Binyavanga’s legacy will always touch on how we package Africa

Just before I sat to write this column, I saw a tweet by a government official that served to remind or better still, inform me that Saturday 25th May is also known as Africa Day.

Like we do these days, I asked Google about this day and quickly learnt that this day used to be referred to as African Freedom Day and also Africa Liberation Day.

It is the day we commemorate the founding of the Organisation of African Unity that we now know as the African Union or simply AU.

If I had not seen that tweet, I would have just looked at this Saturday as like any other – a day before Sunday. You could say that this is because the day is not marked red on the calendar like the ones that those with formal jobs look forward to as public holidays.

We are now used to every day of the year being a day for something that may not necessarily mean we get to stay at home instead of going to work. However Africa Day this year found me in a reflective mood about this thing called Africa. Ok it is not a thing but a continent.

On Tuesday we woke up to the sad news that Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina, journalist and 2002 winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing had died. He had suffered a number of strokes in his later days.

He was only 48 when he bowed out but his legacy is one felt all across the globe and more so around Africa for this was his home and passion. Personally, my initial awareness of Binyavanga and his works was in 2005 when he penned a satirical short story titled, “How to Write about Africa.”

2005 was an important year for me. It was the year I started formerly working after leaving the university and there was a lot to learn that had not been taught in all the years I spent sitting in a class and listening to a teacher or lecturer.

Landing on Binyavanga’s work was indeed a blessing. It was one of those things that were being read by everyone. Today we call it going viral now that social media is prevalent.

I believe that one of the crucial learning stages is the stage where you are compelled to questions and in some cases unlearn what you thought you knew.

It is not as passive as the formal school learning for it calls on you to think really hard about many things and then make up your own mind. This is exactly what Binyavanga’s, How to Write About Africa does to you.

In the story he mocks how many people especially those outside Africa, write about the continent.

He writes about the key markers writers include in their story to make it you know – African. Keywords like Africa, darkness, safari, sun, Zulu, or guerrillas and not forgetting to write as though Africa was one country where it is “hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall thin people who are starving.”

In brief he mocked the lazy tendency of writers who package Africa as though it were one country with the same people facing the same conditions.

We see this kind of writing or packaging almost every day and everywhere. Thanks to people like Binyavanga, some of us try to call out these later writers. We win some battles but so many others were long lost.

Some battles are fought at country level when for example a western media house misrepresents us after speaking to some “African experts” about something happening in one African country. #SomeoneTellCNN was one such effort to correct the stereotypical narrative that people on this continent face every so often.

Binyavanga maybe gone after nudging us in the right direction but there is still so much we have to do to if we are to liberate ourselves from these burdensome narratives around the continent and its people.

He collected over 13,000 recipes from around Africa but we rush to just call almost everything on our table as “African food.”

As a people we should be more conscious with the way we write about ourselves or how we capture and package ourselves. We need to teach and remind people that Africa is not a country and this may need us to use the word “Africa” a little less. Hopefully, BinyavangaWainaina will rest knowing we learnt how to write about Africa, better.

The views expressed in this article are of the author.

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