Growing Up In Kenya

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: Congo's Eastern neighbour, Kenya, has it's own unique history and culture, but Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina says you might never know that from the way the African continent is depicted in newspapers and magazines. He pointed this out in an essay, in 2005- it was called "How to Write about Africa." Mr. Wainaina, with tongue firmly in cheek, advised writers to employ all the hackneyed stereotypes of Africa. Quote: "It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall thin people, who are starving. Or, it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don't get bogged down with precise descriptions." These days, Binyavanga Wainaina directs the Chinua Achebe Center for African Writers at Bard College. His first book is out now, it's a memoir. Right now he's in Kenya, and speaking to us from Nairobi. Binyavanga, in your memoir, titled "One Day I Will Write About This Place", you characterize yourself as kind of a dreamy kid, even within your own family. It sounds like you were the one with the nose always buried in a book. What did you notice about the world around you?

Binyavanga Wainaina: I was very much the dreamy kind of kid. I'd say, more than anything else, I was always confused about why everbody seemed to know what was going on. I was a bit offline or a bit off-kilter. And, I think, I processed the world through books, so I made sense of even the things around me through the frame of books. Rather than, I know people say writers are supposed to be great observers, I don't think I was a good observer. I was a good observer of people through books.

Werman: And, obviously, because you were immersed in books, language was and still is important to you obviously, you read a lot and you were fascinated by words. Do you remember some of the ones you really like? I mean, you even made some up, too.

Wainaina: Yeah, there was a word called "Kimay", which kind of just came, which was a word that referred, in my head when I was a kid to things that were shaky, and it could be jazz, it could be all different tribes. Cause, in Kenya, when you have a tribe it's really call "ki" something or "of" something, "Kikuyu", you know. So I had this language called "kimay". And it meant many things, like I hated accordian sounds so that was a "kimay" sound. A "kimay" sound was Jimi Hendrix playing the guitar, which was all upside down and shaky and scary. And "kimay" was also all these tribes of people speaking these different languages, meeting in English and Swahili in this new country where nobody really knows each other, and people are just figuring each other out, and always, you're always sitting in one place listening to many languages around you, and uncertain about your place among them.

Werman: I mean, it's telling that you say that people were still trying to figure each other out. And, this is when you were growing up- it's twenty years after independence, or so. Give us a sense of this era you grew up in, in Kenya.

Wainaina: So, I mean, this was the seventy's. I mean, in some senses Kenya's economy was booming, had boomed non-stop from 1963 until the mid eighties. For so many people it was their first generation in school, sometimes their parents were the first generation in school, in my case it was the latter. Schools were cheap, they were building schools all over the country, building electricity, roads, and everything else. It seemed like a gorgeous place. Of course there were huge amounts of tensions, it wasn't a democracy yet, there were all these other things going on. But it was a time of a kind of resurgence, you know. And so I tend to look on my childhood as, as a wonderful one. And in the book, you see that later, in my teens, as the Cold War ends, and the new culture of Humanitarianism, which I kind of refer to as a sort of way to flatten us back and tell us our project was stupid and we need to be taken care of, by white people all over the world and Bono and somebody. You know, for us it was, it was a very painful thing to witness ourselves on "We Are The World".

Werman: Why?

Wainaina: "We Are The World" wasn't just saying, It wasn't just saying "there's this drought". It was saying, "the project is over." The project of independence, the project of doing things yourself, suddenly there's a guy who's the king of Africa and he's a rock musician. So we're sitting here, watching people crying over us, "there's a drought in Kenya but those in that match of the world, starvation's alot about Ethiopia". The song just didn't stop at saying "Ethiopia", it said "Africa". I've come to believe that that moment was kind of a sudden victory, of not just Capitalism but victory of Humanitarianism. Cause, this kind of idea of putting you in your place, a kind of pity, and compassion. We sit here and watch people arrive and say "we are coming to save you", we see sixteen year-old American kids coming to teach grown men how to use a condom, as if that could happen. But you wonder, why the cost of that ticket from America and everything else, why so expensive for so little?

Werman: Do you think there's an alternative though, to this kind of Humanitarian activity?

Wainaina: I guess there's something between the distinction, between the interventions of global citizens to crises that affect their lives- you know, emergencies, global emergencies. If you look at the landscape of what that game is in Kenya, it long ago past the point at which it was like "we don't just want to come in". Now you've got people taking over education systems of whole districts. And, I, I'm actually, like many Africans, starting to wish that some of these things started to get regulated. The sheer amount of numbers, the sheer amount of passive weight carried by what you call the donate money, dead end world right now has gone mad.

Werman: Writer Binyavanga Wainaina directs the Chinua Achebe Center for African Writers and Artists at Bard College. His new book is a memoir called "One Day I Will Write About This Place." Binyavanga, great to meet you. Thank you.

Wainaina: Thank you very much, Marco.