Inventing our own fictions

For Binyavanga Wainaina, writing about Africa means to to write honestly, benching any attempts to categorize our lived experiences in language that could never accommodate them.

Nairobi. Image credit Xiaojun Deng via Flickr CC BY 2.0.

The posthumous anthology, How to Write About Africa, is both an ode and an introduction to one of the continent’s most inimitable literary giants, Binyavanga Wainaina. With a fitting beginning about a speculative story on the afterlife “set in a heaven where Africans went to die,” the composition concludes with his viral satirical essay, eponymous for the collection itself. This anthology is a most entertaining walk through the author’s life, thoughts, and work, curated by his longtime friend Achal Prabhala.

By starring his friend in this way on the world stage, as readers we feel, as we flip the last page of this collection, that we are going home after making a great new friend, and we keep our inside jokes and silently treasure our shared knowings. Letting people know about this body of work is like eulogizing a wonderful friend whom you never met in real life. This friend was entirely uninterested in shrouding his being in secrets, so you can speak of him without having met him, in an intimate, yet honest manner.

You can share with others for example, that your new friend was really not a fan of the Peace Corps to Africa Expert nexus, that is, the one too many Americans claiming to know more about Africa’s people, issues, and food—going so far as to describe their cuisines as “stomach-filling fodder.” Those “Africa Expert” Americans who claim to know more than Africans themselves, after spending no more than two years playing savior on the continent. Your newly made friend was skilled at challenging counterfeit Africanness; he would break a certain framed portrait of a Nandi woman down, explaining why the portrait is pretending to be what it is not: “The artist has got the dignity right but the sexuality is European; it would be difficult for an African artist to get that wrong.” But there is a caveat, while your friend never shied away from pointing these falsehoods out, nor from sharing his discontent about contemporary culture, he was never preachy about it, he actively did not want to be “Mr. All Pan Africa” in his writing.

You can tell people about his laments over how, and why, his beloved Kenya has failed to demote its Old Guard. You can take note of how Africa began to feel like a country, the moment you found out that you could trade identical stories about politics with other nationalities. Those familiar tales from your own motherland, about an Old Guard which foments conflict between ethnic groups to maintain power illegitimately won, and irresponsibly used. You can point people to I Hate Githeri, an essay where Wainaina clarifies that the “Kibaki government, like the Moi government and the Kenyatta government and the ODM (Orange Democratic Movement), are all cut from the same original cloth.” Thus, although these leaders presumably are of different ethnicities, “they are brothers—of the same class of families who feel they have a royal right to rule.” If there is any ethnic friction between them, then it is imagined. Ethnic tension is a charade politicians keep up “when we are watching” because “we validate their power.”

Your friend wrote unabashedly about the two-facedness of development regimes, exposing their inherent paradox—they impoverished people in the name of getting them out of poverty: “Rents in Nairobi are now on a par with Europe’s, to service the tens of thousands of Kenya-loving people who run Kenya-loving projects to save Kenyans and Sudanese and others from Misery.” You can relay to others your memory of how all the organizations that avowed poverty eradication was their goal, only left a legacy of impoverishment and debt bondage to show for it. In the short stories, your friend mentioned needing to be reintroduced to home, an activity which you, having apparently benevolently exiled yourself, are well acquainted with. The moments of relief these stories offer, (which you experience on account of not needing to start from scratch), resonate with you—“After ten years, I can still move about with ease in the dark.” As both of you share a propensity for exile, you can also tell others that this feeling is another favorite thing you find about your new friend—he did not stand on his soapbox to talk about Africa, waxing poetic about the whole unseen of it. Everything he shared came from the experience of living expansively in more than a handful of African countries.

On the question of whether art imitates life or life imitates art, Wainaina believed that everything is a form of fiction. In his view, fiction is the rhetoric that fortifies nations, condones war, bonds families, and makes marriages work. There is no one truth but fiction. Regarding this, Wainaina staunchly resented the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski for representing fiction as truth. Kapuscinski’s glorified misrepresentations of Africa, propped up by a journalistic world disguising their uninformed fabulations and stereotypes under his unsubstantiated justifications for promoting them, inspired the titular essay, “How to Write About Africa.”

While perusing the collection, I ended up carrying the book with me everywhere. At a Papaye fast food counter in Accra, the waitress, after taking my order and reading out the title of the collection, asked me, “Auntie, please are you a teacher or a lecturer?” At first, I was amused that I seemed old enough to be called “auntie.” However, after musing some more on the question, I began to wonder how Wainaina would have responded to the question’s innocent, but rather circumspect implications of who gets to present fiction as fact. We assume that we know who can set the narrative rules for writing about Africa. It is a quiet assumption inherent in our expectations, and at the bare minimum, deserves some thought. I am not a teacher nor a lecturer, and neither was Wainaina (at least not in title). Yet across his body of work, which the collection represents, he provided instruction on how to write about Africa. He guided us by directly showing us how not to write about Africa.

The way to write about Africa is to write honestly, benching any attempts to constrain our lived experiences within a language that could never accommodate them. Honest writing rejects any inclinations to universalize the Western status quo. Honest writing is fearless and unapologetic—it resists the urge to excuse oneself for writing what isn’t according to the standards of Western tastes and sensibilities. In this way, honest writing is like mursik, the Maasai blood yogurt, and mutura, its Kikuyu variation. To write honestly is to be disinterested in posturing and preoccupied instead with inventing and telling our own fictions—truths that need not be explained to fellow Africans. To write honestly is to choose reality as the aesthetic, as Wainaina encouraged. This writing is not the domain of only a certain class of Africans. Writing about Africa is a shared polyphony—discordant with Western narratives and indigenously melodious.

Further Reading