The Canadian reader interested in Africa has, as a rule, two choices: There is the arm's-length survey obtained from books such as Samantha Nutt's moving Damned Nations, a critical look at foreign aid, and Gary Geddes's achingly earnest Drink the Bitter Root. And there are the novels: Those of a crop of young writers such as Nigeria's Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Sierra Leone's Aminatta Forna bring daily life in different parts of the continent much closer.
But books such as Binyavanga Wainaina's One Day I Will Write About This Place are scarce: This is a raw, honest piece of memoir, of and about Africa, that doesn't stoop to reshape itself into a form that might be more accessible to the West. Reading this book felt like eavesdropping on an early-evening conversation in a Nairobi bar – the sort of bar, in fact, where I have seen Wainaina and other writers who contribute to Kwani?, the literary journal he founded, holding forth. And that was sort of thrilling, because if you don't have the luxury of taking up a barstool in Nairobi, it's a rare thing to hear these voices.
Wainaina is best known for a 2005 essay called How to Write About Africa. It had its genesis as a cranky e-mail to the editors of Granta and became the most widely read piece the literary magazine has published. In it, the brutally sardonic Wainaina encourages would-be chroniclers of Africa to "make sure you show how Africans have music and rhythm deep in their souls," advises plenty of emphasis on "wide, empty spaces," sunsets and rolling savannah, and encourages a soothing, conspiratorial voice.
This memoir, his first full-length book, provides an equally powerful rejoinder to the sort of African-inspired writing he was mocking; there is no torpid tone here. He recreates warm scenes from his childhood in Nakuru, with his big polyglot Kenyan-Ugandan-Rwandan family; throughout the book, there are excruciatingly funny, meandering conversations between drunks, but always the underlying quality is speed. Wainaina lurches between perspectives and shifts between languages with a kinetic haste.
The book is a meditation on postcolonialism, independence and national identity, told as they play out in his family and his brain. In Kenya's still-hopeful early years, Wainaina imagines himself as the Six Million Dollar Man and learns about Boney M. from his brash nanny. But corruption takes root, ethnicity starts to matter; only the children of cronies of president Daniel arap Moi can attend the good schools, and Wainaina is shipped off to the hinterland, where he peels his fingers until they bleed.
Then comes post-Cold War fiscal collapse; Wainaina is equally searing in his indictment of the meddling of the West and the ineptitude of Kenya's own leaders. "Since the 1950s all Kenyans who did well on exams have not had to worry about money," he writes. "The idea was that this was the way to make new people. The children of dirt-poor parents 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. … The project to make people like us is ending. Now those who have, grow, and those who don't stay behind."
Wainaina made it out, to college in South Africa in the last days of apartheid, where he utterly failed to learn anything "useful" at all, and sank into a depressive state, "my season of my failing," months on a fetid mattress subsisting on biscuits and cigarettes, blanket tacked over the window, reading by candlelight, always reading. He has had all his life a gnawing addiction to words, to books that he consumes two or three in a day, books he buys at the expense of food or rent. And the falling ends only when he surrenders, abandons the commerce degree and the entrepreneurial schemes, and heads home to write.
Wainaina's love of wordplay can make the book feel overwritten; it's precious in the sections when he describes the world through his seven-year-old eyes. The last portion, when he whisks through the past few years, feels disorganized and aloof. But even here, the writing crackles: On a woman he watches on the train: "eyes smoulder, nearly shut, low rumbling charcoal clouds of mascara starting to promise rainfall. It must be a breakup. By text message maybe."
Wainaina can tell a half-dozen stories at once in a scene or a character sketched in just a few lines. "She is sitting, her hair askew," he writes of a bar girl. "Gikuyu r's and l's tangle and snarl into her English, like a comb on untreated hair. … The soft international jungle on her head parts every so often, and we glimpse the roads she used to arrive here, the stitches from the grafted pieces of hair, the patches of bald, the little spurts of darker, kinkier hair pulled brutally into the weave, so brutally that there are little eruptions and scars on her scalp."
Wainaina, in his public personae as the leading light of a new generation of African writers, cultivates a sort of prickly misanthropy. But his love of people, the weirder and more complicated the better, drenches these pages, and it's a treat for any reader, Africaphile or otherwise, to sink into it.
Stephanie Nolen, now The Globe and Mail's South Asia bureau chief, was the correspondent in Africa from 2003 to 2008.