On the plane, a white man who lives in Maryland tells me that I don’t sound African. He is vaguely disappointed, and comments that I must have lived abroad for a long time. When he tells me that he has been to Tanzania I cut off that line of conversation. I don’t do comparative Africa on planes.
At the Safaricom store, a young black woman asks me where I’m from. I probably don’t sound African to her.
On the plane, a black Kenyan man tells me that “home is best,” a sentiment I am supposed to share, and don’t.
I have been mulling over what it is to “sound African.” What does sounding African license? What kinds of assumptions? What kinds of statements? In part, I am always dealing with this. At one office, a woman sees my passport and asks, “things are bad there, aren’t they?” I know the response. I have seen it performed. I answer, “there’s a global recession. Things are bad everywhere.”
To sound African is to license a set of statements and assumptions that always ensnare one. To sound African is to invite unneeded pedagogy: here, in this not-African place, we do things like this. It is to be dragged into conversations about wildlife and family values. Because in Africa we really treasure our homes and families, unlike in the atomized elsewhere. Africans eat meat and like well-fed women. Unlike the materialistic elsewhere, Africans know what really counts, except when they are corrupt.
None of it is new. And it is not offensive.
It’s simply not interesting to me.
Increasingly, I think about what “sounding African” means in terms of what knowledge is permitted to come out of Africa and more specifically to come from Africans. There are fellowships available to study development and governance from elsewhere. The old flavors of elsewhere persist. We are in love, or supposed to be in love, with instrumental knowledge.
I wonder what kind of knowledge we are supposed to produce, and whether, in fact, we are supposed to produce knowledge. We are so symptomatic that it seems the best we can do is apply remedies. I’m sure there’s a complex relationship between knowledge and remedy but the constraints of the latter are palpable.
Perhaps nothing is as symptomatic of this remedy deficiency as the most privileged genre in Kenya: the report. Almost every person I know is constantly writing “a report.” To be fair, the report is much like a novel: it is a loose, baggy monster. But it seems to define something quintessential about here and now. We are incessantly documenting and signing and creating jobs where others endlessly sign and document. One could write a fascinating story termed “the report,” in which we could map how knowledge is both produced and constrained. I use the term genre advisedly, for genre dictates what it is possible to say and how it is to be said.
We are report writers.
To stage a certain return.
Sounding African has often been envisioned as being a native informant: with privileged access to a diminished (yet present) African psyche and a rich African spiritual life. In fact, I just read a review of a book that praises the symbolic richness of “African dancing” which, unlike elsewhere dancing, brings communities together and has ritual significance. Obviously, the writer has yet to attend the local queer club elsewhere.
I wonder to what extent the report writer is simply a native informant writing in a more bureaucratic genre. Let us not forget that in one imagined future we were supposed to be government clerks.
This demand for genre is overwhelming. During a meeting I attended last year, the attractive, highly intelligent lawyer who works for a reputable NGO was disappointed that we did not offer “Action Points.” We threw the genre out of joint.
The native informant aspect of report writing is also about how capital circulates. Many reports go elsewhere to look for money. And must sound appropriately African. It is fascinating that much of the writing I have seen from recipients of funds sounds the same.
How does one not sound African? What kinds of statements, propositions, forms of writing, modes of acting do not sound African? And what does that mean in terms of their reception and dissemination?
This is a tricky question. Because sounding African is elastic.
One could write about the bad: poor, corrupt, war-torn
One could write about the good: comfortable, well governed, peaceful
And still be writing within the range of the genre. It is not only what one writes, of course, but also how one writes it. Style is as important as content. From my perch as a literary scholar, we often sacrifice style to be native informants, to sound African, to write reports.
Arguably, it’s frivolous to discuss style. After all, Africa has bigger issues than style. Will style help us fight poverty, alleviate hunger, still wars? I have returned to these questions several times over the past two years. It has haunted every bit of writing, including the pace of writing, as though the speed of my fingers could forestall the doom I anticipated.
The same question has also foreclosed other forms of writing and thinking, created fissures between what I consider appropriate to share and what I post elsewhere. I have been seduced by the genre of the report, convinced that the right Action Points might have some impact.
Impact is, of course, part of the genre of sounding African.
I have been trying to ask what it means to sound African. What does sounding African allow and what does it refuse? What topics does it allow us to tackle and which ones does it deem irrelevant? How does it circumscribe form and limit imagination?
I am, admittedly, not very interested in sounding African, and apart from this meditation, I spend very little time thinking about it. I am more interested in understanding the terms of the invitation to sound African, issued by those elsewhere and in Africa.