Binyavanga Wainaina: 'We want to show the world how we view ourselves'

July 2008 -

Against all odds, the Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina sometimes tries to correct the traditional image of Africa in the media. In one of his most well-known essays, How to write about Africa, he lays waste all the clichés that exist regarding Africa. "I think that writing is a way to make our own reality tangible. Every day, children in Kenyan schools are served up an imaginary world in their school books. They see pictures of London; so London becomes a real place for them. But the reality of their own lives is not adequately presented in these books. That is extremely dangerous."


Binyavanga Wainaina (photo: Ed Lonnee)

In 2003, Wainaina founded the literary magazine Kwani to counter the existing image that is portrayed of Kenya and the rest of Africa. "People said: you’ll never be able to sell it, because Africans don’t read. But that was because all that was available were terrible books in which Africans are portrayed as broken people. I have yet to meet one African who feels broken."

"You can never completely control how the rest of the world views you, but I believe that you can let the world see how you want to be viewed. And that is what my generation of writers is doing. We have made an agreement to keep an eye on what is written about Kenya in Washington and New York. If something doesn’t tally, we write back; it works. They now understand that we are keeping an eye on them."

Wainaina (Nakuru, 1971) lives six months of the year in New York, where he teaches, and the other six months in Nairobi. In June of 2008 he was in the Netherlands to present his vision of development aid during Hivos’ 40th anniversary celebration. He did not mince words. "I firmly believe that NGOs and donors are not criticised enough. The weak point in the relationship with Africa is that they do not really have to account for themselves in the countries in which they operate. They acquire power this way. I also acknowledge the importance of NGOs. Kwani is sponsored by the Ford Foundation. But anyone who says that this means we can’t be critical can go straight to hell."