/ 24 May 2019

A life spent rewriting Africa

Pan-African: Binyavanga Wainaina
Pan-African: Binyavanga Wainaina, one of Kenya’s most acclaimed writers and a founding editor of the Nairobi-based journal Kwani?, was a champion of imaginative writing. He died earlier this week, at the age of 48. (Simon Maina/AFP)

Obituary (1971 – 2019)

Binyavanga Wainaina

In 2006, I had just left my job at a civil society organisation in Johannesburg, where our key purpose was to push governments to make poverty history. Among my reasons for leaving was disillusionment with the sector. It was in meeting Binyavanga Wainaina through his seminal essay, How to Write About Africa, that I found the words of everything I had hoped, but failed, to say.

READ MORE: Binyavanga Wainaina dies, aged 48

“Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won a Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these.

“In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country.”

Here were my jumbled thoughts turned into perfect words. Over time, as one grows, one changes one’s mind about certain works of art. So, too, with me, about How to Write about Africa. I no longer agree entirely with the essay because I question how my pan-African position can have a problem with Africa as a country. That aside, the essay still remains perhaps one of the greatest critiques of the Global North’s engagement with the Global South in general and Africa in particular. I continued reading Binyavanga’s work through his writing in this publication.

Two years after first encountering Binyavanga through his essay, I would meet him for the first time in Accra, Ghana, as part of a delegation of South African writers attending the first Pan African Literary Forum. He had come with his team from Africa’s then most visible and favourite publishing house, Kwani, which Binyavanga had started with some of his winnings from the Caine Prize for African Writing. Among the people with him was his sister, June, who I became quick friends with.

READ MORE: Africa: Bent out of shape

The two had studied in South Africa, loved the country and thought of it fondly. I was two novels in when we met. I immediately took the Kwani team to task. I wanted to get published in Kenya; I had communicated with them the year before and sent them my debut novel. It had been returned to sender. What was up with that?

Binya apologised and hugged me with an exuberance of one who had known me for a long time. It was his way. You would meet him for five minutes and feel as though you had known him your whole life because of the way he opened himself up to people, the way he had no filter. It was the best thing about him, but also the worst. Sometimes those around him whom he embraced so generously would not always be well meaning.

We made arrangements. I would come to Kenya that December and do a reading. That December of 2008, although I did not see him, Binyavanga and I stopped being two writers in the African literary space. We became family. He was in the United States at the time and he sent me a kind email, apologising for not being around. But, his email read: “You are family, feel at home.”

And I did. I had come with my then three-year-old son H, and June picked me up from the airport. My base in Nairobi, as I did my readings, became his Nairobi home, then in Kileleshwa, where I stayed with June and a Ugandan writer and brother, David Kaiza. Through them, Binya’s Nairobi friends became my friends.

H and I spent the Christmas holidays in Nakuru with the Wainaina family. Baba, big brother Jimmy, little sister Chiqy (Melissa) and their children treated me not as a friend to June and Ken (as Binya was known at home) but as the sibling between June and Chiqy. On the first morning in Nakuru, I woke up in a panic because H was not in bed beside me where he had slept.

I was relieved to find him sitting with Baba at the dining table, where the two were engrossed in conversation while they drank tea. It would become a thing for the rest of the holidays, these conversations between the two of them and the tea-drinking that went with it. With both his paternal and maternal grandfathers gone before he was born, Baba was the only grandfather H ever knew.

It was this man, then, the father that Binyavanga and his siblings generously shared with me, who would trigger a memory that got H sobbing one early morning in Lilongwe after a long and dramatic trip from the Tanzania-Malawi border.

Shortly before I moved to Nairobi in 2011, Binyavanga’s long-awaited book, One Day I Will Write About This Placefinally came out. A memoir of growing up in a middle-class family in Daniel arap Moi’s Kenya, the book made it to the Oprah Book Club. So popular was this memoir that, in homage, one of the Kwani Manuscript Prize shortlisted writers, Liberian Saah Millimono, initially titled his manuscript One Day I Will Write About This War. (This book would later be named Boy, Interrupted).

The launch of Binya’s memoir coincided with a trip I had made to Kenya for a workshop, so I was able to attend. His launch was bittersweet. One of his biggest cheerleaders, Baba, was no longer alive and I knew how proud he had been of his son, Ken, the writer. Despite Baba’s absence, it was great to connect with Chiqy and Jim. June and I had always maintained contact.

On moving to Nairobi, I would see Binyavanga every now and again, but not as often as we both would have liked. It was not long after my moving there that the continent’s homophobia came to the fore. In Nigeria, MPs debated about making homosexuality a crime punishable with a jail term. In Uganda, they argued the same thing.

Binyavanga waded right into this debate when he released his essay, I’m A Homosexual, Mum. It was at this time that he started being referred to in Kenyan media as “writer and gay rights activist”. Now, activist is a bad enough swear word in Kenya, but gay rights earned him unnecessary flak on social media and, although the ill-thought insults probably hurt, he acted as if he did not care. Importantly, he continued to speak for what he believed in.

READ MORE: Wainaina declares: ‘I am gay, and quite happy’

The literary pages in Saturday Nation informed readers that Binya had two books due out soon. And so did he. But the books did not arrive. Once, when H and I went to his home after he had returned from hospital in India, Binya, whose speech was no longer clear, said to me: “You know what I love about you? You never ask me when the next book is coming out, so I don’t feel I have to lie to you [about] when it’s coming out.”

I think he was pre-empting me and I never asked, despite having wished for another book from him. But I also knew his being in and out of hospital since 2015 derailed him from writing as much as he would have liked.

I last saw Binya on April 17 at Aga Khan Hospital. He was in the intensive care unit. I had got into the habit, every time I visited him, of taking a book and reading him a short story. I like to think he heard me and laughed when I laughed out loud, sighed at the folly of the characters whenever that warranted it and thought up a witty remark in other places, although he could not articulate it. I knew how ill he was and yet I kept hoping that every time I called to check on him, my crazy, fun-loving, imperfect, generous big brother would have been discharged and back to his usual self.

He was discharged Tuesday night. But not to my world. Even as I mourn his death, I think of Binyavanga Kenneth Wainaina with love, glad to have known him and been loved by him. And knowing well enough that though he was young, his life was well lived and perhaps he deserves the rest.