Since Joyce Nyairo’s tweet about Binyavanga Wainaina’s death hit me in the nape like a shot-put mid this week, I have not found the words to shape and contain memories of my encounters with him between when we first met and our last accidental drink-up in Nairobi West a few years ago.
Emerging from life as a barely legal immigrant in South Africa to claim the 2002 Caine Prize for African Writing for his story, Discovering Home, Binyavanga hardly touched his teacup in the café on the ground floor of Lonrho House. He appeared to be more focused on breaking literary icons than drinking his masala tea.
“Ngugi [wa Thiong’o] is great and all that but he cannot be the be-all and end-all of literature,” he said, assaulting the canons of literary tradition ensconced in universities and publishing houses. He had just won the equivalent of Sh1 million but he was not going into business, buying a plot or building a dam to hold back the poverty of joblessness he had experienced in South Africa. He poured it into creating space where African writers could be real and colloquial about their experiences. Not only did this enterprise birth the journal, Kwani?, which published at least a dozen new books, but also opened the way for Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, Okwiri Oduor and Makena Onjerika to win the Caine Prize in subsequent years.
Binyavanga echoed the literary vision of the 1960s Kampala meeting by bringing the LitFest to Nairobi, drawing in new African voices and expanding the scope and audience of writing from his part of the world. The festival also opened new literary markets for writers beyond the school textbook-obsessed publishers. And it gave rise to a new publishing and performance culture evident in the Open Mic sessions where Spoken Word poetry was performed, and Story Moja came to life, with its own annual literary festival. Without seeming to do so, Binyavanga gave permission to those of his generation to explain their experiences in the new urban vernacular that broke the rules of stiff English grammar and gave expression to their uncertainties, fears and hopes. It is not surprising that in Kenya and across Africa, a cult began to emerge around the man his friends fondly called The Binj.
Many nights, when I get into long conversations with journalist friend Rasna Warah, she reminds me that a writer’s worth is her or his honesty. Binyavanga was warm, human, and humorous, and generous to a fault. I had a loud falling out with him when seemed to endorse the peace narrative on whose wings Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto rode to power in an article in The Guardian. But he was also quick to acknowledge when he had missed a turn.
And it is because of his generosity that he opened up his life to the world to speak about his experiences as a gay African man, to share the burden of having HIV on World Aids Day, to announce his wedding to a gay man, and to refuse to be confined by fear of what people thought.
Looking back, one can see why Binyavanga was impatient and in a hurry to change the world. Because he was a man ahead of his time, his works and memory will always be with us.