ART CHECK

Travelogues as catalogues of change in East Africa

Travel writings span the centuries from HM Stanley, Karen Blixen to more recently, Binyavanga Wainaina

In Summary

• They do more than just record memory and nostalgia in the wake of journeying

Author Binyavanga Wainaina
Author Binyavanga Wainaina
Image: Courtesy

Travelogues, or travel writings on East Africa, go back to the colonial past in the late 19th Century. Since then, the idea of literature based on travel as adventure or as agency is key to understanding creative non-fiction in this part of the world.

In the era when the colonial period started, European and American travellers (explorers) who crisscrossed the region almost always penned controversial yet bestselling books on their strange adventures across various terrains and territories, from our coast to the Great Lakes Regions.

Through the Dark Continent (1878) and In Darkest Africa (1890) by Henry Morton Stanley can be read as stimuli to the tone imperial European fictions of travel to Africa that appeared around the same time, including Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.

 

This pioneer breed of travel writing from the late 19th Century was non-literary in nature and used prose to present facts of geography and ethnography. They were books written out of sponsorship by various Geographical Societies, from London to Berlin and beyond.

By the early 20th Century, East Africa hosted colonies of European farmers, missionaries and administrators who represented their parent culture, including literary tastes. Some penned memorial accounts of their African experiences and travels in this colonial era.

In these white memoirs and autobiographies, the motif of the journey is prevalent. Life is treated as a journey from innocence to discovery of both the self and the equatorial surrounding. East Africa becomes a backward landscape for the setting of imperial experiences, romances and eschatological sojourns of sorts.

Clear examples of this second type of ‘travel’ literature that charted European exploits into the heart of dark Africa are Out of Africa by Karen Blixen (1937) and Flame Trees of Thika (1959) by Elspeth Huxley. Both are set here in Kenya as a British Crown Colony between 1920 and 1963. In such colonies, both administration and legislation are directly and dangerously controlled by the colonising country.

The two memoirs follow the tradition set by 19th Century accounts of exploration and discovery of our part of Africa. They read as colonial catalogues of life in Kenya of their time. Both offer detailed descriptions of the land and its life within the matrix of race relations, using a European perspective from which judgments on cultures, peoples and experiences are made.

In the wake of independence, the fascination with travel accounts subsided as Black writers penned books rooted in anticolonialism, independence and decolonisation. The idea of travel became localised and understood as the interaction between cities of the region and their surrounding provinces. A key narrative was that of rural characters alienated from their roots by the city.

However, with the failure of independence dreams in most African countries, a new exodus paradigm appeared after the 1970s. In Kenya, several writers, such as Ngugi, were driven into exile abroad by the totalitarian regimes, especially in Uganda and Kenya.

 

Africanisation programmes in Tanzania in the wake of the Arusha Declaration of 1967 and the Zanzibar Revolution of 1964 bred another exodus, especially of Asians and coastal Arabs. This new wave of travel or postcolonial migrancy is catalogued in the nine wonderful novels of Abdulrazak Gurnah of Zanzibar.

Gurnah’s novels are neither works of memoir or autobiography like those of Blixen and Huxley, nor proper travel accounts like the ones by HM Stanley, but they are clearly inspired by this tradition. The old motif of the journey both as an interior and exterior voyage to self-discovery is at the epicentre of his most famous novel, Paradise (1994).  

As the post-independence disillusionment peaked in the 1980s-90s, several young East Africans left the region for abroad or the lucrative Southern part of the continent, almost always on a student visa or university scholarship. Binyavanga Wainaina is the face of this generation.

He left in the early 1990s for South Africa to study. It is while there that he found his literary inspiration and talent. He would later pen a long short story on homecoming that set off his literary career. Discovering Home (2001) would later morph into One Day I Will Write About This Place: A Memoir published in 2011.

In the former text, we encounter a narrator who crisscrosses the land and offers us kaleidoscopic accounts of the sights and sounds as well as their meaning to a changing Africa. Binyavanga’s prose heralded the return of the travelogue, or travel literature, which is as old as the colonial experience. His debates on Euro-American representations of Africa through literature ought to be read in this context of the tradition of literatures of travel from the late 19th Century.

It will be interesting to read travel accounts of Kenyans who have lived through the Covid-19 experiences in India, China and other lands, such as Lebanon. Travelogues are catalogues of both time and space. They do more than just record memory and nostalgia in the wake of journeying in this world. They testify to the philosophical reality that life is a journey between birth and death.