The first thing I thought when I finished reading Jeff Koinange’s life story, Through My African Eyes, was this: if you are not ready to face the controversies that have dominated your life, if you haven’t yet turned 80, that magical age when you cease worrying about what people think of you and your follies, don’t write an autobiography.
Write poetry. Write fiction. But for the sake of all of us, avoid autobiography because its true purpose is seizing the authority of authenticity, of the real.
Jeff’s book (Through My African Eyes) is poised to enter the realm of Kenyan biographies way up high, on the wings of eagles. It comes with a Foreword by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, a Preface by Thabo Mbeki and endorsement from Harvard University’s revered literary critic, Henry Louis Gates Jr.
It is a story about flying high – literally, as a Pan Am flight Purser at the tender age of 20 and then winning a scholarship to the prestigious New York University (NYU).
Like David Lamb’s The Africans and Richard Dowden’s Africa, Jeff’s story is a journalist’s resourceful chronicle of recent events in Africa; encounters with African statesmen and brushes with boys and men who are hungry for state power.
Though he handles Kenya with kid gloves and a fair amount of ellipsis (did he not hear of the violence in Naivasha in 2008, the retaliatory one?), Jeff does have some amazing new insights into the workings of the African state.
He is not afraid to go against the grain in giving his radical views on African leaders like Joseph Kabila, Thabo Mbeki and General Sani Abacha…
Jeff worked for reputable international news outlets at a time when distortions were the norm; when the image of Africa was largely negative and stereotypical (what has changed?). Mbeki is emphatic that: “None of these were the fault of our eminent African journalist, Jeff Koinange. The fault lies in the fact that absolutely no African had any control over what story would be told on Africa by the international media about Africa!”
Jeff regrets that: “Africans have struggled through generations to get their voices heard, only to have their stories re-told through foreign prisms.” How successfully did he transcend these 3D images of Africa — Disease, Deficiency and Death? He tries to give an HD, a High(er) Definition, angle. A lens saturated with context, compassion and cures.
If you had heard of Jeff Koinange before “The Bench,” then you will be picking up this book to hear his side of the story about a certain Ms Marianne Briner-Mattern of BAK International and the alleged slew of torrid e-mails that accompanied Jeff’s sudden exit from CNN. He handles this episode with restraint. “Crucifying a phantom can be exhausting”, he says but he does detail the forces that dogged his infamous story of kidnapped oil workers in Nigeria’s Niger Delta.
Jeff’s penetrating lens illustrates his childhood. With self-deprecating humour, he reveals some interesting nuggets — like why he talks the way he does and the things that motivated him to become a voice on television.
We finally have a Kenyan biography that tells the story of middle-class (peri)urban upbringing without apology or economy. The joys of being driven to an elite urban day school, of reading European fairy tales, humming the rhymes of 19th century England, singing Western pop songs of the 1960s and then, finally winding down the evening with American television shows.
Jeff’s story is instructive. He doesn’t lecture, or pontificate in that preachy motivational-speaker tone beloved of so many Kenyans these days. His lessons are implicit and they provide precious guidelines for aspiring journalists.
When biographies are thin on dialogue, they lack pace and invariably grind down to a humdrum chronological roll-call. Though My African Eyes does not suffer such inadequacies. Meticulously employed flashbacks, flash-forwards and frequent shifts in physical location create the requisite pace and give thematic unity filled with surprises and ironies.
The photographs are stunning, plentiful and cleverly incorporated within chapters as part of the telling rather than being hurdled all together and exiled somewhere separate from the narrative.
With a good dose of wit and a sprinkling of rhyming poetry, this book is a pleasurable read.
Read the full review here.