Binyavanga Wainaina is a Kenyan writer, encourager, editor and traveller. Last month he was present in the United States at the invitation of PEN. This month he will be in Germany at a Festival on African Literature. I really do hope he takes time to sit down and write. Talking about writing is not the same as writing.
Eventhough he is still young, Binyavanga has decided to write his memoirs. He was born in Nakuru, in the Kenyan Rift Valley. The family lives in a neighbourhood where the white settlers used to live. His father has a prominent position at the National Pyretheum Board. His mother runs a hairdressingsalon in downtown Nakuru, next to the famous Coffee House.
When a writer delves into his youth I am always impressed by the intimate knowledge of things of long time ago and from an age I hardly remember anything about. I recently heard a writer says that writers tend to create their own youth. They are unable to remember the things they write about. Knowledge of later years is infused in those early years and so a new, literary, boyhood is created.
He has an elder brother and two younger sisters. His brother Jimmy went to St. Patrick’s in Iten, the school where many athletes were created by the Irish brothers. His younger sister Ciru is a brilliant student, throughout her school career and she moves to Transkei in the days of her big brother (see below).
At times the writer halts at certain episodes in his life, at other times he rushes on. On some occasions I thought: you could have used this for a novel in its own right, e.g. the meeting with his Ugandan relatives (his mother is of Ugandan origin, his father is a Kenyan of Kikuyu-extraction). Another instance is his visit in 1984 to Nairobi with his father. They visit an openair market to buy some spareparts for an agricultural machine.
When he writes about the political constellation in his country it is clear he is not stepping in the nyayo of president Moi, who was ruling in his younger years. He notices an influx of Kalenjin (the ethnic group of Moi) at the many different schools he attends. The Asian children move on to private schools in the area. The laidback style of president Mwai Kibaki is more to his liking, but even Kibaki does not live up to expectations. He notices how a division takes place in his country (he lived for many years though in South Africa!). The Kikuyu take themselves as the standard in the country, the others are tribes and therefore inferior. It is the natural habitat for the Kikuyu to rule, to be the best, to be in the front, to be well-connected, to amass wealth.
Binyavanga moves to the Transkei for a university eeducation. The relatives of his mother who teach at the local university help him to get a position. Students from other African countries have the same entry at this university. Binyavanga’s position is however not characterized by diligent study. He writes and reads (he is an avid reader his whole life), drinks, takes time off, parties. In the end he moves back to Kenya withouth having finished his studies (he makes another attempt in later years). When he returns to Nairobi he notices how much the town has gone down the drain during the days of Moi.
He takes time to write and write, he gets paid for stories in a digital magazine. Then he starts writing a story for the Cain Prize for African Writing. He moves back to Nakuru. He has mailcontact met the upcoming Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. With others he starts the magazine Kwani?
I especially liked the dreamy and creative and explosive parts of his thinking and associating in his mindworld. Binyavanga mentions the occurence of homosexualtity at the High School he attends, but he does not mention in this book his own sexual discovery. Some time after his book was published he made known his own homosexuality (and even more recent he wrote an Open Letter to Deputy President William Ruto, who had said in a church that there is no place for homosexuals in Kenya!).
At times I wondered for whom he did write this book, for he takes time to explain situations that are obvious to Kenyan readers, but not to North American readers (for instance the use of Sheng). Is it a way of making Africa readable for western/northern publishers and readers?
A remarkable moment is his trip to Baringo-country. This is the home turf of Moi. Binyavanga has travelled to many countries, but he is like a stranger in his own house. He travels to Kabarak, Marigat, Kabarnet. To him it is a different world. He could do some travelwriting on his own country, meeting different peole and cultures and landscapes. He knows to observe and write it down in a way that makes you want to read on.
Binyavanga Wainaina – One day I will write about this place – 2011
Just for your information I will add the cover of the Dutch edition of this very same book. I wondered what Binyavanga himself thought about this cover. Is it ironic? Sarcastic? Stigmatising? Stereotyping? Funny?
Post Scriptum: 14.00 hour GMT According to tweets by Binyavanga Wainaina, the master himself, the idea of this cover was put forward by his Dutch publisher. Binyavanga agreed with it and saw it as a mild provocation. Later he learned about Black Pete (zwarte Piet).