A retrospective reflection on Binyavanga’s memoir


Teddy, our compere when we met to discuss Binyavanga Wainana’s memoir, One Day I Will Write About This Place.

For matters related to introductions, Teddy, our compere for the book club meeting held on Friday, July 22, 2016, introduced Binyavanga Wainaina, the author of our common text for the month, as an award winning Kenyan author, whose memoir is an illustration of his continued stream of consciousness.

The One Day I Will Write About This Place, Teddy said, is, basically, an autobiography about his life; from childhood, all the way to the time he published How To Write About Africa. A lot of what is going on in it are stories about his family, and a lot of experiences in Kenya, about growing up there, under the Moi regime, experiencing the effects of post colonial British systems that all of have had the benefit of being baptised in.

He added that as soon as you finish reading the book, you realise there is a ghost in the room, especially if you know anything about his life. Binyavanga could have written more, but he purposefully dances around some particular topics in his life. Teddy believes that you can tell that he is not fully ready to talk about some of the topics in his life, as if he was waiting for another book.

When it came to the reading, it was not that easy picking on particular pieces to concentrate on. The writing is an admirable pear within its shell of a paperbound. We decided to read a few random pages and reflect upon them in the greater sense of African stories, starting with Chapter Twelve. We continued to study how narrative can change perception of a place from someone’s perspective. Even when we did, we were careful not to read too long, though. We did not want to spoil.

From that Chapter, Twelve, we touched on several topical issues and themes including on Kenya’s beginnings and its gradual falling apart. It was a time of structural adjustments and their impositions on Kenya and Africa. Kenya was, thanks to institutions like the World Bank, investing, and heavily so, in education, but potential students in its new schools were choosing to go study in countries elsewhere. It was the time of the height of most Africans leaving their home countries for places of presumed better living and opportunities. It was a time of elective migration.

Binyavanga’s style of writing was of interest to us too. He never seems to have a particular though pattern. He always has gazzilion thoughts, too much detail, and a short attention span. He, even in his childhood, is all over the place. He has a problem, we thought, sticking to one particular way of doing things. He always tries to package all of them in an exciting fashion, by describing the entirety of a scene all at once.

We dug deeper into the genesis of his name, his family’s roots on both sides of the border that rubs shoulders with Mount Elgon, and the title of the book. We wondered what could have happened if Binyavanga had chosen to unpack the scenes he writes about and unravel the stories into some sort of Fibonacci sequences which we believed would make it more much more intricate and just good enough to read. We found that his descriptions, of the places he has been to, or comes from, provide fair justice to those places and the virtues that they uphold.

On an inquiry about whether Binyavanga goes on to have a family, we concluded that discussing that before we covered much of the book would amount to a spoiler, and advised the inquirer to “stay tuned for new scenes from our next episode”. Unfortunately for them, we did not have enough time to discuss what got to be known as the book’s lost chapter.

On painting or writing about Africa, our compere, Teddy, highlighted a conversation he had with Binyavanga when they met in London, on the sidelines of the Caine Prize Award ceremony for the year 2009. Binyavanga, Teddy said, was quite particular in advocating for specificity while describing the diversity that makes up Africa. We found that, in One Day I Will Write About This Place, Binyavanga does illustrate his sermon with his picturesque descriptions of places like Togo, Uganda, South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, and New York.

We went on to have a lengthy conversation on expression, exertion, sharing and criticising our stories, our inspirations, our influences, our opportunities, and more. We, also, wondered why a book this good is not yet on the school literature curriculum before reading another gripping chapter that most young people, especially those in their turbulent times, and/or times of discovery found relatable.