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Wednesday, 18 January 2012

"Do not complicate things and you will be paid very well"

Binyavanga Wainaina, the Kenyan writer, also talks about South Africa in his memoir,  One Day I Will Write About This Place.

Wainaina studied there in the 90s, just as apartheid was coming to an end and a mythical 'Rainbow Nation' was being born.

"South Africans are infatuated with their new trajectory. Like Americans, they see the whole world in their country, and seem perpetually surprised that other peole are in their country. I will always be a foreigner. Even after ten years. I am tired of moving around. I want to be home. Just to be home."

South Africa, home and the Rainbow Nation are also central to Afrikaner Blood, a multimedia piece byElles van Gelder and  Ilvy Njiokiktjien for the Daily Telegraph.

At first glance, the video appears to be a case of Wainaina's How Not to Write About Africans, except that it's about white people and Wainaina notes In How Not to Write... that "...‘People’ means Africans who are not black, while ‘The People’ means black Africans."

You watch the video and think, "Get away, a racist Afrikaner with a beard and a private army. Who'd have thought it?"

But then you watch some more and they speak to the kids, and some are really not that into it. One of them has black friends and another comes up with Rainbow Nation rhetoric. It's disturbing but the Colonel's audience is not as willing as one might expect. The Colonel tries to poison their minds, but I'm guessing a lot of the kids in the video aren't going to be coming back for second helpings. Eugene Terre'blanche must be twizzling in his grave.

The film's not exactly subtle, but it's not entirely expected either. It confirms one's expectations but at the same time it's a flip side of the Africa and Afrikaners one is led to expect - it makes you want to imagine where these kids live, who they live with, what pressures they live under.

In the same way, that's what Wainaina does with his memoir. He takes us into a different Africa from that of suffering, starvation and misery. But at the same time he lets us know how all that fits into a world where people go shopping, enjoy meals, go to work, get drunk, smoke spliffs, watch TV and live a normal life filled with the normal types of dysfunction and dissatisfaction. 

Wainaina also describes his writing career and how, after winning a prize, he started writing for magazines.

'I am traveling a lot now, sometimes on magazine assignments. I always look for reasons to travel in Africa. 

One day a very nice Dutch man calls me up. "Are you Binya-wanga? The writer?"


"Oh. I heard about your work. I work for the European Union Humanitarian Something. I want to produce a book about Sudan, about sleeping sickness in Sudan."

"I don't really do development writing," I say.

"Oh, no, no. We want a proper... African writer to write a book about what he sees. You know, literature. We will publish it and pay for everything. You will go with a photographer. It will be something different. Powerful. Literature and photographs."

"You mean you will pay, and I can write whatever I see?"


So off he goes and he is shocked by what he sees, especially in South Sudan, which at the time was not a recognised country. He writes what he likes and sends the text to the nice Dutch man. Then Wainaina is called to a meeting.

"They are also concerned about language... some.... improper.. unseemly.... language. Many things are not in line with EU policy. They have a proposition. Scrap the book. Keep the money. What they can do is fund an awareness-raising photo exhibition. And for the exhibition I can write a few paragraphs - within the parameters of EU policy on Sudan, of course. You keep your full fat fee, of course. I them to fuck off in seemly language. I raise the money elsewhere, and kiwani publishes the book."

I start to understand why so little good literature is produced in Kenya. The talent is wasted writing donor-funded edutainment and awareness-raising brochures for seven thousand dollars a job. Do not complicate things and you will be paid very well."

Which all leads rather unnaturaly to Viviane Sassen's Parasomnia, a visual feast that is nothing to do with anything, and everything to do with something.


Victoria said...

Hi Colin,

Long time follower of your writings. This post is especially interesting to me as it hits one the important nails on the head. There is definitely a status quo on what visions of Africa reach the West.

What I think is also important is perhaps to open channels of communication from African writers and artists to the UK? This post is a good example of what each of us can do.

Anyway just a short note, look forward to reading more.

p.s - something that may you have be interested www.narratorsphoto.com, our first exhibition is in Glasgow April 2012 if you fancy a visit.

p.p.s - The last link doesn't lead to Sassan's work but to Eugene video ;)

colin pantall said...

Thanks Victoria - and for the heads up on the mixed up link.

Thank you also for the link to www.narratorsphoto.com - that looks really interesting.

What's your email?

Victoria said...

It is vickycheape@hotmail.com :)