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How to write about Africa, revisited

By Geoff Wisner

I am currently editing an anthology of memoirs from the continent of Africa, so I was excited to see that the long-awaited memoir by the Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina is scheduled to appear this summer. One Day I Will Write About This Place grew from the essay "Discovering Home," Wainaina's first published work, which won him the prestigious Caine Prize. But as I was quoted as saying in a recent article on "How foreign writers make it to US bookshelves," he is probably best known for the blistering satirical essay "How to Write About Africa."

In an interview in Bomb magazine (available online for a limited time), Wainaina talks with Rob Spillman, editor of Gods and Soldiers: The Penguin Anthology of Contemporary African Writing. Some of the most interesting parts of the interview concern the uses and class connotations of different languages. Wainaina's countryman Ngugi wa Thiong’o, as it happens, is the best-known proponent of the idea that African authors should write in their indigenous languages.

RS What about Sheng? [The street patois of urban East Africa, combining English, Kiswahili, and tribal languages.] Is that common enough in Nairobi that everybody there can handle Sheng? Is it a lingua franca?

BW I’d say maybe Kiswahili and Sheng, yeah. But Sheng itself and its variations have always been insider languages. Different parts of Nairobi have their Sheng which, as part of its own design, exists partly to lock strangers out. But Sheng has also, since the ’90s, become the language of youth politics, a lingua franca for a generation of Kenyans who are under 30 now. Many in Nairobi say, “Sheng is my mother tongue.” If you approach somebody in Sheng, even if your Sheng is as terrible as mine is, you’re saying, “We have a communion together. I’ll be nice to you, you be nice to me.” Now, if someone sees you and encodes you and says, “I recognize my ethnicity in you,” and you’re a stranger in a public place, part of what they’re asking is like, “Can you collaborate? Let’s do this thing together.”

RS Is it a little bit like Kwaito music in South Africa? It cuts across ties, across race, is centered on youth and a postcolonial, post-strongman, fuck art and politics, let’s dance attitude?

BW Yes, yes.

RS So when you write, do you make a conscious decision to ever use Sheng or Kiswahili or anything outside of English? Language is so important to you, and there are so many different language influences on you, how do you decide what to use? What tools do you use?

BW In One Day there are what I’d call call–ups; things that are there for people who get them. They’re not deep or anything, but they are put in such a way that a certain kind of Kenyan would get them immediately. I can’t write or speak in Gikuyu, and I have no intent to write in Gikuyu, but I’m comfortable with Gikuyuness as a sensibility that has some claim over parts of me. But I say this in the book—and I have written about this quite a bit—there are emotional spaces that you cannot occupy in English in Kenya. I found this really interesting because English has a personality in Nigeria, for example. It’s not just pidgin; it’s a Lagos thing. A West African thing. In Kenya, on the other hand, partly because of colonial history, the space that English occupies is very separated. English is the language of authority, the language of importance, of going somewhere. You use it to wield power. Always.

Published Jul 11, 2011   Copyright 2011 Geoff Wisner

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