How to Write About Africa: Everything Lost is Found Again in Review

How should a foreigner write about a place, particularly a place in Africa: the continent of ready stereotypes and tired clichés?

Everything Lost is Found Again: Four Seasons in Lesotho by Will McGrath, Dzanc Books, 2018

To recognize one’s own foreignness in a place that is foreign is difficult. To write it is even harder. In Everything Lost is Found Again, journalist Will McGrath’s Lesotho-set travelogue, he does what is almost antithetical to the travel writing genre and acknowledges his foreignness, resisting the impulse to position himself as the default cultural setting and transfer “otherness” to the country and its citizens. The fact that this book is printed in English and primarily sold in the States means that his audience is also foreign to the place he is writing about, making McGrath’s reversal a considerable achievement.

But let’s begin one step back. How should a foreigner write about a place, particularly a place in Africa: the continent of ready stereotypes and tired clichés? In Binyavanga Wainaina’s satirical 2005 Granta essay, “How to Write About Africa,” the Kenyan author advises: “In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country . . . Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions . . . Throughout the book, adopt a sotto voice, in conspiracy with the reader, and a sad I-expected-so-much tone . . . Remember, any work you submit in which people look filthy and miserable will be referred to as the ‘real Africa,’ and you want that on your dust jacket . . . Readers will be put off if you don’t mention the light in Africa. And sunsets, the African sunset is a must. It is always big and red. There is always a big sky.”

McGrath is guilty of one of these, but it seems fitting that he mentions the “infinite spread of the sky” because we are in Lesotho, mountainous “Kingdom in the Sky”; the landlocked southern African country where the lowest point above sea level is “almost 5000 feet up—the highest low-point in the world.” McGrath and his wife, Ellen, have travelled to the city of Mokhotlong to spend a year—spring to winter—he as a teacher at a local school, she doing research on the impact of HIV/AIDS on family structures.

The first sentence of the book deposits us into the hectic rush of Maseru, the capital, where the author is lost. In bright, brisk prose, McGrath sets the scene: the taxi rank is “spiny,” the meat cooking on open fires “nuclear pink,” the agave plants look like “something from a Seussian fever dream: porcupines of flat waxy leaves, tall as a man, with thin trunks jutting from their centers and pods of extraterrestrial broccoli branching skywards.” His introduction of Nthabeleng, the mookameli (boss) of the home for AIDS orphans where Ellen will conduct research, and a character who looms large throughout the book, is exultant:

“She lives in your thoughts and dreams. She knows your malfeasance before you fease it mal. She speaks better English than you do. She tells funnier jokes in her third language than you do in your first . . . She sees all, hears all, knows all . . . When Nthabeleng walks by construction sites, nails plunge themselves through wood. Cement mixes itself. The only way to capture even a glimpse of her true self is through the words of our great philosopher-king, the former NBA star Shaquille O’Neal—listen when he tells you: Nthabeleng Lephoto is the motherfucking Truth.”

At this point, I wondered if McGrath’s editor had fallen asleep at the wheel. Or, was it that McGrath was employing the form of one of the oldest oral traditions in southern Africa? In the ukubonga (praise singing) idiom, no hyperbole is too hyperbolic, no epithet too exaggerated. McGrath doesn’t hesitate to go tell it on the mountain. Another oddity is his Scrabble player’s use of words—when last did you read “flocculent” or “tintinnabulation”? But listen carefully to his wording and you might hear the echo of onomatopoeic Sesotho, a facet of the language exemplified by the word for “motorcycle”—setututu.

It’s worth pausing here to introduce another idea regarding writing about Africa. In his pioneering work on the politics of language, Decolonising the Mind, Kenyan academic and writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o asserted that language is a carrier of culture. Debating whether African literature should be written in English, he quotes Chinua Achebe: “I feel that the English language will be able to carry the weight of my African experience. But it will have to be a new English, still in full communication with its ancestral home but altered to suit new African surroundings.” Gabriel Okara weighs in: “Living languages grow like living things, and English is far from a dead language.”

Although Wa Thiong’o, Achebe, and Okara were speaking in the context of throwing the imperial yoke of “proper” missionary-enforced English in favor of an aberrant English that would carry the African idiom and experience, could this idea apply to McGrath’s prose? Or is McGrath merely guilty of the colonial imperative to plunder, appropriate and exoticize? Either way, there is something about McGrath’s writing—the anecdotes that turn on hairpin bends to double back and sometimes stop abruptly, the humorist’s timing, and the sheer delight in overstatement—that manages to express something of the Sesotho language.

This discursive thread can be picked up again in how the book is structured—four sections corresponding to the seasons with each section split into a miscellany of interwoven narratives and trip notes that can be read together, or separately and out of sequence. This “unsound method” allows McGrath to tell stories in a way that favors narrative over genre. However, a potential weakness of the text is a lack of consistent style across narratives, tending towards a multivocality that can be distracting (possibly the result of a number of the stories having originally appeared in print elsewhere). Then again, seen another way, this type of code-switching is essentially consistent with the African oral mode of storytelling: each tale requires a different way of telling, appropriate to the subject matter. So we get “Killing a Pig,” a considered, essayistic paean carefully underwritten with the ambivalence of someone to whom meat has always been pre-packaged and available, contrasting with the style of “Midnight Basotho Dance Party,” which bends towards the type of jagged, unrestrained rock writing more often seen in the pages of Rolling Stone. But in this way, each story sings.

The only bum note among McGrath’s anecdotes is a description of a brief trip the author makes to South Africa. Here, he includes the history of the Afrikaner, the people who institutionalized apartheid in South Africa, who saw themselves as the chosen people, who are, sometimes for good reason, painted as unrepentant racists. But McGrath forgets that Afrikaners are also African and have lived and worked and loved and hated on the continent for centuries. It is as lazy to cast them as generally bigoted as it would be to stereotype Zulus as generally belligerent. It is at this point that McGrath loses a shade of humanity by distancing himself from this tribe—I may be white, he seems to say, but I am not like those whites; see, I take the local minibus taxi; I wear the Bloem Celtic soccer shirt, the team of the Basotho; I find comfort in the familiar sound of Sesotho on the tongue. I am a good white, a friend to the African. I am not like them. And so we come back to Wainaina: “Bad Western characters may include . . . Afrikaners.”

To McGrath’s credit, Everything Lost is Found Again never takes the tone of moral superiority. Nor is it ever abject, harrowing, or Hegelian—those Coetzeean adjectives that might mark a Nobel-winning work. This is decidedly not that book. It is messy, often overwritten, sometimes jumbled. But above all it is joyful. McGrath tells his stories, even the tragic ones, with hope and humor—the greatest defenses against despair—writing against those characterizations of the continent that Wainaina satirized.

Because Everything Lost is Found Again is about stories and storytelling, here is one last tale: it’s about a BB gun, a drunk Lesotho Defense Force soldier and two men outside Mokhotlong’s Whitehouse bar, which was once an airfield, and how McGrath was given one metal pellet with which to take a shot at a jug placed some distance away. He missed. The Mosotho soldier fitted another single pellet into the gun, pivoted smoothly, and casually shot a bird out of the air.

McGrath may be new to the tradition and art of African storytelling that is inborn to the people of Mokhotlong, and indeed to most Africans, but in Everything Lost is Found Again he takes a few shots anyway, and this time, more often than not, he hits the mark.

Did you know? Everything Lost is Found Again: Four Seasons in Lesotho was first excerpted in Asymptote‘s Spring 2013 issue. Read about Will McGrath’s “singular experience” contributing to Asymptote here.

Alice Inggs is an editor, writer, and translator from South Africa. She has an M.A. in media theory and practice from the University of Cape Town. Alice is the South Africa Editor-at-Large at Asymptote and has contributed to a number of literary, arts, and pop culture publications, including The Arkansas International, EuropeNow, Critical Arts, VICE, and Rolling Stone.


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