For the Sudanese writer Leila Aboulela, who first met Wainaina at an Africa-themed Aspen Summer Words festival in 2007, the essay became “an anthem” for a new generation of writers. “He spoke for us, put into words what we were all feeling,” she said, adding that “it made us laugh, but it also carried a sting of caution.” She remembered being impressed with Wainaina’s more serious and contemplative side.
“He was an intellectual,” she said. “Someone who could have become the Edward Said of Africa or the James Baldwin of our time.”
Indeed, there are many aspects of Wainaina to relish in “How to Write About Africa.” He is especially expressive when depicting Nairobi, a city that enraptured him. “The Kikuyu grass by the side of the road is crying silver tears the color of remembered light; Nairobi is a smoggy haze in the distance,” he writes in “Discovering Home.” “Soon the innocence that dresses itself in mist will be shoved aside by a confident sun, and the chase for money will reach its crescendo.”
At the same time, as Iduma points out, it is “difficult to think of a writer of his generation who was as Pan-African as he was.” His exuberant piece on the Togo team at the 2006 World Cup, “The Most Authentic, Blackest, Africanest Soccer Team,” builds to a thrilling conclusion as simultaneous celebrations break out “on wailing coral balconies in Zanzibar, in a dark, rumba-belting, militia-ridden bar in Lubumbashi, in rickety video shops in Dakar” and beyond.
“He had a gift for breezing through national borders like they were just lines in the sand,” Barrett said. “He was very Kenyan but also seemed as Nigerian, Ugandan, Senegalese and South African as the writers he sought out.”
And then there is the rush created by Wainaina’s language, which moves to its own syncopation. It’s barbed, playful, inventive. “What thrills me every time I read it,” Iduma said, “is the sense that Wainaina’s true gift was finding the rhythm within language, drumming up words until they sang.” In one piece, for example, he mocks “the history, the rumor, the myth, the praise, the double-eye” and “the crocodile-grinning farce” of leaders.