How to Write About Africa by Binyavanga Wainaina review – a fierce literary talent taken too soon | Essays

IIt looks like Binyavanga Wainaina’s satirical essay How to Write About Africa might be the most widely read English-language text on the African continent after the Bible. It skewered cliche writing with a list of stereotypes that seem obligatory in descriptions of the continent. “Readers will be put off,” he writes, “if you don’t mention the light in Africa. And sunsets – the African sunset is a must.”

The essay struck a chord, establishing the Kenyan author as both a literary talent and an uncompromising commentator alongside the short story Discovering Home, which won the 2002 Caine Prize for African Writing. But none of these tracks do him full justice. His death in 2019 at the age of just 48 has deprived us of a powerful talent, a true Pan-African in experience and direction.

This collection of his writings – the first to be published since his death – makes it difficult not to feel the magnitude of the loss. Introduced by Wainaina’s friend Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, it shows us how deep the author was not only immersed in Africa, but in Africa as well. What really inspired and moved him were these authentic things that snobbery and Western tastes have either ridiculed or overlooked. In South Africa, where he spent a decade trying to get a good degree or buy a “sixteen-valve car,” he ran a diner and then a catering business. As an adult, he is trying to rediscover the foods he grew up with, having been abandoned and excluded by sellers who felt African foods weren’t “upscale” enough. In the essay Food Slut, Wainaina recalls, among long, detailed recipes, the foods he ate as a child — the daily diet of plantains as well as urban innovations like kebabs made with crushed nuts and vetkoek (fried bread) with coconut. For him, “the best cuisine we have remains in villages and at town hall weddings and taxi ranks”.

A love for the basic infrastructure of African life is evident throughout. There is his infatuation with matatus – small buses common in Kenya and other parts of East Africa. He describes their evolution from ramshackle vehicles covered in psychedelic paintings to ones adorned with plasma TVs playing hip-hop videos. And in the short story Laut Mwangi, a local eccentric who entertains children on the street with stories before losing them to films is more sacred than the traditional providers of “oral litera-chuwa” taught in school.

But the stream-of-consciousness style that’s Wainaina’s trademark suits non-fiction best. There’s something tidal about it – better suited to expressing the many levels of emotion he’s constantly trying to channel or understand. His love of African things and people stands alongside his anger at the elites who exploit them. His hope and investment in the continent is tinged with disappointment. And so his tone alternates between seriousness and cynicism, between breathless attempts and bitterly spat out sentences. Whether he’s describing warm family reunions, South Sudan’s desperate, intractable civil war, or the absurdities of the international NGO industry, the action lies behind his vivid descriptions and quirky observations.

The collection ends with the famous Granta essay, but at this point it feels much tamer and actually more conventional than the lesser-known Wainaina. He’d probably hate that the play has turned into a kind of piety, something rolled out as the last word to chide people who don’t strike the right note in Africa. “I didn’t want to seek knowledge about African food out of anger,” he writes at one point. “I couldn’t imagine gorging on okra with passion just because it was a symbol of ‘our great and shattered past.’ I enjoy food too much to insult it like that.” The same goes for his portrayal of Africa. He didn’t write about it out of anger or to correct historical errors – he was enjoying the place too much to insult it in that way.

How to Write About Africa by Binyavanga Wainaina is edited by Hamish Hamilton (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Shipping costs may apply.

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