Book Title: The Boy with Shoes: A Kenyan Childhood
Author: Hillary Lisimba Ambani
Publisher: Mystery Publishers Limited
Available at: Mystery Bookstore, Amazon.com, and CreateSpace.com
Kenyan autobiographies can be painfully predictable. Here’s a typical story plot: Boy grows up in abject poverty and has to walk for many kilometres every day just to get to the nearest primary school.
Boy passes with flying colours and gets admitted to a prestigious national high school. Boy joins a public university in Kenya or a prestigious university abroad. Boy has a fulfilling career or starts a successful business. Boy then attributes his spotless, linear, successful life to hard work, God and a healthy dose of luck. The End. Sound familiar yet?
These autobiographies (and biographies) are often devoid of accounts of any personal failures, fears or imperfections. They sometimes feel too linear, too sanitised, offering robot-like perfection which makes one question if they were indeed human beings that readers were supposed to relate to.
Commenting about the biggest enemy confronting many Kenyan authors of biographies, Weekend writer Mutu wa Gethoi aptly described it as Okonkwo-like hubris so deftly described by Chinua Achebe in his book Things Fall Apart — unjustified self-aggrandisement by owners of the story.
Thankfully, The Boy with Shoes does not suffer from this.
The writer, Hillary Lisimba, first came to the public eye through the Engage Talks platform on YouTube when he gave a talk titled My Life, My Wife and Kilimani Mums where he humorously shared insights on his life as a dad parenting alone as his wife worked in a different country.
Just like in his candid talk, the book is a no holds barred account of his life. Only that this time, he focuses on his childhood.
He writes about growing up in Mbale in the 80s with a strict mother he nicknamed Thatcher and whose tongue was as quick as her hands in reprimanding him when he strayed from her rules. He describes her as a total replica of Britain’s Margaret Thatcher in word and deed.
The author digs deep into his past and uses humour and witty descriptions to take the reader back with him to Mbale, Chotero village where “girls are more fertile than the farms”.
He generously introduces us to the other colourful characters in his life like his uncle Tope, first crush Esther and his school teachers like the late Jumba Mamesa, to whom the book is dedicated in a luscious poem by the author at the beginning of the book.
Lisimba’s indomitable appetite for adventure is what the book seems to be anchored on but he also offers glimpses into the life-changing lessons he acquired alongside the beatings from his mother and teachers.
It’s in chapter four that we get to experience his peculiar relationship with shoes that his mother Thatcher proudly buys for him. He pictures “fellow pupils admiring him, including those who hated him for no reason” but he finds out soon enough that shoes quickly make him an outsider.
You need to read the book to find out exactly how this happens. For Lisimba, the shoes symbolise much more than privilege or prestige.
The book’s charm, however, lies in the author’s ability to be vulnerable. For example, he admits that he missed a huge part of paternal upbringing because his father worked far away from home and that they are trying to form a bond to date. He’s unafraid to explore his emotional ups and downs throughout the text.
It is the first in a series of five books where the author says he will explore what it means to be in a country that is "always almost taking off but never does" and if the first one is anything to go by, then the upcoming ones will be a treat.
If nothing else, the book is celebration of a typical Kenyan childhood in the 80s and 90s.