Binyavanga Wainaina who died on May 21, 2019, at the Aga Khan Hospital in Nairobi, left behind an indelible oeuvre of a memoir, short story, a catalog of travelogue and satire, that will be remembered for their brevity, wit, and kaleidoscopic prose.

While his last years on earth were characterised by controversy (his coming out overshadowed his brilliant career, especially among the many Kenyans who had never read him). The 2002 Caine Prize winner, who used the proceeds of the prize to set up Kwani?, a platform through which many Kenyan creatives would express the anger, joy, angst, and humanity in the last 17 years. His 2005, satire piece, ‘How to Write About Africa’, remains the most viral piece ever published by Granta.

Born in Kenya, to a Kenyan father and a Ugandan mother, he studied in Kenya, attending the prestigious Lenana School and Mang’u High School, before proceeding to South Africa for a Business degree. He launched his writing career in South Africa, writing about food, travel, before he wrote his ground-breaking short story, Discovering Home, an autobiographical memoir that won him the Caine Prize. He would settle in America to head the Chinua Achebe Centre for African Literature at the Bard College.

Boisterous, engaging, some say arrogant, but always well-meaning, he always said what was in his mind. He was always honest, to a point of coming out as gay and also telling the world about his HIV status, two things that still attract stigma. But a free spirit he was.

 The golden rule of his writing was, first, identify a cause and ever since he told off smug European and American journalist Conradian obsession of Africa, his mother continent became his main obsession. He travelled to several African countries learning about their cuisine, art and trying to make a cocktail of the culture into Kwani? Litfest that was both continental and global. His writing was always peppered by Afro-optimism, a healthy skepticism to donors, who mostly funded his endeavours. Secondly, there were no boundaries in art. From painting to music, to poetry, to prose, his eclectic affinities spanned ever so wider.

The most important decision he made was the Kenyan-African first approach to life, that even when he was perambulating in Europe or America his heart was always in Kenya. He had a choice of picking the capital of his choice, getting a tenured teaching job in a prestigious university and pontificating about Africa from abroad. But NO. He was all over the place.

His best strength was his perky, snappy and snazzy sentences, at times paragraph long, at a time, one worded sentences, that rendered a poignancy and potency to the delivery.

“Describe, in detail, naked breasts (young, old, conservative, recently raped, big, small) or mutilated genitals, or enhanced genitals. Or any kind of genitals. And dead bodies. Or, better, naked dead bodies. And especially rotting naked dead bodies.” How about that from, How to Write about Africa?

Secondly, he would dabble in philosophy, rhapsodizing about the existentialism.

“If there is a miracle in the idea of life it is this: that we are able to exist for a time, in defiance of chaos. Later, you often forget how dicey everything was; how the tickets almost didn't materialize; how the event almost got postponed; how a hangover nearly made you miss the flight…” {from Discovering Home}.

And he was painstakingly honest: “When I masturbate in my bedroom, I do not like to think of people, I know…” as he confessed in his memoir, One Day I Will Write About This Place.

What made his writing engaging was the superb narration, at once scattered, pouring out like an early 20th-century stream of a conscious writer, with a Jonathan Swift type of satire,

“...always include The Starving African, who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked, and waits for the benevolence of the West. Her children have flies on their eyelids and pot bellies, and her breasts are flat and empty. She must look utterly helpless. She can have no past, no history; such diversions ruin the dramatic moment. Moans are good…” on How to Write about Africa.

 

 

Editors Picks