books, People of Color, Reading

“One Day I Will Write About This Place” by Binyavanga Wainaina

 

“We are mixed up people. We have mixed-up ways of naming too: the Anglo-colonial way, the old Gikuyu way, then the distant names from my mother’s land, a place we do not know. When my father’s brothers and sisters first went to colonial schools, they had to produce a surname. They also had to show they were good Christians by adopting a Western name. They adopted my grandfather’s name as a surname. Wainaina. Baba says, in the old days, everybody had many names, for many reasons, a name only for your age-mates, a name as the son of your mother, a new name after you became a man. These days, most times, your name is what is on your birth certificate.”

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Binyavanga Wainaina writes a chaotic, nearly stream-of-consciousness memoir full of dream-like remembrances and transitions about his life growing up in Kenya. He unpacks tribal and regional cultural differences:

“Hughagh can be fun, to; hagh hagh, you laugh at those who are poorer than you, laugh from the bottom of your belly at Kirinyaga people if you are from Kiambu, at Tugens if you are Nandi, at Punjabis if you are Gujarati, at the small tribes if you are from a big one.”

He bares criticisms of the various governments and political parties and their collusion with outside forces:

“Since the 1950s, all the Kenyans who did well in exams have not had to worry about money. The idea was that this was the way to make new people. The children of dirt-poor peasants could become doctors. This is where my parents came from. Now, the IMF has insisted that we stop spending so much government money on education. It is truly the only thing that works in Kenya. There is a national network of schools, and every year tens of thousands find their way into skills and futures. Now the Berlin Wall has fallen, and our great universities, where the rich who came from poverty were finally equal – that is gone. …Now those who have, grow, and those who don’t stay behind. Those who have can leave. Some parents sell their most precious assets to send their kids away.”

He explores coming of age as a global citizen in a nation that is always changing:

“We do not know how to be from two nations: home home (home squared, we call it, your clan your home, the nation of your origin), and the home away from home – home of the future, a notyet place called Kenya.”

“Urban Kenya is a split personality: authority, trajectory, international citizen in English; national brother in Kiswahili; and content villager or nostalgic urbanite in our mother tongues.”

Wainaina’s prose matures alongside his protagonist self; where the passages about young Binyavanga are chimerical, full of fits and starts and misunderstandings, the older Binyavanga expresses his thoughts with greater composure, heightened refinements. I thoroughly enjoyed this insider’s view of Kenya, particularly during a time of tumult. However, though it was uniquely voiced and well-written, this memoir was a bit of a slog for me. Wainaina’s experiences, as well as his prose, were sometimes disorienting. When I could stay engaged, the story was fascinating and eye-opening, but staying engaged took extra effort I would have preferred to dedicate to inhabiting and experiencing the text rather than accessing it.

 

 

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