101 With Binyavanga Wainaina

101 With Binyavanga Wainaina
Reading Time: 7 minutes

In February 2013, I was commissioned by Kalyan Mukherjee (now deceased), editor of Millennium Post, a New Delhi based newspaper, that was running a section called African Rising. A novelist and short story writer, Mukherjee was interested in African literature and had identified Ferdinand Oyono’s novel Houseboy as a masterpiece. He asked me to write about the African literary experience studying the past and the present. He also wanted me to focus on what was hot in the Kenyan literary scene. There was only one choice I looked up to, Binyavanga Wainaina, and the literary movement he founded a decade earlier. I asked Binyavanga for an interview and he gracefully acquiesced to, inviting us to his home in Karen, myself and an Indian researcher for the Millennium Post, Aman Ramrakha. In a lengthy interview in that brisk, brilliant mid-morning, Binya was his boisterous self; optimistic of the African continent, its languages, and an ongoing renaissance. Only a section of this interview was published in the Millennium Post.

Here is the full interview, edited for brevity. We will make the full video available on the Nairobi Cool Website along with the online edition of the story.

 NYANCHWANI: How is writing now, compared to writing in the 60s?

BINYAVANGA: Now, I think there is an opportunity for a more muscular engagement with issues.  It was different back then, but now we are about to witness people embracing their languages more, a new literature in native languages will emerge and a powerful commitment to digital platforms. Therefore, the literature will start to look more like us.

The platforms have changed, and nothing is cast in stone anymore. We anticipate a vibrant combination of forms. The traditional forms will exist, but they will reform, rearrange themselves into new ones.

Did the pioneering writers have it easy with colonialism theme as opposed to young writers who have many issues to grapple with?

It is hard to platform young writers because people have different engagements and themes to tackle. Same thing back then, they didn’t necessarily address a common theme

We must look at writers as primarily being able to express a creative instinct. The idea of vision comes from creative instinct as opposed to the policy. Writers engage as political citizens who have platforms.

Their works reveal their personal politics. Look at Wole Soyinka. His works are political, but he is also concerned with aesthetics, the Yoruba myth, and tradition which he channeled through the play. Note that the Yoruba did not have a theatre.

NYANCHWANI: Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Ngugi wa Thing’o and their contemporaries withheld their pens from fiction in the 70s, any reason for this?

BINYAVANGA: Once, while visiting Achebe and his wife, he told me that he woke up one day in 1975 and learnt that most of his friends had died or disappeared. In the ensuing period of independence, the governments became more autocratic and undemocratic. Exile became inevitable. Many writers withdrew but kept writing but did not publish because they stopped believing that their writing mattered.

After 2000, new engagements sprung up as more governments became democratic. And stable. All of a sudden people started coming out of the closet, now they are writing more. Ngugi and Achebe (Achebe had not died and had just published his memoir, There Was a Country) are writing again. Writers write all their lives. There is a new dynamism and writers are no longer cynical about their writing.

NYANCHWANI: Is writing in African languages really feasible?

BINYAVANGA: This argument need not be there. It used to be there in the 1970s when the scholars were fighting. The problem is what I can call the ‘Plantation Mentality’ whereby people believed that they must pursue what was prescribed to them and never wished to step out of it. That syllabus is what we have stuck with all this time. But since in the 70s, the educated class was looking up to the Multi-National-Corporations for employment. They had to stick with it, but really that is a moot argument. We must own ourselves if we are to make a leap forward.

Feasibility is a small idea. And our education system is responsible for this unenviable situation. We must make working in our languages feasible. Human beings don’t exist to implement economic policy; they exist to release their imagination. And we can only do so in our languages.

When we talk about copying the Korean or Singapore model and build Konza City it is a bunch of bullsh*t. The Koreans achieved what they did by first decolonizing themselves and chasing away the Europeans. We must start converting the technology into our own languages, lest we stagnate. You must domesticate the knowledge for us to imagine better. Now you imagine half-way like Rihanna and whatever! And you expect to grow! That way you want to come up with new things. You can’t.

Look at what the Norwegians did when they separated from Denmark. Even though their languages are similar, they retained their dialect and pursued their dreams, domesticating the knowledge and they were probably the poorest but look now. What we have is colonial fear that if we stepped out of the syllabus we will be in trouble. It is not about Ngugi or Achebe, we must pursue our dreams in our own languages. No country ever developed by adopting another man’s language. Look at all big countries, India, China, German…

{NB: Konza City is considered Africa’s answer to Silicon Valley. After the project was abandoned for about a decade, the Kenyan government recently secured a KES, 67.5 billion from the Chinese government to build the city.}

NYANCHWANI: Have African writers tried native languages before? And what did they achieve?

BINYAVANGA: Well, in Zimbabwe they have done so much in Shona and Ndebele languages. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was an A student in Igbo. Achebe did poetry in Igbo and is celebrated in Igbo land as much as he is savoured in the whole world. Ethiopia is doing well with their Amharic. In Nigeria, artistic productions in Hausa and Yoruba thrived long before even before the Nollywood industry came to be.  It is feasible.

It should not be a debate. In terms of building a country, it is a bankrupt idea if we insist on other’s people’s languages.  You must own yourself, your imagination, your history and the people you love and move forward with them.

Even in India, Hindi is preferred and even the middle class is comfortable with it. And the native languages are encouraged. Salman Rushdie is probably not the most read Indian writers. Those who write in local languages are more bought, more celebrated.

Human beings don’t exist to implement economic policy; they exist to release their imagination. And we can only do so in our languages.

It is still impractical to revert to our languages; we are into Hollywood, their shopping malls and chains to extricate ourselves anymore?

Then you move abroad to pursue your trade. But the fact remains that English can only be taken up to 3 % in Africa. Whatever you do after 50 years of independence, you realize that with all this education, our hearts are not committed to English.

You cannot laugh in English. You cannot commit to English Literature. Look at the 2007, post-election violence in Kenya. What we learnt is that we are still stuck in medieval times. Educated guys participated and we are still not completely free. Look at what is happening in Nigeria with the Boko Haram. What we learn if we are not moving forward with everyone and we are leaving others several centuries behind, they will always pull us backwards, thus the cultural suicide in Nigeria. Pakistan and Kenya are in the same situation.

Thus, going back to our languages will be made feasible by things like Post-Election-Violence. And we must curve a uniform identity that everyone can have a sense of belonging.

NYANCHWANI: What are some of the milestones of Kwani? so far?

BINYAVANGA: As a co-founder, I can say at the beginning we were generally chaotic, noisy, pushy, stubborn and that is what exactly Kwani? needed at the time. But since then, Kwani has undergone an evolution from an exciting, noisy establishment to a more stable, orderly organization with political engagement.

Not many establishments like Kwani? or literary magazines survive that long in Africa. But we continue to create and produce and now we are venturing into a more diverse literary tradition. And to me that is remarkable.

NYANCHWANI: What is the future of Kwani?

BINYAVANGA: Kwani? has become donor-funding dependent and that has to stop at some point. We must move and commercialize our material. We need to venture into the online platform and minimize our dependence on donor funding.

In a recent column in the British newspaper the Guardian, you argued that Africa can only work with countries that treat it as equals and seemed to favour the East’s approach to business with Africa than the West. Is China the right partner for Africa now?

I have my personal issues with China, but our problems with China are fewer than our problems with the West. With China, it is business without many strings attached. China does not have imperial ties to Africa. Maybe in the future.

And even now it is no longer diplomacy. It is war with the West. You see their intervention in places like Mali and their plans to re-occupy Africa and I say that is not the way to work. It is time we were treated with some respect and China seems to have gotten it right, so far. Working with the West comes with so many intermediaries that only work to keep the continent down.

NYANCHWANI: Your take on aid to Africa

BINYAVANGA: We are victims of pity. Independent people don’t need aid. And dependence is disastrous. Aid money is normally wasted. I was in North Uganda and I saw several NGOs claiming parts of the country to control, basically doing the same thing but being funded by different groups from the West. In South Sudan, a German-funded state-of-art hospital was built to specifically treat sleeping sickness and could not even attend to other common ailments. And they were to leave after some time, without a clear succession plan. When they leave, the ultramodern facility remains there, doing nothing because the locals don’t know how to run it.

Even in Kenya, they are very territorial and there are places you will go, and you will not be allowed to do anything there unless you pass through a foreign NGO.

Thing is, once you let these people (the West) into your bedroom, they never leave. A good model of working with them we can learn is how the Asians have dealt with aid sent to them after the Tsunami. They accepted it but on their own terms. But for us, our politicians will not wish to upset donor funding, hence we must keep on singing their tune.

NYANCHWANI: The next project you are working on?

BINYAVANGA: Yeah, I am working on two things, one fiction, and the other non-fiction and you will hear more about it as from next month.

{Sadly, he never released the novel, and his output subsided as he would come out a year after the interview and the final years of life were tumultuous, fighting for LGBTQ rights, the image of African, controversial online debates, a very public and spirited effort to marry his love. His health complications slowed down his productivity towards the end until his death on May 21, 2019.}

Read more Binyavanga tributes.

KEVIN MOSIGISI: The Trial of Kenneth Binyavanga Wainaina

JESSE SOLOMON: A Letter to Binyavanga

Grandmaster Masese: Remembering Binyavanga’s Gift of Generosity

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