From Binyavanga Wainaina:
This is the last chapter of my book. One Day I Will Write About This Place. I had not come out as gay when this was published. I thought of coming out as gay in this book. I just lacked the heart to tell my father, we used to call him Babs. Two weeks before he died, I came close to telling him. But I was too afraid. Not of him. My father to me was always fair and just. I feared the consequences of being ‘different’ for the rest of my life. I couldn’t be happier that I decided to come out to the world as gay, two years later. I would like to dedicate this piece to living for truth.
It is 1983. I am twelve and I own a bright green velvet pullover, and I like it very much. Because I am writing my national primary school exams in a month or so, I wake up at dawn to study. Jimmy is in boarding school and I have my own room. Studying involves observing geological eruptions on my face. Some people in class have them—scatterings of tiny white-tipped hills. Mine are different. They come in giant singles, giant turgid conical volcano heads on my forehead.
I like dawn. If I stand and look outside the window, the lake and hills are foggy, like a movie—there are no tin roofs or sudden fields of illegally grown maize to disturb the English countryside look. I can al- most imagine horses. Not a cow in sight, no random goats; even our goat is not yet out to pasture. I put on the radio, rush to find General Service. We have two main radio stations, General Service and National Service. General Service is in English. Every morning after the news, they play soft music like Abba and Boney M. and Kenny Rogers and Lionel Richie. Sometimes an orchestra called James Last, which plays soft misty versions of famous songs. The news is all about President Moi. James Last is good music to masturbate to: I can lie down and see misty television bodies doing naked misty things in the screen of my head.
I am supposed to be studying. This is why I masturbate. If I don’t masturbate, as often as possible, I will have to spend the day trying to hide my hard-on and never know if people can see it or not, and then my nose gets all sweaty, and then I have to LOOK AWAY from all breasts, and it seems that all the girls have breasts. What can I do to avoid them?
General Service radio is easy to find on medium-wave radio. Exactly at 800 using the dial. National Service is somewhere around 200. I know this because I try as much as possible to avoid it and its kimay sounds. I don’t know why that Congo music and that bad Kenyan guitar music so distress me; they just do. When I masturbate, I do not like to think about people I know. I know I am in love with Khadija Adams, who was Miss Kenya and who is an international beauty star and uses Lux soap. But I can’t imagine her breaking glamour and writhing about. I am also in love with Pam Ewing of Dallas—but she is too good for sex ideas, and sweet. I hate Bobby Ewing and Jenna Wade. I especially love Liz Mitchell, the lead singer of Boney M.
The truth is I am not good at pictures; I am much better at words. Any kissing or touching in any book is very powerful. I wonder some- times if there is a third kind of human being. There are real flesh and blood people. There are television and radio people. There are people in books. People in books do not have an actual voice for your ears. You cannot see them. If she has russet hair and soft tremulous lips, I do not associate this with real people. Russet is an emotion inside me that comes from reading things about horses, and manes, and many hairs tossing, and autumn. I see no color when I see the word russet. Russet tosses on the page, close to the soft lips: red autumn leaves crushing, a shining sunset-colored horse standing on two legs, mane rippling, a slow rising heat, and her lips trembled, and he leaned over her, and . . . .
An old man grins on the black-and-white screen. His beard shifts. Teeth flash. He pushes a stick across a wooden bow and string, tripe and beans boiling and spreading into the house on a hot day. My bright yellow mouth organ is stuck in my mouth and shaped like a maize cob.
I am talking all muffled and letting the sounds of my words hum out of the organ. The music sounds like, like chaos.
Television voice: “Tis delegation from Nyanza Province is play-ing a nyatiti. They have come to sing for the late President Kenyatta. A nyatiti is a traditional Luo musical instrument.”
Matiti. Ciru giggles. I giggle. Titi. Titties.
We like to play Maasai sometimes. This means taking off our clothes and thrusting our necks forward and making guttural sounds.
We move faster and faster, making our bodies perfect anarchy. Soon we are timeless beasts, carried by dizziness and adrenalin, no thoughts or plans or ideas, no past or pattern.
The old man has a colobus monkey–skin crown. He makes belly sounds—shaking, shapeless sounds. He rubs the stick up and down, up and down against the string; the tail of each upward movement accordi-ons dangerously against my chest. I roll across the carpet on my stomach and put my eyes next to the screen. I have done this before. Close to the screen, my panic fades. It is clear that their faces are fully owned by the television screen: they have been broken into thousands of small dots; the television has counted every piece that makes them up and they have no mystery. But when I back away from the screen, the man’s shapeless sounds grab me again.
Ciru and I are jumping up and down on the springs of the sofa, and laughing and pointing at the man. We find a strong rhythm and can’t stop laughing. We hug each other, and roll, Ciru and I, laughing. Our bellies hurt. I lie down and face the ceiling, which is clear and white, and my stomach settles, and I can hear the nyatiti rubbing away.
In my mouth is the plastic yellow grin world of the toy maize cob harmonica: fixed, English speaking, Taiwan made, safe, imported un-blemished plastic, an Americangrinning mouth organ, each hole a clear separate sound. In school we were taught that all music comes from eight sounds: do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do—but what those people are singing and playing cannot fit those sounds. Gibberish. Kenyatta is dead. Tose red blowtorch eyes in the dining room pulling together all those gath-ered harambee sounds of people in the many costumes of Kenya, sing-ing and dancing in no choir, many unrelated sounds and languages and styles and costumes, and facial expressions.
They have nothing to do with each other.
This is my new word, my secret. Ki. Maay. I let my jaw fall slack, with the second syllable, like a cartoon man with a cash register jaw.
Ki-maaay. It calls at the most unexpected moment. Certainty loses its spine, and starts to accordion. My jaw moves side to side, like a mouth organ. Once the word lives, kima-aay, it makes its own reality. I rub the word against the roof of my mouth, which is ridged like the ribs of some musical instrument. I swing my jaw slackly from side to side, let small marbles of yodel clamber up my throat, from my chest, let the breaking waves of yodel run on my tongue and leap into the shape of the word,
kie-mae-ae-ae-y . . . eay . . . .
Kimay is the talking jazz trumpet: sneering skewing sounds, squeaks and strains, heavy sweat, and giant puffed-up cheeks, hot and sweating; bursting to say something, and then not saying anything at all; the hemming and hawing clarinet. Kimay is yodeling Gikuyu women, Scottish square dancing to the accordion-playing man who wears a hat with a feather. It is a neon man called Jimmy, who has a screaming guitar and a giant Afro. It is ululating Gikuyu women crying around Kenyatta’s body on television. Gurgling Maasai men jumping up and down. Luo men in feathers and Kenyatta beards, nyatittying. Congo men singing like women.
I can speak English. I can speak Kiswahili. Ki-may is any language that I cannot speak, but I hear every day in Nakuru: Ki-kuyu, Ki-Kamba, Ki-Ganda, Ki-sii, Gujarati, Ki-Nyarwanda, (Ki) Ru-fumbira. Ki-May.
There are so many, I get dizzy. Ki-may is the accordion, the fiddle, the bagpipe, the trumpet. All those spongy sounds.
I fear slides and bagpipes, swings and dizziness, Idi Amin, and tra-ditional dancers yodeling around the dead president on television. Most of all I fear accordions.
It is autumn now, in my bed and breakfast room in Red Hook, New York, near Bard College, where I work. I took a long walk this evening. I walk and step on crushed leaves, watch the first golds and reds and rus- sets in this glorious light. It is such a charismatic season because it looks and feels like the ripening of things—but it isn’t. The leaves are dying. It has been a year and a half since Kenya went crazy. The screen of things blurred. During the violence, I refused to fly back to work in the United States in January. It felt like I was abandoning home. As soon as the peace agreement was signed, I left. I told myself I was done. Done with too much Kenya. I was going to apply for a green card. Visit for holidays. Save up to help get my family out if necessary. Love from a
I drank a lot, got angry a lot that summer. I can see myself now, flapping my arms drunkenly in various jagged locations and railing against this and that, and feeling that if I keep talking the ground won’t open up and make me lonely.
At a reading and a talk at Williams College, I embarrassed myself and burst into bad snotty tears when I started to talk about Kenya. There is no tissue. Please, please, all podiums, have tissue!
I am in the habit of Kenya. I can’t, just, leave.
Back to the bedroom in 1983. To maintain my illusion of myself, there is a bookshelf full of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. Again, a soft- focus hardback collection. They take good books, sanitize them, diminish them, and sell them to people who cannot handle a pungent and dynamic reality. For that was what we were supposed to be. General Service radio people. Reader’s Digest people.
While I am busy masturbating, that very year, Moi is building his Big Dick Building. Every dictator has to have one. His is called Nyayo House. He knows already that to rule Kenya, he is going to have to shed blood. All those years, we thought he was just hapless, that he tortured because he was floundering. Then, after he fell from power, we saw that there was an underground chamber, designed by his people, designed for torture with Nikolae Ceauşescu’s help, in that tall tall building. Nobody in the West complains. Moi is a good friend of the West. Inside those chambers, intellectuals, activists, writers are beaten, waterboarded, tes- ticles are crushed, people are deprived of sleep. Every day, several times a day, I play Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature,” and feel myself brimming in compassion for his sensitivity. We know enough to know things are going on out there, beyond the mist. There are whispers. But there is also Dallas, Dynasty, and Falcon Crest.
Michael Jackson is beautiful. The nose has not yet fallen. He has managed to make himself into a perpetual present tense: no lineage, no history; he is the maximum of sound and movement and nowness. Ten years ago, this suburb had been, for sixty years, the carefully built illu- sion of settler bureaucrats. All white, no blacks allowed, only servants who would be beaten if they were seen wearing shoes. They moved out fast after Independence. So fast, their houses were cheap. Baba bought a cottage in Nairobi that is our most valuable family asset. By 1972 Mum could drive us to town and all we would see were kids like us, living in a landscape like this. Kenya from my misty dawn bedroom with General Service is ageless and ours. The only problem is National Service radio, all those songs that suggest some other pungent reality, songs compli- cated enough to suggest mess and history. This music does not want to conveniently fit the shape of thrusting forward and shaping your- self like the next opportunity; it throbs with undefined past sounds, and shapes and ideas, and it is inconvenient, if only because the Anglo- Kenyan garden does not look like that music sounds.
The one Kenyan musician who is allowed regularly on General Service is Kelly Brown. He has an Afro, glittering clothes, and an R&B dance hit in Germany. He comes from Mombasa but has changed his name. Abdul Kadir Mohammed Ali Bux does not work in 1980s Europop circles. As people disappear into Kenya’s newly engineered dungeons, as people die of hunger and disease and roads crumble, we are feverishly passing exams and dancing to Kelly Brown, his Afro bobbing, sequins glittering: Me and my baby tonite-ah, we hold each other tite-ah, she gives me evuh-rythang, coz she’s ma best thing. Oooh ah. Ooo ah. Ah cant gerrinuf of your luuuurve.
It is the summer of the World Cup 2010, and I am in Ghana enjoying things. I have planned to be home in time for the referendum on the new constitution. I am tentative. Each time I have been home, things have been tense, tribe in everybody’s eyes, doubt. Last time, an immigration official at the airport started to speak to me in Gikuyu the moment she saw my surname. Wink wink. No hiding now. We are in conspiracy with one another. Let’s help each other, her eyes said. My uncle Henry, who took care of me in South Africa, is dead. Auntie Rosaria, the sweetest of Mum’s sisters, died of diabetes complications. Auntie Grace, wonderful, warm, and true Auntie Grace—Baba’s big sister—is dead. Baba is fine, but now I worry. Jim has a son, Eddy—a tsunami of energy and laughter. None of my nieces and nephews strongly recall Mum. I wish just one of them had Mum’s voice—so she does not just remain in our generation.
I am diabetic, and have discovered doctors. My knees were fine, and then I did that American thing that insists that tests for things you have not felt must be done. I have an MRI and find out that my knees are on the verge of death, and the moment I find this out, they creak and threaten to pop out of their sockets every time I bend them. Then I spend the night in a sleep clinic and they tell me I have probably never slept well, that I breathe badly, that an operation is imminent. I am excited. Maybe this is the cause of my vagueness. Maybe my vagueness is not caused by too many years of soft-focus trash. I have a syndrome. I am a victim of an -osis.
This is growing up, concerns and worries can no longer be suspended, they are just part of the day. Kenya is suddenly all soft and gooey. People smiling, looking you in the eye and saying mushy things like “as a Kenyan . . .” or “in this New Kenya . . . .” Shyly, shyly, millions go home to their villages from the city, pay money for buses and gifts, money they do not have, to vote for the new constitution. Even those who vote no do so peacefully. Kibaki is looking dangerously energetic. The fool. But today I like him, beaming like a teddy bear, today I like him. I had planned to be here and leave after the referendum, just for a selfish jolt of good feeling. To leave before I looked too hard and saw ugliness. Now with all of this, I cannot not leave.
In a moment of watery patriotism, the day after the referendum, I buy a benga compilation, done by Ketebul studios. It comes with a book- let on the history of benga, and a documentary and CD. I am afraid to watch it and find I still hate benga music. Everybody now is saying it is the true music of Kenya. Maybe in my heart I am a little Anglo-Kenyan, unable to appreciate benga.
I start watching the documentary, and somebody with a posh English accent is narrating the story of benga, and then I see a small group of traditional Luo musicians dancing and playing instruments on a patch of dust in a courtyard between grass huts. One man is playing the nyatiti. It sounds fine. No kimay. I am not thrilled. The music is coherent and complicated. The nyatiti and its younger cousin the lyre are two of the most ancient of stringed musical instruments. But it is the entry of the orutu—a wooden bow and string rubbing a fiddle made from a gourd—that scatters my senses and leaves me shifting uncomfortably, that bowel seesawing sound. I still can’t make the connection between the wooden sounds of this instrument and the acoustic guitar sounds of benga.
In the 1940s, thousands of Kenyans, including one Barack Obama Senior, left their villages for the first time, in uniform for the British, and ended up watching their fellow Kenyans dying inelegantly, and buried inelegantly, and left to rot inelegantly in a foreign land. These soldiers lived a life of thrills and excitement, full of adventure and horror. They met and saw people from all over the colonies. They saw them shit; they saw them die. They saw them sing. They expanded, they recoiled, they measured themselves, and they found no mathematical principle to account for their designated roles back home. Here a man who was just a white man’s cook, barefoot and grateful, could start to push his son to be as good as the colonizer.
A certain taboo of superiority was broken as soldiers witnessed a mortally wounded Britain floundering in the jungles for its survival. Those lonely evenings, maybe even in ceremonies to mark the dead who were never to be brought home, some started to play Spanish acoustic guitar. They used the guitar to recreate the sounds of home. The man who sits and plays the nyatiti is a storyteller. A group of players will come to a homestead and stand near the granary—far from delicate ears. As he plays the nyatiti, he composes a song, full of local characters, and history, and raunchy scandals, and love, and jealousy. The nyatiti, the drums, the rattles, the ankle rattles, the orutu simply accompany the story.
It is a literary form, and the song, the tune of the song, does not follow a separate and parallel musical scale: it too is a slave to the story, its peaks and troughs, its moments of wisdom, its bad behavior. And people dance, moving enough around the music to inhabit the story. If in Kenya the Spanish guitar was an object to be revered, smooth and without kink, a thing for white people’s music, in Burma—in bloodied uniforms, muddy, exhausted, and malarial—it was used with impunity, with no respect for the forms and scales and manners its brand name promised. To these soldiers, it became only an awkward pretender to the noble nyatiti, and the noble orutu. It was weak, but it had to do the job of both. A good orutu or nyatiti player, like a jazz guitarist, will live up to the narrative improvisations of the singer. So they did, musicians like Olima Anditi and John Ogara found a way to make the Spanish guitar recreate the partnership of sounds between the nyatiti and the orutu as accompaniments to singing/storytelling. It became a whole new idea—carrying all of what came before, but a thing of its own.
Something is knocking at the door to my head. I pause the docu- mentary, stand up, my hands shaking, get a coffee, and come back and watch Dave Otieno, a Kenyan guitarist—and music genius— speaking. Here it is, the source of all kimay. The music of the nyatiti is all about the singer. The nyatiti and orutu do not create their own sounds. Their job is to follow the words, the intonation, the language and melody of the song, to maintain the integrity of the story. So, if you take the singer away, what they sound like is what the singer was saying. They mimic the singer. The nyatiti is plucked, not strummed, and this makes sounds very different from any other Spanish guitar sound. Because Nairobi in the 1960s was now full of Luo benga guitarists in this tradition, benga as an idea spread quickly to different tribes, and their new popular music. Any good benga guitarist can mimic the architecture and musical rhythms and verbal sounds of any Kenyan language. Stripped down, that is the intent of benga.
Kimay is people talking without words, exact languages, the guitar sounds of all of Kenya speaking Kenya’s languages. If kimay brought me uncertainty, it was because I simply lacked the imagination to think that such a feat was possible. Right at the beginning, in our first popular Independence music, before the flag was up, Kenyans had already found a coherent platform to carry our diversity and complexity in sound.
We fail to trust that we knew ourselves to be possible from the beginning.
About the Author:
Binyavanga Wainaina is a journalist and winner of the 2002 Caine Prize for African Writing. He is the founder of Kwani? magazine. His memoir, One Day I Will Write About This Place (2011), was picked for Oprah’s Book Club. In 2014, he was included in TIME‘s “100 Most Influential People in the World.” He has taught at Williams College, Union College, and the Farafina Creative Writing Workshop, and was Director of the Chinua Achebe Centre at Bard College, U.S.A. He is the recipient of numerous honours and fellowships, including from Lannan Foundation and Africa’s Out!. He is currently a DAAD Fellow in Germany. He was, most recently, shortlisted for the Brittle Paper Award for Creative Nonfiction, for “Since Everything Was Suddening into a Hurricane” in Granta, and the Brittle Paper Award for Fiction, for “Ships in High Transit” in Expound.