In Summary
  •  The purpose of autobiography is not painting pretty pictures in the sunset but ripping apart sore wounds and ugly memories so that they can finally air and heal.
  • 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). But Jeff was flying high long before then as an accomplished soccer and rugby player, as an award-winning playwright and as deputy head-boy, a leader and a team-player who lets others shine in this story of his life. Today, we know him as a celebrated television journalist.
  • Jeff’s book 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.
  • 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.

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. 

Like all historical writing, autobiography is a literary artefact, built from careful selection and deliberate emplotment. But Harry Belafonte’s My Song taught me that even in the pages of self-portrayal, self-criticism — deep scrutiny and confrontation of one’s fears and one’s flaws — is possible.

The purpose of autobiography is not painting pretty pictures in the sunset but ripping apart sore wounds and ugly memories so that they can finally air and heal. It is an act of uncovering, not one of containing. Or is it a site for the articulation of the person that one wants to become?

SOFT ON KENYA

Jeff’s book 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).

But Jeff was flying high long before then as an accomplished soccer and rugby player, as an award-winning playwright and as deputy head-boy, a leader and a team-player who lets others shine in this story of his life. Today, we know him as a celebrated television journalist.

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.

Jeff Koinange (right) with Miguna Miguna (let) during the launch of Peeling Back the Mask by Miguna at the Intercontinental Hotel, Nairobi on July 14, 2012. PHOTO/SALATON NJAU

Jeff Koinange (right) with Miguna Miguna (let) during the launch of Peeling Back the Mask by Miguna at the Intercontinental Hotel, Nairobi on July 14, 2012. PHOTO/SALATON NJAU

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, but we hear nothing of his personal take on Daniel arap Moi, Mwai Kibaki, Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta.

From Thabo Mbeki’s rather ponderous preface, we can infer the reasons why this book was necessary. An act of atonement, perhaps? A penance of sorts to help Jeff shed the weight of implied responsibility for being in a place where Africa’s story could have been told differently but was not?

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.

His 2005 portrayal of military atrocities in Bukavu, DRC, focused on the stoic resilience of the victims and was inspired by the heroism of Dr Dennis Mukengere, who was attending to the wounded at Panzi Hospital. But Jeff did not stop there. He sought out President Joseph Kabila, made him watch the harrowing feature and posed the hard questions, patiently pushing for justice for the victims.

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.

THE SINGLE STORY

In the newly found global enthusiasm dubbed “Africa rising”, it has become intellectually fashionable for all of us to claim we are correcting Western perceptions of Africa. Chinua Achebe nurtured this project long before most of us were born. Our Ngugi followed suit and today Chimamanda Adichie does it by warning us about the dangers of “the single story”. 

Jeff Koinange meets with the late former South African President Mandela on October 6, 2010. PHOTO/FILE

Jeff Koinange meets with the late former South African President Mandela on October 6, 2010. PHOTO/FILE

But whether this burden of re-presentation, this defence of Africa is what our life’s vocation has been up to the moment when we awaken to the ideological flavour of the century is another matter altogether but one that is not too difficult to decode from the silences of our narratives when we tell them.

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