Mary – How to Write About People

In his satirical essay How to Write About Africa, Binyavanga Wainaina instructs, “African characters should be colorful, exotic, larger than life – but empty inside, with no dialogue, no conflicts or resolutions in their stories, no depth or quirks to confuse the cause.” (The cause, of course, portraying the ‘real Africa,’ full of the souls of hundreds of millions busy “starving and dying and warring and emigrating” with the hopes the written account should cause the West to send aid.) The idea, Wainaina assures, that rural people whose daily activities are largely based in providing for their families cannot have complex ambitions is bogus. This article is now as old as I, yet this is an idea that very unfortunately continues to be perpetrated in much travel writing. The sense I get is that people are so consumed by survival that everything besides necessities is an afterthought at all, an archaic misallocation of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. A few days ago, I had the opportunity to interview Jean Baptiste, the previously mentioned kitchen garden superhero, who has great aspirations for his community and solid strategies for achieving them.

Jean Baptiste is the president of the Hello Children association, an organization composed of the 23 children and their families living with HIV in Gashora. Jean Baptiste, his wife, and eldest son all live with HIV. I first asked what his goals are for the future. He told me that he hopes to continue to provide food and good health to his family and to eventually build his own home. I then asked what his goals are for kitchen gardens. He wants to improve the nutrition and raise the income of the families and allow empower them to share their knowledge of kitchen gardens and extra produce with their neighbors. His goals as president of Hello Children are equally impressive. He plans to seek out aid for the organization, support members psychologically, physically, and emotionally, to encourage members to have self confidence, to create a community where they don’t have to feel alone, to provide instruction on stopping the spread of HIV, and to finish building gardens for the 16 remaining families. The organization wants the children to know that they can survive and to plan for their future.

That an African subsistence farmer with HIV should have such complex dreams for his organization flies in the face of the type of writing and thinking that Wainaina spoofed. Jean Baptiste has his own cause, with conflicts, resolutions, depths and quirks to spare.

After the interview, I asked Jean Baptiste if he had any questions to ask me. He asked that I spread the story of Hello Children, tell what the organization is doing to help people with HIV and to assure that the organization will continue with it’s activities. So, I humbly dedicate this blog post to the president and members of the Hello Children. It has been an honor and a privilege to work alongside you.

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