An Africa-centered conversation with a Brit

In January 2020, I got an email from someone named Mark Weston.

He’d written a book and wanted to find out if I was interested in reading it. I get several queries like this from writers every now and then, and I deeply appreciate the chance to share the inner spaces of fellow writers. We writers can be sensitive about our work and it’s not an easy task to reach out to someone you’ve never said a word to, in hopes of establishing some type of creative connection or at the least, an understanding.

Anyway, I had never heard of Mark Weston, so I did some research, came across his website: http://www.markweston.net/ ; learned that he’d written another book: The Ringtone and the Drum: Travels in the World’s Poorest Countries, and found out that he has lived in Tanzania, Ghana, Sudan and South Africa (which means he’s experienced just about every region on the continent) while visiting many other African countries. I started following him on Twitter @markweston19. I came across some of his op-ed pieces about what’s happening across Africa, like this one on post-genocide Rwanda for African Arguments and this one on the deepening Africa-China relationship. In short, Mark is one of the many non-African policy consultants from the West who work in Africa. I’ve come across many in my work as a journalist.

I decided to read Mark’s latest novel: African Beauty.

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It took me a while to get through African Beauty, not because it wasn’t interesting, but because I was working through dozens of other reporting assignments with deadlines. I eventually finished it and when I did, I couldn’t ignore the questions swirling around in my head about this guy Mark. So, I decided to have an Africa-centric chat with him and probe his mind a bit. We had a pleasant chat on Whatsapp. I hope I wasn’t too inquisitive, but I can’t help that. At some point in the chat he said he really enjoys West African music — and BOOM, alright, two thumbs up, Mark!

Mark kindly agreed to respond to questions that I said I would email him. This would be my chance to pose a few candid questions to a white guy from the UK who not only works in Africa, but writes about it, too. Not that I’m expecting Mark to be some sort of spokesperson for this group. I was simply curious about his own views on perceptions on Africa. We covered an array of topics from rising jihadist extremism and neocolonialism to the global publishing industry and migration.

Here’s how it went down. (Thank you, Mark, for the thorough replies!)

CHIKA: What do you want readers to take away from this novel?

MARK: First I want them to enjoy the story, to turn the page wanting to read more. But it’s a satire of Westerners’ behavior in Africa, too, so it’s meant to amuse, to shock, and to poke fun at the holier-than-thou attitudes held by many of the aid workers, diplomats, missionaries and gap-year volunteers you come across in Africa. Even after the Oxfam in Haiti scandal broke a couple of years ago, I’m surprised how little attention has been paid to how Westerners exploit their relative wealth to acquire sex from some of the world’s poorest people.

The book is also a lament for what Africa is losing in its rush to modernize and Westernize. This is encapsulated in the elusive prostitute who is the focus of the hero Hodge’s pursuit, in the mournful descriptions of her by the characters he meets, and in the places he passes through as he tries to track her down. It’s about the many beautiful things Africa risks relinquishing if it copies everything the West does, and in particular the shallow consumerism that the West, without much benefit in terms of happiness or satisfaction with life, has embraced in the past half-century or so.

CHIKA: I am always interested in writers’ creative processes. What was your creative process like when working on this book?

MARK: African Beauty actually started as a side project. I was writing a much more earnest, serious novel about environmental destruction in East Africa, but I got bogged down in that so started thinking about African Beauty at the same time. I ended up jettisoning the serious one to write this, which was a lot more fun.

And while I was thinking about the story I had the idea that Hodge was embarking on a kind of pilgrimage, albeit a slightly warped one, in pursuit of this unaffordable and incredibly beautiful prostitute. So I thought about other literary pilgrimages, and realized that a lot of the characters in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales are the kind of characters you sometimes come across in Africa today — greedy pastors, corrupt lawmakers, dodgy doctors, as well as the occasional more saintly figure. So I used that book as an ironic framework, and the characters Hodge meets are loosely based on Canterbury Tales pilgrims.

CHIKA: How would you describe general perceptions of Africa from Westerners? Has the perspective changed over the years?

MARK: You just need to look at the current hysteria in countries like the UK about African migrants crossing the sea to reach England from France to see how horrified too many Westerners still are by Africans. Admittedly, media coverage of events on the continent has improved since the colonial era, and there are some really excellent writers and broadcasters doing their bit to change perceptions. But there’s still a long way to go before most Westerners see Africans as people like them rather than as a drain on their resources or a threat to what they like to think of as Western civilization.

You just need to look at the current hysteria in countries like the UK about African migrants crossing the sea to reach England from France to see how horrified too many Westerners still are by Africans.

And as the book suggests, sometimes those who should be trying to change the perception, like aid workers, perpetuate the image of Africa as a place to save or — as with the sexual scandals — to exploit. I’ve lost count of the number of years I’ve heard an NGO announce that a devastating famine is looming in Niger or somewhere, and it never happens. I know NGOs need to secure funding so that their staff can stay on the gravy train, as Hodge might put it, but if you paint a picture of all Africans as helpless paupers, it’s perhaps not surprising Western audiences think that those who try to migrate to their shores just want to access benefits, rather than what they really want to do, which is to work hard to make a better life for themselves and their families.

CHIKA: The “Africa rising” narrative attempts to challenge historically negative perceptions of Africa. Do you buy the “Africa rising” story? Is it real or is it false advertising?

MARK: It’s like other continents — some countries are “rising”, others are floundering. And also like other continents, all bets are off now the coronavirus has struck, and any progress African countries have made is very likely to be reversed, at least in the short term. Obviously much of the continent’s done quite well economically since the 1990s — although there are still far too many people living in poverty — and life expectancy has increased dramatically, and democracy has spread in fits and starts across the region, so they’re doing something right. But at the same time you have countries like South Sudan and Sudan, where I’ve been based for the last two years, whose economies were absolutely tanking even before the pandemic, and others like Burkina Faso and Mali where economic development has been choked off by violence in recent years.

Even within countries like Sudan, there have been positive developments alongside the bad news, such as the removal last year of the dictator Omar al-Bashir in a peaceful uprising. So it’s an uneven story — and development is always an uneven process — but compared to the picture in, say, the 1980s, things are on the whole looking a lot better today.

CHIKA: Writers writing on Africa, whether fiction or nonfiction, sometimes say it is hard to market Africa-related books. Did you experience particular challenges on trying to market this Africa-related novel?

MARK: Tell me about it! My last book The Ringtone and the Drum, a travel memoir about West Africa, has done quite well, but African Beauty is more controversial so it might be more difficult to market — I’m not sure whether lampooning your target audience is great for sales.

More broadly, though, several publishers and literary agents have told me that Africa is a hard sell. It’s still thought of as a niche market, albeit a very enthusiastic and engaged niche. Hopefully one day it’ll become more mainstream, and the global success of novelists such as Chimamandah Ngozi Adichie and the wonderful Aminatta Forna suggests the tide may be about to turn.

…several publishers and literary agents have told me that Africa is a hard sell

CHIKA: Your book deals with several themes, including neocolonialism and rising jihadist extremism. Is the jihadism unfolding in parts of Africa (Mozambique, Somalia, CAR, Nigeria, Mali, Burkina Faso) a real threat to North America and Europe? Or are these largely localized conflicts?

MARK: They’re a threat to foreign business interests in these countries and occasionally to the safety of foreigners themselves. There’s obviously theoretical potential for big, hard-to-police countries like Mali or Sudan to become bases for international terrorism, as Sudan was to some extent in the past, although at the moment most groups’ concerns seem to be predominantly local.

But it depends on what you regard as a threat — if you see immigration by Africans as a threat, as many people in Europe and America seem to, then you can expect more of this as jihadism destabilizes societies and economies and removes young people’s career opportunities. If you’re a teenager in northern Burkina Faso right now, you really don’t have many options if you want to feed yourself and start and support a family. Emigrating to somewhere peaceful and rich is probably the most logical course of action for you if you don’t want to join the jihadists yourself. So if the problem continues to spread, Europe can expect to see many more people to attempt to migrate to it.

CHIKA: How would you describe neocolonialism in Africa to a Westerner who is totally unfamiliar with African affairs? How does your book treat/refer to neocolonialism?

MARK: Well, Hodge, the book’s protagonist, pretty much roams around Africa doing whatever he wants because he has a lot more money and therefore power than most of the people he meets, so he’s neocolonial in that sense. That’s what a lot of European and American businesses and governments and philanthropists do — they still have significant power in the continent by virtue of their superior wealth, even though they’re no longer officially in charge of vast swathes of it. And they use that power imbalance to exploit Africa, just as Hodge uses it for his sexual exploits.

CHIKA: Have your experiences living in Africa been overwhelmingly positive or negative?

MARK: Overwhelmingly positive. I’ve lived in Tanzania and Sudan for quite long periods, including two years on Ukerewe Island in the Tanzanian half of Lake Victoria, and in South Africa and Ghana for shorter spells, and I’ve loved nearly every minute of it. I’ve made great friends, learned an immense amount about all sorts of things, and had so many experiences I’ll never forget — most recently, living through Sudan’s revolution, an incredible display of sacrifice, creativity and determination by young women and men who overcame seemingly insurmountable odds to transform their country for the better.

CHIKA: There is a “Move to Africa” trend sweeping through Europe and North America, with people who have little experience with Africa and with those who do. What would be your top 10 tips for someone in the West who is considering a move to Africa?

MARK: I can think of five. One would be to learn as much of a local language as you can. Even if all you can manage are greetings and numbers, people really appreciate it and it shows you respect their culture, rather than just assuming everyone will speak the old colonial languages. If you can learn more than that, which I did in Tanzania with Swahili but have so far struggled to do in Sudan with Arabic, you’ll have a much richer experience of a country.

Second, try to get to know your neighbors, starting by greeting them every day. This doesn’t always happen in places like the UK, but in most of Africa it’s pretty offensive if you don’t greet people. I had some of my most memorable times in Africa having got to know my neighbors in the village I lived in on Ukerewe. They’ve been a huge influence on my life and I’m still in regular contact with most of them.

Third, be ready for discomfort — things like electricity, piped water and the punctuality of public transport don’t generally work as well as they do in the West, and you’ll need a supply of patience to deal with the many delays (on the other hand, I get better mobile reception in the middle of Lake Victoria than I do in much of southern England). After a while you get used to these things, and sometimes they even improve, and there are so many compensations to life on the continent that they soon come not to matter as much as they did when you first arrived.

Fourth, read books about the place (starting with my books, ideally). The more you read, the more prepared you’ll be and the more you’ll understand why things are as they are. This will make your life in Africa easier, less stressful and more interesting.

And fifth, keep an open mind and be humble. Yes, some things are worse in Africa than they are in the West, but a lot of things are better. It’s not just the awesome wildlife and scenery — the people are in general much more friendly, generous and hospitable than people in the West, and there’s a lot of innovation happening in the fields of business, the arts and political thinking that we in the West rarely hear about. You can learn a lot if you keep your eyes and your mind open.

CHIKA: You’ve traveled throughout Africa. How would you describe the differences between North, East, West and southern Africa to Westerners who are unfamiliar with the continent?

MARK: Again it’s very difficult to generalize — even within a single country like Ghana or Nigeria or Ethiopia, the north is very different to the south. But very broadly, southern Africa is the most Westernized part of the continent and, along with North Africa, things like roads and public transport are generally more comfortable and efficient than in West and East Africa. West Africa has the best music and I personally find its cultures the most interesting, but it’s also the toughest part of the continent for traveling around and in terms of things not working as well as they might.

And it’s impossible to generalize about East Africa — places like Tanzania and Kenya and Uganda have a lot in common with each other, but Ethiopia and Sudan and Rwanda are worlds unto themselves!

CHIKA: What is your favorite Africa-related fiction book? Nonfiction book?

MARK: Very difficult to name just one in each category, but for fiction I’ll give a shoutout to Aniceti Kitereza’s lovely epic novel about precolonial Tanzania Mr Myombekere, his Wife Bugonoka, their Son Ntulanalwo and Daughter Bulihwali. Among more recent works I really enjoyed the Sudanese writer Leila Aboulela’s The Translator.

And for non-fiction, Patrick Chabal and Jean-Pascal Daloz’s “Africa Works”, which really does tell you how Africa works, and anything by Ryszard Kapuscinski, whose writing may not always be scrupulously factual but still brilliantly captures the essence of the events he describes.

CHIKA: What would you say is the most derogatory work (film, book, news, play, TV series) on Africa? You can name more than one.

MARK: I tend to give up books pretty quickly if I don’t like them, and I don’t watch much TV, so I’ll have to pass on that. There’s so much good stuff around these days, why focus on things that don’t inspire?

CHIKA: Can you talk about your white male privilege in Africa?

MARK: Well, neither in Africa nor elsewhere have I ever suffered setbacks because of my skin colour or gender, and in Africa I’ve benefited from the extra hospitality white people often receive in terms of being ushered to the front of a queue, for example, or given a particular seat on a bus, or treated to a coffee by a complete stranger, as frequently happens in Sudan. Sometimes, too, you come across the idea that white people are somehow superior. When I was living on Lake Victoria, for example, I was often asked my advice on medical matters even though I have no medical training or qualifications. And as Hodge remarks in the book, a number of Africans seem to think white people are more honest, despite all the historical evidence to the contrary.

But if you’re asking specifically about white male privilege, that’s what African Beauty, which is rooted in my observations and conversations with both exploiters and exploited over many years, is about!

CHIKA: Has living in Africa changed you? How so or how not?

MARK: I think it’s made me better at talking to and getting to know strangers, more patient, more aware of and angry about how foreign powers have colluded to keep Africa underdeveloped, and more cognizant of what the West has lost in its rush for economic growth — and what it can learn from Africa that would make its way of life both happier and more sustainable. Spending two years on rural Ukerewe and then living through Sudan’s revolution last year were humbling experiences, and they taught me lessons I hope I’ll never forget about kindness, solidarity, resilience, humor in the face of hardship, self-sacrifice and bravery. Whether any of those things will rub off on me I don’t know, but I feel very lucky to have witnessed them.

Written by

Africa-centric news, notes and observations from a journalist | poet | photographer | filmmaker | writer travelling through Africa * chika.oduah@gmail.com

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