Binyavanga Wainaina, Some scenes from a Kenyan childhood

It is a Sunday. I am nine. We are sitting on a patch of some tough nylon grass next to the veranda. Mum has brought out her Ugandan mats. I am reading a new book. I am reading a new book every day now. This book is about a flamingo woman; she is a secretary, her sticklike legs improbable in cloggy high heels, her handbag in her beak.

Flying away.

The flamingo book came with a carton of books my mum bought from American missionary neighbors who were going back home. The sun is hot. I close my eyes and let the sun shine on my eyelids. Red tongues and beasts flutter, aureoles of red and burning blue. If I turn back to my book, the letters jumble for a moment, then they disappear into my head, and word-made flamingos are talking and wearing high heels, and I can run barefoot across China, and no beast can suck me in, for I can run and jump farther than they can.

On my trampoline of letters and words.

Mum is shelling peas and humming, and our bodies all hum smoothly with her. Chiqy is peeling petals off flowers; Ciru is running around with a yo-yo from the same American carton of goodies. When Ciru laughs, everybody laughs, and when she is running and laughing, everybody is warm and smiling.

Yellow dahlias hang their heads and start to shed their petals. I think about making a kite, like Jimmy showed us. Take a newspaper. Baba will beat you if you use the Sunday Nation. Cut one page off its twin. Use a knife to split a stick of old bamboo from the fence. Tape sticks, diagonally, with cellotape. Three holes in a triangle, in the right place. Make a long long newspaper tail. Run. Run run.

There are two old kites stuck on the electrical wire. We got into trouble for that.

Standing here, we can see my whole hometown—stretched springs of smoke and the silos, one a clump of four tall, glued-together concrete cylinders, Unga (flour) Ltd, and the other two separate metallic blue and silver tubes, silos, where Baba works, Pyrethrum Board of Kenya. We call it Pie Board. He is the managing director. It is a farmers’ marketing cooperative. There is a factory. Labs and research scientists. Processing. Pyrethrins are a key ingredient for international insecticides. Like Johnson’s It.

Behind us is Menengai Crater; to the west, sitting under Nakuru Golf Club, is Lena Moi Primary, where we all go to school. At the bottom, near the lake, are thousands of tiny rusty-metal-roofed houses. When school bells ring, tens of thousands of people come streaming out of those homes.

Ciru has been number one in her class every term since she was five. Last term I surprised everybody, including myself, and beat Ekya Shah and was number one in my class. I like the new things we do, like English composition, and geography especially. You don’t lose marks for handwriting, and my handwriting is terrible. I do not concrentrate in class, but I read everything I can touch.

Daniel Toroitich arap Moi is our new president. He is young, awkward, and fumbling, but clean, tall, and sharp in a suit. He is on television, moving like an accordion, apologizing in his uncertain voice for just being here. He has found himself at the center of things and does not know what to do now that he is no longer Kenyatta’s vice president.

Like Mary, in our class, who is large and hulking and always bent over scribbling. She pretends she can read, but sometimes we catch the book upside down, her body locked into a fierce bow, her eyes glaring at the book.

My neck and ears burn when I see a teacher turn to her and say, “Mary, what is the answer?”

Sometimes we like Moi because he fumbles, like all of us. He isn’t booming like Kenyatta, or polished and slick like Charles Njonjo. His English stumbles; his Kiswahili is broken and sincere. We have no idea what man and mind he is in his home language, Tugen. That is a closed world to the rest of the country outside his people. We are not curious about that world. We make a lot of jokes about him.

It is almost lunchtime, and boiled cauliflower looms. We live on top of the hill. We look down on the town. From here, looking down on Nakuru, everywhere there are purple, puffed-up cabbages of blooming jacaranda heads. Cauliflowering, I think. I shudder and look away.

I look past the silos, to the edge of town: the symmetrical fields of green maize. Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. Then wheat. Weetabix is unbeatabix. All around, in the distance, are mountains.

Nakuru is a high-altitute town at the bottom of the Rift Valley. This geography-class contradiction confuses me. Ciru and I like to call Kenya’s tallest building Kenyatta Cornflakes Center.

Brown is near. Green far. Blue farthest. The hills in the distance are dark. Maasailand.

From here you can see Kenya’s main highway—the Mombasa-Kisumu Road, where there are often long, long lines of army tanks and trucks going to the Lanet barracks. Uganda is still falling. Idi Amin ran away. They killed all the prisoners and left blood and guts in the prison. Some bodies had no heads. Tanzania and Museveni attacked Amin. Mum is on the phone a lot with uncles and aunties. Most of them are now all over the world.

President Moi says Kenya is an Island of Peace. President Moi says Somali Shifta bandits are trying to destabilize Kenya. Somali Shiftas don’t tuck in their shirts. The king of Rwanda is nearly seven feet tall and is always standing outside Nairobi Cinema, where women come and kneel in front of him. He is not allowed into Rwanda. He is a refugee. He used to flirt with Mum before she met and fell in love with Baba.

Kings are in trouble. From presidents. The Buganda king is a waiter in London. Uganda is a picture on a map, shaped like the back of the bumpy head of somebody facing giant Congo stubbornly, his long kimay jaw swaying as it cuts into Rwanda. His face is full of lakes and rivers.

Presidents are also in trouble from generals. Like Uganda, and Sudan to the north. Everybody is in trouble from communists. Like Mengistu Haile Mariam, whose hand I shook when he visited Baba’s factory with President Moi and our school choir sang for him. He was very short and had size five Bata shoes, exactly my size. Lord Baden-Powell was also a size five. He left his footprint at Rowallan campsite in Nairobi.

In every classroom there is a map with a photo of the president’s head in the center of each African country. Kenya is an island of peace, it says on TV all the time. People should stop politicking, Moi says.

Mum’s home in Uganda is near the border with Rwanda, near Congo. She can’t go to visit; the border is closed.

I look up from my book, from the surety of flying flamingo secretaries, look up first at the sky, then at pink and blue Lake Nakuru below us. A first word and picture book, my own book, snaps into place in my mind. In it, clouds are the hair of God. He is old and balding. The radiant blue light leaks out of his head. We sit inside him, receiving rain and sun, thunder and lightning.

I look up to watch the flamingos rise up from the lake, like leaves in the wind. Our dog, Juma, is grinning, mouth open and panting and harmless, and I have this feeling. It is a pink and blue feeling, as sharp as the clear highland sky. Goose bumps are thousands of feathers, a swarm of possible people waiting to be called out from the skin of the world, by faith, by the right words, the right breeze.

The wind swoops down, God breathes, and across the lake a million flamingos rise, the edges of Lake Nakuru lift, like pink skirts swollen by petticoats, now showing bits of blue panties, and God gasps, the skirts blow higher, the whole lake is blue and the sky is full of circling flamingos.


Read more in his beautiful new book, One Day I Will Write About This Place, published next week by the invaluable Graywolf Press.

Binyavanga Wainaina is the founder and former editor of, and frequent contributor to, Kwani?, the legendary Kenyan literary magazine.

For a very different, but equally lyrical, African landscape on Little Star, see Ingrid Winterbach here.




Copyright © 2011 by Binyavanga Wainaina, from One Day I Will Write About This Place. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota,

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2 Responses to Binyavanga Wainaina, Some scenes from a Kenyan childhood

  1. Josse mwella says:

    Am glad this part remains as rawly emotive as i first read it. The words dance, glided better than kites. They make me shiver with anticipation, echoing a sort of premature eruption of the things to come.

  2. Kiruri Kamau says:

    Yes, he was tall, mutheca-itu, we would have called him where I come from, I always saw him outside Nairobi cinema and little Lilliputians, not much smaller than the rest of us onlookers, would genuflect and pay homage to the larger-than-life king of Rwanda. What was the king of Rwanda doing in the streets of Nairobi, I always wondered. Binya your prose is beautiful, your imagery evocative. I want to read One day…..