One Day I Will
Write About This Place

A Memoir
Binyavanga Wainaina
(Graywolf Press)
In Kenya, Wainaina belongs to the Gibuyu tribe. Because of the tribal nature of Kenya, there are almost seventy languages spoken, with Gikuyu, Kalenjin, Kiswahli, and English being the most prevalent. If there is a theme here (and there might not be one --- note the title), it is one of language. One Day I Will Write About This Place is a primer of languages on a continent that finds itself stuck with over 3,000 of them, each with its own feel, each with its own shortcomings.

Wainaina claims that you can convey certain feelings to people who speak Gikuyu, and other feelings only in English. He says he becomes far more thoughtful when he speaks Gikuyu. Out in the bush, it's just plain wrong to speak the former. For example, to a young girl he's just met, "I switch to Swahili, and she pours herself into another person, talkative, aggressive. A person who must have a Tupac T-shirt stashed away somewhere . . ."

    How bold and animated she is, speaking Sheng, a very hip street language that mixes Swahili and English and other languages. Here so far from road and railway Kenya.

Their back-and-forth quickly turns intimate. She claims to like older men: "Old men are good. If you feed them, and give them a son, they leave you alone."

    "Won't it be difficult to do this if you are not circumcised," he asks her.

    "Kwani, who told you I'm not circumcised? I went last year."

    I am shocked, and it shows. She laughs.

    "He! I nearly did it myself! But I didn't cry!"

    "Why? Si, you could have refused."

    "Ai! If I had refused, it would mean that my life here was finished. There is no place here for someone like that."

    "But . . . "

"I cut myself short. I am sensing that this is her compromise --- to live two lives fluently. As it generally is with people's reason for their faiths and choices, trying to disprove here is silly, as a Maasai, she would see my statement as ridiculous."

On another day there in Kenya, Wainaina is riding on a matatu, a small bus. He is again noting the effects of different languages. The conductor offers up divergent stances from other tongues: "the man's body language, his expressions, his character even, change from language to language --- he is brash town town guy, a Gijuyu matatu guy, in Gikuyu, and even in Kiswahili. When he speaks Kalenjin, his face is gentler, more humorous, ironic rather than sarcastic, conservative, shy eyes."

§   §   §

Not only do different languages make different dialogues possible, other countries, too, can create different mysteries. Wainaina takes a trip to Uganda. "This is my first trip to Uganda, a land of mystery for me. I grew up with her myths and legends and horrors, narrated with the intensity that only exiles can muster . . . " (He is speaking here of Idi Amin Dada, who ran Uganda from 1971 - 1979.)

    This is a country that has not only reached the depths that countries fall into, it has scratched through the bottom and free-fallen again, and now it has rebuilt itself and swept away the hate. This country gives me hope that this continent is not, finally, incontinent.

"This is a country I used to associate with banana trees, old and elegant kingdoms . . .[but] I am rather annoyed that the famous seven hills of Kampala are not as clearly defined as I had imagined they would be. I have always had a childish vision of a stately city filled with royal paraphernalia. I had expected to see elegant people dressed in flowing robes, carrying baskets on their heads and walking arrogantly down streets filled with the smell of roasting bananas, and intellectuals from a 1960s dream, shaking the streetwise with their Afrocentric rhetoric."

§   §   §

One Day I Will Write About This Place is as mixed up as the different tribes, languages, and cultural differences that he notes --- and participates in. They are all 21st century Eastern Africa, and, together, they are as baffling as the title of the book. "One day," it says. Yet the volume is here and now; is written, is in our hands. Is the title a confession? That he thinks that his particular version of the Africa story is not enough, that it may not be today's Africa.

He calls it a "memoir." Perhaps. But, better, it's a travel book, a road show of the different cultures of East Africa.

It's also a show off language book. The first fifty pages are a jumble of the author's words struggling to get out, word puns and puzzles, with "secret foreign influenzes,"

    perferting our gildren, preaking our gutural moralities, our ancient filosofies, the dissidents are bushing and bulling, pringing segret Kurly Marxes, and Michael Jagsons, making us backliding robots, and our land is becoming mooner handscapes.

After page 100 or so, the lingual confoundations and bushing and bulling drift away, and we get into the equally puzzling mass of confusions of stoned college students (who would rather be stoned than students. In fact, Wainaina here finally drops out of university, becomes a full-time drifter, much to his family's disgust.)

In One Day I Will Write About This Place, one does get a muddled picture of Africa, and certainly not a jungle Africa as a jumble Africa. As happens so often, when I can't figure out what the hell a writer is trying to tell me, I go to the professionals at the TLS, or the London Review of Books, or Kirkus, or the New York Times, to see what they have to say about this one.

I ended up at the NYTBR with One Day. And this was the kiss-off that Alexandra Fuller offered me in her featured review:

    Harried reader, I'll save you precious time: skip this review and head directly to the bookstore for Binyavanga Wainaina's stand-up-and-cheer coming-of-age memoir, One Day I Will Write About This Place.

Yup. I've used that trick meself a couple of times. When I can't sort out a book, I break right through the form of the review, and instead of me being wise, telling you what's there . . . instead of that, I end up saying listen, don't waste your time with me. Just get online and buy this one, it's that (wonderful)(interesting)(different)(puzzling)(impenetrable)(totally screwy).

Meaning, in this case, it's all sixes-and-sevens for me as it was with Fuller --- so I'm just going to bail the hell out, let you go at it on your own.

Good luck.

--- Lolita Lark
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