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The Sadness of Home

Binyavanga Wainaina’s unconventional memoir reveals a growing ambivalence, perhaps even pessimism, for both the country of his birth, Kenya, and the African continent itself.  At the conclusion of his life’s story, Wainaina observes of recent Kenyan music and its inclusiveness of all the country’s languages: “Kimay is people talking without words, exact languages, the guitar of all of Kenya speaking Kenya’s languages.  If kimay brought me uncertainty, it was because I simply lacked the imagination to think that such a feat was possible.  For kimay was part of a project to make people like us certain of our place in the world, to make us unable to see the past and our place in it.  To make us sort of Anglo-Kenyan.  Right at the beginning, in our first popular Independence music, before the flag was up, Kenyans had already found a coherent platform to carry out our diversity and complexity in sound.”

I’ve struggled with that paragraph, which is followed by a final concluding sentence as a separate, shorter paragraph: “We fail to trust that we knew ourselves to be possible from the beginning.”  Wainaina is speaking of his country, of course, and its troubled political trajectory; but he is also writing about himself: a bit of a social outcast throughout his childhood and early adulthood, perhaps because his father is Kenyan (Gikuyu) but his mother is Ugandan.  And his name—borrowed from both parents’ cultures—always seems to confuse other Kenyans who frequently ask him where he’s from, what is his tribe.  That question itself can be fairly unsettling in a country where ethnic clashes have sometimes broken out into incredible slaughter.

At the beginning of his story, 1983, Wainaina is seven years old.  His mother had to flee Uganda because of Idi Amin’s reign of terror.  Kenya is much more stable under Jomo Kenyatta’s leadership.  But fifteen years after independence, Kenyatta dies and,  although there are those who would say that the Old Man was also a tyrant, what shortly follows, with Daniel arap Moi, will be much worse.  So Wainaina is pretty much aware of ethnic strife from his early childhood.  But he has a way of escaping, not so much the political happenings in Kenya as just about everything in his life.  He’s a heavy reader, especially of novels, a child almost addicted to reading.  And that is fairly rare for Africans of the time, where households were not known for their book collections or schools for their libraries.

Because his family is well-off, definitely middle class, his situation is unusual. His mother has a beauty parlor; his father has a good job at the country’s pyrethrum board.  Very early, the young boy decides that he wants to be a writer, which is not a typical profession that most Africans aspire to.  At school, Wainaina reads when he should be doing his other subjects.  At one of the country’s better high schools, he tries to avoid the growing religious fanaticism attractive to many of his peers, as well as their interest in Western movies.  Instead, he notes, “Me, I watch, and read more novels, read and throw them away like chewing gum.  I know there is no end to them—whenever I finish one library’s fiction section, a new library, a new section, a new friend introduces me to a new thing.  I am reading a lot of sci-fi.”

But his grades in science are so poor that options for a university degree are limited.  His parents send him to South Africa (1990) and if the country has a major influence on him, he is also removed from some of Moi’s most recent excessive abuses of power.  But even at a South African university, Wainaina is interested in almost nothing besides fiction—novels written by others, but also his own incipient attempts to write short stories.  The problem is—as it is for many young readers—fiction keeps him isolated, withdrawn, reclusive.  His style (presumably in what he was writing at the time and certainly in this engaging memoir) is unique: repetitive, full of non-sequitors, disruptions in chronology, made-up words, but a style distinctly his own.  In short, marvelous.

Then in quick sequence, his mother dies; he returns to Kenya after a lapse of ten years; he wins the Cain Prize for African Writing; he becomes a sought-after free-lance writer, traveling across the African continent and—perhaps best of all—Moi is unable to rig still another election so Kenya is freed of his heavy-handed leadership, though political stability will not arrive as many had desired.  And, finally, Wainaina—still a bit of a wanderer, frequently in exile—ends up with teaching positions in the United States.  But the ambivalence continues, especially his feelings (love? hate?) about his country.

There is always the attractiveness, the pull back to the past, to the Africa of his heritage.  Before the wistful conclusion of this conflicted life, Wainaina records his encounter with a young Pokot, with a university education.  The man tells him, “We are cursed by a culture that is too strong….  We do not want to go forward and change.  Many people go to school and are clever in school.  Pokots are always breaking records in Marigat high school.  But most Pokot leave all that to come back and live in their culture.  When I finished at university, they sent me to Massailand, but I couldn’t live there.  Then they sent me to Kericho, but eventually I came back home.  I can only live here.”

Writing about it is much more painful.

One Day I Will Write about This Place
Binyavinga Wainaina
Graywolf Press, 256 pp., $24.00

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.  Email:clarson@american.edu.