In 2005, Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina’s seminal, satirical essay, How to Write About Africa, urged outsiders to conjure descriptions that are “romantic and evocative and unparticular”, talk of safari animals, the African light, big skies and always “treat Africa as if it were one country”.
On those criteria, new China president Xi Jinping’s cliché-heavy first speech on African turf as head of state has measured up all too well. Addressing Tanzanian dignitaries in a Chinese-built conference hall on his first trip to Africa as head of state, Xi spoke of his welcome being “as warm and as unforgettable as the sunshine in Africa” and characterised the economy as “forging ahead like a galloping African lion”.
He also spoke of the warm reception received by a Chinese television series in Tanzania and told a story about a young Chinese couple who honeymooned in the Serengeti and wrote a blogpost on their return that was a bit of a hit in China, which said: “We have completely fallen in love with Africa and our hearts will always be in this land.”
In a blow to Xi’s stated aim of treating Africans as “equals”, Wainaina said the tone of the imagery offered “cheap sentiment” that “smacks of paternalism”.
“China’s charm offensive seems to want to assume there are no serious cultural and intellectual exchanges and conversations to be had,” said Wainaina after reading excerpts of the speech. “I do not get a sense of what Africans are thinking and planning… what African thinkers mean to a growing China. If a Chinese leader cannot begin to articulate what Africa is to them with more substance, Africans should be worried.”
Such sentiments should also worry China, which seems to be failing in its efforts to sidestep allegations of neo-colonial attitudes that mar Africa’s relations the west and to deliver the “bosom” friendship Xi said he espouses. Read more
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Residents welcome Malian soldiers as they enter Timbuktu on January 28, 2013 (ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images)
French and Malian troops this week took control of the historic city of Timbuktu from the jihadist militants that had taken over the city in April 2012. The adjective often used to describe the desert city is “fabled” – but what is the fable of Timbuktu?
In the 19th century, the city was considered so hard to get to that the Société de Géographie offered a 10,000 franc reward for the first person to reach the city and make it back. By the time the young Frenchman René Caillié arrived there, disguised as an Arab, the centuries-old reports of riches and splendour that had lured so many explorers had disappeared into myth. Caillié described his arrival in a book published in 1830:
Timbuktu circa 1950
“I now saw this capital of the Sudan, to reach which had so long been the object of my wishes…
I looked around and found that the sight before me, did not answer my expectations. I had formed a totally different idea of the grandeur and wealth of Timbuctoo. The city presented, at first view, nothing but a mass of ill-looking houses, built of earth.”
• Timbuktu’s golden age One definition of the word ‘fable’ is ‘an untruth; falsehood’. But Timbuktu did experience a golden age – Caillié was just a few centuries too late to see it. As E.J.Kahn, Jr. wrote of Timbuktu, “for a while, it was a shining city of the Empire of Mali, which early in the thirteenth century succeeded the Empire of Ghana as West Africa’s paramount nation.” The root of the city’s prosperity was its geographical location at the crossroads of a caravan route between Africa’s Arab northern regions and west Africa. Situated between the Sahara desert and the fertile banks of the Niger river, Timbuktu became a busy trading hub for merchants exchanging west African goods including gold, ivory, and salt, for Mediterranean products such as glass, ceramics, and precious stones. Read more
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Mo Ibrahim at a 2011 press conference to announce the winner of that year's prize (Ben Stanstall/AFP/Getty Images)
There has been something of a hullabaloo each time the Mo Ibrahim Foundation has failed to find a worthy laureate for its $5m annual prize for excellence in African leadership.
One year it even prompted speculation that the Sudanese-born philanthropist and pioneer of African telecoms had run out of money. He had not. Rather, the criteria for the award had to be stiff if it was to have any credibility on a continent with a long history of tyranny and mismanagement. The intent was not just to encourage personal integrity and conformity to democratic principles among African heads of state but to reward transformational leadership. So, it should be no surprise that there have been some fallow years like this one.
Moreover, when it comes to leadership there is a global deficit. If a similar prize had been on offer in Europe in the same period, it would been a struggle to find an irreproachable candidate. In three out of the six years since the Mo Ibrahim prize was launched there have been winners. For the most part, African leaders are more accountable now than they were. In some cases they have been instrumental in turning their countries around. Read more
Here are today’s reading nuggets for you: Read more