Country Focus: Kenya
One Day I Will Write About This Place
By Binyavanga Wainaina
Published by Gray Wolf Press, 2011.
Time period: 1970s – present
Kenneth Binyavanga Wainana begins his memoir in 1978, when he is seven years old. He adroitly conveys his weirdly gifted and somewhat isolating childhood thought patterns, one of the highlights of the book. I grew fond of this oddball boy, who has an older brother Jimmy and two younger sisters, Ciru and Chiqy.
The “this place” of One Day I Will Write About This Place does not refer to Kenya, although Wainana is a Kenyan who grew up in the town of Nakuru. The title comes from a line within the memoir that refers to a relative’s home in Kisoro, Uganda, where Wainana’s mother’s family has gathered for a reunion. As the published memoir attests, this is no empty assertion. He does write about his family’s homecoming and The Sunday Times, South Africa’s leading newspaper, publishes the story to great acclaim.
Prior to that life-changing success, Wainana spent several years attending classes on and off at the University of Transkei in South Africa. It is a thrilling time to live in South Africa. Nelson Mandela had been freed from prison in 1990, the year before Wainana arrived. Then Chris Hani, a major anti-apartheid leader, was assassinated in 1993. That heartbreak was relieved by Mandela’s triumphant election to the presidency in 1994. Wainana parties heavily and falls into a lengthy, strange depression.
His malaise is broken by two trips. The first is a business trip to Maasailand, home of Kenya’s most storied traditional peoples, where he is inspired to record his thoughts. The second is the above-mentioned seminal visit to his Ugandan relatives. Wainana had grown up listening to his mother’s stories of President Idi Amin’s atrocities and laments that Kenya is now struggling while Uganda has risen.
Wainana infuses his memoir with African politics. Perhaps because each new regime sparks the possibility of rampant corruption, crippling racism and genocide rather than mere policy change, one tends to be more politically aware. He takes us from the 1978 death of the founding father of Kenya, President Jomo Kenyatta to the election of the publicly and routinely riduculed President Daniel Toroitich arap Moi to an unsuccessful coup in Nairobi to the rigged elections that win Moi another term and ultimately to the 2002 election of Mwai Kibaki, Kenya’s first Gikuyu president.
Wainana’s family is Gikuyu and his surname identifies him as such. Tribalism is a sensitive issue in Kenya as well as much of Africa (Rwanda’s Hutus and Tutsis are the most obvious example), and many non-Gikuyus felt threatened by a Gikuyu President. Wainana’s tribal affiliation now marks him as someone with ruling power, whether or not he actually agrees with Kenya’s President and his policies.
Wainana’s emotional fragility and unique sensitivity seek to unravel him but also make his prose shine. He wins the Caine Prize for African Writing and starts a magazine called Kwani?, which means So What? He travels to Senegal, Nigeria, Sudan, Ghana, Togo on journalism assignment. He now heads the Chinua Achebe Center for African Writers and Artists at Bard College in New York.
I feel inadequate in conveying the multitude of multi-cultural, pop cultural, tribal and political asides that Wainana has compiled in his fascinating memoir. His many cross-cultural experiences and beguiling writer-angst combine to bring a young, urban, middle class, flourishing Kenyan to life. May I introduce you?
School is closed for Christmas and Ray Parker Junior is the coolest man in the world. “Who you gonna call? Ghostbusters.”
We all want his hair. Ray Miaw Miaw, we call it.
Mum has driven to Eldoret with Chiqy to pick up Jimmy. Ciru arrives tomorrow. I am already at home. I take a long bath.
I let my body sink into the water, to let myself see the thick colors of things outside. Soon my eyes are numb, and hot snails of thick feeling climb up from my stomach to my chest. I marvel at the beauty of limbs moving under the water, and soon I am lost and I panic.
I am always afraid of being hijacked by patterns. I rise and turn the page of my novel. Then I spend an hour with sugar and soap and a hard brush trying to push back my hair into a Ray Miaw Miaw. I keep getting it perfect, but then when it dries a little, it starts to crack. Black America has a lot to account for. First it was bloody Afros. What East African can grow a bloody Afro? It would take forty years.