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by Binyavanga Wainaina (Granta)
The title is enough to draw you in and once you are catapulted into this wondrous tale about a young Kenyan boy’s extraordinary life, it’s a roller-coaster.
It is also about the way he uses language.
As the roofs clatter and glisten on a hot African day, he sketches the scene so vividly, it’s as if you are walking down those dusty streets.
“Light bounces off the cars and glass windows, and I can see Tom Mboya Street, swollen and pushed back by batons, hooting and smelling of burning carbon, burst toilets, layers of sweat, mashed fruit and tear gas -– all of this is nothing under the weight of the rivers of surging people.”
You are part of that experience right there.
Even if you don’t know the streets, it’s a place you’re familiar with as you feel the urgency of people on the move.
It is a story of a young boy trying to find his place in a world that he doesn’t understand.
Africa exacerbates that emotion because of all the different rules and customs, religions and culture that show you the way but not always with a clear explanation.
If you ask questions, like the author does, the answers aren’t always satisfying and sometimes have you reeling.
From an early age, he feels some discomfort with the way he experiences life.
It’s as if he questions everything and sees the world from a very different vantage.
That’s also what makes this such a fascinating tale. Nothing comes easily for this young man as he tries to navigate everything that is thrown at him.
His is a new voice, one that cannot be pinpointed and one that makes you look at things differently. If you live here but don’t know enough about the continent, there’s much to learn. Like in last year’s movie
The First Grader which tells the story of an old Kenyan man who wants to go to school to read because he wants to understand the horrors of his past, this book also made me aware of the tribalism and factionalism which seems rampant in Kenya.
It’s a common African theme and yet it still caught me by surprise that it seems to play such a dominant role in everyone’s life.
It came up in both film and book not as the main issue but just something that is part of how you are treated and do to others as you move through your life.
But much more is revealed. It’s that kind of book. The author spends much of his early adult life in a recently democratic South Africa where he has come to study and many things make him lose his way.
Among others, the way foreigners are treated in this country for example.
He is in a hurry to get back home, yet comes back a second time to try to complete his studies.
His view on Africa is always novel. “Kampala seems disorganised, full of potholes, bad management and haphazardness. It is the kind of African city that so horrifies the West in all of us. The truth is that it is a city overwhelmed by enterprise. I see smiles, the shine of healthy skin and teeth; no layabouts lounging and plotting at every street corner. People do not walk about with walls around themselves as they do in Nairobbery.”
Or listen to him discuss different countries, their people and their struggles: “If there is a courtesy every Kenyan practises, it is that we don’t question each other’s contradictions; we all have them and destroying someone’s face is sacrilege. If South Africans seek to fill the holes in their reality through building a strong political foundation, we spend a lot of time pretending our contradictions do not exist. To be a new thing in South Africa is normal.
“We know we sit on top of a terrifying edifice: we are terrified of questioning anything too deeply.
“There is nothing wrong with being what you are not in Kenya, just be it successfully.”
It is one of those books I wanted everyone to read, not only because of the author’s unusual mind, the way he looks at things but also the language he uses to put across what he is trying to say. It’s novel, it’s imaginative and I loved the fact that this extraordinary voice was telling me so much more about the continent I love. – Diane de Beer