Rachael Johnson

Binyavanga Wainaina occupies a prominent place in contemporary African literature. A recipient of the Caine Prize for African Writing and founding editor of the literary magazine Kwani?, the Kenyan-born writer is now director of the Chinua Achebe Center of African Writers and Artists at Bard College. Wainaina’s literary celebrity soared in 2005 with the publication in Granta of a certain satirical piece entitled How to Write About Africa. In this compelling critique of Western narratives of Africa, Wainaina slams the homogenization of the continent in Western literature and reportage and targets the Western writer’s dubious need to paint relentlessly wretched portraits of African suffering. Wainaina’s satire commands, cuts and amuses. Crucially, the piece aims to demystify the simultaneously idealized and incomprehensible Africa of Western imagination. It also serves to remind readers of Granta that Africans lead lives as ordinary and diverse as citizens of any continent. Wainaina has most recently turned to life-writing. One Day I Will Write About This Place is a memoir of the writer’s early years in East and South Africa. It too challenges global assumptions of life on the continent. 

Wainaina was born in Nakuru in 1971 to a multi-national, multi-cultural family. His mother was from Uganda and both parents were multi-lingual. It was a middle-class upbringing.  Wainaina’s father was managing director of the Pyrethrum Board of Kenya. His mother owned a hair salon. The young Binyavanga played football with his siblings and owned a dog named Juma. The sounds and images of his childhood came from Kenya, Uganda and beyond. Wainaina was exposed to a multiplicity of tongues - Gikuyu, Kiswahili, Luganda and Lingala - while a mosaic of national and pan-African influences such as Maasai braids and South African liberation songs enriched his cultural education. British and American pop culture equally appealed. The children watched The Six Million Dollar Man on Kenyan television and listened to Top of The Pops on the BBC. Michael Jackson and the Ghostbusters theme provided the soundtrack to his youth. Literature was, however, Wainaina’s greatest love. Novels became an addiction. 

This recognizable world will resonate with the generation born after independence and those of us who grew up in Africa during this time. It is, however, a world away from many Westerners’ perceptions of life on the continent. The writer’s account may therefore be read as deeply political. It is, in effect, a corrective to ignorance. The memoir has, also, considerable historical value. Wainaina places his coming of age memoir within that of Kenya’s national narrative and immerses the reader in modern East African history. Young Binyavanga is conscious of political change in both his parents’ countries. Wainaina recounts the death of Jomo Kenyatta and the coming to power of Daniel arap Moi. The nightmarish figure of Idi Amin haunts his mother’s conversations. 

In these early sections, Wainaina employs a narrative voice that aims to capture the thoughts and speech of a child. There is a disconnected, staccato character to some of the writing here but the young boy’s observations serve, for example, to highlight the atrocities of adults: “Idi Amin is killing people and throwing them to the crocodiles. The Nile is blocked with dead bodies. We have many aunties and uncles in Uganda. My grandparents, my mum’s parents are in Uganda.” There are also passages of breath-taking beauty in One Day I Will Write About This Place. The following words are unmatched in their playful loveliness: “The wind swoops down, God breathes, and across the lake a million flamingoes rise, the edges of Lake Nakuru lift, like pink skirts swollen by petticoats, now showing bits of blue panties, and God gasps, the skirts blow higher, the whole lake is blue and the sky is full of circling flamingos.” Wainaina’s writing is equally deeply sensuous and inventive. Listen to his description of the unsettling, seductive power of the music of the Congo: “Congo music, with wayward voices as thick as hot honey. This sound is dangerous; it promises to lift you from where you are and drop you into a hot upside-down place twenty thousand leagues under the sea.”

Wainaina goes on to recount his student days at the University of Transkei in South Africa. Here he read Nadine Gordimer and Saul Bellow, retreated into himself and returned home without a degree. Thankfully, Wainaina began to write, and reporting assignments gave him the opportunity to travel the continent. The writer’s vivid sketches of Africa’s people and places underscore its diversity. Wainaina describes Lagos, Lomé and Accra with verve and insight. His snapshots of people- like the one of a heroic, hard-drinking Sudanese doctor- are equally captivating. Wainaina’s observations habitually have an amusing polemical edge. As he travels through the Togolese capital, he sharply observes, “I can count fourteen buildings that have the word développement on their walls”. 

One Day I Will Write About This Place is indeed spiked with compelling political comment. Many of Wainaina’s satirical observations match the merciless wit and sting of How to Write About Africa. Note his portrait of foreign correspondent as parasite: “International correspondents with their long Dictaphones, and dirty jeans, and five hundred words before whiskey, are slouched over the red velvet chairs in the VIP section in the front, looking for the Story: the Most Macheteing Deathest, Most Treasury Corruptest, Most Entrail-Eating Civil Warest, Most Crocodile-Grinning Dictatorest, Most Heart-Wrenching and Genociding Pulitzerest, Most Black Big-Eyed Oxfam Child Starvingest, Most Wild African Savages Having AIDS-ridden Sexest with Genetically Mutilatedest Girls…” Wainaina could, no doubt, be accused of painting a monolithic portrait of the international press and even of negating the work of a few principled, engaged war reporters. The writer’s ferocious, hilarious and quite surreal description is however, dead right. As in his influential essay, Wainaina is here attacking the need of the mainstream Western, if not global, press to dehumanize Africans, classify African political violence as exceptional and outlandish and characterize Africans as eternal victims. It is, of course, nothing less than a racist urge.   

Wainaina equally directs his inventive, super-charged satire at the perpetrators of political violence in his homeland. His denunciation of the vanity and brutality of Daniel arap Moi is characteristically potent and skillful. The ambitions of this former ‘good friend of the West’ included erecting a ‘Big Dick building’- a certain Nyayo House- to serve as a place of torture. Deep distress can also be detected in Wainaina’s satirical voice. He writes of the 2007-08 election violence in Kenya: “You all sit stunned and watch as your nation - which has broadband and a well-ironed army and a brand-new private school that looks exactly like Hogwarts castle in Harry Potter - is taken over by young men with sharpened machetes and poisoned bows and arrows. As you sit in your living rooms, they will take over your main highway, pull people out of cars and cut their heads off.”

Wainaina has produced a powerful memoir of postcolonial youth. One Day I Will Write About this Place is an unsentimental yet affecting evocation of childhood memory. The writer’s compassionate portrait of his family is free of masochistic musing. There is also charm and humor in the memoir. The numerous references to the sounds and sight of Africa in the seventies and eighties have an endearing appeal. One Day I Will Write About This Place is both a deeply honest, personal account of boyhood and youth and an important social and historical record of post-independence Africa. Laced with charged observations and remarkable encounters, the memoir chronicles political change in Kenya as it examines the complexities of its national identity. It is, moreover, a quite moving meditation on language and culture. 

One Day I Will Write About This Place: A Memoir by Binyavanga Wainaina (Graywolf Press, 2011)

Rachael Johnson has published several papers and articles on film, gender and cultural history. Her pieces have appeared in CineAction, www.objectif-cinema.com, PopMatters and JGCinema.com. Currently based in the UK, she has taught English and creative writing.