My best teacher

Mangu high school, in Thika outside Nairobi, is the second oldest school for Africans in Kenya, a national government-run boarding school for boys. When I was there it had no money; it had moved from another location and the money had run out during the rebuilding. So we had half of everything: half the buildings, half the books. It was so hot and so dry that we used to wash our shirts at 2pm and put them back on wet just to keep cool. In the afternoons it was only Brother Raymond Boisvert, my English teacher, who could keep us awake.

He was an enormous, loud man with endless energy. He was in his eighties when he taught me, but he would get up at 5am to cut the grass with a tractor before school. English wasn't his first language - he was a French Canadian - but he had been teaching it for 46 years. He made the language a living thing. We had a terrible relationship to start with but he got me to produce some good work: he appreciated good work and tore apart bad work. He could make you angry, but happy too.

Mangu high was famous for science - full of science and mathematical geniuses - and not strong on the arts. English was my bolthole because I was terrible at the sciences. I entered myself illegally for English literature O-level because the school did not cover it. Nobody knew until the exam paper was delivered. I got a Grade 3. I think the teachers considered it enterprising of me.

The school was falling apart around that time - the food was terrible, some of the teaching was terrible, we were often without teachers in some subjects - but there was a strong culture of being independent, of working out what you needed to do, and managing yourself. We had a Swahili motto, "jishinde ushinde" (win yourself and you have won). You could go on benders and hardly ever get caught - the grounds were huge and the main gate was always open - but you would have to account to yourself in the end. It's now one of the best schools in the country in terms of results.

My dad has always given me encouragement, and never lied, which I think is hard for parents to achieve. When you're younger, you go through a phase of thinking the world has conspired against you, and in Africa you might feel this even more. Dad taught me not to waste time blaming people, but to get on with finding a solution myself. It was my dad's sister, Rebecca Njauwrote, who showed me the possibility of being a writer. She's a formidable woman: headmistress of a girls' school, one of the first women in Kenya to go to university or to be published. Her novels were published in the 1960s. She also ran a gallery in Nairobi, at the time the only African-owned art gallery in east Africa, and there were always artists and writers in and out of the place: working, living and talking. So the idea was always there in my head.

When a new country is being built brick by brick, it can seem frivolous to want to be a writer. There was never any pressure from my family, but my options seemed limited. I thought I had to do something that might lead to a job, but a commerce degree was a disaster. I failed many times and I didn't like failing. But I did learn that I needed to be true to myself and do what I was good at. I wish someone had told me that at 15. By the time I truly concentrated on writing, I felt I had wasted 10 years.

Andrew Unsworth gave me my break in publishing. When he was editor of the lifestyle section of the Sunday Times in Johannesburg, I sent him part of "Discovering Home", the story for which I've just won the Caine Prize, in a much earlier form. In 10 minutes I had an email back, "Can you cut to 3,000 words?", and he used it. He's always supported me and steadily given me work, travel pieces and so on, even when there wasn't much work to do. He's now the paper's London bureau chief, so he was there at the Caine Prize dinner in Oxford: he cried when we met.

Writer Binyavanga Wainaina was talking to Geraldine Brennan


1971 Born in Nakuru, Kenya

1985-87 Attended Mangu high school, Thika

1987-89 Attended Lenanu high school, Nairobi Early 1990s Attended University of Transkei, South Africa

1998-2000 Ran catering company and built career as food and travel writer based in Cape Town

1997 "Discovering Home" published in South Africa's Sunday Times

Summer 2002 Wins third Caine Prize for African Writing for "Discovering Home", published online at

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