Of offline domains


Binyavanga Wainaina’s honey-hued Kenyan accent chimed in with several voices at Picnic 2008 – a behemoth “cross-media” conference concerned with technology, Internet, mobile phones and online media – imploring the audience to spend more time offline.

Sure, Thomas Friedman may have declared the Internet a “flattening” medium. But prominent Internet scholars – along with artists and writers like Wainaina – are increasingly begging to differ. Homophily is as rampant online as it is offline. Language barriers stand as tall on the Internet as they do in the real world. Forging social connections with “others” remains out of the ordinary.

Old-fashioned travel – wherever affordable and environmentally conscientious – is perhaps the best way to find life’s unknown unknowns. To gain understanding. To explore identity. 

On his journeys throughout his native Africa, Wainaina discovered the Dark Continent can today be characterised by its longtime refusal to be something… rather than its subscription to or affirmation of a particular identity or concept. There is no at-large ideology, no manifest destiny, happening here.
Foreigners have not historically made sustainable investments in African culture, technological infrastructure and media – in part because Africans have not marketed themselves to the international community. Today, therefore, there is a chance for Africans to start to invest in themselves. Directly.

That’s how Wainaina sees it, anyhow. He delivered the keynote at the all-day Surprising Africa session on 26 September in Amsterdam. The two-day session was a part of Picnic 2008.

Wainaina, 37, is a prominent Kenyan author and the editor of Kwani, a magazine showing off up-and-coming literary talents from Africa.

He shared with the particularly global audience tales from travelling around Africa on a quest to discover his native continent’s diverse set of tendencies. To develop a relationship with the “place” that is Africa. Its facets. Its personas.

Particularly confusing during his process of discovery – and subsequent efforts to express what he found –  was a lack of names. Un-named tendencies. Not-yet-discussed developments. Multi-layered feelings alive on the continent but thus far unexpressed.

Discovering and then naming facets of society can be helpful to “the human effort of place,” Wainaina said. Such naming is essential to commanding one’s own narrative.

Wainaina spoke about a trip to a small city outside Lagos. It was a village about which he had not, from afar, had a particularly good impression. The city, he found upon arrival, turned out to be a very calm, orderly suburb.

A religious man had founded the walled city in the 1980s when he had visions of a snake, a devil. The man, also a mathematician, spread his belief that the end of the world was near. Hearing this, local people believed it necessary to come together in this walled community.

Believers wanting to live in the community could build houses there for free. The stipulation: building an extra room in their home for visiting believers.

The end of the world did not come. What did come to the community there, though, was a proliferation of the initial task: seeking a sense of calm, of order. The community took many initiatives to alleviate unpredictability, the transitory nature of its surroundings. They created infrastructure – buildings, a financial system – in order to have what they needed to survive and thus escape problems of uncertainty, inflation.

People, Wainaina said, often become more interested in tangible than spiritual things. These consumer goods often contribute to the constant cultural assault under which society now lives. A strong need to protect oneself from this assault - to pursue rapture, goodness and happiness within this complex modern world - has arisen.

The community at Lagos is a place trying to do that, Wainaina discovered. While its people were initially worried over protection from demons, what they now find is a retreat from the cancers of violence and inflation. A place simplified. A place with named tendencies, developments and feelings.

To understand where you are in the world, the Kenyan author continued from the grassy stage in Amsterdam, this is success.

He found grace and nobility in the people at Lagos (and elsewhere) who were finding success in their quest for good and a defined sense of place.

Flickr photo from user whiteafrican