How to change your view of Africa

Image of Simon Kuper

I once had coffee in Cape Town with a Cameroonian named Ntone Edjabe. He ran an English-language journal called Chimurenga, but what I remembered from our chat were his vignettes of Lagos (where he’d studied) and Johannesburg (where he went next). In Lagos, he said, you’d be driving down the highway and suddenly see a guy selling cars on the highway. Lagos was crazy, and yet it felt entirely safe. Whereas Johannesburg seemed sane, but never felt safe.

I sent Edjabe some articles, but otherwise forgot about Chimurenga until a recent issue arrived in the mail. (Declaration of interest: I’m proud to say I have an article in it.) I read it and was staggered. I’d always thought the zenith of journalism was The New Yorker, but in parts, Chimurenga is better.

It’s also more surprising: I love well-off media types from New York or London, but by now we do tend to know how they think. By contrast, reading Chimurenga you keep thinking, “Who knew?” Who knew that (as one article recounts) Bloemfontein has a literary scene of authors and critics writing for no money, guided by a Nigerian immigrant, and headquartered in an Afrikaans literature museum? Chimurenga changes your view of Africa, and of journalism.

Edjabe arrived in South Africa in 1993, instantly had his passport and money stolen, but stayed. He worked as a disc jockey, music writer and basketball coach, and in March 2002 he produced Chimurenga – the Zimbabwean Shona word for “revolutionary struggle”.

On a Skype call, puffing on cigarettes, he recalls, “I printed 1,000 copies, which I carried around in my bag. I sold it mainly to friends.” He had intended Chimurenga as a one-off, but it grew into a journal, written mostly by people he knew. He says, “I found out later that this is how most journals actually begin. At the time I thought it was unique.”

His idea was to get Africans to write about Africa as they saw it. That is unexpectedly tricky. Often, African writers and journalists take their lead from depictions of Africa by white foreigners. Edjabe says, “Whatever was considered an important book had to be validated first by the Guardian.”

Yet Chimurenga isn’t particularly anti-colonial. That time has passed. Edjabe says, “You are not writing about the white man. That’s not the person you grew up with. This is not the person I have a beef with. The guy I have a beef with is the shebeen owner.” And so he has found African writers, Francophone and Anglophone, still living in Africa, who write mostly about a lower-middle-class Africa that almost never gets described: for instance, the decaying Nairobi neighbourhood that in Billy Kahora’s account turns into a metaphor for modern Kenya.

Sometimes Chimurenga dips to the bottom. Michael Abrahams – a one-time teenage gangster turned lumpen intellectual – recounts his brutal incarceration in a Cape mental hospital after he attempted suicide. Sean O’Toole accompanies a Zimbabwean immigrant sneaking into South Africa, while they discuss Hustler magazine. Much of the writing is excellent. “As a 10-year-old girl, I liked reading obituaries…” is Lola Shoneyin’s opening line. Some is mediocre. Edjabe gives writers space, and not all can handle it.

But none depicts Africa the standard way. “How does one ensure one’s dutifully collected shelf of African books is not … replete with child soldiers, AK47s and rapists?” asks Jeremy Weate in the books section. Well, write like Chimurenga is the answer.

“Pan-African” is a dead political cliché, but Chimurenga is genuinely pan-African. It doesn’t pretend that all Africans love each other. In fact, the current issue purports to be an edition of a fictional newspaper called The Chronic for May 18-24, 2008: the period of South Africa’s pogroms. It describes the horrors, sometimes from very close: “First, when being assaulted with rocks, the quicker you prostrate yourself, the better.”

Yet pan-Africanism exists in practice. In South Africa’s townships, it’s everything from binational sex to Somali traders selling Chimurenga. Edjabe says, “That’s what makes the xenophobic attacks of 2008 very complicated: someone who has lived with Mozambicans, and loved Mozambicans for 30 years, and then tries to chop their heads off – it is more complex than racial hatred.”

Chimurenga is rising. Edjabe says, “We have readers who are long-term prisoners at Pretoria Central Prison, who have subscriptions that they get to us in coins, and readers who are successful businessmen.” And there are readers in the west. The Dutch Prince Claus Fund recently gave Chimurenga a prize. But those of us eager to cheer anything produced by black Africans should remember the warning given to budding Bloemfontein writers: never dare assume “that being black is a sufficient and remarkable condition for art”.

Perhaps Chimurenga is art, or else it’s just as good. Like the new French magazine XXI, Edjabe has found something that print does better than the internet: long-form journalism. It makes you almost proud to be a journalist.

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