He restored Kenya’s literary glory when he won the 2002 Caine Prize for African Writing for his autobiographical short story, Discovering Home. Did he use the proceeds of the prize to help set up Kwani? a literary platform that has defined the Kenyan literary scene in the last two decades. From the seed of his exuberance in the aughts, Kenya has won two more Caine Prizes, witnessed world-class literary fests and several creatives found a home, as many stars were born, and old canonical writers venerated. His coming out seems to have jeopardised his literary star and his death at 48, has seen his person brought to trial, less about writerly abilities, more about his homosexuality.
Kevin Mosigisi examines his literary legacy and his life as an LGBTQ rights' activist.
Two things happened in the course of the past one month, which seem unrelated yet do have a convergence on the politics surrounding the person of Binyavanga Wainaina.
Binyavanga Wainaina, the First Kenyan to win the Caine Prize in 2002, an openly gay and gay rights’ activist died at the age of 48. Barely a day after his death, a Kenyan High Court ruled against abolishing the laws that criminalise homosexual relations in the country. Going by the many ‘Amens!’ that followed the court ruling, and the unsavoury epithets with which Binyavanga’s death was received, we can argue, as I will in this article that Binyavanga’s writing, and the public nature of his sexual life, were on trial, and that we, either individually or collectively have been the prosecutor, jury, and judge rolled into one person.
Born in 1971, he spent his early years in Nakuru then joined Mangu High school for his O- levels, and later Lenana High School for his A levels. These were schools for kids from middle-class families, and as Binyavanga’s letter to SA attests, were meant to mould them into middle-class graduates. Coming of age during the authoritarian regime of Moi meant that his ethnicity also became a reason he did not get selected to join a public university in Kenya. Therefore, he left Kenya for South Africa where he enrolled for a Bachelor of Commerce degree at Transkei University.
Being in South Africa in the early 1990s was such a hard time for young Binyavanga: He had given in to too much drinking, he was failing in his exams, and he was in a search for his identity. As he reveals in his prize-winning autobiographical short story in Discovering Home, he was unable to make the journey home to see his sick mother because it would have been difficult to re-enter SA as he had never renewed his passport. His mother died in 2000, around the same time that the narrator-author of Discovering Home arrives in Kenya from South Africa.
While in Kenya, he travelled across the country and referenced the kinds of people he met in the different towns and rural areas in Kenya. Later, he went to Uganda to attend his grandparent’s wedding anniversary held on the borders that Uganda shares with Rwanda and the DRC. Binyavanga thus seemed to premise diversity in culture as the new model for the younger generation away from the authoritarian regimes and the national cultures of the 1960s and 1970s.
Having been in South Africa in the years leading to the end of Apartheid, and the years immediately after it, Binyavanga must have felt the joys of the freedom of expression and the possibility of imagining a different reality. South Africa was, for instance, the first country in the world to decriminalise homosexuality, in 1996, to make claim to the rainbow nation. Nine African countries, all of them in the southern hemisphere, have since decriminalised homosexuality, notably Botswana that did so early this week. This is partly the reason for his sense of optimism about the possibility of a rising creative energy in Kenya in the post-Moi era.
The year 2002, was the turning point for Binyavanga and his understanding of the relationship between the self and nation. This is the year that he was awarded the Caine Prize for African Writing for his short story, Discovering Home. The year became the turning point for him and as fate would have it, for the Kenyan country as well. The same year, Mwai Kibaki became Kenya’s third’s president, and heralded a new change from Kenya; there was an expanded democratic space in the political, academia and creative spaces.
Therefore, by 2002, the afro image of Binyavanga circulated in the internet and he became a fuzz. He had just been ‘promoted’ from an unknown 31-year-old Kenyan to be the First Kenya Caine prize winner. Binyavanga decided to use his newfound fame and the prize money to establish Kwani? Trust, a literary journal whose ambition was to revolutionize the production and consumption of literature.
Binyavanga, writing in the editorial section of the first issue said that at Kwani
“We seek to entertain, provoke, and create. We are open to all Kenyans, wherever they may be, who want to say something new”
True to his word, Kwani? did publish a couple of fiction and non-fiction pieces, including Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s ‘Weight Whispers’ which won the Caine Prize in 2003, and Billy Kahora’s short story that was shortlisted for the Caine Prize in 2004. They also ran the biennial Kwani? International Lit Fest in Nairobi and the Kenyan coastal town of Lamu since 2005. It is through the intervention of Kwani that, Yvonne Owuor has risen to become a successful writer with the publication of Dust in 2013 and Dragon Sea Fly in 2019.
The image of a 31-year-old dreadlocked Binyavanga Wainaina was an instant sensation in the Kenyan literary circles. One could then argue that there is an uncanny resemblance between this image and that of a dreadlocked man on the covers of both Kwani? 01 and Kwani? 02. Images which, as Tom Odhiambo in a critique of Kwani? Trust suggests, could point to the journal’s allegiance to the ideals of youth and freedom espoused by Bob Marley or “the renewal of Mau Mau discourse in the post-Moi era as well as subtly invite its youthful readers to see themselves as the new revolutionaries”.
In the editorial of Kwani?01, Binyavanga notes that he met all kinds of interesting people who were mostly young, self-motivated people, who have created a space for themselves in an adverse economy by being innovative. He further notes in the editorial of Kwani? 01 that he sees these many young people as confident enough to create their own living, their own entertainment, and aesthetic that will not be patronised by either the university or the Ministry of Culture. By establishing Kwani? Trust as the platform upon which this creative energy shall be built, and guiding the editorial process, Binyavanga seems to have positioned himself thought leader and Kwani? Group as the champions of this change.
Although the Kwani? Trust was not taken as seriously as they would have wanted to especially by the university professors, some of whom actually branded them as ‘literary gangsters’, even their critics did acknowledge that Kwani? signalled a remarkable re-emergence of the artistic and cultural re-invention that echoed back to the tradition of the 1960s and 1970s.
Binyavanga’s journey home can, therefore, be seen in the mould of the homecoming of various intellectuals that had been exiled during Moi’s autocratic regime, and reminiscent especially of Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s 2004 homecoming. His writing suggests that ‘home’ that he has always known from his childhood recollections, is no longer there: He discovers that his home, both the places he visits in Kenya and Uganda were both familiar and unfamiliar. This is the experience of a majority of the returnees, that things have either changed, or you could have changed your perspective about these things. Therefore, home is not a place to go to, rather, it is a place you rediscover as you also rediscover yourself.
As the founding editor, Binyavanga edited the first issue of Kwani, taking time to place the journal within the philosophical and socio-cultural and historical trajectory, always finding time to respond to cynics of his of the endeavours. Binyavanga was later to take up the position of Director of the Chinua Achebe Centre for African Writers and Artists at Bard College in New York in addition to several writing residencies in various countries.
For most Kenyans then, Binyavanga death was more of a punishment that was welcome both in law and in Christianity, and that is partly why his death and the court ruling are such a powerful symbol of how we have normalized violence against that marginal group.
Binyavanga then went ahead to mould himself as a black (African) intellectual. As opposed to the African writers of the 1960s that were more drawn into the nationalist discourses of their countries, Binyavanga, both in his role at Kwani? and his YouTube presentations that he dubbed “Freeing the Imagination” and his writing (fiction and nonfiction), sought to reframe and interrogate the issues of identity, of what it means to be African, of what can be termed as ‘African Tradition’.
He is better known for his essay “How to write about Africa” in which he satirically discusses what it means to be African, and how to write about what we may call the ‘African condition’. Though the apparent recipients of this essay are white writers and journalists, whose presentation of Africa is reminiscent of the ancient racial and colonialist undertones of backwardness, poverty-stricken, war-ravaged and hopeless continent, a more stinging criticism of this essays should rightly also be to these self-proclaimed ‘Africanists’ on how not write about Africa especially when you are an African, and may be targeting a European audience.
For a while, his reputation as a writer and a leader of the revolutionary journal was as good as it could be: Binyavanga has been described as unflagging in his generosity, unflinching and direct in his criticism, and he did not shy away from controversies especially in defense of what he thought was good. He was invited to schools and literary events to talk and inspire. He was a reincarnation of another literary moment in Kenya. And then, a personal essay, I am a homosexual, Mum, published in the Chimurenga, and fashioned as ‘the lost chapter’ in his autobiography, One Day I Will Write About This Place ruined everything.
We could say that since the publication of this essay, Binyavanga has been on public trial.
Soon, Binyavanga’s iconic dreadlocked image was replaced with short shaved hair with two longer coloured outgrowths. Then, Binyavanga started appearing in long clothes. The public charged him and found him wanting. So much to the extent that when he was pronounced to have suffered from multiple strokes, and hospitalized in India, for many, the judgment had been passed: his sickness was the punishment for his ‘unnatural’ behaviour. In 2016 when he announced on his Twitter page that he was HIV positive and that he was happy, there was a virulent expression of disgust; either because he had HIV or because he was happy.
Many of those accusing him of practicing ‘unAfrican’ cultures, forgetting that the Victorian puritanism that they cited from the Bible and evil the legal precepts from which the ruling against decriminalizing homosexuality are some of the vestiges of the activities of the British empire. Although the British empire as we knew it, is functionally dead, the colonial project, especially in Kenya seems to be working as if design. Kenya is still a plantation that the British left behind.
For most Kenyans then, Binyavanga death was more of a punishment that was welcome both in law and in Christianity, and that is partly why his death and the court ruling are such a powerful symbol of how we have normalized violence against that marginal groups.
Talking about Binyavanga’s homosexuality within the Kenyan/African context is difficult: It proved difficult to disavow his life and to shame him as a potential menace on one hand and affirm his artistic prowess on the other. Many of the accusations levelled against him were camouflaged in religion and the law.
Binyavanga possessed the vision to see through it and he vividly delineates the predicament of homosexuals like him and the political stunt of calling him up for imagining a different reality for Africa. By acknowledging his fears of coming out as gay in the personal essay to his mum, and that to his father, Binyavanga achieves two things simultaneously: He addresses the issue of marginality from another perspective, he attempts through an apostrophe, to explain his experience and decision to his parents, and thereby also rediscovering his identity, as an African gay, who is aware that his decisions do have an impact beyond him. In one of the essays he writes about his experiences while at university in South Africa, he presents himself as someone engaged in an incessant search for his identity.
By the time he is acknowledging to both his parents in particular and the world at large, he comes out as someone that assumed a sense of responsibility both for his actions, and words both to himself and others. What he tries to do is combine multiple conceptions of identities into a coherent whole; he goes on an intellectual and artistic journey of discovering who he is from a position of marginality. In an interview with the Associated Press in 2014, Binyavanga notes “There is nobody who is a beast or an animal, right? Everyone, we homosexuals, are people and we need our oxygen to breathe.” His views about what being an African, as a gay, and a person from and in Africa connect to the larger questions of nationality, identity, and the representation of the “other.”
It is only from an ethical relationship that we can strive to understand others, what they are trying to say, and support them in their search. Through Binyavanga’s publicly lived life, his writings and speeches, we understand that there is a historical and racial component to shaming associated with homosexuality in Africa. Having lived through this experience, he embraced writing and the speeches as a manifestation of his rigorous activism against the shame associated with homosexuality.
What Binyavanga did in Discovering Home and continues in One day I Will Write about this Place, the YouTube speeches and other essays he wrote, is to try to combine diverse conceptions into a coherent whole; he goes on an intellectual voyage of discovering who he is from a position that is simultaneously inside and outside his culture.
Having put Binyavanga on trial, we could recognize that the judgment that we put him through is in retrospect passing judgment on ourselves as well. He seems to suggest that when we live ethically, we are able to be vulnerable with one another, revealing our selves, and to our stories. This kind of self-discovery of our identities is possible if we conceptualize being African or the practice of African culture as an ethical choice that we all have to make, in the course of lives. Thus, although Binyavanga did not consciously claim or adopt the title of intellectual, it is a title that we can bequeath him based on what he has been able to achieve.
Kevin Mosigisi is a Fulbright Scholar and a Literary Critic based in Nairobi.