This is a story about Kenya building the first new railroad since the British built the old one more than a century ago. The new line goes through a National Park. A watchman was attacked by a cheetah. No one was mauled by lions. The attempts to link the current project to the Man Eaters of Tsavo trope is noted, but that happened a century ago when the lion population in the Protectorate was still quite big, and rhinos charged mail cars.
A great thinker. A great artist. A great Kenyan.
Joyce Nyairo of the Daily Nation has written a stinging critique of Binyavanga’s short documentary. Nyairo takes umbrage at Binyavanga’s bashing of Pentecostals and giving a dumbed down, even simplistic, account of Kenyan history over the Moi years.
The ultimate tragedy of Binyavanga’s documentary is the ease with which he slides into a diatribe against Pentecostals — as if homosexuality can only be popularised by bashing something or someone else’s conformity…..
Each one of the titles of this six part “documentary” is a quote from Binyavanga’s long and frighteningly convoluted tirade against the hypocrisies of Africa’s discourse on homosexuality.
The quotes are as clever as they are memorable. But they represent isolated flashes of brilliance in a text that is neither articulate nor lucid. Binyavanga struggles too hard to be profound, repetitively swinging from mimicry and lazy stereotyping to banal imagery that does nothing to enlighten. His style is unworthy, an injustice to his subject.
I think Nyairo has missed the point of this short “tirade” by miles. The style of delivery and everything about this documentary show that Binyavanga’s intended audience is not the class of Kenyans who go to Blankets & Wine. He is not trying to preach to the choir – most upper middle class Kenyans already have liberal views on homosexuality and those that don’t often have to hide them behind their middle class civility. Neither is he trying to engage in an enlightened rebuttal of the claim that homosexuality is “un-African.” No. What Binyavanga is trying to do is to take the conversation to the streets, and the homes of regular Kenyans. He is aiming at the middle middle class and lower. Binyavanga knows that this is the demographic that will matter the most in changing Kenya, whether it is economically or in the further expansion of human rights.
Yes, Binyavanga has hoisted up the Pentecostal movement as his ultimate straw man. But that’s just in reaction to the hijacking of the conversation on homosexuality in Africa by religious moralists. It is hard to see how one can have an open conversation about homosexuality in Kenya today without addressing the question of sin and hell and Sodom and Gomorrah. This precedes even the macho talk of “natural African” (read heterosexual male) and “un-African” sexual habits. The language of “rights” alone will simply not fly, and when attempted will most likely result in an ugly backlash. This is what Binyavanga is speaking to.
After reading the Economist’s rather harsh review of Binyavanga’s new book I decided to order it on Amazon. I was not disappointed (although I must admit that the Economist was right as far as editing goes. They could have done better).
The book is vintage Binyavanga, a fast paced read with insertions of commentary hear and there. The political commentary could have been done better – but that might just be the Political Scientist in me wanting more. I also felt like Binyavanga could have done more telling of the struggles of a young writer. How many manuscripts got rejected? How exactly did he discover his calling to become a writer? (he talks a bit about how he loved reading and hated other subjects in school but it would have been nice to know how as an adult this happened).
The book is great in many respects, but for me what did it was the combination of witty political commentary and a narration of a struggle against family expectations and personal failures.
I highly recommend it.
Every summer when I travel back home I make sure to peruse the latest issue of Kwani? – the literary magazine co-founded by Binyavanga Wainaina.
That is why I was a little disappointed and challenged by the caustic review the Economist gave his latest book One Day I Will Write About This Place. I have ordered the book and I hope it gets here before I leave for Nairobi next month.
The Economist review, in part, says:
Mr Wainaina should not have been encouraged to write in the form of a memoir. He is not the only one to suffer from this. Too many African writers are co-opted by the American creative-writing scene only to be reduced by prevailing navel-gazing. Separately, much of the African writing culture that remains on the continent, including Kwani?, is propped up with cash from the Western donors that African writers purport to excoriate.
Beyond Wainaina’s latest book, the review raises important questions about African writing and intellectual production in general. Half a century of mediocre leadership and almost universal failure across the continent has left many an African writer with little else to write about but poverty, disease, civil war or the blissful survival of these maladies.
But as the Economist review dares to ask: Is it about time African writers and intellectuals began to look ahead? Is it time everyone stopped looking at the past and current problems and focused on the future and how to get there? Is the culture and mentality of merely “staying afloat” a disease that only affects the African political class or is it widespread among the general populace?
Check out the comments on the Economist’s review for further takes on Binyavanga’s book.
You can also read a more favorable review here.