How to change your view of Africa
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.”
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