ll never put out anything that isn’t relevant to me; any subject that hasn’t made me angry, joyful, frustrated, clueless.
“And finally, to make any form of writing relevant, I think it’s important to figure out what to do with the imagination, that is what to do with the stories and possibilities that are not readily given.”
“For budding journalists, it’s about finding the names of the travel editors and pitch to them directly via emails. They probably get a lot of emails so perhaps going through approaching journalists you like with flattery you might get to the editor quicker. The key though is to read a lot and watch a lot to know what angle you want to come from.”
READING LIST AND RESOURCES
Looking for Transwonderland Noo Saro-Wiwa
On Black Sisters’ Street and other books Chika Unigwe
Red Dust Ma Jian
A Small Place Jamaica Kincaid
The works of Tahir Shah
The works of Pico Iyer
Open City Teju Cole
Bad Times in Buenos Aires Miranda France