“a worse thing to be”
From Binyavanga Wainaina’s just-published and exquisite One Day I Will Write About This Place, a day in 1983:
Something has shifted. In the world.
The Swedes made the first announcement that things are no longer the same. One day they come and set up right next to the flag, where no pupil is allowed to play. It is here that we gather every day for parade. The whole school stands on the grass watching. Mrs. Gichiri stands too, watching. There are two giant drums of cow shit standing next to our proud national flag; there are pipes and meters and things connecting to other things. The Swedes fiddle with the cow-shit machine earnestly. We hear some burping sounds, and behold, there is light. This is biogas, the Swedes tell us. A fecal martyr. It looks like shit — it is shit — but it has given up its gas for you. With this new fuel you can light your bulbs and cook your food. You will become balancedieted; if you are industrious perhaps you can run a small biogas-fueled food mill and engage in income-generating activities.
This way, they said, eyes as blue as Jesus’s, looking at us through steel glasses, you can avoid malnutrition. This is called development, they said, and we are here to raise your awareness. Biogas rose up the pipes and gurgled happily. We went back to class very excited and making farting noises. Heretofore our teachers had threatened us with straightforward visions of failure. Boys would end up shining shoes; girls would end up pregnant.
Now there was a worse thing to be: a user of biogas.
It feels like a violence to tear this piece of text out of its context, since everything is so tightly woven together in this book. After the incredible nationalist spectacles of chapter six, and the imaginative weight that was given, there, to that sound made by pursing the lips together and producing an “mpr” noise — no, really — this little farty event in the shadow of a schoolyard flag absolutely sings. But even here, I think you can feel something of what Binyavanga is up to, and the deep cunning with which he does it. It has given up its gas for you, this fecal martyr.
With some writers, one hesitates to dig too deeply into the play of language behind their words, the resonances that simple turns of phrase may have if you dig deeper and deeper. This is because, with most writers, you won’t turn up all that much as you dip your spade into the soil. With this book, every line I reread turns up new layers and strata of buried treasure. I would call it “Joycean” if the adjective “Wainainian” weren’t the obviously better choice.