Memoir of a writer from Kenya upends stereotypes of Africa

Binyavanga Wainaina, founding editor of the literary journal “Kwani?,’’ won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2002. Binyavanga Wainaina, founding editor of the literary journal “Kwani?,’’ won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2002.
By E.C. Osondu
Globe Correspondent / July 31, 2011

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In his now famous 2005 satiric essay, “How to Write About Africa,’’ Binyavanga Wainaina uses a mock imperative tone to dish out advice to writers keen to capture the essence of the world’s second largest continent:

“In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. The continent is full of deserts, jungles, highlands, savannahs and many other things, but your reader doesn’t care about all that, so keep your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular.’’

Wainaina’s last directive in the essay: “Always end your book with Nelson Mandela saying something about rainbows or renaissances.’’ Although Mandela makes a cameo appearance in Wainana’s memoir about growing up in Kenya in all other respects Wainaina ignores his own sardonic advice and rejects much typical writing about Africa. “One Day I Will Write about This Place’’ includes no mention of starving children, child soldiers, or We Are The World concerts. Wainaina’s Africa is one of loving middle-class families, chilled Tusker beer, and the pulsating music of Brenda Fassie. It is the story of the author’s search for direction, his fear of disappointing loving and protective parents, and the false starts and wrong turns a writer takes on the road to discovering his vocation.

Wainaina is perhaps the most visible of the winners of the Caine Prize for African Writing. After winning the award he went on to establish the magazine, Kwani?. His memoir is one of the most highly anticipated by an African writer. Thankfully, this book does not disappoint. Wainaina is a natural raconteur, and the book is imbued with a spoken word quality. “One Day I Will Write About This Place’’ sets itself the task of showing Africans as regular people - they love; they work; they quarrel; some have guns under their mattresses; and they also have the capacity to enjoy a beer at the end of the day.

The book opens when Wainaina is 7 years old, having a drink of water after a game of soccer with his sister. He ponders the words thirst and thirsty. He likes the feel and sound of both words and concludes that the word thirsty is a word full of resolution, a word that drives a person to quick action. Thus begins his fascination with words.

However Wainaina’s journey from word lover, to voracious reader, to writer is bumpy, and the book is filled with entertaining detours - Wainana recounts his childhood during which he spent weekends at his mother’s hair salon, his miserable days at boarding school, his university life in South Africa - all along showing how politics and ethnic divisions in Kenya filtered down to affect the daily life of ordinary citizens.

The book ends with rumination on Benga, a musical form that that was brought back to Kenya by soldiers like Barack Obama’s grandfather who fought alongside the British. They created Benga as a single musical language that could help hold together Kenya’s diverse ethnicities. Thus a book that begins with the sound of words ends with the sound of music.

The memoir in the West appears to be losing steam. Perhaps partly because it has set itself the unenviable task of spreading all of a family’s dirty laundry out in the public. It has become almost predictable that a memoir will be a story of a wasted childhood growing up in a dysfunctional family. Memoir writing has become a game of who can shock the world more. “One Day I Will Write About This Place’’ refuses to go in this direction. It tells the story of a young man who grows up in a loving middle-class home, in a country slowly emerging from its colonial past, who is sent off to South Africa to study accounting but ends up footloose, parties too hard, makes friends, and, when almost on the verge of losing it all, is redeemed by literature. There are parts of this memoir that feel as if they do not quite belong in this book. But one should read them anyway for the same reason one listens patiently to an old uncle who though a good story teller has a tendency to be longwinded - because you know ultimately his tale will thrill you.

E.C. Osondu won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2009. He is an assistant professor of English at Providence College.

By Binyavanga Wainaina
Graywolf, 256 pages, $24