This is the memoir of a book addict, and Wainaina’s savour for language glows from the first. His descriptions dance, they sing, they jump, syncopated, a lively, twisting flow like swift water, throwing rainbows of unexpected images into the air. In a pressing, urgent present tense at all times, his tale is vibrant and always fresh, even when he describes lethargy and depression.
Language itself is his subject at times, as he shares how Kenyan people, with their many mother tongues, use Kiswahili to show respect, invoke fellowship, leverage solidarity and subtly feel out a situation. I can never experience this, so it’s wonderful to get a little taste of its richness through Wainaina’s showing.
Thinking about language in Kenya of course I think of Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and he is here! Wainaina shows how the national figure and his ideas entered his awareness as a young, relatively privileged Kenyan. In
Decolonising the Mind
Ngugi wa Thiong’o mentioned that colonial & neo-colonial leaders create essentialist (I could perhaps say orientalising or ossifying) tribal identities and animosities which belie real conflicts of interest and obstacles to peace as well as the dynamic nature of all people, groups and relationships, and Wainaina makes the same point neatly through an anecdote. How tribal conflict came to the fore after Moi’s rule through the legacy of colonialism is integral to his biography and emerges clearly. His mother, from Uganda, linked him to events there and in Rwanda. I felt the arbitrariness of borders and the rich mixings of tribal/language groups.
Wainaina is well known for the essay he wrote sending up the way Africa is portrayed in Euro-American narratives and he returns to his disgust and mockery of the narrative of Africa as a poverty sticken disaster zone requiring urgent white saviour intervention (always blissfully free from any notion of how any kind of privation arose) at salient points in his text. He perhaps intended his memoir to contrast with that self-serving and disingenous story, but he doesn’t give it the time of day; he doesn’t answer it, just paints his own views of the places he visits. In his account, drab Nairobi contrasts vividly with stylish Lome, capital of Togo. Arid Kenya contrasts with lush Uganda, Maasailand is completely exotic and thrilling to him as a modern, urban young person. I was jolted by the frequent appearance of African American pop icons and other contemporary, global culture, showing that I have been drinking the colonial lemonade myself. On writing about Sudan on commission from an EU organisation which didn’t want to publish the book, because it didn’t say the right things, he had this to say:
I start to understand why so little good literature is produced in Kenya. The talent is wasted writing donor-funded edutainment and awareness-raising brochures for seven thousand dollars a job. Do not complicate things, and you will be paid very well.
Maybe that’s why he founded The Kwani Trust
I can’t end without mentioning how likeable I found the author. There’s nothing self-aggrandising about this memoir at all, and while it’s painful (and to me, familiar as I had a similar experience in high school) to read about his periods of withdrawal as a student, he always owns his economic privilege, and it’s heart-warming to read how his family’s gentleness and sensitivity (in strong contrast to the stereotype of authoritarian African parents) pulled him through. I cared about him a lot and felt all the bumps and all the highs. Thanks so much Binyavanga for taking me along for the ride xxx