The African childhoods of white expats

Are publishers unwilling to back anything besides more of the same tried, tested and tired old formula?

A still from the Hollywood film, 'Out of Africa,' a colonial fantasy set mostly on a Kenyan farm.

If I come across another book written by a white expat about their African childhood, I think I will be ill.  I have had this thought from time to time over the past few years, but it hits me hardest when I pass through Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta international Airport (JKIA) Just try to find a book set in, or about, Africa, written by an African – they are few and far between. Oh, there’s a Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie here, and a Ben Okri there. But they fade into insignificance next to the rows and rows of memoirs by ex-African white people. Here’s just a small and quick sampling, of publications old and new:

  • Twenty Chickens for a Saddle by Robyn Scott
  • Mukiwa by Peter Godwin
  • Don’t let’s go to the dogs tonight: An African Childhood by Alexandra Fuller
  • Rainbow’s End: A memoir of childhood, war and an African farm by Lauren St John
  • The Last Resort: A Memoir of Mischief and Mayhem on a Family Farm in Africa by Douglas Rogers.
  • The Flame Trees of Thika: Memories of an African Childhood by Elspeth Huxley.

No doubt, some or all of these books are well written and insightful, funny and inspiring, or to paraphrase one blurb, “uplifting, engaging and deeply affectionate portrayals of extraordinary places and families”. I don’t have any beef with  any of these titles individually – it’s just that I can’t bring myself to buy or read any of them. The back-cover summaries all start to blend in with one another: spectacular scenery contrasted with the brutality of the politics; the tale of childhood paradise lost, when dark realities start to intrude on Eden. I’m just not interested in yet another version of “I had a farm in Africa.”

But if you happen to be at JKIA and want something to read, aside from the business books and Christian books and pulp fiction, pretty much all that’s left is a story of some European writer’s African childhood. Oh, I lie! There’s also the memoir of the latest British or American (or Polish) Foreign Correspondent to have completed their tour of duty.

So where are all the stories by Africans still living in Africa? In South Africa over the past few years we’ve seen a flourishing of fiction and non-fiction, covering every imaginable topic and genre. The quality may be uneven but the blooming of creativity is undeniable. Yes South Africa also has more than its fair share of the white person’s childhood memoir, but they’re by no means all there is. Why is this kind of growth not happening across the continent?

It’s not like Africans don’t have stories to tell. When the opportunities arise, the stories follow. On a small scale, two examples illustrate this. Firstly, the Mail & Guardian’s series Voices of Africa, which has given space to a wonderful range of articles about everyday life in various places in Africa. Another is a project I worked on called Citizen Journalism in Africa, which encouraged participants to start blogging. That project faced time and funding limitations, but here and there some really lively voices started to emerge. Staying in the realm of memoirs, one of my favorite pieces was by Kamala Lutatinisibwa, called This is how we used to celebrate Christmas! It’s short and unpolished, but it left me wanting more.

Having overheard some disgruntled comments made to JKIA bookstore assistants, I know I am by no means the only person who wants to read something about Africa besides another expat memoir. Is there really no market, are there really no writers? Or is just that publishers are unwilling to back anything besides more of the same tried, tested and tired old formula?

Further Reading