KIBINGE: He made me feel alive, grateful

Friday May 31 2019

Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina during an event to mark Kwani?'s 10-year anniversary at the Kenyatta University business centre conference room on November 28, 2013. PHOTO | FILE | NMG


Binyavanga Wainaina burst into my life with great force in 2002 after winning the Caine Prize.

He quickly announced his plan to everyone he met: To use this win to create something new and longlasting: A literary journal.

I listen to his wide-eyed, rapid fire excitement, secretly disguising the fact that I had no frigging idea what a "literary journal" was.

But that mattered little in the end — resistance to his plan was futile.

Like a magician pulling talent from a magic hat, Binyavanga gathered a growing number of exceptionally talented people and a period of madly frenetic idea sharing began over many Sundays in Ali Zaidi’s home.

It was an indescribably beautiful time. Years later I asked him, “How did you bring so many strangers together like that?"


He shrugged and admitted that he never quite realised, even when he stood in Ali’s kitchen messily creating new dishes like "sushi-ugali", that he had whipped up a storm, and stood in the eye of it.

That was Binyavanga for you.

Sometimes he made me furious — he could be so overwhelmingly opinionated. Then...I would stop and realise how grateful I was to feel this alive.

Binyavanga had arrived and we were about have our ideas about friendships and love seriously challenged.

Together we went on a flurry of cerebral expeditions — untangling female hair, peering into African sexuality, attacking rituals and religion, and declaring democracy dead (was it ever alive?) over drinks.

We fought about everything — after all, he had assembled a group as passionate and opinionated as himself. So being together could sometimes hurt why wouldn’t it? We were imagining a new world.

Stop and consider how it felt to step out of the boxes we had been born into and define the world afresh, as conquerors with so many divergent minds. The world was ours to take.

And for a time, we tried our very best to do just that.

I've never had a friend like The Binj (as we fondly called him) and will likely never again.

He stayed with me in my apartment in Kileleshwa on many occasions: Time that added up, over the years, into some of the most colourful months of my life.

That apartment, painted yellow green and red with my own hands — complete with palm and footprints — became a crazily wonderful hotbed of debate and discovery. What a time. It’s a wonder I wasn't evicted.

It was not unusual for him to rock up at my home at midnight with a plan. One night, he insisted we drive to River Road (downtown backstreet of Nairobi) after midnight to see what he believed to be the most beautiful street in the city.

Another night he insisted that I pick him up and bring him back to my place to watch a very dense and (to me at the time) incomprehensible film from Afghanistan he had stumbled upon.

"Kenyans need to make movies like this! Like this!" he declared when the movie ended at nearly 4am. I sleepily agreed to everything just to make it all end. But later, I thought.... wow! What a film.

What impressed him most was when people took what culturally was theirs, and expressed it without sanitising it.

He felt we were too heavily influenced by Victorian etiquette to celebrate original stories authored by authentic voices.

He set out, like an anthropologist, to every corner of the world to experience new philosophies, words, people and cultures.

He traversed the earth with a nonchalant ease — home was often wherever he felt alive. He would call from all kinds of places at all kinds of hours — Cameroon, Senegal, upstate New York, Russia — to urgently transmit an insight or urgent idea.

Life with Binya was not always pretty, but it was always exceedingly deeply felt and lived.

I will never, ever know a fraction of the full scope of his life or the magnitude of his friendships, achievements or passions. Mine is just one account out of hundreds of accounts of whom Binyavanga was.

I am but one witness of and participant in his fabulous, intense life. This continent does not produce many humans like this.

What we do in Kenya is take big minds, big thinkers, big ideas and we squash them into the ground. We ignore and minimise them.

We neglect and mock them. The tenderpreneurs are king... the visionaries and independent artists are but poor foolish minstrels who should be flogged for their wasteful musings.

If Binyavanga was born in Nigeria I believe right now the state would be planning a national funeral for him. But in Kenya, we minimise.

“Reputable” broadcasters announced his death by scouring the Internet to find the TED talk where he is wearing a tutu and describe his passing using the most derogatory words possible.

Binyavanga was many things: A radical writer and artist, a loving son, brother and uncle, a brilliant thinker, a gay activist, a deep thinker, a philanthropist, a tennis player with bewildering stamina, a demanding, die-hard friend, an enthusiastic dancer and more.

I had the immense privilege of spending a lot of time with him in the intensely good and vibrant first 12 years after I met him.

But also I struggled with the deep and unforgiveable shame of not being with him much in the last few years where he suffered so much.

I hope he can forgive me for this. I hope I can forgive myself for this. I loved him deeply and will carry him in my heart and head until the day I die.