Exorcizing Afropolitanism: Binyavanga Wainaina explains why “I am a Pan-Africanist, not an Afropolitan” at ASAUK 2012

AiW Guest Stephanie Bosch Santana.


Binyavanga Wainaina, writer and founding editor of the Kenyan literary magazine, Kwani?

Traces of Binyavanga Wainaina’s address, “I am a Pan-Africanist, not an Afropolitan”, delivered at September’s African Studies Association UK 2012 conference, have lingered with me over the past few months: the image of invisible digital networks of texts reaching ghost-like across continents, genre-bending “digital pulp,” and a pan-African literature that moves via twitter and sms rather than by printing press and shipping container. If many earlier African print publications—such as popular magazines and newspapers—have been described as “ephemeral,” the new literary world that Wainaina depicts is distinctly spectral.

When I told Katie Reid of AiW that Wainaina’s lecture was haunting me, she suggested that “Africa in Words” might be an ideal space to “exorcise” these spirits. It turns out that Katie’s idea was more fitting than I first realized. Wainaina’s address was a kind of exorcism in its own right, an attempt to rid African literary and cultural studies of the ghost of Afropolitanism, a term that perhaps once held promise as a new theoretical lens and important counterweight to Afro-pessimism, but that has increasingly come to stand for empty style and culture commodification.

The origin of this portmanteau (created out of the words ‘African’ and ‘cosmopolitanism’) is usually traced to an article titled “Bye-Bye Barbar” by Taiye Tuakli-Wosornu, published in the LIP Magazine in 2005. Tuakli-Wosornu uses the term primarily to describe Africans living, and often born outside of, the continent. She writes, “Like so many African young people working and living in cities around the globe, they belong to no single geography, but feel at home in many. They (read: we) are Afropolitans—the newest generation of African emigrants, coming soon or collected already at a law firm/chem lab/jazz lounge near you.”[1] Achille Mbembe later popularized this term in academic discourse with his 2006 essay “Afropolitanism,” in which he attempts to reterritorialize Afropolitanism, in part by drawing attention to the long history of migration to, from, and within the African continent. His interest is not only in Tuakli-Wosornu’s “global Africans” but also in the world in Africa.[2] According to Mbembe, “cultural mixing” or “the interweaving of worlds” has long been an African “way of belonging to the world”—whether one resides on the continent or not (28).

And yet, for Wainaina, Afropolitanism has become the marker of crude cultural commodification—a phenomenon increasingly “product driven,” design focused, and “potentially funded by the West.” Through an Afropolitan lens, “travel is easy” and “people are fluid.” Certainly, magazines, designers, and business execs have seized the term for their own purposes. imagesOn the homepage of Afropolitan magazine, based out of South Africa, we find an essay on the legacy of the ANC alongside an article titled, “Fashion Conscious Carpeting…so much more than just good looks!” as well as an ad for “Samsonite B-Lite Fresh” suitcases.[3] There is also an Afropolitan Shop, which features kente-accented laptop bags amongst a host of other products from African designers. Touting the principle of “Trade Not Aid,” the Afropolitan Shop defines Afropolitanism as “a sensibility, a culture and a worldview.”[4] We see how easily style and “worldview” become conflated, how not only products, but people and identities are commoditized. Indeed, it’s hard not to miss this in Tuakli-Wosornu’s description of stylish Africans “coming soon or collected already” in a Euro-American metropolitan center “near you.”




Style, in and of itself, is not really the issue. Rather, it’s the attempt to begin with style, and then infuse it with substantive political consciousness that is problematic. For example, Tuakli-Wosornu maintains that “Most Afropolitans could serve Africa better in Africa than at Medicine Bar on Thursdays,” but continues, “To be fair, a number of African professionals are returning; and there is consciousness among the ones who remain, an acute awareness among this brood of too-cool-for-schools that there’s work to be done.” Similarly, in a relatively recent article on Cnn.com titled “Young, urban and culturally savvy, meet the Afropolitans,” Afropolitan magazine’s editor, Brendah Nyakudya asserts that “to be a true Afropolitan takes more than a multi-cultural background and the right record collection—it means having a commitment to making the continent a better place.”[5] Although Mbembe’s position is perhaps more nuanced, it is strikingly similar. Distinguishing Afropolitanism from pan-Africanism and négritude, Mbembe describes Afropolitanism as “an aesthetic and a particular poetic of the world. It is a way of being in the world, refusing on principle any form of victim identity—which does not mean that it is not aware of the injustice and violence inflicted on the continent and its people by the law of the world” (29). While Mbembe warns that pan-Africanism, by contrast, has become “institutionalized and ossified” and can slip easily and dangerously into nativism, we can perhaps also see that its longer history of Africa-centered engagement creates a more stable foundation—which, unlike Afropolitanism, is less likely to be used for aesthetic purposes alone. Afropolitanism, it seems, is a portmanteau in more ways than one: it is a general brand of cosmopolitanism cloaked in African style, as well as a literal “coat hanger” for changing fashions. Hence Wainaina’s intervention, his exorcism of this ghost that several years ago could have perhaps been seen as a lively spirit.

Where does literature fit into this debate? Afropolitanism extends ideas of fluid, easy travel to texts as “singular products.” Based on the same capitalist fantasy that economic markets are equal, it is assumed that the literary marketplace, too, is unfettered by issues of uneven development or protectionism. Wainaina points to a particular kind of Afropolitan African novel that is frequently produced—one that touches upon social and economic issues, but ultimately is written for an audience of “fellow Afropolitans.” Overall, a spirit of Afropolitanism has led to texts that are product, rather than process focused, a trend that can perhaps be changed as more and more literature goes digital. Wainaina points to the revolutionary effect that the Internet is having on African literary production, particularly via the creation of what he calls “digital pulp.” Although similar to the original print pulp in that it is often written in genre—such as sci-fi or romance—digital pulp, according to Wainaina, is even more prone to the bending and/or melding of generic conventions. This is due in part to the speed with which it is produced and published as well as to its collaborative dimension. The online medium often allows for audiences to comment on a work in real time—a much-accelerated version of the way readers were able to participate in serialized fiction in popular magazines in the mid-20th century. Finally, Wainaina argues that we must do away with conventions that see pulp fiction as “trashy” or “escapist,” and focus instead on its ability to reach and excite readers on the continent. We don’t pay enough attention, Wainaina suggests, to literature that truly “transports” us.

Some critics have attributed the new rise of genre fiction to the continuing global recession. In times of uncertainty, such as the Great Depression, these critics argue, audiences seek out genre fiction’s vigilante spirit as a way to regain control over uncontrollable forces. Can such analyses be extended beyond the US? Or, in other words, does genre fiction serve the same function everywhere? Beyond its formal and material qualities, or even its more existential ability to “transport” the reader, there seems to be a certain nostalgia for the form, particularly in Africa. Genre fiction burgeoned on the continent in the 1950s and 60s, the period leading up to and immediately following decolonization for much of Africa. This fiction, at least in southern Africa, was often pan-African, or at least regional, in its themes and concerns. 51NbHOv1XML._SL500_SS500_As J.K.S. Makokha notes in his introduction to Negotiating Afropolitanism, 21st-century Africa is once again characterized by a renewed sense of pan-Africanism that is visible in economic, philosophical, and cultural frameworks: “like in the 50s and 60s, the continent and its regions, rather than singular nations, are the theatres of problem-identification, reaction and aspirations” (14). Genre fiction was used in the past to address pan-African issues, so it is perhaps unsurprising that it is being called upon again to serve a similar function.

But do these new and repurposed literary forms and networks really have a pan-African reach? Online literatures have emerged from Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa, but other countries with less digital infrastructure seem to be approaching the era of Internet literature more warily. For example, the theme of the most recent Zimbabwean International Book Fair Indaba was “The Book in the Digital Era,” but while it was acknowledged that traditional means of book distribution are changing and many bookshops closing, the overall emphasis was on the print book as a product that is still necessary to sustain professional writers and reach the majority of Zimbabwean readers. The Indaba’s keynote speaker Ngwabi Bhebe noted that although individual writers are beginning to publish online in the form of e-books and blogs, only about 1 million Zimbabweans have access to the Internet. Of those who are connected, most use it primarily for email and Facebook, which is perhaps why Facebook was frequently mentioned as a useful marketing tool for new print books. 5346441_orig

For those of us who are privileged to have greater access to the digital world, this new spectral fiction still presents many challenges. Identifying and finding new literary networks is not as simple as a trip to the local bookstore or the university archives. Online archives of fiction are ostensibly accessible to anyone with an Internet connection, but simple google searches won’t get you very far (as I’ve recently found from personal experience). Instead, it requires following invisible threads and connections—one site leads to the next—only full immersion will get you anywhere in this new, ghostly world of fiction.

2. ^ Achille Mbembe, “Afropolitanism.” Africa Remix: Contemporary Art of a Continent. Eds. Njami Simon and Lucy Durán. Johannesburg: Johannesburg Art Gallery, 2007. 26 – 30.

5. ^ http://www.cnn.com/2012/02/17/world/africa/who-are-afropolitans/index.html

Stephanie Bosch Santana is a graduate student in African and African American Studies at Harvard. Her work focuses on southern African literary networks and the migration/transformation of genres in the region. From 2005 – 2008, she worked in South Africa and Malawi where she assisted with literacy campaigns, short story competitions, and story-writing workshops. You can read more about the ongoing Malawian Girls’ Short Story Competition at www.malawigirlshortstory.blogspot.com.


Stephanie’s ASAUK12 paper, ‘Performing minor transnationalism: African Parade’s imitations and innovations of Drum magazine’, argued that although Drum appeared to cross borders seamlessly, requiring little ‘translation’ as it spread across Anglophone Africa, the appearance of African Parade in the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (present-day Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Malawi) in 1953 and its continued success throughout the 1950s and 1960s suggests that Drum’s English-only, unrooted cosmopolitanism was not uncontested: African Parade simultaneously sought to vernacularize and reterritorialize the magazine by regularly including material in four regional languages (Shona, Ndebele, Bemba, and Nyanja) and locating its cosmopolitan centre in Harare rather than Johannesburg. Specifically, the paper considered African Parade’s reterritorialization of three genres: the sketch, the serial story, and the short story, suggesting that by writing into and sometimes against Drum, African Parade performs a transnationalism that exposes the unevenness between supposedly lateral networks while also reimagining minority affiliations in a way that allows for cultural pluralism within diaspora.

Other papers in Stephanie’s panel included Tunde Awosanmi’s ‘Global Cultural and Performance Flows: The African “Ethnosell” and Mask Glocalisation’, and Yasuki Kawajima’s ‘The development of secondary education in Ashanti, Ghana: chiefly elites and Prempeh College in the 1940s’. African Studies Centre Ox_LogoBinyavanga Wainaina, writer and founding editor of the Kenyan literary magazine, Kwani?, delivered a plenary lecture, ‘I am a Pan Africanist, not an Afropolitan’, at ASAUK12. Organised and chaired by our own Kate Haines, Wainaina’s talk explored the complex relationship between writing, society and economics as well as pointing to future directions for African writing.


For more AiW content from Stephanie Bosch Santana see Genre and the New Geographies of World Literature: A look at Jungle Jim’s “South African Sci-Fi” issue.

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53 replies

  1. Hi,

    I just read Stephanie Bosch Santana’s piece “Exorcizing
    Afropolitanism” and wanted to express my excitement and appreciation!
    As a reader of African writing (literature and some histories), I
    appreciated the attention being paid to the politics of production of
    African literature as a commodity.

    I’m currently getting my feet wet in this “new, ghostly world of
    fiction,” (and other art forms) working on this DIY project, an
    educational hip hop blog “hip hop kambi”


    with a handful of interested artists, activists, and scholars, while
    participating in local and online communities (I worked for Kwani for
    a year, and was a student of Binyavanga’s in college, had the
    opportunity to work in Nairobi). So, it was very refreshing to see an
    attentive look at literary production and alternative networks for
    writing in Africa.

    Anyway, just wanted to share my appreciation for this engagement with
    literary cultures and thank you for introducing me to another forum
    for literary thinking and conversation!

    Kevin Teryek

    • Hi Kevin,

      Thanks very much for your comments on the post. Your blog “hip hop kambi” is fantastic by the way. I especially enjoyed the fiction that is mixed in with other forms–interviews, videos, translations of lyrics, essays, etc. It seems like this might be the kind of platform from which some of the most interesting and innovative digital fiction emerges–looking forward to more of it!


  2. Fantastic article (although I know I’m reading this quite a bit after it’s publication). I was wondering if anyone knows of a way to access a transcript, video, or published version of Wainaina’s address? Much thanks in advance for any help with this.

  3. Spot on with this write-up, I honestly think this site needs a lot more attention. I’ll probably be back again to
    see more, thanks for the information!

  4. Gwiz, I will not cheer this article. I am not concerned with the reactionary impulse to utter anything that acknowledges the topical distraction of the day
    I am concerned with the bigger picture not the transient details so really misused my time reading this

  5. The Afropolitan “debate” is fascinating to me and I can’t thank you enough for your comments and this in-depth article! It’s actually helping me quite a lot in my own doctoral research. 🙂 And it makes me wish I could have been there for Binyavanga Wainaina’s address!

    I had a few questions regarding the article:

    Do you know where one can gain access to a transcript or recording of Binyavanga Wainaina’s plenary speech?

    Isn’t the person who coined “Afropolitanism” Taiye Selasi, not Taiye Tuakli-Wosornu? Or that a different name she goes by? And isn’t her article titled “Bye Bye, Babar” and not “Bye-Bye Barbar”? (Not to correct the article, just to make sure that I have this information correct for my own studies.)

    Thank you again!


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