August as the cradle of memories of Kenya

From coup attempt to transition from Nyayo era, it is rich with history

In Summary

• A walk down memory lane through the lens of the writer's experiences

Aftermath of failed 1982 coup attempt
Aftermath of failed 1982 coup attempt
Image: FILE

August, 1982. Beneath the arching blue skies of Ngara, phantom shapes in smoke rise in slow motion above the pudendum-shaped dome of the Sarakasi theatre house. Earlier in the afternoon, teargas canisters flew here; shouts and screams accompanied them.

A war cry shouted by inebriated youths dancing semi-naked on the pot-holed streets received a rejoinder in equal measure. The counter-shouts came from irate men in battle fatigues, who jumped out of their combat green lorry as it swerved dangerously to the Asian section.

As the old family of storks that are citizens of this city also soared higher than the din below, shell-shocked Asian women with daughters cry without tears, looking out of shattered windows for their trapped husbands.

The staccato chatter of Kalashnikov rifles came in intervals of 10 to 20 minutes. Two eagles flew dangerously low, one obviously bleeding and heading for a ditch with gangrene waters nearby.

The radio kept playing military tunes in instrumental format as a new scream rose in the direction of the paan shop. Unspeakable histories?

The foreign house help from Uganda continued washing clothes at the yard near the gate, as if the entire chaos was in the mind of others and not all over the place.

She would later reveal without emotions that this militarised cacophony was the soundtrack of her childhood in Uganda under Idi Amin Dada.


August 1992.  I wander amidst naked Jacaranda trees of the sprawling West Indies estate in the Asian section of Eldoret. My mind is a small field of ochre, where reveries played soccer using my thoughts as balls. My teen life back then was a boundless space; buildings or ruins of love had not yet taken their plots therein.

Tea-coloured River Sosiani, which runs right through this major town in the Great Rift Valley, murmurs a soothing hymn at the end of the slopping estate, in the direction I was, in harmony with the whims of my day in history.

The yellow gate to the left, hemmed in with purple hibiscus, once housed a man with a collar. He stood up for the rights of Kenyans. He tried to make a journey to western Kenya. He died. August 1990. Two years ago. Now not much of his stunning daughter, whom I used to stalk at the Anglican Church, remained for public consumption.

People pointed at the government of the time with their protruding lips, as if they were middle fingers, weights of their whispers mentioning a political name or two in accusatory tones.

The first days of this memorable August holiday, I spent daytime almost alone. Lads of my gang and I had decided to abandon our childhood en masse.

It was a good chance to undergo initiation. It was a four-week vacation. I waited upon my dissident father to return from his clandestine trips to organise me on this matter. I sought the river with its call to assuage my awoken spirit.  

In the shimmering mirror of the brown waters from the hills of the Nandi, between the eroded banks of this snaking river, I heard a tiny door in my childhood unbound.

My ambivalent face kept shifting shape in the talkative waters of Sosiani, presenting a chain-motion of pictures of my nameless ancestors from Mount Elgon. Each one appeared in a fleeting instance, one by one, until him of the headgear and spear, wearing a bicep-tricep amulet carved out of elephant tusk, came.

He carved adulthood out of my childhood that August. The rest is history.


August 2002. The overcast weeks of August are building an unknown momentum. It is an election year, energy is in the air as the long-serving, grey-haired leader of Kenya appears to be on the truest verge of retirement.

The winds of democracy and change are blowing strongly from the lake to the coast and from Mount Elgon to Mount Kenya. The opposition forces are united against the brutal regime. Energy is no longer tip-toeing in Kenya. It is on the loose.

It will be no surprise then when in the next month, Kenneth Wainaina from Nakuru, also known as Binyavanga Wainaina, wins a major continental literary prize at the age of 31.

Wainaina trounced a Nigerian writer called Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Her entry, You in America, had been published earlier in Zoetrope, an American literary magazine founded by Francis Ford Coppola in 1997. It could not match up with Wainaina’s Discovering Home, that had been published online by G21Net.

Kenyan literature had arrived on the digital platform at last. There was no turning back since this watershed milestone of our literary history. Back then, Wainaina was a Cape Townian who penned literary journalism for Mail and Guardian and Cape Times.

Here, he had honed his craft and perfected his journalistic approach to prose that reminds one of Truman Capote and Shiva Naipaul. North of South: An African Journey, published in 1978 by Penguin Classics, is a must-read for all lovers of comparative literature. It was an all-time favourite of Wainaina.

Wainaina’s own full-length book, One Day I Will Write About This Place (2011), reveals aesthetic corollaries with Naipaul’s highly hilarious account of his journeys across East Africa.

Both use the journey motif as a structural firmament for the histories of here that they recount to us in saucy prose, caustic humour and august metaphors of great beauty.

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