Africa has never been short of avant-garde, maverick and daring writers – one of them is a Kenyan Binyavanga Wainaina. In contemporary literary circles, Wainaina is respected for his eloquence, wit and love for the continent. It was for the same reasons he drew a full house at the auditorium of the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), in Johannesburg. It turned out to be a bizarre winter evening with the writer and gay activist.
It was awkward and excruciating to listen to Wainaina, who struggled to speak without breaking mid-sentence. Sitting there, in front of his loyal admirers, he was a shadow of himself. Wainaina, with a clean-shaven head, in black kaftan adorned with an elegant necklace, sipped beer between sentences in this hour-long conversation with Wits literature lecturer Danai Mupotsa and Indian writer Achal Prabhala. Wainaina was the guest at the event titled ‘How To Write About Everything’, which echoed his essay How To Write About Africa.
In 2015, at the age of 44, Wainaina suffered a series of minor strokes that impaired his speech. I don’t know how many beers he had, but sitting in the second row, I noticed his head lolling at times.
Like many in the audience, I had admired his work since childhood. We could have walked the same streets when I was growing up in Port Elizabeth, Eastern Cape, where he lived for nine years. He stayed in Mthatha, the small town where Nelson Mandela was born, while studying accounting. He dropped out and earned a living copywriting on his way of becoming a renowned essayist.
In 2014, Wainaina was named as one of TIME’s 100 most influential people but he refused to attend the function. Similarly, in 2007, the World Economic Forum acknowledged him as a young global leader but he declined again. He said the organizers should have asked him first before publishing his name.
At the time of writing his memoir, One Day I Will Write About This Place, Kenya was going through violent elections and Wainaina was home during his recess at Union College, in the United States. He said the book made it difficult for him to return to the college.
“This affected the book very immensely because it was supposed to be personal. I must tell you, many African writers face the same thing, where you say, ‘I believe in art for art’s sake, I believe I am supposed to just write this book about my life’, and then shit happens that politicizes the thing. And that is beautiful, but it doesn’t feel like that at the time,” said Wainaina.
Wainaina is well known for his scathing reviews of fellow writers but has also fostered talent all over the world.
“…He has a kind of yearning for utopia, an Africa utopia. It’s because of his glorious heart, his capacity for love. Once we had a fight and I was in the wrong but I didn’t acknowledge it then. He taught me with grace what real friendship means and for that I will always be grateful. I love him, I respect him, I admire him, and I am glad he finally listened to me about the cut of his kaftans,” said Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in her message.
Wainaina knew at the age of 10 that he was gay but he refused to talk about it until Chimamanda asked.
“Of course, I said no. But she liberated something in me, already, just by asking me. Because normally the skies will fall if you say yes,” says Wainaina, overwhelmed with emotions in a continent that often misunderstood him.
Chimamanda’s question led him to pen his popular essay I Am a Homosexual, Mum, which was published on his birthday.
“It’s hard to describe the kind of effect it has had. It sort of stopped the world in a little while in a great way. Binyavanga, ironically, was very keen to produce this essay as a conversation he wanted to have on the African continent with people that he felt close to, rather than be published in the New Yorker, which he could have an easy access to do. Ironically, of course, the New Yorker had a headline Binyavanga Comes Out a week later. Binyavanga had to deal with the world press. There’s not a single publication anywhere in the world that didn’t cover this event,” says Prabhala.
Wainaina, and his bizarre, bombastic world, is likely to write more headlines yet.
Stone Town: From Freddie Mercury To The Farms
The sights, scents and sounds of Zanzibar include a 73-year-old tale of the iconic late British singer-songwriter.
Dress conservatively when walking the streets of Stone Town,” advises the tourist brochures in the predominantly Islamic society of Zanzibar, yet, the tiny Tanzanian archipelago proudly claims Freddie Mercury, the controversial frontman of British band Queen, as its own.
The singer, born in the windswept streets of Stone Town in Zanzibar in 1946 and one of the world’s most iconic voices in pop-rock, is this tourist town’s biggest currency-spinner.
Stone Town, which is a maze of historic alleys and spice bazaars with timber shutters, an old Arab fort, churches, mosques and 19th-century stone buildings, is a World Heritage Site overlooking the sea. Within its dusty bowels, leading up from its myriad walkways, is Shangani Street, starting with a white-washed, two-storied yellow building that was once Freddie Mercury’s home.
There are countless tours offered to what is emblazoned in gold outside as ‘Freddie Mercury House’, featuring four fully-furnished hotel apartments with balconies overlooking the Indian Ocean.
Outside are framed glass cases with sepia images of the songwriter and vocalist, describing his famous connection with Zanzibar. Born Farrokh Bulsara, Mercury’s family had immigrated to Zanzibar from Gujarat in India. He was born to Bomi and Jer Bulsara who were originally Parsis (a Zoroastrian community that migrated to the Indian subcontinent from Persia). In 1964, the Zanzibar Revolution forced the family to flee.
The island community’s lucrative tourist trade is even today cashing in on Mercury’s global image, with tours offered at the Zoroastrian Fire Temple where the Parsi family once worshipped, and to a restaurant named Mercury offering fresh seafood.
“Imagine, Freddie Mercury played on these white sandy beaches and clear waters at one time,” says my tourist guide, Amour, proudly, before taking me on a two-hour walking tour of Stone Town. He points to the domed white Zanzibar High Court where Mercury’s father once worked as a cashier.
His house on Shangani Street, where the first settlers arrived, is a hub of activity, with tourists, and touts selling everything from icecream to tanzanite jewelry and African bric-à-brac. Just a few steps up, is the Shangani post office and buildings boasting Indian, African and European architecture, where you discover your own Bohemian Rhapsody.
Amour helps me weave through the heaving mass of human traffic in the busy streets, to a fish and vegetable market in Stone Town that also sells spices in pretty bamboo gift-packs. The fish is sold fresh and the spices overpower the stench.
“Zanzibar used to be the largest exporter of cloves in the world, but from 70 percent, it’s only nine percent now,” Amour rues, thrusting a packet of cloves into my hand, “and that’s sad, because of declining prices, more competitors and the poor encouragement of farmers.”
Earlier, I had visited the spice farms Zanzibar is so famous for, finishing off with lunch in a Swahili home stationed on a peak in one of the scented valleys. It was modest home-cooked fare but with aromas as strong as the spice farms the ingredients came from: a banana dish with coconut milk and cardamom, flavored cassava from the fields, fried tuna, rotis and the most fragrant pilaf (rice dish) I have ever eaten, watered down with lemon grass and ginger tea.
I had been to the Muyuni village in the south tasting the sweetest mangoes and bananas in all of Africa, passing seaweed-strewn beaches, paddy fields and potholed roads with bullock carts, dala dala taxis and motorbikes.
In the lush mangroves of Jozani, I encountered the endangered red colobus monkeys. In the spice plantations, down slippery forest paths, I tasted nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves off the trees.
The natural treats along the way also included lemons and sweet green oranges. As we passed the red mahogany trees, “beware of the green mambas or pythons”, my host had warned. A vendor in the middle of the forest showed us his wares in a wicker basket: soaps and perfumes made from the Ylang-Ylang trees by the womenfolk.
“In Europe, Chanel No. 5 is made from this. Here, we call it Chanel No. 0, our products have no chemical or alcohol,” he says, pointing to the tiny bottles filled with red liquid. “These farms are so rich in spices that the chicken running around are already spiced, you don’t need to flavor them when you cook them,” laughs Amour, towards the end of our outing. From Freddie Mercury to the farms, Zanzibar beckons the senses.
The Tableaux Of The Wild
The beasts and the drama of the African bush, far from the harsh lights of big city Johannesburg.
There is a mystique about the African bush that enchants visitors from all over the world. Some of them become so captivated they decide to stay on, or return time and again.
Even a born and bred African like me, albeit of European descent, cannot say no to a few days of “bundu bashing”. There is nothing quite like escaping the bumper-to-bumper traffic and constant hum of the big city, to experience a range of smells as you move through the bush. The scent of the long grass. The whiff from the marula trees. The odor of fresh dung.
And at night, when you look up to the canopy of the sky, you feel as though you could reach out and touch the stars. The Southern Cross. Orion’s Belt. The river of the Milky Way. Venus, the morning and the evening star. The red glint of Mars.
On the day our group arrives at the exclusive Sable Camp at MalaMala within the larger Sabi Sands Game Reserve, which shares a 19-kilometer open border with South Africa’s Kruger National Park, it is hot and humid.
On this day in the country’s Mpumalanga province, it hits 39 degrees. We settle in and get ready for the first game drive of our stay.
We are here for the launch of a beautiful book by renowned wildlife photographers Gerald Hinde and Will Taylor – both men with a deep love for animals and African landscapes. We pile onto four game-viewing vehicles to find and photograph the heroes and heroines of their book – The Big Seven: Adventures in Search of Africa’s Iconic Species.
The roads are rough and rudimentary as we head into the bush, cameras with long lenses at hand. We drive along a river bed. As the sun moves slowly down towards the western horizon, its rays glint in the waves of green and yellow grass. The wheels skid in the white sand. We drive past a large bush and suddenly an elephant appears, tugging and tearing at the foliage. He looks at us and flaps his ears lazily.
READ MORE | In Search Of Africa’s Last Eden
A bit further on, after literally bashing through the bush, off-road, we see her. Slinky and quiet, her pelt shines in the setting sun. The lone female leopard looks at us with the disdain of a cat disturbed by bothersome humans. She slinks through the bush as we follow her. Then she sits perfectly still, slowly turning her head from side to side.
As darkness settles, the vehicle lights come on and we head back to the lodge. In an outdoor boma, tables are set up in the round, and a five-star dinner is served under the expanse of the night sky. We are treated like royalty by all of the staff of MalaMala. Most of them come from the community that now owns the reserve, after the conclusion of a successful land claim deal in 2014.
The next day dawns. Overcast, with a soft, insistent rain. The temperature has dropped 14 degrees. Donning rain ponchos, the group of adventurers set forth on the morning game drive. The mission is to encounter every one of the Big Seven. The traditional Big Five tourists flock to game reserves to see are: elephant, lion, rhino, leopard and buffalo. Two more have been added, both on the endangered list – the wild dog and cheetah.
Just as humans are shy of rain, so are animals. They lie low in the grass or huddle under trees where they can’t be seen. An hour or so into the drive, the drizzle lifts and we see movement in the grass.
A lioness lifts her head and looks at us. Slowly, slowly, one lion after another stands up to look at the vehicles. There are, at least, eight of them. They lose interest in us again, and stretch out on the ground.
The time to leave comes far too soon. The quiet and beauty of the bush have soaked into my soul and I feel completely at peace and one with the sky and the grass and the trees and the animals and the river and the world.
Zimbabwe: Two Realities In One Country
The grandeur of the Victoria Falls is in stark contrast to the rest of Zimbabwe.
It is eight days before Christmas. We take the 1,300-kilometer drive from Johannesburg to Victoria Falls for a short vacation. As we arrive in Beitbridge, the border connecting South Africa and Zimbabwe, the sun is shining its warm golden light over the bridge. There are no birds chirping over the Limpopo River. It seems like a peaceful morning, until you get closer.
There is pandemonium as hundreds of cars line up to be stripped and searched before proceeding into Zimbabwe. Most here are Zimbabwean nationals working in South Africa traveling home for the holidays.
They are bringing with them many supplies like cooking oil, fuel, stationery, furniture, clothing, drinks, building material and even Christmas trees. These items are scarce and overpriced in Zimbabwe.
Some want to sell them to hurried customers and others want to use them at home. The problem is, most of them require as much as 40% duty and others can’t be imported.
“Is your friend here today? I would like him to help me cross with my goods,” I overhear a man in the autumn of his life say over the phone.
He isn’t the only one trying to smuggle goods into Zimbabwe. According to local reports, the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (ZIMRA) loses over $1 billion due to smuggling each year. With hundreds trying to make their way across, a journey to Victoria Falls is delayed by at least five hours.
As we drive into Beitbridge, we can see and almost smell struggle. This place is seized by an oppressive gloom. Our first stop is an Engine Garage that now operates almost like a tuckshop. Here, fuel tanks are dry and the shop inside has only bread, water, cold drinks, biscuits and chips.
READ MORE | Zimbabwe: The State Of Crisis
Outside, it is filled by a crowd of people pushing, shoving, shouting, buying and selling. There is dirty water flowing down the street and litter fills the potholes. Yet, this grubby place is seeing more trade than Zimbabwe’s biggest banks. Here, the black market is king and the bond notes are pawns.
In 2016, the government introduced bond notes in hopes to ease the cash crisis that saw the US dollar become scarce. The Reserve Bank may say bond notes are 1:1 to the US dollar; the free market says no. The black market traders are selling 1 US dollar for three bond notes.
“I used to be an accountant with a good job but our company closed down and now I am jobless. I have to make a living somehow so I rather sell cash on the streets to put food on the table,” says Bongani Moyo.
As we drive further into Zimbabwe, the situation gets worse. Stores are packed with imported goods; roads and buildings are dilapidated. One of the biggest problems is fuel.
“I just came out of a two-day fuel queue. The situation is bad. People can’t go to work and sometimes people hire [other] people to spend the day queueing for them,” says Given Mwale, as he directs us to a garage that sells fuel in foreign currency so we can continue our journey to Victoria Falls.
“That is the only garage that doesn’t get many queues and doesn’t run out of fuel. It is a private garage. They import their fuel from Botswana and they only sell in forex,” he says.
Shocked by the scarcity of cash, we drive towards Victoria Falls. On the way, many businesses are boarded up, their paint peeling and doors closed. As we arrive in Victoria Falls, there are jaw-dropping scenes.
The place looks nothing like the rest of Zimbabwe. Fueled by the tourist economy, the streets are clean and the business district buzzing. People are relaxed in summer clothing and look like they have no worry. It is a true holiday destination.
At Victoria Falls, the Zambezi River plummets over a cliff and into the boiling pot before flowing through a series of gorges. It has a width of 1,708 meters and a height of 108 meters, making it the world’s largest sheet of falling water.
As nature lovers, we experience the falls while walking through a rainforest and playing with monkeys. We also get to watch the sunset while drinking champagne in an open boat.
For a few hours, we forgot the troubles that belie Zimbabwe; until we drove out of Victoria Falls, back to Bulawayo. There may be laughter and foreign currency near the smoke that thunders but the rest of the country continues to cry for an economic breakthrough.
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