Author: Binyavanga Wainaina
Publ: Kwani Trust, 2012
Reviewer: John Sibi-Okumu
Binyavanga Wainaina’s One day I will write about this place should be required reading for any youngster who wants to go against the societal grain; for he or she who yearns, for example, to be a dancer instead of a doctor, to be an ornithologist instead of a neurosurgeon, to be an acrobat instead of an IT wizard. After much emotional struggle, Wainaina succeeded in avoiding the life lived from figures that had been charted out for him, having studied financial management at university in South Africa, in favour of a life lived from words, as a writer. Once the decision to become a writer had been made, success and its concomitant rewards came surely and swiftly: he won the prestigious Caine Prize for Literature; wrote a seminal essay on a stereotypical view of an entire continent, How to Write about Africa, which subsequently ‘went viral,’ (a reading by Hollywood star Djimon Hounsou is among many manifestations accessible on the internet) and he has become a much traveled, international citizen, with jobs in academia in the United States of America.
One day I will write about this place is a memoir. The cover of the Kwani? Series edition informs the likely buyer that it is an Oprah Book Club Selection. Other endorsements are also extremely seductive: Publisher’s Weekly declares it ‘one of the ten best books of 2011.’ To Chris Abani it ‘burns with tenderness & a scorching melancholy.’ To Alexander Fuller of the New York Times it is ‘brimming with insouciant virtuosity….utterly resolved.’ To Ikhide Ikeola it is ‘a delightful and important coming of age book that describes Wainaina’s world with riotous clarity and shimmering brilliance.’ And from, perhaps, the only name which would be instantly recognisable to the author’s fellow Kenyans, that of Ngugi wa Thiongo, the assessment is that Wainaina’s book ‘bursts with life and laughter.’ All of which is much to be expected as the handiwork of a competent, marketing department. Now to some reflections on the memoir itself.
To begin with, a little perspective is in order: In the White Man’s Land memoirs, autobiographies and biographies are two a penny. The buyer’s choice is informed by the capacity either to identify with the subject matter or to be curious about it. However, a writer like Wainaina, who wants to be considered seriously within World Literature, has to contend with the perception that he comes from a large but homogenous place called Africa, inhabited by people called Africans, of whom he himself is one. His memoir must, therefore, immediately enter the canon of great African literature or else be thrust into the dustbin of literary ignominy. He must speak for all Africans, his experience must be the African Experience, his truth must be the African Truth. This loftiness of expectation is a huge burden on all African writers, everywhere. But, it shouldn’t be. Nobody awaits of John Grisham that, as he writes yet another blockbuster, he ought to be a flag bearer of the American Sublime. So, in One day I will write about this place Wainaina, a forty something Kenyan, has written fiction which borrows from his own life in a manner that should arouse some or a great deal of interest in his readers. And that is his privilege.
The adjective Kenyan does, however, give his memoir a certain specificity within Africa.
As does growing up in the ‘in-between’ town of Nakuru, during the seemingly interminable rule of pariah president Daniel arap Moi. It is clear that Wainaina’s larger literary project is to evoke those times. As concerns this dual agenda, I would have wished that, with the notable exception of his mother, Wainaina had fleshed out several characters a bit more and afforded a deeper insight into day to day interactions between his parents and within his family, as a whole. Did his parents set an example to be emulated, with outward displays of affection? Did they share their religious beliefs? What was Dad like when he wasn’t chairing a pyrethrum board with honest efficiency? Was he a perpetual presence in the household or was he an absentee father? How did Dad’s own, Kikuyu people respond to Mum, a woman who came not only from another tribe (God forbid!) but from another country? How did his parents respond to two grandchildren born out of wedlock? I would much rather have had such, more intimate revelation delivered through domestic minutiae than a description, no matter how vivid of, say, getting drunk with a chief in the Kamba hills or shopping for cloth from market women in Togo.
Concerning Wainaina’s explanations of the politics of the Moi era, I would have wished for more complex analyses of more complex issues. A case in point is his suggestion that ‘tribe’ was the reason for everything wrong with the Moi regime. To refer to ‘the Kalenjin….in power,’ is misleading. The word ‘Kalenjin’ was a fabrication of fairly recent times for political expediency, bringing together seven tribes, the Kipsigis, Nandi, Marakwet, Keiyo, Tugen (Moi’s own people), Pokot and Saboat. Not all of these groupings gained from being ‘Kalenjin’ under Moi and some were decided enemies, of each other and of Moi. Plus, Moi was astute enough a politician to create affiliations beyond tribe, with many beneficiaries among the economically powerful Kikuyu. What Moi did challenge, coming after Kenya’s first, Kikuyu president, Jomo Kenyatta, was the myth that Kikuyus were top (tribal) dogs by divine right, in perpetuity. With the notions of nationalism and democracy still very much in their infancy, there are other ethnic groups still scuffling in the queue for their own ‘turn to eat.’ Consequently, displays of blatant unfairness in such things as admission to national schools, to which Wainaina, sadly, fell victim, continue to this day under a different (Kikuyu) leader.
And what of Wainaina’s writing style? He declares more than once that he was and is a voracious reader. As a young boy, he went as far as to steal a book from a classmate to assuage his desire to get into something new (his admission, not my accusation) and, as an adult, he thought nothing of spending all his earnings in one go, on buying books. Having gone through the likes of Bellow, Gordimer, Coetzee, Naipul and hundreds of other masters of the craft, he has chosen to eschew elaborate diction in favour of a crisp, clipped and elliptical syntax, as an unashamed champion of Kenyan usage. ( Me, I…..Si, you could have refused? Pumbafu).One sentence in the book is limited to one word only: And that word is ‘And’. In lengthier guise, his prose is a veritable cascade of unexpected, mental images. Allow me to offer a personal favourite: Everybody is doing the dombolo, a Congolese dance in which your hips (and only your hips) are supposed to move like a ball bearing made of mercury. To do it right, you wiggle your pelvis from side to side while your upper body remains as casual as if you were lunching with Nelson Mandela. In any restaurant in Kenya, a sunny-side-up fried egg is called mayai (eggs) dombolo. Of more titillating variety there is: Then she stands up and looks back at us, laughing, her breasts flapping like a flag of victory. However, the cascade proves unrelenting throughout the book, with the sense that in the latter chapters, especially, the primary impulse was to fill pages with ever more startling anecdotes and not, necessarily, to advance the story itself. So much so that I do fear that, for some, Stunned Appreciation might, eventually, give way to Image Fatigue.
By way of conclusion, I wish to turn more personal. This isn’t normally the reviewer’s prerogative but I believe that it is forgiveable in the circumstances, particularly as I feature, albeit anonymously, as the ‘somebody with a posh English accent (who) is narrating the story of benga,’ on a DVD in an epiphanic moment toward the end of Wainaina’s narrative. Other than that, in 1967, some seventeen years before Wainaina, I had gone to begin my secondary education at the Duke of York School in Nairobi, so called from colonial days. In 1970, it was renamed after the Masai chief Lenana and was the school which Wainana attended for two years in preparation for his advanced or ‘A’ level examinations. Once again, I would have wished for a more detailed evocation of my old school, with the passage of time. And the last, more human, bond between us is that, with inter-ethnic unions, happily, becoming more and more the norm in Kenya, a few of Wainaina’s paternal cousins are at liberty to address me as ‘Uncle,’ by virtue of marriage. This is the kind of inclusive linkage which we, as Africans and as Kenyans, should seek to nurture, sustain and celebrate. So, I would urge Binyavanga Wainaina never again to consider abandoning his own to their fate, in dismay at their barbaric, tribally inspired conduct, and applying for an American Green Card instead, now that he is in a position to do so. If we are in a mess, then, he has the authority and the responsibility to help in the slow process of cleaning it up, as an African and as a Kenyan.