Scottish actress writes of Africa’s dark heart, backlash swiftly follows

Water kiosk in Chipata, Zambia. File 2010. (Credit: SuSanA Secretariat/Flickr)

More than a decade ago, Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina penned a satirical column for the magazine Granta describing how to write about Africa. He provided tips on words and phrases to be used when writing about the continent in order to expose the tropes used to oversimplify the continent. It is still a popular piece – one that helps to illuminate the ways in which Westerners (usually white) describe Africa.

Scottish actress Louise Linton is either unfamiliar with Wainaina’s work or did not realize it was satire. An excerpt from her memoir about her gap year in Zambia reads as if she sought to emulate the very style that Wainaina criticizes. It’s publication in The Telegraph was met with a swift backlash. Critics accuse her of utilizing antiquated tropes about Africa and lying about the events that took place during her six-month stint a decade ago.

Now that I’m a grown woman living in California and pursuing a very different dream – as an actress and film producer – I know that the skinny white girl once so incongruous in Africa still lives on inside me. Even in this world where I’m supposed to belong, I still sometimes feel out of place. Whenever that happens, though, I try to remember a smiling gap-toothed child with HIV whose greatest joy was to sit on my lap and drink from a bottle of Coca-Cola. Zimba taught me many beautiful words but the one I like the most is Nsansa. Happiness.

Her “idyllic” trip that included gardening and starting a school under a tree was spoiled by malaria, “random acts of violence” and “encounters with lions, elephants, crocodiles and snakes.” In Congo’s Shadow tells the tale of how she had to flee for her life as fighting in the Democratic Republic of the Congo spilled over into Zambia. Her trip that was meant to be spent with smiling African babies was turned upside down due to conflict and became “a living nightmare.” Linton describes the brutal men chasing after her to rape and kill her.

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What was meant to be an inspiring memoir about the actress ends up being more fiction than truth. The negative reactions on social media followed the excerpts publication. Zambians took to Twitter to voice their outrage with the way Linton described their country, utilizing the hashtag #LintonLies.

According to Linton, conflict between Hutu and Tutsis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo spilled over into Zambia during her stay in the country. The central thrust of her story is predicated upon two raids carried out by Congolese rebels in Zambia.

Problem is none of that is true. By the time Linton was in Zambia, the Congolese civil war was not even nominally a conflict between Hutu and Tutsis – that was the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. And there are no reports that fighting crossed into Zambia, a peaceful and relatively steady country over the past quarter-century. The owner of a fishing lodge located in the same area along Lake Tanganyika where Linton stayed said no such raids took place.

“Shame on her for her mindboggling and nonsensical fiction. Her book should be banned. Or at least nbe (sic) presented as warped fiction,” wrote Gerard Zytkow on Facebook.

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Linton rebutted the claim and defended herself on Twitter. But the critics kept hammering away and the hashtag spread widely. Eventually, she apologized but has yet to retract her prior statements or correct errors made in the book.

“I am genuinely dismayed and very sorry to see that I have offended people as this was the very opposite of my intent,” said Linton in a trio of Tweets. “I wrote this book with the hope of conveying my deep humility, respect and appreciation for the people of Zambia and my sincere hope of making a positive impact there as an 18-year-old volunteer in 1999. I wrote abut the country’s incredible beauty and my immense gratitude for the experiences I had there.”

The only other significant character in Linton’s memoir aside from herself is a HIV-positive girl named Zimba. Linton describes the bond she created with the 6-year-old orphan and how it helped her deal with the loss of her own mother. When the rebels arrived, Linton was torn between fleeing to protect herself and remaining to help Zimba. She stays for a time, but eventually leaves. The use of Zimba in the story falls in line with Wainaina’s advice.

“Among your characters you must always include The Starving African, who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked, and waits for the benevolence of the West,” he writes. “Her children have flies on their eyelids and pot bellies, and her breasts are flat and empty. She must look utterly helpless. She can have no past, no history; such diversions ruin the dramatic moment.”

With social media, such tropes are called out. And Zambians are claiming their own truth.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.

  • Christopher Thomas

    Most enjoyable has been the humor in response to her old tired trope.