A farewell to the ‘larger than life’ Binyavanga Wainaina

Canadian journalist Arno Kopecky remembers working alongside the ‘pure force of narrative’ who taught the world as much about rejecting African stereotypes as he did the human condition.

By: /
June 4, 2019
Binyavanga Wainaina
Illustration by Sami Chouhdary / Reuters

Binyavanga Wainaina, Kenya’s literary phenom, is dead at 48, and I’m transported to Nairobi. It is August of 2007, night has fallen over the equatorial city, and Binyavanga is reading from the latest edition of Kwani?, the journal he helped found after winning the Caine Prize for African Writing five years earlier.

That prize put him on the map, but it was How To Write About Africa, the satirical essay he published in Granta in 2005, that made him famous. God knows how many times I read it before I moved to Nairobi and started writing about Africa.

Now the man who wrote “African characters should be colourful, exotic, larger than life—but empty inside, with no dialogue, no conflicts or resolutions in their stories, no depth or quirks to confuse the cause,” is standing a few feet away from me, his vividly patterned shirt draped tent-like over a hippopotamus stomach, long neat dreadlocks flowing down his back. He’s speaking in that xylophone voice that ranges across the upper registers from staccato exclamations to flirtatious giggles to bellowing laughter. He is, in other words, unironically colourful and exotic and larger than life — but inside, absolutely teeming.

He dwarfs the flimsy podium whose microphone he doesn’t really need, there in the quiet evening outside the posh Westgate mall where, years later, Somali militants will kill 71 people before the military kills them and goes on a looting spree. That is yet to come, another morbid cliché come to life — or rather, death — but tonight it’s just Binyavanga and the fluttering tiki torches and the pale starlight and the small rapt audience seated politely in folding chairs, listening to a razor wit dissect Kenyan politics, Western aid, Nairobi’s relentless traffic and red tape, the kaleidoscopic shuffle of ambition, despair and desire that make this place what it is.

“This is Nairobi,” he will write in the memoir that everyone has already, in 2007, been waiting years for him to finish. “Make yourself boneless, and treat your straitjacket as if it were a game, a challenge. The city is now all on the streets, sweet talk and hustle.” He won’t submit the manuscript of One Day I Will Write About This Place until 2011, weeks before his first stroke — he’s too busy helping other writers do what he has done to make time for it himself.

I’m the white journalist in the crowd, here on an eight-month reporting fellowship with Kenya’s Daily Nation newspaper. The paper’s higher-ups don’t think much of this sarcastic upstart but can’t ignore him either, so they’ve sent the rookie mzungu to cover his reading and get a quote for burial in the next day’s arts section.

I am nervous, both celebrity-shy and painfully aware that I embody the phenomenon Binyavanga skewers for a living. My fellowship was paid for by the Canadian branch of the Aga Khan Foundation (His Highness owns East Africa’s largest media conglomerate). To put it in Binyavanga terms, I’m being paid by the palace-dwelling billionaire descendant of the prophet Muhammed to spend time in a place of great suffering that it shall be my heroic duty to alleviate.

Two months earlier, Harper’s had published another of Binyavanga’s essays that further illuminated how I, a very blond man in those days, could expect to be perceived. It began:

One day, when I was twelve years old, in a small public school in Nakuru, the whole student body was called out of class. Some very blond and serious people from Sweden had arrived. We were led to the round patch of grass in front of the school. Next to the flagpole were two giant drums of cow shit, metal pipes, and other unfamiliar accessories. We stood around, heard some burping sounds, and behold, there was light.

This is biogas, the Swedes told us. A fecal matter. It looks like shit – it is shit – but it has given up its gas for you. With this new fuel, you light your bulbs and cook your food. You will become balanced-dieted. If you are industrious, perhaps you can run a small biogas-powered pasha mill and engage in income-generating activities.

We went back to class very excited. Heretofore our teachers had threatened us with straightforward visions of failure. Boys would end up shining shoes. Girls would end up pregnant. Now there was a worse thing to be: a user of biogas.

After the reading, after he’s finished signing books, I approach and ask for a quick interview. He gives no hint of disdain or amusement. What he gives me are a few minutes of total attention and riveting conversation. It is inebriating to interact with him, to be the sole receiver of his story-thread as it unspools and weaves an African scarf around your head. I realize it is this, not the suited corporate culture of Kenya’s daily news, that I want to be immersed in.

Six months later, I am immersed. Kenya’s incumbent president, Mwai Kibaki, has stolen the Christmas election in front of everybody’s eyes, the country is teetering on the brink of civil war, and Binyavanga’s hired me to help edit the next edition of his journal, Kwani? Together with a number of co-conspirers who serve varying paid and unpaid functions in the Kwani? ecosystem, we spend the next eight months compiling some 800 pages of journalism, fiction, photography, poetry, cartoons and essays, all of it trying to make sense of how east Africa’s “oasis of stability” got turned inside out.

These eight months will be the most intense of my life. For the first few weeks, the country is balkanized by ragtag militias. Highways are blockaded by armed men who inspect travellers’ IDs to see what tribe they belong to. Over half a million people are chased from their homes by neighbours who suddenly want to kill them. More than a thousand people are murdered. The idea that a nation soldered violently together by outsiders just a couple generations ago might not hold together for much longer becomes not at all farfetched. Camps for internally displaced people are everywhere. Tear gas is everywhere. Everyone, especially the writers, feels betrayed — by their government, yes, but even more by their own surprise.

In the end, a semi-functional power sharing agreement is reached. Peace returns. A degraded new normal settles in across the country.

Throughout this “little mistake,” as Kibaki described the national calamity, Nairobi’s literary scene is on steroids. In bars, online chat rooms, living rooms, theatres, chapbooks and coffee shops and international magazines and newspapers, everyone is talking and writing and writing and talking. The distance between the spoken and written word collapses. The cliché that Binyavanga disrobed so eloquently, of Africa as a metaphor for disfunction, has come home to roost. It is wearing the master’s own headscarf.

I didn’t know him well. As director of the Chinua Achebe Center For African Literature and Languages at Bard College, Binyavanga spent much of his time in America. When he did come back, he was surrounded by friends — writers, mostly, but also film-makers and musicians and professors and philosophers, all of whom seemed to be simultaneously basking in his presence and placing protective barriers between their friend, their muse, their warrior, and a ruthless world whose cruelties and wonders would otherwise pour unimpeded into Binyavanga’s soul.

No, I didn’t know him well, but his presence was so powerful that you came away feeling a profound sense of connection from even the briefest encounter. He would come back to town for a week or a month, and word would pass down that he was at such-and-such a restaurant, and we would trickle in and spend five hours eating and drinking and talking and smoking, Binya more than anyone, Binya relating how he’d just had lunch with some Kikuyu businessman or Luo politician or American ambassador, mimicking their accent and their idiom with perfect pitch, delighting in how their analysis of what ailed Kenya revealed so much more about themselves than the problem they thought they were solving. Or he’d talk about young writers he’d just met, often as not from the slums that housed half of Nairobi, young men and women whose parents still lived in a thatch hut on the other side of the country, writers with a voice that we had to get into the next edition of Kwani?, no matter that we already had far too much material on our hands.

"It didn’t matter if you were a close friend and peer like Chimamanda Adichie or some pale bro from Edmonton. You weren’t just welcome, you were needed."

Of course, I was one of those aspiring writers too, another person whose random blog post Binya had read and then sought out, to nurture and develop, to share his platform with. He would sit there, with one friend or a hundred, but perhaps most ideally five or six, playing tennis with our words, smoking cigarette after cigarette, downing improbable quantities of food and drink, and he only got better as the night went on. He was a pure force of narrative. It was like he needed that belly just to hold all his diatribes, and it didn’t matter if you were a close friend and peer like Chimamanda Adichie or some pale bro from Edmonton, Alberta. You weren’t just welcome, you were needed.

Most of the time he wasn’t around, but he was always there. Nairobi’s literary scene, fuelled by the regular poetry slams and book launches and festivals that Kwani? hosted, struck me as a festive hall of Binyavanga mirrors. These events were parties. You would look forward to one all week, come away word-drunk and determined to one-up whoever most impressed you on stage, next time. I am a surfer, and it struck me that Nairobi’s gang of writers approached their craft the way surfers approach the ocean, showing up every day to inspect the waves, hungry to paddle in whatever the conditions, big or small, clean or wind-tossed. During that year in Nairobi, the waves were big every day.

Even at the best of times, Nairobi had its fair share of darkness — homeless children sniffing glue by garbage piles were the foreign correspondent’s staple long before I showed up. And yet it felt to me as though we could write our way out of this. Not just our own way (I was always free to leave at any time, and thus fundamentally set apart from the rest) — there was a sense that if everyone pushed hard enough, long enough, smart enough, together we could narrate a better Nairobi, a more functional Kenya into being.

This was of course a classic How To Write About Africa delusion: “Whichever angle you take, be sure to leave the strong impression that without your intervention and your important book, Africa is doomed.” But it wasn’t all ego. In Binyavanga’s world, words became a rope that connected the bottom of a cave to a sun-blasted entrance just out of sight. He had done it, after all: He’d written the story that changed his life. Now he was dedicating his life to help others do the same. The rope was real. All you had to do was not let go.

“If you think writing is pointless,” Binya said one night, this time before a large and respectable audience that included Kenya’s minister of culture, who’d devoted much of his tenure to concocting ways to censor government critics, “ask yourself why the first thing every dictator does is silence the writers.” That’s the line I remember, along with the way he looked straight into the minister’s cold eyes as he said it, but it was part of a speech that kept everyone spellbound for 30 minutes, all of it straight off the top of his head.

There was a running joke in that community which envisioned African nations sending their electoral officers to help monitor elections in Europe and North America. It didn’t originate with Binyavanga as far as I know, but it was very much in his spirit of inverting the supposedly natural order of things so as to illuminate some arrogant absurdity, and as with so many notions from that time it turned out to be more prescient than I guessed. I left Kenya near the end of 2008; not until November 9, 2016, when the phrase “President Trump” entered my vocabulary, did I start to understand what my Kenyan friends had been going through while I was there. When I read recently that Latvia has offered to help Canada fend off Russian propaganda, I thought about how it would make a Latvian feel to know many Canadians think we’re too sophisticated to ask for help from Latvia. I thought of Binyavanga.

From whom I learned, embarrassingly late in life, how it feels: to suffer the abuse of good intentions; to survey the world order from outside the fortress-bubble of the so-called West; to seek help with dignity; to restore dignity in those who’ve been robbed of it; to enter literature as an intimate, essential conversation; to reach back down at the very moment when you have a chance to transcend the struggle; to be so vulnerable you risk total destruction.

There were so many things I didn’t know, so many more I still don’t. I didn’t know that I’d arrived in Kenya at the tale end of a golden age that lasted just five years. It began when the 24-year dictatorship of Daniel arap Moi ended in 2002. Money and freedom poured into the country, above all into Nairobi. Binyavanga was part of a wave of artists who’d come back home after studying abroad, who dedicated themselves to making a living from their minds. Binyavanga, always at the forefront, catapulted into the limelight when How To Write About Africa pulled the pants off an entire genre of Western literature, and Nairobi had its hero. For five years, against a confounding backdrop of swelling slums and exploding businesses and corruption clamp-downs and NGO-infusions, Nairobi’s literary scene fucking went for it. Salons erupted, poets became celebrities, the annual Kwani? literary festival drew leading authors from all over the continent to talk and drink and read and write their way into a future of their own imagining.

Much of that endures, but the Christmas election of 2007 marked a turning point. The men who led the death squads that roamed Nairobi and the countryside in early 2008 have not only avoided prosecution, they are running the country. Corruption is deeper than ever, and deepening. The city is more dangerous than ever, and the Western aid that Binyavanga somehow managed to critique and leverage at once — long after his prize money ran out, it was the Ford Foundation that kept Kwani? afloat — has slowed to a trickle. Kwani? is now struggling, and many of the writers who kept it going have left the country.

I also didn’t know that Binyavanga was gay. He was gay in a country, increasingly a continent, where homosexuality is illegal, where being gay can get you beaten and killed as quickly as jailed. And those are just the physical ramifications. Three years after publishing One Day I Will Write About This Place, Binyavanga published his “lost chapter,” formally titled I Am A Homosexual, Mum. In typical fashion, he fused the personal with the political through intense literary composition. He came out by imagining he’d made it home from South Africa in time to see his ailing mother before she dies:

Nobody, nobody, ever in my life has heard this. Never, mum. I did not trust you, mum. And. I. Pulled air hard and balled it down into my navel, and let it out slow and firm, clean and without bumps out of my mouth, loud and clear over a shoulder, into her ear.

“I am a homosexual, mum.”

In real life, she died before he got there. He never got to say those words to her. More than a decade would go by before he said them to anyone. By then, he only had a few years left.

Binyavanga’s own death, the culmination of a series of increasingly debilitating strokes linked to his high blood pressure and diabetes, was at least partly a result of his relentless appetite for food and Tusker beers and cigarettes. Had his life been a novel, that lethal excess would have been at least partly a result of suppressing an essential self-truth for so long. But that would be flirting with just the kind of heartstring-tugging that Binyavanga so rejoiced in roasting.

Three days after he died, Kenya’s Supreme Court issued a long-awaited ruling on a bid to strike down the law making homosexuality illegal. I had hoped for a cosmic intervention. I’d hoped Binyavanga would reach down from the place where he is now, as he always did in life, to help the judges think clearly about the matter they were weighing. Instead they ruled that homosexuality shall remain a crime in Kenya. I suppose it would have been too clean and neat an ending for Binyavanga had they ruled otherwise. Not nearly literary enough.

It exacerbates a loss that many others are feeling far more keenly than me. There is no neat ribbon to tie around this story. Binyavanga Wainaina is gone. A light has been extinguished.

But mixed in with my sadness is gratitude. Gratitude that he finished his memoir while he was still in his prime, and that it was as good as we all hoped it would be. Gratitude that he added the lost chapter, came out to himself and the world, proved his heroism yet again. I’m grateful he found love and, not long before he died, got engaged. He got to have that feeling. Most selfishly of all, I’m grateful that life brought me into his dazzling orbit for a while. That I got to be one of the countless people who learned much more from Binyavanga Wainaina than how to write about Africa.