Binyavanga Wainaina on His Childhood in the Infancy of the Kenyan Republic
From the Memoir of the Writer and Activist, Who Died this Week
It is Saturday.
I fake a nosebleed, and Mum lets me go to work with her.
I don’t want to see Sophia Mwela. I know she will come to the hedge between our houses and call out for Ciru and ask her where her American cousin is.
She will be laughing.
I am not talking to Ciru. Nobody is laughing at her. I don’t want to stay at home today. Jimmy does not know what happened. I am sure Ciru will tell him.
Mum has a hair salon, the only proper hair salon in Nakuru, which is the fourth-largest town in Kenya. It is called Green Art. Mum also sells paintings and wooden carvings.
I sit on the floor, at the foot of a huge hunched spaceman, in Mum’s hair salon. I can smell coffee brewing, from Kenya Coffeehouse next door.
The hair-dryer spaceman has a gray plastic head. His face is a huge hole gaping at me, and the hole is a at round net for him to blow hot air. I stick my own head into his helmet and play Six Million Dollar Man.
Mary is chatting with Mum about Idi Amin. They always talk about Idi Amin in Mary’s language, Luganda, which Mum speaks even though it is not her language. Museveni’s rebel army is gathering force in Tanzania. They chew roast maize slowly as they talk. Mum speaks Kinyarwanda (Bufumbira), Luganda, English, and Kiswahili. Baba speaks Gikuyu, Kiswahili, and English. We, the children, speak only English and Kiswahili. Baba and Mum speak English to each other.
I am going to be a quiet superhero today. Whooshing to the sky, with my invisible cape. With my bionic muscles.
I will show them.
“Steve. Austin. A me-aan brrely alive,” I wreng wreng Americanly. “Gennlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the tek-nalagee. We can build the world’s frrrrst bi-anic man . . . I can’t hold her; she’s brrreaking up! She’s brrreaking—”
The plastic helmet of the hair dryer has steamed up from my breath. I start to write on it with my finger.
Mary has big soft eyes, and she rolls her hips when she walks, which always makes me and Ciru laugh.
Idi Amin is killing people and throwing them to the crocodiles. The Nile is blocked with dead bodies. We have many aunties and uncles in Uganda. My grandparents, my mum’s parents, are in Uganda.
Baba’s friend disappeared at the border, and all they found was his broken glasses in a mass grave.
Mary is from Buganda. She ran away to Kenya from Amin. Many people are running to Kenya from Amin. Mum is Bufumbira. But Mum speaks Mary’s language because she went to a girls’ school in Buganda, Uganda’s best girls’ school, Mt. St. Mary’s Namagunga.
Mum’s stomach has started to swell with a new baby. She wants another girl.Everybody is against me. The ache of my pineapple situation strums against my chest, and I let it yo-yo around. It feels good.
Mum met Baba when she was a student at Kianda College in Nairobi. He was very groovy. He had a motorbike and a car and had been to England. We are Kenyans. We live in Nakuru. Mum was born in Uganda, but she is now a Kenyan. Baba is a Kenyan. He is Gikuyu. He is the managing director of Pyrethrum Board of Kenya.
I like how Mary’s fingers are able to do things even when her eyes are looking away. She moves customers’ heads up and down, side to side, and her fingers click fast, like knitting needles, and the big bush of messed-up hair becomes lines, and towers, like our new roads, railways, and bridges.
Kenyatta is our president. He is the father of our nation.
Kenya is a peace-loving nation.
We are all pulling together, and in school we sing, harambee, which means we are pulling together, like a choir, or tug-of-war. Standing on the podium of the choir, waving a fly whisk, is a conductor, President Kenyatta, who has red scary eyes and a beard. One day, we are told, Kenyatta’s Mercedes was stuck in the mud, and he shouted harambee, so that people would come and push and push his long Mercedes-Benz out of the mud, so we all push and pull together; we will get the Mercedes out of the mud.
Every so often Mary dips her finger into grease and runs lubrication down the corridors and grid streets, so they gleam like America on television. Sometimes she eats while she is doing this. Every few weeks a new hairstyle arrives, from West Africa, or AfricaAmerica, or Miriam Makeba, or Drum magazine and the Jackson Five: uzi, afro, raffia, or pineapple, and Mary immediately knows how to make it.
Kenyatta is the father of our nation. I wonder whether Kenya was named after Kenyatta, or Kenyatta was named after Kenya.
Television people say Keenya. We say Ke-nya. Kenya is 15 years old. It is even older than Jimmy.
Kenya is not Uganda.
Rain rattles the corrugated iron roof of Green Art Hair Salon. Hot Uplands pork sausages are spitting in a frying pan. It is a storm now, and the sound of the rain swells loud like the crowd after a goal in a stadium.
The door opens with a whoosh and droplets of water hit my face from the outside.
There is an ache in my chest today, sweet, searching, and painful, like a tongue that is cut and tingles with sweetness and pain after eating a strong pineapple.
“I found you!”
Sophia will say, if she bursts into this salon right now.
I miss Ciru.
I am already full of things to tell her. If she were here, she would pull me out of inside myself. I would wobble for a moment, then run or tumble fast and firm behind her.Mum’s voice is like shards of water and streams of glass. It rises up her throat like warm suds.
A group of women rush in. They are dressed for a wedding. They are hysterical. Their hot-combed hair shrunk in the rain. They had spent the whole night preparing at home. They are late for the wedding.
The bride is crying.
“Gennlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the tek-nalagee.”
Mum issues instructions. Sharp voices explode: clunking and whooshing and foaming like hands shaking up cutlery in the sink. They bubble like water when it is starting to make glass. If you stack up all the layers of bubbles, you can make a window. It will be round and soft at first, so you can put a big book on it, and jump on it and jump on it and make it at and hard and sure.
Maybe Liza’s mother came with the wedding women? She will see me; everybody will know I dressed up like a girl yesterday.
Mum will find out I wore her clothes and wig.
Everybody is against me. The ache of my pineapple situation strums against my chest, and I let it yo-yo around. It feels good.
I hear feet clumping toward me. I jump off the seat under the hair dryer and lie on the floor, under the chair. I cover my face with my hands. A body thumps onto a chair; a head eases into the helmet. The dryer starts to wheeze, and I can feels bits of hot air on my head.
It is the bride! I peep up at her, through my raw yellow ache. rough the hands covering my face. She looks beastly with her eyes upside down and her pink-lipsticked mouth inverted. I am quickly tender and pineapple pink. Butter y belly. Barefoot on hot gravel. Her lips are a pink baboon bum, which must really hurt. I harden my eyes, my heart.
I focus on the lips. They are a safer texture: pink-lipsticked toyland, the color of happy candy, and bubblegum balloons and hard, committed happiness.
I am quickly sharp and bright and happy. I take my hands away from my face, and stand up. She grimaces and shrieks.
“Oooooooh, whooo is that? Why are you hiding?”
My face falls.
“Don’t cry! Oh, don’t cry!”
Now I want to cry. Her face blurs, and everything is tangled and jagged. She leans toward me, this wedding woman with shrunken hair. Her mouth is now pink earthworms and snails and teeth. Her face swells down toward me, tearing out of the traffic jam of patterns, to present itself as whole and inevitable.
I gasp. And look. The beast is gone. She is a whole person, bland and indivisible again. I am in doubt about my own recent doubts. How could she have been anything other than the thing she is now?
“Mama Jimmy. Is this one your firstborn? Is this Jimmy?”
She has opened the closed cramped world. I have been trying to keep my lips tuckedtogethershut. Forever. Quiet. Opening two lips is tearing cobwebs. A silent superhero. Cool.
“Hello, auntie,” I say, drawing pictures on the floor with my foot. The pineapple rises in my chest. Maybe she will give me some wedding cake? The squeaky painful taste of perfect white sweetness. Icing tastes in your mouth like Styrofoam sounds when it is rubbed against itself.
Almost too much.
I let my eyes rise slow and cute. This game I know. I tingle and let my eyes touch hers briefly, then I look down again.
My mother turns toward us and looks sharply at me.
Does Mum know? Did Liza’s mother call her?
Mum’s voice is like shards of water and streams of glass. It rises up her throat like warm suds. She has a small double chin where this noise is made, a nasal accent, but not American, or English. Her nose is long and thin.
I have discovered that nasal accents come from people with long thin noses. Wreng wreng. My nose is thin, but not as thin as my mum’s. Sometimes I try to hear myself, cupping my hand over my ear and twisting my mouth to the side, but I can’t hear myself being nasal. Mum reaches out her hand and takes mine. She licks her finger and smooths my eyebrow. Her fingers reach around and pull me to her chest. My back recoils from the hard bump on her stomach. I don’t want to crunch the baby. Mum smells good, like powder and perfume and burning hair oil.
“KenKen”—this is Mum’s embarrassing nickname for me—“what are you doing there?” She laughs, and my heart purrs.
“He is my second-born. The shy one.”