By Wallace Kantai
Back in 2002, on my usual walk up that steep hill from the river in Ruthimitu, I had a brain wave. I had been scratching my head about how to commemorate Kenya’s 40th anniversary of independence the following year. I was tired of the usual ‘walitukomboa kutoka nyororo za wabeberu’ narrative, and I thought it was time for MY generation to tell OUR story. That day, the idea came to my mind fully formed. Why not tell the story of Kenya through the people who had grown up in independent Kenya? 40 was the perfect age – enough time to have built a name, but still young enough to be outstanding. The idea – which I came to name Top 40 Under 40 – was to profile people born on or after December 12, 1963, and who were at the top of their respective professions. To my mind, independent Kenya could claim them fully, and they represented the best of us. I spoke to a friend at KTN, and to their credit, they bought into the idea fully, including my notion of having the Top 40 nominated by the public.
So we had the nominations and the television features the following year. There wasn’t too much quibbling over most of the nominees (Adan Mohamed, Moses Nderitu, Paul Tergat, Tegla Loroupe, the Redykyulass trio). One of the categories, however, was Top Author. The first, Ken Walibora, passed without much muttering. But one day, I was the recipient of a rather angry phone call. More accurately, a livid phone call. The person on the other end of the line, a very heavyweight literary personality, was apoplectic that we had featured a certain young author as the other Top Author Under 40. The author in question had only one credit to his name – of having won the Caine Prize in 2002. How DARE we recognise someone who had never as much as written a novel? How DARE we recognise someone whose primary medium was the internet? I defended the choice, in an argument that got more and more heated until I lost my temper. If I remember correctly, I told the literary worthy to go establish HIS own Top 40 Under 40 and nominate HIS own authors. As for me, I was in charge of THIS Top 40 Under 40, and the name of the nominee would stand.
He exploded into our consciousness like a supernova. No one had ever heard of the Caine Prize, which had only been established two years before. But you only needed to read the story that won him the prize – ‘Discovering Home’ – to not only be blown away, but to get the courage to take on any detractors. It was a tour de force. History. Sociology. Family. Geography. A cri de coeur. A riotous laugh of a story: ‘Any Ndombolo song has this section where, having reached a small peak of hip-wiggling frenzy, the music stops, and one is supposed to pull one’s hips to the side and pause, in anticipation of an explosion of music…If you watch a well-endowed woman doing this, you will understand why skinny women are not popular in Africa’.
The Caine Prize (and I dare say the T40U40 nomination) made the Binj a household name in Kenya and throughout Africa and the world. He had the world eating out of his palm. He could have decided to take it easy – fly around the world in business class speaking haughtily about African writing. But no. To him, the Caine Prize and its accompanying prize money were simply a springboard. He very quickly established ‘Kwani’?, the literary journal that served as a roof for many, many young authors in Kenya and beyond. He became the godfather of the new wave of African writers, happy to inhabit their stories and, almost for the first time, tell OUR own stories to OURSELVES. The new writers were not about translating Africa to outsiders – we were, in a stream of consciousness, telling our stories in our own vernacular, with a wink and a dig in the ribs which, if you didn’t understand it because you thought we needed to translate it for you, tant pis. He even decided to send up all those who assumed they could write about us, and ‘How to Write About Africa’ has been a classic piece of satire since it was published.
The Binj and I became good friends, especially once I learned that he had been to the greatest school in the world (Lenana ‘89, where I had just missed him when I joined in February 1990).
I moved to the UK in March 2005, and one day the Binj called me to tell me of an event at the British Library. That’s what that photo up there is about. He knew everyone, not least a young Nigerian author who I had just discovered in the New York Times writing hilariously about how difficult it was to apply for and receive the American visa. Chimamanda wasn’t spectacularly famous then, which is why I could (only half in jest) ask her to marry me, but she declined on the basis that I wasn’t a prince. The Binj laughed uproariously, while also trying to serve as a good wingman and sing my praises to Chimamanda, who was more and more haughty (with a wicked smile behind the facade) as the afternoon went on. The Binj also introduced me to someone who I spent an afternoon, evening and night pub crawling in London with. In his honour (and especially because he is a very big cheese nowadays) I will not say his name, but the Binj had a massive heart, and an endless array of friends.
In later years, the Binj travelled on rather more bumpy roads. He came out, but in true, inimitable style, declared his sexuality loudly, proudly and unapologetically. He declared that he was HIV-positive, but did not ask for sympathy, or to be a symbol or model. His first stroke slowed him down, but any photo could show you that the fire in his eyes never went away.
Finally, his heart, that massive, all-encompassing heart, gave out. The Binj signed off yesterday. He will be hobbled no more by the limits we tried to put on him – as an author, as a man, as a human being. He goes to Heaven as our griot. Tell them stories, Binyavanga. Teach them how to love us as you so clearly did. Hamba kahle.
(And that Top 40 Under 40 idea? Some media house which-shall-not-be-named erm…’borrowed the idea’ a few years later. Good luck to them)