Monday, July 30, 2012

Meditations on Kenya - a book by Binyavanga Wainaina

Following is my review of One Day I Will Write About This Place, by Binyavanga Wainaina,Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, 2011

This unconventional memoir starts with unconventional art on the cover.  Written by a Kenyan intellectual, literati, political activist and academic, the book has much to recommend it.  However, it requires patience in order to mine the kernels within. 

Binyavanga Wainaina, son of an Ugandan (Tutsi) mother (hence his first name) and a Kikuyu father was raised in Nakuru in the modern era. Although from a prominent upwardly mobile family, Binyavanga was a moody child, a bookworm, often lost in his private world.  He began to come to terms with himself in secondary school, but lost it again during the ostensible university years that he spent in South Africa. There he descended into alcoholism and listlessness, but gradually worked his way back to a more balanced approach to life. Writing was apparently his salvation and he is now a professor of that subject.

Even so, his style takes concentration. He narrates well, but slips in and out of train of consciousness. His story jerks forward and aft even though it does have a certain chronology.  What makes the book valuable and worth reading are the marvelously described insights into current Kenya.  Through Binyavanga’s eyes the reader discovers what it was like to grow up privileged, part of the new elite. Yet he was always the outsider, a puzzle to his family.    He remembers schools, religious cults, Nakuru town, brother and sisters, friends and neighbors.   He speaks eloquently from the very beginning about tribalism – about who is favored and who is not – and why.

His South African years fade into a haze of booze, and the struggle to survive in what for him was a foreign land.  However, people step forward to his aid time and again, both to enable his addictions as well as to help him conquer demons.   Finally, Binyavanga gets a better grip and returns to Kenya.  His haunting recounting of a family reunion on his mother’s side in far southwestern Uganda was perhaps the genus of the whole memoir.  However, he goes on to bisect Kenyan society of the 1990s, the role of tribalism, the plight of the cities, the burden of the rich and the foibles of all. He takes several jobs via family connections (they looked after him no matter what).  He hadn’t much ambition, but writes amusingly about how to sell goats – get the chief drunk – or grow wheat on lands hoodwinked from the Maasi. Although, Wainaina’s anti-establishment politics can easily be inferred, he does not beat any political drums in this book.   Indeed overall the book is an excellent social history of Kenya today.  
Binyavanga  Wainaina can write lyrically, both in describing situations as well as putting dialogue into the scenes.  Those sorts of passages alone make the book worthwhile.  Beyond that, however, this book is unique.  I know of no other that peers so penetratingly into modern Kenya