Discovering Binyavanga: A murdered metaphysics

Saturday June 1 2019

Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina.

Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina during an interview in Nairobi, Kenya, on January 27, 2014. PHOTO | AFP 

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I vaguely recollect the date I got the call. Looking up the March 2008 calendar, and the news reports of the time, of V.S. Naipaul in Kampala, it would have come in the fourth week of March that year.

The call came a few days after Naipaul’s visit to Makerere, which the news reports say was on March 20. A Thursday.

I remember that an interval of a weekend had separated that talk and the call, which came in the night and scrambled my life.

Of the day though, everything remains clear. Back home in Uganda after three years, before the ascendancy of Barack Obama to the US presidency, all my nights were airless, hot and noisy.

I lived right by the bustling road from the city centre to Gaba, by Lake Victoria, where I ran a workshop making things.

The phone showed a Kenyan calling code. The voice, when it came, was intriguing. I could not place the accent.


I had worked with Kenyans since the late 1990s, and had a rough idea what a Kenyan sounded like. This voice? It sounded international, or as I thought of it back then, Afro-BBC.

“Is this David Kaiza?” the caller asked. Back then, I still wrote under that name.

“Yes,” I responded, intrigued at why anyone would have wanted anything from me. I had ceased to be useful.

In March 2008, I did not want anyone to call me. On the other side of the line was an over-educated voice, international; the smoky, faintly fruity tint, the full-toned voice of a man at the apogee of youth, confident, mellifluous.

Back in the day, when BBC still held command, you heard that kind of voice frequently, an accent, I thought, adopted by well-travelled Africans trying their best not to sound British, or American. I did not appreciate phone calls back then and would switch the phone off for hours.

I had turned my back on things professional. I did not want the city. I did not want the media. But I lived hand to mouth and was frequently forced to turn the phone on – an unwelcome ally in the madcap existence I led back then.

Five years in the hermitage, I had told myself after walking out of the only job I ever had; five years and I shall get the rhythm of things flowing.

I had clocked in at two full years without a salary and become master of certain things. Three more years to go. I feared that one phone call that would force me out of my sequestration.

“My name is Binyavanga Wainaina,” the voice said. “I am a fan of yours.”

Irritation turned to curiosity

I had not written anything to speak of out there. A journalist, I had written some long narrative pieces on refugees and health, which only technocrats paid attention to, and rarely as fans.

But I knew what he was referring to, which swivelled me from distrust to playing along. There seemed very few takers for the literary reviews I did at the time. I had been told that Binyavanga Wainaina was connected to the Chinua Achebe Centre in America.

Was that testiness I heard in his tone?

“No, it's me that is a fan of your work,” I bantered back, in what I thought was measure for measure.

“I am in Kampala and wondering if we can have a coffee tomorrow,” he said.

That sounded serious.

“Oh sure,” I said, lively now. Back in 2008, when I quit the media, I found myself isolated from friends and family.

Former colleagues did not want to associate with me. At my former faculty, they sneered in my face.

Now a Caine Prize winner was offering me a coffee. It was irresistible. That evening, I was truly intrigued.

Meeting the author of How to Write About Africa was not a bad bargain. I had read snatches of his writing, many of them in the pages of The EastAfrican.

Here was self-confidence at a combustible state, the staccato timing of the poetry therein, that predilection for the offbeat detail.

He was the kindest, politest of human beings. Like all polite people, he had a steely core.


The Garden City Mall in Kampala was in 2008 heralding a new way of packaging the city into the over-the-top, permissive consumerist guise we all know by now.

Abutting the golf course, it was on the Chatsworth side of town, which the upper classes of Kololo wheeled past on their way back home. Airy interiors opened into more airy interiors.

There were the flowing dreadlocks. The massive forehead. No one looks like that who is not interesting. A smile cracked his face.

The barest hint of an upper tooth gap. The lively eyes. And as I came up, he fixed his eyes on me.

He was in a group, some white Americans, and a Kenyan I was shortly to know as Billy Kahora. An entourage. A man who moves with an entourage.

“David Kaiza,” I said and shook hands. I made to take a seat.

“No, let's sit over there." We went across the yardage of second floor, mezzanine, open-air cafe. Had they come for V.S. Naipaul? This was my first question.

A quickly asked question, not wanting those awkward opening moments. From what I had read of his writing, I guessed Naipaul would be a big one for Binyavanga.

A safe topic then — well, not safe in that sense. V.S Naipaul is never a safe topic. I wasn’t ready for what I saw in Binyvanga’s eyes, looking at me, measuring up the hagiographer.

V.S. Naipaul was still in town, which gave Kampala that edgy feel, not knowing which detail of the city would be put through his wringer.

The look on Binyavanga’s face, when I asked this, and his laugh when it came, said that an air ticket from Nairobi to Kampala to hear Naipaul speak was preposterous.

In the opening minutes, we talked about Naipaul, and briefly of Paul Theroux’s book, Sir Vidia’s Shadow. For the next several years, we talked about Naipaul all the time.

It was March of 2008. Barely two months had passed since the last killing in the violence that convulsed Kenya following the stolen elections of December 2007.

This was the big topic that shadowed all of that day. I did not know enough about Binyavanga to make so direct a connection.

Binyavanga seemed to have made up his mind to sit and talk to me at the mall all day. We talked about ethnicity. This was a Kenyan thing, I knew.

In Uganda, it was rude to bring it up. But that year, it would have been reckless to set it aside. We talked about literature. We talked about Heian Japan, of Murasaki Shikibu.

We discussed mid-19th century Russian literature. We talked about Gabriel Garcia Marquez. We talked about South American literature. We talked about the African Writers Series.

If he ever had any, Binyavanga was a bad keeper of secrets. He wore his heart on his sleeve. He said what was on his mind. Sometimes, he said it first and thought it later.

He liked to quickly run to Buganda and Ghanaian monarchies. He could describe Nigeria for hours on end. The enterprising book makers of Onitsha market fascinated him.

But why Buganda and Ghana? Was he hankering after a certain pre-colonial Africa he could hold on to? As I got to know him better, how he thought, I learnt that talking about Buganda and Ghana were a prelude to discussing the idea of civilisation.

He was an international man and a bubble of sounds characterised his speech. I never met anyone who could out-talk Binyavanga.

Uganda and Ghana, he observed, have this subtle way with how power works, complex-slippery, coy and indirect. He said this raising and twisting his hands. You had to read between the lines.

It took a long time before Binyavanga asked me if I could write something for Kwani? I was keen on travel-writing, I said. But I did not want to write about places. I wanted to travel into identity. I wanted to write something that might give an inkling of the ethnic tensions that had gripped Uganda for so long and that had nearly burnt down Kenya.

But Binyavanga also wanted hands at Kwani?, and I at last understood this costly investment of time. He asked if I could join the team. I was immediately conflicted.

I had been steadily building myself and my mind away from what I had at the time seen as a postcolonial trap. At the same time, I knew that the company of fellow-minded writers could be what I needed, and these writers were starting to descend on Nairobi. At any rate, I had been planning to leave Museveni’s Uganda, which was becoming dangerous for journalists.

It was not until 9pm that we walked out of the mall.

Outcasts and refugees

Footloose, like myself, the writers I came upon in Nairobi could not have been a more tight fit. We all lived to be on the road, the dawning of the millennium had brought cheap travel.

We were everywhere all the time. We were all of us outcasts and refugees, writers in our 30s, people with more than average education, erudite to the point of vulnérability. We were exiled from the world we had been born and educated in.

What Binyavanga was assembling in Nairobi, was nothing short of an intellectual, cartographical conference, to examine, then chart which way things could go.

Upon reaching Nairobi, I was thrown into this literary set that had made exactly the same choices as myself. Like myself, they had walked out on sort-of jobs (shameful salaries, big-man infested corporations, devoid of any discernible ideas except the big job itself).

We had embraced lives without incomes. There we were, spirits that haunted Nairobi West, coming out in the dark, gravitating to The EastAfrican's senior editor Ali Zaidi’s house: South Africans, Nigerians, Ugandans, Kenyans, Zimbabweans and Sierra Leoneans.

I felt more at home in Nairobi than I could ever do in Uganda.

What a thing it was to observe the Nairobi intellectual set at its best; set on fire by the uncovering of the dubious hand history had dealt their country, set on fire by the events of 2007-08, the set had gone for broke.

Being in Binyavanga’s circle was like sitting at the charging end of a freight train. We awoke (mostly before lunch, for there was never enough time in a day to talk all we had to talk) and were at it immediately.

Lunch mostly came after three, sometimes four. And it migrated on from there to breakfast time. That was when we went to bed, when others were leaving to go to work.

The most formidable challenge, for the literary set that gathered in Nairobi post-Moi, as I saw it, was formulating a philosophy for its purpose.

The Ugandan writer, Kalundi Serumaga, that most perceptive of writers, pointed out the character of the colonial city thus: There are worship places for European, Asian and Arab religions in the colonies. African religion is denied.

There lay the root of the problem. What creative levers can a people whose theology has been criminalised pull? Were we forever going to define African art in Arab and European traditions because we had abandoned our theology for theirs?

Writing can be done, anyhow. For writers from former colonies, the difficulty was manifold. If you are coming from a damaged culture, the path to writing is double-barred.

First you must reconstruct a coherent metaphysical guide before the business of writing can start. Settled and uncriminalised cultures provide writers with a solid backdrop of ideas they take for granted, seeing what they do, not as the product of their society, but of their own genius. That was one.

The second challenge was to patch together a publishing concern, in a region where no literary publishers existed.

It was an impossible call. No wonder Binyavanga was always in a hurry. He set about building a founding metaphysics, getting the writing going on the back of that and then getting it published.

I could tell that he set out to scramble the very structures of discourse. If the intention of 19th century powers had been to discombobulate African intellectuals, then why not mix everything up, throw it all out there?

For how, in the fourth decade of decolonisation, do you open a discourse on African societies? Do you follow the universities and still be genuinely African, when the very universities were and still are the pillars of the colonial project?

Do you jump on the activist bandwagon and still claim to be intellectual? Do you pick up and extend the African Writers Series when that project itself had been — for all the ardour and energy a money-minting imprint of an imperial publishing empire?

First of all, where to start? The proscription, at first, and then the derogation of the African intellectual heritage had attempted to erase all evidence of the heritage's assassination, something Ali Zaidi referred to as “suppressed histories.”

To write a literature based on African narrative principles was the Kwani? problem. Kwani? may not have articulated it thus, but it was. Absent that, writing according to Victorian, Western notions of realism, was in effect, writing from deep within enemy territory.

The African Writers Series generation had been born in former Africa, so they did not have to face the challenge of resurrecting a murdered metaphysics.

Colonialism had chopped mid-point into their intellectual formulation, meaning they were first Africans, and latterly, colonial subjects. We, on the other hand, were the grandchildren of colonial subjects.

What eventually emerged as Kwani? was a compromise. There was a certain “urban” tone, a provisional, if structural alliance with that cultural force youthful in nature and countercultural in spirit, to it.

This was a very fraught assault on postcolonialism, the inauguration of a new critique. This path – the alliance – became essential. Any other way and overwhelming contradictions would have welled up.

The universities were too tightly welded to the colonial project, from the PhDs they earned from the old colonial circle of colleges to the very categories of pedagogy they trafficked in.

Few of us contemplated jobs in classrooms. Mainstream media had its ties to big business and government. It was a no-go area. There was politics. There was activism. There was NGO-ism. These had chosen highly polarising, and while at it, intellectually ineffectual paths.

The Kwani? that Binyavanga captained, as I see it, was making a cautious, sideways movement going forward. If there was one certain thing I could say about it, it was that the project understood one thing; as an African writer, you cannot afford to look at Africa from the outside.