Swans Commentary » swans.com July 16, 2012  



The Undark Continent


by Peter Byrne


Book Review



Wainaina, Binyavanga: One Day I Will Write About This Place, A Memoir, 2011, Graywolf Press, ISBN-10: 1555975917, 273 pages.


"People shouldn't write books about Africa. Not the whole of Africa. In an important sense, 'Africa' is a western invention."
—John Ryle

"What a wonderful thing, I think, if it was possible to spend my life inhabiting the shapes and sounds and patterns of other people....If you are to ask me what are the greatest issues in Africa, I would say that it is that people love, people fuck, people kiss, people speak."
—Binyavanga Wainaina


(Swans - July 16, 2012)   Binyavanga Wainaina was born in Kenya in 1971. He writes about his life there and his wandering elsewhere. That seems straightforward enough. But as an African he knew it wasn't and that writing in English his readers would expect him to speak for and about the whole continent. They would want him to touch on all the well-worn subjects that their media decided stood for the "Dark Continent." In America James Baldwin could write Notes Of A Native Son without pretending to speak even for all of Harlem. Martin Amis would be the first to guffaw if anyone expected his memoir, Experience, to encompass the lands of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. But Africa is different. The world colonized it and just as Western surveyors set down national boundaries their opinion makers determined what the continent was all about.

Wainaina realized all this only too well. But he wasn't going to play the stereotype of the "native" writer, that smiling "good savage" who had the ABCs bestowed on him by some selfless missionary in a high collar. He shrewdly prepared his literary entrance by publishing the scathing How to Write About Africa in Granta 92, Winter 2005. (Granta is his U.K. publisher and the article is on line at http://www.granta.com/Archive/92/How-to-write-about-Africa/Page-1)

His sly round-up of clichés not only hit out at clock-watching, expense account journalists, but would have drawn blushes from venerable Africanists like Ernest Hemingway, Karen Blixen, and Rider Haggard. Here are some of Wainaina's barbs:

Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize....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....Make sure you show how Africans have music and rhythm deep in their souls, and eat things no other humans eat....Taboo subjects: ordinary domestic scenes, love between Africans (unless a death is involved, references to African writers or intellectuals, mention of school-going children who are not suffering from yaws or Ebola fever or female genital mutilation....Establish early on that your liberalism is impeccable, and mention near the beginning how much you love Africa, how you fell in love with the place and can't live without her....Your African characters may include naked warriors, loyal servants, diviners and seers, ancient wise men living in hermetic splendor. Or corrupt politicians, inept polygamous travel-guides, and prostitutes you have slept with....Among your characters you must always include The Starving African, who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked, and waits for the benevolence of the West....Bad Western characters may include children of Tory cabinet ministers, Afrikaners, employees of the World Bank....Broad brushstrokes throughout are good. Avoid having the African characters laugh, or struggle to educate their kids, or just make do in mundane circumstances....Describe in detail, naked breasts (young, old, conservative, recently raped, big, small) or mutilated genitals, or enhanced genitals. Or any kind of genitals....Animals, on the other hand, must be treated as well rounded, complex characters....After celebrity activists and aid workers, conservationists are Africa's most important people. Do not offend them....Always end your book with Nelson Mandela saying something about rainbows or renaissances. Because you care.

Granta never published an article that attracted more attention. However, Wainaina didn't leave cool satire as his last word on the subject. He pursued it angrily in blogs and in person. His ire focused in particular on Ryszard Kapuściński, who ironically was a favorite at Granta. It enraged him that the Polish writer had been invited to American PEN World Voices Festival of 2005 in New York. The PEN president at the time, Salman Rushdie, had gone so far as to declare "Kapuściński's writing, always wonderfully concrete and observant, conjures marvels of meaning out of minutiae." For Wainaina, Kapuściński with his sweeping certainties about Africa was the prototype of the airport-hoppers he meant to pillory in How To Write About Africa. The Kenyan felt the Pole ("a fraud, liar and profound and dangerous racist") had personally insulted him by insisting that "the African mind" was forever different and inferior to the European. Wainaina was gobsmacked by Jeremy Harding's contention that Kapuściński was the "greatest intelligence to bear upon Africa since Conrad." Wainaina, like many in Africa, and notably Chinua Achebe, felt that the other Pole, a hundred years before, had peddled the same make-believe ethnography. (See, "The Other Side Of Ryszard Kapuściński," in Swans, Feb. 13, 2012.)

Wainaina will tell us about his inner development in his memoir. His life in society began in a number of Kenya schools, mainly the best. His family was not poor. He went to the University of Transkei in South Africa. Working and writing in Cape Town in 2002 he won Africa's leading literary award, the Caine Prize, for a short story. Using his prize money, he co-founded the literary magazine Kwani? (which translates as "So What?") to publish work by new African writers. One of its first stories, by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, won the 2003 Caine Prize and one of 2004's shortlisted stories, by Parselelo Kantai, was also published in Kwani?. In 2003 the Kenya Publishers Association honored Wainaina for his services to Kenyan literature. In the same year, his essay How To Write About Africa brought him wider prominence. In 2007 he was writer in residence at Union College in Schenectady, New York, and a year later taught at Williams College in Massachusetts. He then became a fellow at Bard College where he directs the Chinua Achebe Center for African Literature and Languages.

After winning the Caine Prize, Wainaina had been urged to write "the Great African novel" and to put the continent in a handy package for global commuters. He replied that he had been alerted that the world was round, but that it wasn't his "vocation" to dwell on the fact. He was merely a writer who loved arranging words and textures for readers. If doing that acquainted them with the places he had known and reacquainted them with their childhood, he would be happy. It was on this disingenuous note that his memoir, One Day I Will Write about This Place, appeared in 2011.

The debut memorialist did well to call in modesty in his defense. For a decade he had been building a career on how not to write about Africa. Could he now avoid entirely flying with the cawing crows he shot down in How To Write About Africa? Could he keep his feet on the ground while the despised Ryszard Kapuściński flew overhead in business class? The question enlivens the reading of Wainaina's first full-length book.

The author tells how he did not put his thoughts on paper till the late 1990s. He spent his first quarter-century doing nothing but reading novels. He lived in a bibliophilic trance to the dismay of his middle-class parents much concerned with educating their children and getting on materially in a life that had been perturbed by the uncertainties of regional politics. One point for Wainaina, and the untypical in African writing: People like his family don't fit into Western fantasies about Africa.

A book he surely read was James Joyce's Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. He begins by portraying himself at seven through the sounds and surface of words. Like Joyce he will remain intrigued by language in its constituent parts. The Irishman took his linguistic curiosity from the periphery into the heart of Europe, while Wainaina goggled at the sixty-nine Kenyan tongues. His mother, a refugee from Idi Amin's Uganda, spoke Kinyarwanda, Lugana, Kiswahili, and English. His father, Kenyan-born, knew Gikuyu, Kiswahili, and English. Another point for the author of How To Write About Africa who accused the phony African experts of not knowing one of the continent's two-thousand-plus languages.

Joyce would devote his writing life to a close examination of the words of Dublin. Wainaina, forty at the end of his memoir, is busy examining the rest of the continent that radiates out from his birthplace, Nakuru in the Rift Valley. Like Joyce he has epiphanies or memorable insightful moments. These usually concern the diversity of Africa and Africans. For he reverses the generality-mongers: He prizes not E pluribus unum, "out of many, one," but a cornucopia of differences. Another point for Wainaina, though we had better drop this competitive approach. He, like Kapuściński and his ilk, is also haunted by a need for the unum, for unity, be it of a much more genuine kind. An insight comes to him on a minibus in Kenya's remote Pokot. Elections have kindled a flare-up of tribalism that is inevitably tied to language. The driver at the start chattered in Gikuyu or in English accented by it. But on route he suddenly broke into Kalenjin. These languages belonged to ethnic groups just then at grips. The driver also threw in some humor in Kiswahili. With each language his body modulated. But because he was always unassertive he diffused tension. Wainaina grasped at this unity in his fragmented country:

Here in Kenya, where only our interactions keep us together. Now that the state is falling, we are held together by small grace, by interpersonal relationships, by trusting body language....We avert conflict every day with the smallest of things. If there is no law, no order, what keeps us together? Faith in the future? Not really. But we have built a common body language of a sort. We have to be alert and extra considerate to each other. That thread is what we hang on to.

Such is the kind of knowledge of Africa that Wainaina believes worth having and transmitting. His account of a trip he made to Uganda with his parents in 1995 enlightened him, and he in turn enlightens us. They were attending the fiftieth wedding anniversary of his maternal grandparents. As their car entered his mother's native mountains her son noticed that she changed. She no longer bore the reserved expression that was constant with her in her Kenyan exile. Her accent changed and she looked foreign. The grandparents' gathering of children and grandchildren numbered over a hundred. His grandfather recited a family tree that went back nine generations. Wainaina felt he was part of a genealogy that embraced the earth. Being embedded weighed but there was no way out. You belonged to one group or another. Not to belong somewhere was not to be. He could only utter to himself what would be his keynote to survival, "One day, I will write about this place."

Unlike the artfully elliptic Joyce, Wainaina shapes his development in a straight line period by period. He is seven in one chapter, nine in the next, and so on till university. The boy is lucky to have an enterprising, protective, and giving mother. His father stands more apart. A stoic, he will nevertheless in the long run demonstrate comprehension and love.

School follows school as Wainaina's parents like their opposite numbers in the West play musical chairs intent on finding the best for their child. Those foreign observers of Africa Wainaina slams would be surprised to know that Kenya's schools were genuinely good although life at them might be Spartan. The country is 85% literate. Education deteriorated only late in the Moi regime, at the same time private institutions and expensive tuition began supplanting public education in the West.

One of the books Wainaina read as a boy belonged to his father. Like most of his reading it was from elsewhere and written in English. The author is Lord Baden-Powell, who founded the Boy Scouts and honored Kenya by being buried there. A picture shows him sitting on an improvised throne set up on biscuit tins that had been dispatched full from Britain. King Prempreh of Ghana kisses his boots in submission. His Lordship looks bored, thinking probably of future triumphs with the Scouts.

Born eight years after independence (1963), Wainaina, is a pure product of post-colonialism. His account of growing up evokes a cauldron of mixed influences from Edwardian worthies like Baden-Powell to Michael Jackson, Bob Geldof, and TV serials Dallas and Dynasty. At the same time he has a sharp sense of the indigenous Kenya around him. The synthesis was not easy. His value as a writer has much to do with his perplexity that highlights the incompatibles as he wrestles with them. Staying close to day-to-day experience, he avoids windy statements pro or con cultural imperialism.

Wainaina's politics do not go much farther. The great weight of founding father Jomo Kenyatta's heritage makes him uneasy. He sees Daniel arap Moi, who became president when Kenyatta died in 1978, as a plodding authoritarian. Wainaina's family, however, did better than many others under these regimes. All the same he is content when Moi, grown more oppressive, is pushed out in 2002. His worry then becomes the resurgence of tribalism.

But, of course, we don't read Wainaina for politics. However light his touch, the core of his memoir is feverish, recounting his search of half a lifetime to find a role that wouldn't disappoint his family. For all his acquired sophistication, he never got out from under the family tree his grandfather proudly held high. The unspoken message of his book is that no Kenyan can. In his worst years his mother and father were sympathetic but disturbed by the life he led. It involved dissipation, sloth, and near despair. But something kept him from taking any other path than that leading to his being a writer. The irony of such a life is that, the crisis tamed, the quality of the work may suffer. There is an intimation of this in the last chapters of One Day I Will Write About This Place. Success attained, Wainaina seems much closer to those travel writers he abhorred.

How long will Wainaina maintain his independence in the conservative bastion of Bard College? Will he end like Chinua Achebe himself, an American resident since 1990 whom college presidents roll out whenever they want to show their liberal credentials? When they want to show "they care"?

In 2007 he was still independent enough when nominated by the World Economic Forum as a "Young Global Leader," an award given to people for "their potential to contribute to shaping the future of the world." He declined the award saying, "I assume that most, like me, are tempted to go anyway because we will get to be 'validated' and glow with the kind of self-congratulation that can only be bestowed by very globally visible and significant people, and we are also tempted to go and talk to spectacularly bright and accomplished people -- our 'peers'. We will achieve Global Institutional Credibility for our work, as we have been anointed by an institution that many countries and presidents bow down to. The problem here is that I am a writer. And although, like many, I go to sleep at night fantasizing about fame, fortune and credibility, the thing that is most valuable in my trade is to try, all the time, to keep myself loose, independent and creative. It would be an act of great fraudulence for me to accept the trite idea that I am 'going to significantly impact world affairs'."


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Published July 16, 2012