From The Granta Book of the African Short Story
Practically every character in “Ships in High Transit” is playing a part of some sort. Binyavanga Wainaina’s narrative is in large measure about the performative aspects of cultural roles people adopt to appease or exploit others or to make money.
The commercial imperative is at the heart of Wainaina’s story about a group of people who converge at a tourist outfit in Kenya called WylDe AFreaKa. The story is told in the third person, allowing the author to hop in and out of various characters’ consciousnesses, thereby heightening the irony inherent in his depiction of the ways the people in the story traffic in stereotypes and other cultural assumptions. What results is a complicated dance during which power subtly shifts back and forth between and among the members of Wainaina’s cast.
Matano is the manager of WylDe AFreaKa, where he works in the employ of Armitage Shanks, the scion “of the Ceramic Toilet Shanks, or maybe the Water Closet Shanks, or the Flush Unit Shanks.” Matano has a philosophy degree, but he has spent two decades working for Shanks because he was “seduced by the tips, by the endless ways that dollars found their way into his pockets, and out again.” In exchange for the money, he enacts a generic exoticism that tourists expect. In his car, he puts on a recording of Tina Turner singing “Disco Inferno,” which results in his clients demanding “something real,” as if a Kenyan native listening to Tina Turner could not possibly be authentic.
The tourists assume that they are being offered a bona fide African adventure when they witness the local women decked out in crimson robes to perform for them and an Arab man spitting brownish liquid in a kind of pantomime of poverty and hardship. What they don’t see is what Matano sees: the Arab man is Abdullahi, who once performed in an ABBA cover band before becoming too old and stereotypically associated with “gun-toting losers, or compilers of mezze platters, or servers of hummus, or soft-palmed mummy’s boys in European private schools.”
The disparity between the way Matano views his surroundings and the way the tourists he caters to view them forms one of the key cleavages in the narrative. It is emphasized by the presence of Jean-Paul and Prescott, two journalists for an American television news magazine on hand to shoot a documentary. Jean-Paul is “a good and harmless chaperone” to Prescott – he is gay and sleeps with one of the locals, a man who later exclaims triumphantly that “There is nothing more satisfying than making a white man your pussy!”
Prescott, meanwhile, is trying to escape her sexual attraction to Brynt, her boss back in America. Her experience in Kenya becomes saturated with sex and desire: she entertains lustful thoughts about Shanks, in his guise as the tribal elder Ole um-Shambalaa (literally “the Brother Not Born Among Us”), and eventually sleeps with Matano to assuage her carnal impulses and try to distance herself from the memory of Brynt.
It is clear throughout Wainaina’s story that everyone is using everyone else, no one less so than Shanks himself, whose reputation in Kenya is based on forging traditional Maasai heirlooms and recording a charity song to benefit the local tribe. (The song, called “Feed the Maa,” is a blatant ripoff of Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”)
Shanks recorded the song with his band, Faecal Martyrs: this is only one instance of blatantly scatalogical humour that is attached to the character in the story. He is a member of a family that produced toilets (although Matano allows that Shanks may have “borrowed the name”) and he furnishes his abode with a couch in the shape of a toilet. Significantly, Shanks is able to step in and out of his persona as Ole um-Shambalaa, and the one time he drops the facade for Prescott it is to tell her the story of ships that transported manure in the 16th and 17th centuries. Because the cargo was so volatile, the bundles were stamped “Ships in High Transit” as a warning that they might explode. This, Shanks says, is the derivation of the modern word “shit.”
Shanks’s monologue is significant enough to quote at length:
The Maasai build their houses out of shit. This is a house build from the shit of cattle, mixed with dung and wattle, and whitewashed with lime. You know, forget about the bullshit in the brochure. That was for Vogue. I can see you two are not from the fluff press. I don’t really believe this Maa-saa-i-a mythology stuff, because it makes no sense to me. I believe it because I need to. Maybe, being a Shanks, it is the shit that attracted me. Maybe it was to do something that would give me a name and a life different from something branded in toilets around the world. Maybe I was tired of being a name that flushes clean with every new generation. Maybe I liked the idea of having the power to save an entire nation. Or maybe it was just for the money.
One wonders whether Shanks is being derisive here, or whether his own familial history offers him a kind of connection with the Maasai people. Regardless, the hypocrisy in Shanks’s willingness to accept a title as an elder – an identity he dons and doffs like a coat – while cravenly pursuing his more worldly goals of self-reinvention and material wealth is cutting, as Prescott underscores when she asks, “But don’t you think there’s something wrong with that? Isn’t it like taking ownership of something that isn’t yours?” Her publicly declared opposition to Shanks’s cultural appropriation is in stark contrast to her private astonishment at his story and its contents.
In one respect, Prescott is an avatar of the kind of Western liberal Matano derides: “So sure they are right, they have the moral force. So ignorant of their power, how their angst-ridden treatments and exposés are always such clear pictures of the badness of other men: bold, ugly colours on their silent white background.” If Shanks is a hypocrite, it is in part because of his responsibility in facilitating a kind of trauma tourism designed to make Westerners feel better about their own lives and less guilty as a result of the pity or horror they can expend on those they witness while abroad.
When Matano catches one of his ex-lovers, a Swede, reading a book by Gabriel García Márquez, he questions why white people are so attracted to magic realism as a literary form and connects this to a desire to brush shoulders with misery and exoticism without having to commit to it. “Don’t you see there is no difference between your interest in Márquez and those thick red-faced plumbers who beg for stories about cats that turn into jinnis, flesh-eating ghost dogs that patrol the streets at night, the flesh-eating Zimba reincarnated?”
Matano forms the nexus between the various points of shifting power in the story: the white journalists, Shanks, the local women (who, as is often the case, wield the real power in the community), and a group of Nigerian gangsters with whom Matano colludes to give Shanks his comeuppance. But for all the insistence on the part of tourists that Matano show them something real, only he seems to be privy to what is behind the facade created for expectant travellers who don’t want to be sold short on the kind of experience they feel they are supposed to have in Africa.
In fact, the only character Matano admits might see past the veneer of calculated exoticism is a Texan who came to Kenya to take up photography. “I’m jus’ this accountant with a dooplex in Hooston and two ex-wives and three brats and I don’ say boo to no one. I come to Africa an’ I’m Ernest Hemingway, huh?” If everyone in Wainaina’s story is playing a part, these are the only two characters who are willing to admit that they see what exists behind the costumes and makeup.