Category Archives: Kenya

“… like shards of water and streams of glass”: Binyavanga Wainaina’s “One Day I Will Write About This Place”

I have always enjoyed reading writers’ memoirs, writers’ diaries, and writers’ thinly-autobiographical fiction. Some of my favourites include Octavio Paz’s Labyrinth of Solitude, where I found acute and subtle portraits of the character of a nation; Chinua Achebe’s There Was A Country, where I discovered a haunting political elegy; Dambudzo Marechera’s The House of Hunger, where I met a stinging literary critique of Negritude and Ngugi wa’ Thiong’o’s idea of language and literature; and Jack Kerouac’s Lonesome Traveler, where I traveled second-hand through some of the most brilliant landscapes imaginable.

In Binyavanga Wainaina’s One Day I Will Write About This Place, I found all this and more.

One Day I Will Write About This Place is a story about growing up in newly-independent, post-colonial Kenya. Wainaina tells two stories: the fraught relationship between democracy and the post-colony (not just in Kenya, but in other African countries as well) through the course of the late-20th century, and his own circuitous, round-about and peril-filled journey to becoming a writer of repute and influence. “Uganda, my mum’s country, fell down and broke. Crutch!”, he writes in the opening pages; and that could be an image for the book: falling, breaking, patching up, refusing to fall, falling, breaking again. From Kenya under Daniel arap Moi to South Africa on the cusp of dismantling apartheid to Uganda recovering from the wounds of civil war to Kenya again during the pivotal elections of 2002, Wainaina moves through bits of countries and pieces of the self, always afraid of being hijacked by patterns”, as he and his comrades seek “new ways to contort, rearrange, redesign ourselves to fit in.”

Right from the first scene – a recollection of a backyard football game from childhood – we are put on notice that this will be something out of the ordinary:

She twists past Jimmy, the ball ahead of her feet, heading for me. I am ready. I am sharp, and springy. I am waiting for the ball. Jimmy runs to intercept her; they tangle and pant. A few moments ago the sun was one single white beam. Now it has fallen into the trees. All over the garden there are a thousand tiny suns, poking through gaps, all of them spherical, all of them shooting thousands of beams. The beams fall onto branches and leaves and splinter into thousands of smaller perfect suns.

Wainaina’s memoir bursts at the seams with such rich, exultant, and alive use of language. You rarely feel as if you’re merely reading; rather, it is as though all five senses are activated: you can taste the writing when you read “there is an ache in my chest today, sweet, searching, and painful, like a tongue that is cut and tingles with sweetness and pain after eating a strong pineapple”; you can hear it when you read “his voice carrying Yemeni monsoons and bolts of cloth“; you can smell it when he writes, “life has urgency when it stands around death. There is no grass as beautiful as the blades that stick out after the first rain”; you can see it with all the clarity of a vision when he writes “street upon street of Kenyan shops and textile factories stand disemboweled by the death of faith in a common future“; you can feel your skin in this remarkable passage:

She pours me a drink, she laughs, and I find myself laughing too, like we did when we were young. Twin Salvation Army marching bands on a hot dry Sunday in my hometown, Nakuru, Kenya. They bang their way up the sides of my head and meet at some crossroads in my temple, now out of rhythm with each other. I am thirsty with the effort of them, but my body is an accordion, and can’t find the resolution to stand.”

And sometimes, when the prose has a peculiar quality of motion, you can feel more than one thing: “Russet is an emotion inside me that comes from reading things about horses and manes, and many hairs tossing, and autumn, a set of impressions, movements, lights. These are my concerns.” Wainaina recalls, as a child, contemplating his own thirst after the game of football, and being unable to match the word (“thirst”) to something concrete. “Words, I think, must be concrete things. Surely they cannot be suggestions of things, vague pictures: scattered, shifting sensations?” This brings to mind Italo Calvino’s observation about words as “foretastes of things barely glimpsed, not possessed, presumed.” Just as that is an apt account of Calvino’s writing, so is it of Wainaina’s: his language s never descriptive, but always suggestive, possessing a movement that never allows you to see a thing clearly and see it whole, but rather, as an ensemble of “scattered, shifting sensations.” Or, in his own words, when talking about the landscape from a car window:

I am disappointed that all the distant scenery, blue and misty, becomes more and more real as I come closer: there is no vague place, where clarity blurs, where certainty has no force, and dreams are real.

In Wainaina’s writing, you always remain in that vague place – and delightfully so. The writing is not only suggestive, but atmospheric, almost physical in its suggestiveness:

The song comes to a full stop. A full three seconds of silence as rumba momentum builds. The choral voices are now a sheet of frenzied rubber, Kenya streeeeectches and bleats, held together by the military trumpets and cash crop exports, the future, only the future, laboring bodies, a railway, a mpresident.

The result is that even the darkest of themes (and darkness is inevitably, given the subject matter) are handled with the lightness of what Colm Toibin would call “breath on glass.” The style is a complete contrast from, for example, Chinua Achebe’s elegy to Biafra in There Was A Country, even though both writers are talking about similar issues, at times: betrayed democracy, political violence, widespread dehumanisation in the post-colony. If sadness is the defining quality of Achebe’s work, it is wryness that characterises Wainaina’s. There is a refusal to take anything too seriously – neither the self, not politics, nor the nation. What we get, then, is a treatment that is almost savage in its mockery:

Moi and his cronies are on the radio daily. It is in the papers every day. These are dark days, we are told. There are dissidents everywhere. We have to all unite and silence the dissidents. From the radio, we know that foreign influenzes are invecting us, secret foreign influenzes are infringing us, invincing us, perferting our gildren, preaking our gultural moralities, our ancient filosofies, the dissidents are bushing and bulling, pringing segret Kurly Marxes and Michael Jagsons, making us backsliding robots, and our land is becoming moonar handscapes. They took the rain away, the Maxists, the Ugandans, wearing Western mini sguirts and makeup, they are importing them, inserting invected people, these dissidents, like Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and that man called Raila Oginga Odinga.

There is a similarity here with Emile Habiby’s The Adventures of Saeed the Pessoptimist. Habiby’s chosen mode of dealing with the dispossession of the Palestinian people is not grim realism, an elegiac lament, or even satire; but it is a wry, mild, almost gentle self-effacement that, in its deconstruction of the senselessness of violence and cruelty, is no less sharp:

The big man sent his own men to surprise me at my stall one noon. They led me off to prison after charging me publicly with having disobeyed the compulsory stay order. My going to Shafa Amr to buy melons, they said, had threatened the integrity of the state. Whoever, as they put it, transported red melons in secret could also carry radishes secretly and there was, after all, only a difference in colour between red radishes and hand grenades! And red was not, under any circumstances, the same as blue and white. With a watermelon, moreover, one could blow up a whole regiment if grenades were hidden inside it. “Don’t you see that, you mule?”

“But I cut the melons open with a knife so the buyer can see,” the “mule” responded.

“Oh! Knives too, eh?” they exclaimed.

But just like Habiby, there are moments when Wainaina abandons the self-effacing, almost playful tone, and essays a sudden foray into seriousness. These moments occur when he talks about the IMF-mandated dismantling of Kenya’s public education system, about the tribalism that dominates politics, and about how Kenyans – especially Kenyan artists – are forced to represent themselves to the Western world (a subject that he has also dealt with in this wildly famous essay). Their rarity invests them with a moral force, a gravity that compels the reader to pause, think, and then read again. And then Wainaina goes back to image, metaphor, and suggestion, reminding us that even the deepest of wounds can be written about without anger, without mourning, without even irony, but something else altogether:

Wood rots. Wood will not bend in heat. Wood burns and crumbles. Early this century. The searing heat of Belgium’s lust in the Congo insists on new metallic people. We, in Kenya, don’t understand the lyrics – we don’t speak Lingala – but this music, this style, this metallic sound has become the sound of our times.

Or:

Our schooling machine – nationwide, merit-based, proud, and competitive – Kenya’s single biggest investment – is falling apart, and the new season sounds like Band Aid. It’s all over CNN. Open mouths and music, thousands and thousands of white people throwing food and tears and happiness to naked, writhing Africans who can’t speak, don’t have dreams, and share leftovers with vultures.

This should not give the impression, however, that One Day I Will Write About This Place is limited to the troubles of the post-colonial era. Many of the books best moments are celebratory – whether it is celebrating a South African singer, the instant of hope in South Africa ’94, Wainaina’s winning the Caine Prize, or the optimism that seeps through even during factionalised Kenyan elections. Indeed, as Wainaina writes, “if there is a miracle in the idea of life, it is this: that we are able to exist for a time, in defiance of chaos.”

But above all else, what makes this book is its use of language, the wizardry that Wainaina has in putting words together in an assemblage that make them feel more real than life itself. “None of us has her voice,” he writes about his mother. “It tingles.  If crystal were water made solid, her voice would be the last splash of water before it set.” He might well have been describing his own writing.

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“You just gave yourself to the dream in the rhythm…”: Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s ‘The River Between’

“And she seemed to hold him still. Not with her hands. Not with anything visible. It was something inside her. What was it? He could not divine what it was. Perhaps her laughter. He thought there was magic in it because it rang into his heart, arousing things he had never felt before. And what was that shining in her eyes? Was there a streak of sadness in them? For a time Waiyaki was afraid and looked around. His mother was watching them. He turned to Muthoni. The magic was not there any more; it had gone. In the next moment Waiyaki found himself wandering alone, blindly away from the crowd, wrestling with a hollowness inside his stomach.”

Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart occupies pride of place as the post-colonial African novel dealing with the theme of the first contact between indigenous communities and colonial power, and the social disintegration that inevitably follows. But only seven years after Things Fall Apart, a young Ngugi wa Thiong’o published The River Between, his own novel dealing with similar themes. The River Between was Thiong’o’s first written novel (composed at university), and the second that he published. It is not as well-known as The Wizard of the Crow or Petals of Blood, and certainly not a novel that comes to mind when thinking of books that deal with the initial relationship between colonialism and community. This is a pity: in some ways, The River Between is an even more ambitious novel than Things Fall Apart, because it deals with an issue where the moral lines seem to be as clear as anything could be in our compromised world: female circumcision – or, as we know it, female genital mutilation.

The book begins like this:

The two ridges lay side by side. One was Kameno, the other was Makuyu. Between them was a valley. It was called the valley of life. Behind Kameno and Makuyu were many more valleys and ridges, lying without any discernible plan. They were like many sleeping lions which never woke. They just slept, the big deep sleep of their creator.

Between Kameno and Makuyu, both home to the Gikuyu people, there is an ancient rivalry, which is now exacerbated by the advent of colonialism, and the Christian religion that the colonisers bring with them. In Makuyu, Christianity has found a believer in Joshua, who has all the zeal of the convert. His proselytisation, however, creates as many enemies as it does followers; and rebellion, at last, reaches his own home. When female circumcision is banned as contrary to the Christian faith, Joshua’s daugther, Muthoni, refuses to abide by the decree, which goes to the heart of how the Gikuyu culture and way of life.

Into this milieu comes Waiyaki, the book’s ambiguous and conflicted protagonist. Waiyaki has been brought up to be the prophetic “saviour” of the people from the increasingly frequent depredations of the colonisers. Sent to be educated at the nearest missionary school – to learn the master’s tools to break down the master’s house – while retaining a firm foothold among his people, Waiyaki is the man marked to reconcile and unify the warring factions, and take on the colonisers. His chosen weapon is that of education.

However, Waiyaki will come to realise that reconciliation is not so easy. As Uzodinma Iweala remarks in his excellent introduction, while dealing with Muthoni’s own decision to undertake circumcision while remaining faithful to her father, “most utopias can accommodate only one grand vision.” Those who seek to expand them must either end in compromising, or in tragedy. And that is at the heart of The River Between.

The ambition of The River Between – as I mentioned above – is that Ngugi wa Thiong’o chooses as his site of conflict between colonial “modernity” and indigenous belief a practice that almost all of us would condemn unreservedly, both intuitively, and on careful reflection. What do the defenders of circumcision have to say for themselves? What can they possibly have to say for themselves? In Facing Mount Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta (independent Kenya’s first President) might have written that “this operation is still regarded as the very essence of an institution which has enormous educational, social, moral and religious implications… for the present it is impossible for a member of the tribe to imagine an initiation without clitoridectomy” – but surely that is no justification for something that is so obviously oppressive.

In The River Between, Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s answer is to remove the authorial voice almost entirely from the novel. Female circumcision relies entirely upon its novelistic advocates for its justification, and one of those advocates is Muthoni as well. Echoing Kenyatta, Thiong’o describes how, for Muthoni, circumcision is what gives her membership in the tribe any meaning at all; without it, she is bereft, like an atrophied limb, cut off from its body. Now, we may dismiss this as false consciousness, as internalised oppression; but Thiong’o’s Muthoni is too fiercely intelligent, too reflective, and too human for any such easy resolution. And this is the singular achievement of The River Between: Thiong’o gives us a character whom we must take seriously, whose choices we must evaluate as choices. This is particularly important because, as recent scholarship has shown, the conflict over the abolition of oppressive gender-practices between the colonisers and indigenous societies was conducted on a terrain in which any kind of agency or voice was entirely denied to those whom it was ostensibly for: women. As an Indian scholar writes, the conflict “was not so much about the specific condition of women within a definite set of social relations as it was about the political encounter between a colonial state and a supposed ‘tradition’ of a conquered people.” In this context, Muthoni’s is the absent voice, now foregrounded front and centre.

Muthoni’s certainty and strength of will is a stark contrast with the ambivalent and unsure Waiyaki. Primed to belong to both worlds, he too falls victim to the totalitarianism of utopias, and finds himself struggling to belong to either:

“Again he was restless and the yearning came back to him. It filled him and shook his whole being so that he felt something in him would burst. Yearning. Yearning. Was life all a yearning and no satisfaction? Was one to live, a strange hollowness pursuing one like a malignant beast that would not let one rest? Waiyaki could not know. Perhaps nobody could ever know. You had just to be…

Waiyaki is a neat inversion of the familiar fictional trope, the “half-blood” who, straddling two worlds, emerges as an unlikely saviour. Through Waiyaki – who, again, like Muthoni, is too human to simply reduce to a type – Thiong’o demonstrates just how difficult a task that is in moments of extreme flux, where one order, backed by raw power, clashes with another, supported on nothing but memories and dreams. And it is only towards the end of the novel that we get a sense of where Thiong’o himself stands on the issue:

“A religion that took no count of people’s way of life, a religion that did not recognize spots of beauty and truths in their way of life, was useless. It would not satisfy. It would not be a living experience, a source of life and vitality. It would only maim a man’s soul, making him fanatically cling to whatever promised security, otherwise he would be lost. Perhaps that was what was wrong with Joshua. He had clothed himself with a religion decorated and smeared with everything white. He renounced his past and cut himself away from those life-giving traditions of the tribe. And because he had nothing to rest upon, something rich and firm on which to stand and grow, he had to cling with his hands to whatever the missionaries taught him promised future… if the white man’s religion made you abandon a custom and then did not give you something of equal value, you became lost.”

Here we have that flash of insight, delivered in spare, clean prose, that is such a staple of the later Thiong’o. The River Between shows us a young Thiong’o, still honing and polishing his craft, the craft that would reach its peak in a novel like The Wizard of the Crow. But for a first novel, it is still an astonishingly accomplished work, subtle, complex, and above all, humane and empathetic.

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“Queues were a Marxist invention…”: Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow

In his Introduction to Little Mountain, Elias Khoury’s surrealistic novel about the Lebanese Civil War, Edward Said observes that the Arab novel has responded to the post-colonial world in two ways: through the dense realism of Naguib Mahfouz, with its focus on place and time; and the anti-realism of Emile Habibi’s Saeed the Pessoptimist, and Khoury’s Little Mountain. Moving down South, my experience with African novels (if we can bracket the problem of the term “African” novel) has fallen into the former category. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Anthills of the Savannah, Ousman Sembene’s Gods Bits of Wood, Coetzee’s Disgrace, Alan Paton’s Cry The Beloved Country, and the short stories of Nadine Gordimer, have all had a powerful impact upon me, because of the sense in which they seem to be capturing something very real.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow is a novel of the second kind. It reads like a cross between Emile Habibi’s The Pessoptimist, and Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty is a Wound. With the former, it shares a keen sense of the absurd in the political, as well as the use of satire that spares no side. And like the latter, it almost seamlessly mingles political history with magic realism, clearly drawing upon oral and folk traditions to do so.

Set in the fictional, post-colonial African dictatorship of Abruria, The Wizard of the Crow is a 768-page long mock epic, featuring a sprawling cast of characters: the unnamed “Ruler”, his coterie of ministers, a real estate agent with pretensions to power, apparatchiks and functionaries, bystanders, an opposition movement called The Voice of the People, a radical feminist activist, and of course, the eponymous “Wizard of the Crow”, an unemployed man who becomes a famous witch-doctor in a fit of absent-mindedness. The Ruler has grand plans of embarking upon a (literal) Tower-of-Babel project called “Marching to Heaven”. Abruria is not Babylon, however, and funding for the project must come in the form of loans from the (unsubtly named) Global Bank. And so the scene is set: even as the Ruler and his Ministers attempt to show to the Global Bank Mission (and its unsubtly named “Missionaries”) that Abruria is a stable and peaceful country and an attractive investment destination, chaos begins to spread around the country, with the Wizard of the Crow and the mysterious Voice of the People at the heart of everything.

The Wizard of the Crow is an unapologetically political novel. The very choice of theme reflects the inevitability of political engagement: a post-colonial dictator embarking upon a vanity project with the aid of global capital must necessarily involve complex and fraught questions of the role and responsibility of the “West” in colonialism and the post-colony, its complicity with dictatorial “anti-communist” regimes, the relationship between colonial elites and their own constituents as well as their relationship with the (former) colonisers, the reality of geopolitics, international debt traps, and of course, the ubiquity of violence. Thiong’o’s treatment of these questions is through savage, biting satire, that spares no one. In fact, at times, his voice is so direct, that it’s hardly even satire anymore. The American Ambassador tells the Ruler (while suggesting that he step down in favour of someone younger and less erratic):

“You are very wise, your Excellency, and the West will make sure that you retire with all your wealth and that of your family and friends completely intact. We can even help it to multiple. And also, we can make sure that your successor passes a law to ensure that you are never brought to court on charges involving any of your actions during your tenure as the head of the state. And of course if you feel that you have to move to another country, that, too, can be arranged.”

There are two things, I think, that save this from descending into the realm of (uninteresting) polemic. For one, passages of this sort do not occur too frequently. In the vast canvas of the novel, they are scattered enough to be forgiven. Secondly – and perhaps more importantly – they actually serve to remind us of the political truths underlying what is, for the most part, a surreal romp that involves an epidemic of “queuing” throughout the country, the prevalence of a strange disease that traps words within the speaker’s throat and renders him powerless of speech, the hostile takeover of a prison with no weapon but a bucket of excrement, and a hilariously abortive trip to the United States. This does not mean, however, that these incidents are absent of political implications themselves. The “queuing mania” has its origins in two lines that form outside the office of a real-estate agent who will potentially be given the Marching to Heaven contract: one is a line of job-seekers, and the other is of favour-seekers. The implications are obvious. And the first outbreak of the mysterious disease is when the real-estate agent tries to express a desire to become “white”, but is simply unable to bring himself to say it. Once again, the implications ought not to be spelt out, but left to the imagination.

It is here that the resemblances with Habibi are particularly stark. In The Pessoptimist, there is laughter, but the laughter barely conceals the darkness within the lines – in fact, it makes us even more aware of the darkness. So it is with The Wizard of the Crow, in moments like these, when the Ruler’s Minister address the Global Bank Missionaries:

We swear by the children of the children of the children of the children of our children to the end of the world – yes, we swear even by the generations that may be born after the end of the world – that we shall pay back every cent of the principle along with interest on interests ad infinitum.”

One does not need to mention Argentina, and Greece, and Puerto Rico, for the first shiver to run down the spine at this enthusiastic declamation, and what it entails.

The selection of quotes might give the impression that Thiong’o is particularly critical of colonialism and its successor, that much-contested term, “neoliberalism”. This is not so, however: Thiong’o does not fall into the easy trap of laying all the blame at the feet of any one entity or group, and effectively denying the other of agency. His satire spares none. After a reversal with the Global Bank, for instance, the Ruler decides to ban all queues of more than five people, with the following public justification:

“Queues were a Marxist invention, according to the Ruler, having nothing to do with African culture, which is characterized by the spirit of spontaneity. Mass disorganization – pushing and shoving – was to be the order of the day…”

With one arrow, Thiong’o pierces the conceit of political nativists, of ardent nationalists, of academic romanticisers of indigenous cultures, of the Orientalists as well as (some of) their opponents. The “derivative discourse” that is nationalism (what the historian Partha Chatterjee needs a complex, book-length work to explain) is sparely, starkly, stripped to its essentials and laid bare for all to see. Later in the book, again responding to the denial of the Global Bank to provide the funds for Marching to Heaven, Thiong’o has one of his characters declare “”Racists!”… putting as much hatred as he could into his voice.” It is strikingly accurate how this sums up a particularly complex moment of political discourse, when one mode of argumentation is an almost-reflective invocation of racism (or another similar word) to delegitimise an opponent’s position by denying them the moral right to take any position on the issue. It is an argument that must be made on occasion, but is dangerous when it begins to be made on a majority of occasions. Thiong’o understands both aspects, and that is part of what makes this not simply a work of fierce satire, but also one of a certain kind of hard-earned wisdom.

At the same time, it should not be assumed that the book is only about politics. Apart from satire being a valuable form of writing in itself (and not necessarily by reference to its subject matter), it is also fascinating to try and trace the folk influences (to the limited extent that a non-African can). In one fascinating scene, for instance, The Wizard of the Crow goes to a restaurant, and hears his own story being told back to him, in a highly garbled form. I recently came across the same trope in Nalo Hopkinson’s disturbing SF novel, The Midnight Robber, as well as seeing it in Indian folktales. It seems to be a staple!  

Appropriately, perhaps, the ending of the book is utterly ambiguous, leaving (almost) all possibilities open. Almost as if Thiong’o is holding up a mirror to life. But to end with a personal observation: I was struck by the extent to which Thiong’o characters invoke and use Indian mythos and mythology in their conversation (the protagonist, the Wizard of the Crow, has been educated in India). When the story of Drona and Eklavya is used as a parable for exploitation not by a Dalit activist in India, but by a fictional character in a novel set in post-colonial Africa, it is quite a moment of surprise. I used to think that the influence of India upon Africa is a hypothetical scenario of the future (for instance, a “scramble for Africa between China and India is imagined by Monica Byrne in her The Girl in the Road) – but if The Wizard of the Crow is anything to go by, then there is already more influence than I imagined!

 

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