Ahead of my recent trip to Taiwan, I ordered 6 books from Book Depository so I will have some good reading in the upcoming weeks. I finished the first one in about a week.
Binyavanga Wainaina’s One Day I’ll Write About This Place is a entrancing memoir about the writer, his country Kenya, and by extension his continent Africa. Wainaina is famous for his 2005 Granta article about how to write about Africans, a sarcastic commentary and critique of how Westerners often portray Africa. There is some of that in this memoir, though Wainaina’s criticism is often directed at his country. Wainaina’s book is several things – a collection of vignettes of his life, a wry take on his youth and university years in South Africa, a touching remembrance of his parents, especially his mother, and a lively and at times frustrated narrative about Kenya.
The book starts with Wainaina’s middle-class childhood, then moves to his wayward university years in Umtata (Nelson Mandela’s hometown), South Africa, during which he dropped out and spent a year not really doing much, and his years of struggle before his writing career starts forming. He does not fully explain what ails him, though perhaps there may have some depression.
There’s an interesting chapter about a trip to Togo to write about the country for the 2006 World Cup; Togo is little known to many people other than its most famous footballer, Spurs and ex-Arsenal striker Emmanuel Adebayor.
Wainaina holds little back in his thoughts and his recollection of his life.
There’s little idealism or romanticism about his observations, just a sense of blunt realism that takes in the good and bad, the joyful and the bitter, whether it is about his life or about his country.
His chapter about going to Uganda for a grand family reunion at his maternal grandparents’ home is great, as is his touching tribute to his mother after she dies of cancer.
It is a superb book about life in Africa from an African, specifically a Kenyan who has links to all over the continent.
Wainaina goes through some rough times, does not quite reach despair, at least not until the end.
The last chapters see Wainaina describe a Kenya festering with tension and descending further into tribal-based paranoia and hate, until finally tribal violence breaks out after elections at the end of 2007. Wainaina then leaves for the US to teach and write, somewhat broken. He later returns to his country in 2010.
This is not a book filled with lessons or colorful cliches. Instead, it is one that will help you appreciate one of Africa’s better Anglophone writers, and understand Kenya and Africa a little better.