Words on Teaching: ‘Creative Thinking, Bold Idea-ing, Do-it-yourselfing’: Literature and Education in Binyavanga Wainaina’s Works

AiW Guest: Ruth S. Wenske.

AiW note: Welcome to the first in our new “Words on…” series. In “Words on Teaching,” we’re thinking around print culture – books, images, texts, mags, spaces – and broad senses of what “teaching” might be, do, mean, or how it might produce its creative-critical work (in all senses) in, on and about the African continent. AiW is pleased to revive an earlier series of posts on teaching from our way back archives of 2014-15. 

We are especially glad to be able to introduce the series’ latest outing with a piece on Binyavanga Wainaina (1971-2019) and an aspect of his legacy, as AiW Guest Ruth Wenske writes, that is his “fierce advocacy for innovative and creative education”.

Of all the realms of inspiration that Binyavanga Wainaina has left behind, the one that is least spoken about is education. While the Kenyan author is hailed for his seminal role as literary and LGBTQ activist and for being one of the most gifted prose writers of his generation, his work is not linked directly to what was arguably one of the most important aspects of his legacy: his fierce advocacy for innovative and creative education in Africa.

This is perhaps not surprising, as it is almost impossible to speak of problems in African educational system (or their solutions) without falling prey to the negative stereotypes that Wainaina is so adamantly opposed to: terrible literacy and numeracy scores, gender inequality, rote learning that stifles creativity, etc. 

It is not that such stories are untrue, but – to paraphrase Chimamanda Adichie – that they are incomplete. Against this, Wainaina writes about functional schools: in his well-known “How to Write About Africa” he mentions “school-going children who are not suffering from yaws or Ebola fever or female genital mutilation” as one of the non-stereotypical images of Africa that are not part of ‘writing about Africa’. And in his memoirOne Day I Will Write About This Place,” Wainaina speaks in detail of his own education. Though he constantly snuck out of school to read books – arguably his most meaningful learning process – he still describes the “schooling machine” as “Kenya’s single biggest achievement,” stressing how important it is for the government to invest generously in public education.

This connection between formal and informal learning was also one of the guiding principles in Wainaina’s professional life: in his literary activism, the establishment of Kwani?a formal platform for publishing new African voices – was amplified by his personal mentorship and friendship with many young aspiring writers. Also his description of his writing as a space where “the personal and the political collide” builds on this educational impulse – most clearly embodied in the way Wainaina’s fictional writing augmented his outspoken advocacy for LGBTQ rights.

Wainaina’s most direct educational manifesto was perhaps the 2014 video essay “We Must Free Our Imagination”, which makes the literature/literacy connection very clearly. Wainaina argues that children need to see “Africans writing their own stories,” stressing how creativity and imagination are crucial to innovation, and how innovation is crucial to solving Kenya’s complex economic, political, and social challenges. His central criticism of Kenyan schools is thus how they stifle imagination and creativity: 

“What you have is the same school that said bring the obedient children of you Africans to the school, so that you can become clerks and then we drum a syllabus into you.” 

This follows the 2008 article “Schooling for small minds,” in which Wainaina attacks the Kenyan educational system for producing “brain-dead robots”, where “[e]very bit of creative thinking, of bold idea-ing, of do-it-yourselfing is removed.” In both cases, Wainaina traces the problems of the Kenyan education system to its colonial roots, writing that “we took the colonial system, which was designed to produce dutiful people who don’t ask questions, and perfected it.” 

As such, Wainaina’s criticism reflects the ideas of Paulo Freire, whose seminal work Pedagogy of the Oppressed mapped the particular challenges of educational systems in postcolonial societies, where social stratification and hierarchies are exacerbated by one-sided “banking” education – that is, teaching where both syllabi and methods of instructions keep students passive and politically uninformed in their learning process. This theory is increasingly popular as a means for talking about the deeper and more complex challenges of educational systems in Africa, particularly since it does not offer any fix-all universal solutions.

Binyavanga Wainaina talks

Binyavanga Wainaina in the series “We Must Free Our Imaginations”

Wainaina, like Freire, proposes that solutions to educational problems will be “messy”; in the video’s last installment, he concludes: “there are processes of learning to grow your imagination in all kinds of ways, it has to be messy,” resonating his advice in the first installment: “our ecosystem needs many kinds of things, and many kinds of people, in all kinds of ways”. One may ask, isn’t this a bit of a vague solution? But paradoxically, perhaps in his not being a solution-driven educator, Wainaina imparts his central message: even if there are no clear-cut simple answers, there are still ways to nudge the world in the right direction.

He thus trades in complexities and eloquence to make a convincing case for looking beyond single stories and narratives of failure. For instance, his video essay plays on the hybrid space of digital orality. By addressing the audience so directly and didactically, Wainaina dramatizes oral pedagogical devices such as repetition, dramatic intonation, and gesturing. Though such oral teaching elements are typically criticized for fostering uncritical rote learning that “does not support conceptual learning, critical thinking, and problem solving skills,” Wainaina shows how oral pedagogy can lend itself to discernment, rationality, and critical thinking. 

Cover of Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the OppressedAs such, Wainaina actually does more than point out what is not working in Kenyan schools. He also shows how stereotypical narratives of failure – such as oral pedagogies within the classroom, or the continued use of African languages in rural areas – are more than just educational fiascos; they are, if they would be recognized as such, what allows certain discourse ecologies and cultural landscapes to flourish – often and inevitably in creative ways. 

Wainaina’s life’s work thus illuminates how we imagine the world through stories, and the ways in which we are taught to believe in them. While schooling is certainly important, so are discernment and comparison, as well as having many, many stories, from many different sources, that provide a triangulation of knowledge that moves beyond the “banking” relationship where a student’s knowledge is entirely dependent on a single teacher, a single schooling machine, or a single government’s propaganda. 

Wainaina thus shows that even where the schooling system is failing, it is not just failing: it might be messy, but it is also functional and important, often in unexpected ways. As such, it calls for imaginative and context-specific solutions that can only be achieved by mapping challenges alongside successes, and by re-imagining the ways in which literature and literacy, as well as formal and informal networks, stand beside each other. 

On a personal level, Wainaina encompasses this sentiment in a moment of epiphany in his memoir, when he realizes he is a writer – and arguably also and educator:

“I care so much for these things that sit under the burping self-satisfaction of the certificated world. Maybe I am not just failing; […] Maybe I can help people see the patterns they take for granted.”

This is the first outing of a new series of posts, “Words on Teaching”. We were inspired by the author, Ruth, contacting us with it, and so, to revive and build on a series we ran in 2014. If you  would like to contribute to the series and the development of the conversations around it, contact us! We’re open to all and many directions that the series’ newer journey might take us in…

Photo of author Ruth WenskeDr. Ruth S. Wenske is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Martin Buber Society of Fellows at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where she also heads the Africa Unit at the Harry S. Truman Research Institute. She is currently a lecturer at the Program for Cultural Studies at the Hebrew University, and has previously taught African literature at the English Department at the University of Haifa. Her main research area is contemporary African realism, with a focus on self-writing and the negotiation of stereotypes and commonalities in representations of Africa. As a student she lived in Uganda and Kenya for several years.

Categories: AiW Featured - archive highlights, Research, Studies, Teaching, Reviews & Spotlights on...

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