One Day I Will Write About This Place
By Binyavanga Wainaina
Graywolf Press Copyright © 2011 Binyavanga Wainaina
All rights reserved.
It is afternoon. We are playing soccer near the clothesline behind the main house. Jimmy, my brother, is eleven, and my sister, Ciru, is five and a half. I am the goalie.
I am seven years old, and I still do not know why everybody seems to know what they are doing and why they are doing it.
"You are not fat." That's what Mum says to me all the time. "You are plump."
Ciru has the ball. She is small and thin and golden. She has sharp elbows, and a smile as clean as a pencil drawing. It cuts evenly into her cheeks. She runs toward Jimmy, who is tall and fit and dark.
She is the star of her class. It is 1978, and we are all in Lena Moi Primary School. Last term, Ciru was moved a year forward. Now she is in standard two, like me, in the class next door. Her first term in standard two, she beat everybody and topped the class. She is the youngest in her class. Everybody else is seven.
I stand still between the metal poles we use as a makeshift goalmouth watching Ciru and Jim play. Warm breath pushes down my nostrils past my mouth and divides my chin. I can see the pink shining flesh of my eyelids. Random sounds fall into my ears: cars, birds, black mamba bicycle bells, distant children, dogs, crows, and afternoon national radio music. Congo rumba. People outside our compound are talking, in languages I know the sounds of, but do not understand or speak, Luhya, Gikuyu.
My laugh is far away inside, like the morning car not starting when the key turns. In school, it is always Ciru number one, blue and red and yellow stars on every page. It is always Ciru in a white dress giving flowers to the guest of honor — Mr. Ben Methu — on Parents' Day. If I am washing with her, we are splashing and laughing and fighting and soon we are in a fever of tears or giggles.
She twists past Jimmy, the ball ahead of her feet, heading for me. I am ready. I am sharp, and springy. I am waiting for the ball. Jimmy runs to intercept her; they tangle and pant. A few moments ago the sun was one single white beam. Now it has fallen into the trees. All over the garden there are a thousand tiny suns, poking through gaps, all of them spherical, all of them shooting thousands of beams. The beams fall onto branches and leaves and splinter into thousands of smaller perfect suns.
I laugh when Ciru laughs and I find myself inside her laugh, and we fall down holding each other. I can feel her laughter swelling, even before it comes out, and it swells in me too.
I know how to move with her patterns, and to move with Jimmy's patterns. My patterns are always tripping on each other in public. They are only safe when I am alone, or when I am daydreaming.
Ciru laughs loud, her mouth wide and red. The sound jumps toward me, flapping sheets of sound, but I am lost. Arms and legs and ball are forgotten. The thousand suns are breathing. They inhale, dim and cool into the leaves, and I let myself breathe with them; then they puff light forward and exhale, warming my body. I am about to let myself soak inside this completely when I am captured by an idea.
The sun does not break up into pieces.
It does not break up into disembodied parts when it falls into trees and things. Each piece of the sun is always a complete little sun.
I am coming back into my arms and legs and the goalmouth, ready to explain the thousand suns to Jimmy and Ciru. I am excited. They will believe me this time. It won't seem stupid when I speak it, like it often does, and then they look at me, rolling their eyes and telling me that my marbles are lost. That I can say that again. They are coming close. Jimmy is shouting. Before I fully return to myself, a hole in my ear rips open. The football hits the center of my face. I fall.
Goaaaaal. A thousand suns erupt with wet laughter; even the radio is laughing. I look up and see them both leaning over me, dripping sweat, arms akimbo.
Jimmy rolls his eyes and says, "You've lost your marbles."
"I'm thirsty," says Ciru.
"Me too," says Jim, and they run, and I want to stand and run with them. My face hurts. Juma, our dog, is licking my face. I lean into his stomach; my nose pushes into his fur. The sun is below the trees, the sky is clear, and I am no longer broken up and distributed. I scramble and jump to my feet. Juma whines, like a car winding down. I pump my feet forward, pulling my voice out and throwing it forward to grab hold of their Thirst Resolution.
"Hey!" I shrill. "Even me I am thirsty!"
They don't hear me.
They are headed away from the kitchen, and I follow them into the long clumps of uncut grass at the top of the garden, Juma at my heels, as they weave in and out of Baba's tractors, swerve to avoid dog shit, run through shade and fading sun, past little eruptions of termites in Kikuyu grass, and forgotten heaps of farm spare parts piled behind the hedge that separates the main house from the servants' quarters. Then they turn, shouting hi to Zablon, the cook who is washing dishes outside in his white vest and blue trousers and Lifebuoy soap and charcoal smell. I shout hi too, now flowing well into their movements. They stop, then turn to our regular racetrack down the path from the servants' quarters to the kitchen.
I find them there, Juma's nose nudging Jim's leg, and I watch them pour the cool liquid down their throats, from glasses, see it spill off the sides of their cheeks. Jimmy has learned to pull the whole glass of water down in one move. It streams down the pipe, marble-bubbles running down a soft translucent tube of sound, like a frog.
He slams his glass on the countertop, burps, and turns to look at me.
What is thirst? The word splits up into a hundred small suns. I lift my glass and look up. Ciru is looking at me, her glass already empty as she wipes her lips on her forearm.
* * *
I am in my bedroom, alone. I have a glass of water. I want to try to gulp it down, like Jimmy does. This word, thirst, thirsty. It is a word full of resolution. It drives a person to quick action. Words, I think, must be concrete things. Surely they cannot be suggestions of things, vague pictures: scattered, shifting sensations?
Sometimes we like to steal Baba's old golf balls and throw them into a fire. First they curl, in a kind of ecstasy, like a cat being stroked, then they arch, start to bubble and bounce, then they shoot out of the fire like bullets, skinned and free. Below the skin are tight wraps of rubber band, and we can now unroll them and watch the balls getting smaller and smaller, and the rubber bands unfold so long it does not seem possible they came out of the small hard ball.
I want to be certainly thirsty, like Jimmy and Ciru.
Water has more shape and presence than air, but it is still colorless. Once you have the shape of water in your mouth, you discover your body. Because water is clear. It lets you taste your mouth, feel the pipe shape of your throat and the growing ball of your stomach as you drink.
I burp. And rub my stomach, which growls. I fiddle with the tap, and notice that when water runs fast from a tap, it becomes white. Water, moving at speed, rushing from a tap, has shape and form and direction. I put my hand under the tap, and feel it solid.
The shape of an idea starts to form. There is air, there is water, there is glass. Wind moving fast gives form to air; water moving fast gives it form. Maybe ... maybe glass is water moving at superspeed, like on television, when a superhero moves so fast, faster than blurring, he comes back to himself a thousand times before you see him move.
No. No. Thirst is ... is ... a sucking absence, a little mouthing fish out of the water. It moves you from the everywhere nowhereness of air, your breathing person; you are now a stream, a fixed flowing address, a drinking person. It is a step below hungering, which comes from a solid body, one that can smell, taste, see, and need colors. Yes!
But — I still can't answer why the word leaves me so uncertain and speculative. I can't make the water stream down my throat effortlessly. It spills into my nostrils and chokes me. Other people have a word world, and in their word world, words like thirsty have length, breadth, and height, a firm texture, an unthinking belonging, like hands and toes and balls and doors. When they say their word, their body moves into action, sure and true.
I am always standing and watching people acting boldly to the call of words. I can only follow them. They don't seem to trip and fall through holes their conviction does not see. So their certainty must be the right world. I put the glass down. Something is wrong with me.
* * *
We are on our way home, after a family day in Molo. We are eating House of Manji biscuits.
Beatrice, who is in my class, broke her leg last week. They covered her leg with white plaster. The water heater in our home is covered with white plaster. Beatrice's toes are fat gray ticks. The water heater is a squat cylinder, covered in white stickyhard, like Beatrice's new leg. She has crutches.
Crunch is breaking to release crackly sweetness. Crunch! Eclairs. Crutches are falling down and breaking. Crutch!
Uganda, my mum's country, fell down and broke. Crutch!
Field Marshal Amin Dada, the president of Uganda, ate his minister for supper. He kept the minister's head in the fridge. His son wears a uniform just like his. They stand together on television news, in front of a parade.
I am sleepy. Ciru is fast asleep. Jimmy asks Baba to stop the car so he can pee.
I immediately find I want to pee.
We park on the shoulder of a valley that spreads down into a jigsaw puzzle of market gardens before us. For a long time, I have wanted to walk between the fault lines of this puzzle. Out there, always in the distance, the world is vague and blurred and pretty.
I want to slide through the seams and go to the other side.
After pissing, I simply walk on: down the valley, past astonished-looking mamas who are weeding, over a little creek, through a ripe cattle boma that is covered with dung.
Look, look at the fever tree!
Her canopy is frizzy, her gold and green bark shines. It is like she was scribbled sideways with a sharp pencil, so she can cut her sharp edges into the soul of whoever looks at her from a distance. You do not climb her; she has thorns. Acacia.
She is designed for dreams.
I am disappointed that all the distant scenery, blue and misty, becomes more and more real as I come closer: there is no vague place, where clarity blurs, where certainty has no force, and dreams are real.
After a while, I see my brother, Jim, coming after me; the new thrill is to keep him far away, to run faster and faster.
I stretch into a rubber-band giant, a superhero made long by cartoon speed. I am as long as the distance between me and him. The world of light and wind and sound slaps against my face as I move faster and faster.
If I focus, I can let it into me, let in the whole wide whoosh of the world. I grit my teeth, harden my stomach.
It is coming, the moment is coming.
If I get that moment right, I can let my mind burst out of me and fold into the world, pulling it behind me like a cart. Like a golf ball bursting out of the fire. No! No! Not a golf ball! The world will flap uselessly behind me, like, like a superhero cape.
I will be free of awkwardness, of Ciru, of Jimmy, of Idi Amin dreams. The world is streaks of blinding light. My body tearing away, like Velcro, from the patterns of others.
Later, I wake up in the backseat of the car. "Here we are," Mum likes to say whenever we come home. My skin is hot, and Mum's soft knuckles nibble my forehead. I can feel ten thousand hot prickling crickets chorusing outside. I want to tear my clothes off and let my skin be naked in the crackling night. "Shhh," she whispers, "shhh, shhh," and a pink-tasting syrup rolls down my tongue, and Baba's strong arms are under my knees. I am pushed into the ironed sheets that are folded back over the blanket like a flap. Mum pulls them over my head. I am a letter, I think, a hot burning letter, and I can see a big stickysyrup-dripping tongue, about to lick and seal me in.
In a few minutes, I get up and make my way across to Jimmy's bed.
Sophia Mwela lives next door to us. Sophia is in my class. She is the class prefect. I sit next to her in class, but she rarely speaks to me. Like Ciru, she is also always number one in class. Their family is posh and rich. The Mwelas talk through their noses; we call it wreng wreng, like television people, like people from England or America. Their house has an upstairs, and they have a butler and a uniformed driver. They take piano lessons.
Their father works for Union Carbide. He is the boss and has even white people working for him. Ciru and I are going to show them. We are going to dress up like Americans. It is my idea.
Ciru and I invade Mum's wardrobe. I put on one of her Afro wigs, some lipstick, high-heeled shoes stuffed with toilet paper. I ask Ciru to dress up too. No, she says. We agree to pretend I am her cousin from America. I put on some face powder, and we are sneezing. A shiny midi dress. A maxi on me. I chew lots and lots of peeled pink cubes of Big G chewing gum. We climb the tree, Ciru and I, the tree that separates our hedge from theirs.
We call Sophia.
"Sophiaaaa," says Ciru. We giggle.
"Sophiaaanh," I say, Americanly. "Sow-phiaaanh."
Sophia arrives, solemn, head turned to the side, face frowning, like a serious person, like a person who knows something we do not know.
"This is my cousin Sherry from America. She is a Negro," says Ciru.
"Haaangi. Wreng wreng," I say Americanly, whinnying through my nose, and make a little bubble of gum pop out of my mouth. My high heels are about to fall off.
"I arrived fram Ohi-o-w. Laas Angelis. Airrrprrrt. Baarston. Wreng wreng ..."
I fan my face and let my lips rub against each other like the woman of Lux. I release them forward, to pop. Mpah!
Sophia says, "How is Ohio?"
"Oh, groovy. It is so wreng wreng wreng."
I say, "I came on Pan Am. On a sevenfordiseven ..."
She turns her head and nods. Look at her! She believes!
I shrug, "I just gat on a jet plane, donno when I'll be back again."
She turns away.
"Call me. My number is five-five-five ..."
The next day, Sophia tells everybody in class that I dressed in my mum's clothes and pretended to be an American.
They laugh and laugh.
* * *
Jimmy likes to roll his eyes and say groovy American things like "you've lost your marbles" and "you can say that again."
Thousands of marbles — each one tied to your mind with a rubber band — are scattered by your mind into the hard smooth world it sees.
The world you see undulates with many parallel troughs — a million mental alleys. Every new day, you throw your marbles out of your mind and let your feet and arms and shoulders follow, and soon some marbles nestle loudly into the grooves and run along with authority and precision, directed by you, with increasing boldness.
Each marble is a whole little round version of you. Like the suns.
In the groove.
But just when your marble is wheeling along, groovily swinging up the walls of your trough and back down again, challenging the edge, whistling and gum chewing and downhill biking and yo-yo bouncy and American — gravel pounded by rain outside your bedroom window becomes sausages frying, and sausages frying can shift and become squirming bloody intestines or an army of bristling mustachioed accordions chasing you, laughing like Idi Amin.
Your marble slips off, and it clatters into a groove that contains another marble and they knock each other, sausages and gravel and intestines and a hundred manic accordions making loud spongy noises.
And now you are moving, panicked and lost. I am afraid of accordions, of spongy sounds, of losing my marbles.
* * *
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Excerpted from One Day I Will Write About This Place by Binyavanga Wainaina. Copyright © 2011 Binyavanga Wainaina. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
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