Kenyan writer and activist Binyavanga Wainaina — once a Mail & Guardian columnist — has died.
Wainaina passed away in Nairobi late on Tuesday 21 May after suffering a stroke. He had first suffered a stroke in 2015. At the time, writer Thando Mgqolozana told The Daily Vox that the writer “is the one without whose contribution the African literary scene wouldn’t be the same.”
His death comes just a month after the 48-year-old announced that he was engaged to his Nigerian partner, who he has been dating “on and off since 2012,” adding that they intended on marrying and moving to South Africa.
“I asked my love for his hand in marriage two weeks ago. He said yes, nearly immediately,” Wainaina wrote on Facebook on May 2. “Nothing has surprised me more than coming to love this person, who is gentle and has the most gorgeous heart. I consider myself hugely lucky that he loves me.”
Famed for his words the world over, Wainaina founded literary publication Kwani in his home country of Kenya. In 2002, he was awarded the Caine Prize for African Writing for his short story ‘Discovering Home’. Some of his other well-known works included his 2012 memoir, ‘One day I will write about this place’, and his essay ‘How to write about Africa.’ (“Readers will be put off if you don’t mention the light in Africa. And sunsets, the African sunset is a must”, he advised. “Always end your book with Nelson Mandela saying something about rainbows or renaissances.”)
Wainaina made headlines in January 2014 when he publicly announced his sexual orientation in an essay entitled ‘I am a homosexual, mum’, in which he imagined how a conversation in which he came out to his late mother would go.
“Kenya is a very conservative society,” Professor Dan Ojwang, Head of the School of Language, Literature and Media Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, told the Mail & Guardian. “It was a very brave thing to do in a context where homophobia is a real issue, and in the wake of his coming out, there would have been others who would have had courage to do the same.”
The same year, he was included in Time’s list of Most Influential People in the World. In 2016, he announced via Twitter that he was HIV-positive.
Ojwang, who is Kenyan by birth, says that Wainaina was a key figure in bringing “new energy” to a literary context which was very muted because of the Moi dictatorship that Kenya was under from 1978 to 2002.
“His contribution could be said to be organisational because he managed to bring together a large number of young writers across East Africa, and mobilised young people to be interested in the creative arts,” says Ojwang. “He constantly drew on his experiences in South Africa, where he studied at the University of Transkei (now Walter Sisulu University). This gave him a sense of himself as a pan-Africanist.”
“He was capacious in terms of what creativity entailed, and forced a space. As a magazine, Kwani dissolved the distinction between high and low culture. The literary arts in East Africa needed that injection of new ideas.”