“Africa is Taking its Own Shape – and You are Not Even in that Conversation” – Binyavanga Wainaina Delivers a Public Lecture in Joburg
Binyavanga Wainaina says the youth of Africa have “stopped waiting” for their colonial custodians to “think the continent into being” – and have gone in search of adventure.
Wainaina was in South Africa to deliver a public lecture entitled “Being African in the World” for the Department of Arts and Culture’s Africa Month celebrations.
Scroll to the end for a podcast of Wainaina’s talk
Wainaina famously and defiantly came out as a homosexual amid a wave of homophobic feeling on the continent last year, and was subsequently named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People. He began his lecture at the Joburg Theatre with an extended reading from his memoir, One Day I Will Write About This Place, because, as he explained, it is not readily available in South Africa, although it is partly set here.
The Kenyan author lived in South Africa from 1991 to 2000, through the magical time of South Africa’s transition to a democratic government, and says his memoir is “a love letter to some degree to South Africa”, and lamented the fact that in Mzansi “only great adventurers who want to climb Mount Kilimanjaro can find it”.
“That season here [in South Africa] defines me,” he says. “Every adventure, every idea I’ve had, how I became a writer. Grace – that one of the Bible – was given to me here, to carry me forward. Encountering Africa here set me on a path to go everywhere.”
Wainaina went on to speak about the “class problems of post-1994 arrival” in South Africa, placing them in a broader African context:
Africa is taking its own shape. The youth bulge is enormous, and they stopped waiting. And so, they are going to make Nollywood, or they are going to make Boko Haram, and you are not even in that conversation. The States are not in that conversation.
It’s now no longer a question of saving them, to come and bring them to learn English and become I don’t know what and give them income generation … they have gone. It’s not even, more, a question of a lost generation.
Wainaina believes the transitional period the continent is existing in, “Africa is rising”, is one of “anarchy or libertarianism”, and he says the youth of that period will “define the fate of everyone”, as they have “signed out of the contract” they had with the middle class or, as he calls it, the “colonial rulers”.
They will define not just the safety of you in Sandton but the fates of all things, because we failed as the custodians, those colonial custodians, to really think our continent into being properly.
Wainaina says he has no answers to these problems, but offers some different advice:
On the one hand, I have no prescriptions, really. But I’m enjoying this adventure of transition. I’m enjoying seeing middle class Yoruba kids learning to rap in Yoruba, which they could never do, and coming on DStv with no subtitles.
All these things from underneath the ground have come up to these boring university spaces, public school spaces, government spaces, they have come and are taking over – for better or for worse.
In terms of where we are looking forward to, that storm – which I call a hurricane – has gone. It went, and it’s only now we are seeing the different kinds of effects, sometimes in very overt political terms – elections, like Senegal and so on – sometimes in really devastating crises, and even manifest in this xenophobic violence that was happening here.
But I don’t really think those who have gone are coming back.
Even the language that is being used by governments in Africa, Wainaina says, indicates that they have “given up”, and that in response the youth are in search of adventure.
It seems to me, in a certain sense, that this language that is appearing, ‘empowerment’, ‘service delivery’ – which came from one document; all the governments of Africa say the same words – I have no problem with it, they are very sensible, inoffensive-seeming things … but I feel like there is now a conversation of nation states that have actually effectively given up, and the things that they used to service, that they knew how to service, they service them okay, and they improve three percent every year, like basic education in Zulu, Sotho, Kikuyu, or whatever, will arrive in 22 years. But the African who did not finish that university degree is never going to care about articulating his intelligence in English. It’s just never going to happen.
So I just wanted to put this gauntlet down. Because for my generation, I’m in my 40s, it’s not a matter of just taking leadership but actually agreeing to see. For me, for now, I prefer to see the continent as an enormous adventure. Its feature is youth, and youth are bending their bodies in complicated ways to adventure and find ways to break out of what is just boredom. Not even unemployment, which is terrible, leave all of that – it’s just boredom.
He illustrated his point with some fascinating anecdotes about how youngsters in countries such as Congo or Senegal combat that boredom:
Did you know that people leave Congo with $10 000? They hitchhike or bus to Senegal, which is a stopover place because the Senegalese as a Francophone people are generally quite tolerant, and you hang out there and you try and make some money, but you’ve still got your money in your pocket because you still have to cross the Sahara, to go to France or Italy or Belgium.
Now people say, ‘Oh, that’s very impractical. How stupid are you? If you started a little spaza shop in your township with $10 000 you’ll do very well. Why?’ – No.
There are some who leave Congo to go to Angola. With their money they get on a ship to Brazil, where they hustle for three or four years, to get back to Italy, to make it to the UK. Do you know why? Because it’s an adventure.
What happens in Senegal? They all meet on the beach; they are training. They are training and they have this rap called “Barcelona or die”. So each time someone gets deported from Barcelona, he comes back to the beach and he’s like, ‘You can’t believe what happened. I nearly died, I nearly drowned, in the Sahara I was walking for 14 days.’
You are sitting in your house, your parents are telling you, ‘Oh, you know, at least we have got our house, if it’s a one bedroom, just stay here you can breed chicken. Just breed some chicken, you don’t want to become spoilt like the children of so-and-so.’
Now those are the kids who end up running away. It’s not that he becomes rich, even if he’s living on the streets and it’s cold and horrible in Barcelona – he comes home and he can marry. You have 34-year-olds who can’t marry and are staying in their parents’ home. People are like: ‘I can rather live in hell. I would rather eat chicken shit across the Sahara. Because I am a person with hunger, desire, to control the world in my own terms.
Listen to the podcast:
View some photos from the event:
- One Day I Will Write About This Place by Binyavanga Wainaina
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- How to Write About Africa by Binyavanga Wainaina
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- Kwani? edited by Binyavanga Wainaina
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