Response to In Africa: The Art of Listening

This blog post is for Photographic Narratives, a course I am auditing at Penn State. The assignment is to write a response to In Africa: The Art of Listening by Henning Makell.

Makell begins his story speaking of his own journey to Mozambique, where he has settled for the past 25+ years. In light of his title, I approach the article as one listening. Quickly, I lose the thread of his argument, that those in Africa listen and tell stories more and in different ways than others (presumably in the West). He draws on the literature of Gabriel Garcia Marquez to describe how “South American literature emerged in popular consciousness and changed forever our view of the human condition and what it means to be human.” In doing so, he misses the context of postcolonial South American literature. Marquez wrote his most famous works in the 1960s and 1970s, at the same time as military coups, revolutions, and Cold War ideas of socialism, capitalism and democracy.

Meanwhile, in Africa

Makell argues that now (2011) is the time for African literature. But in doing so, he neglects the extent and influence of African literature of the same period. What about Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, or Naguib Mahfouz, to name just a few great authors from the continent? Is it “this time for Africa” or has it, in Africa, always been the time for Africa?

My listening to Makell is blocked as I dig through previous readings to show his neglect of (and potentially lack of listening to) previous great African authors. But his larger argument is that humans are storytellers: “a truer nomination for our species than Homo sapiens might be Homo narrans, the storytelling person.” I can agree with this. We all have a story, whether or not it’s shared depends on where we are, who we are, and sometimes, what we value. This connects with documentary photography as we can use photographs to capture those narratives. Through listening, through connecting the camera to interview, to conversation, I hope to understand more about the people with whom I work and interact.

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