Kwani? took us to a new but familiar Kenya

Saturday June 1 2019

Binyavanga Wainaina

Binyavanga Wainaina during an interview and photo session with the AFP, in Nairobi. He set about building a founding metaphysics, getting the writing going on the back of that and then getting it published. PHOTO | SIMON MAINA | AFP 

PAUL GOLDSMITH
By PAUL GOLDSMITH
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I did not recognise the voice on the other end of the line: “We would like you to write something for our new journal.”

I did not catch the name of the person talking, or the name of the periodical. “Sounds interesting, what do what me to write about?”
“Anything you want.”

“Like…what is the focus of your publication?

“Its open.”

I had received commissions out of the blue before, but they were always specific, especially in regard to length. I asked about it, “No limit.” I asked about the deadline: “Set a date and we’ll work with it.”

He had said he was calling from London, which led to clarification, with considerable emphasis. It was August, 2003, still the age of land lines and Ksh200 per minute international charges. Communication had to be concise.

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Hii kazi yetu ni ya hapa hapa Africa, kabisa tena.” (Our assignment is for and about Africa).

“In that case, how about something on this quasi-religion in Kenya called rural development.”

“Perfect, looking forward to it.” This was quite a deviation from the usual proposition.

“Sorry, what was your name again?

Bin Vanga Wainana? (At least that is what I heard).

The connection was a bit fuzzy. He told me that he would be returning to Nairobi, and recommended that in the meantime I check out the first issue of the journal.

“What’s it called again? K-W-A-N-I.” I requested a copy of The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald to seal the deal.

The publication of Kwani? 01 and its editor’s rising fame had occurred during my first extended period abroad in 10 years. I got my copy. The Mau Mau Rasta on the cover deceived. I walked into an ambush.

Reading the first issue of Kwani? was like being transported into a totally new but intimately familiar Kenya.

For me, the three most liberating flavours in the cocktail of cartoons, commentary, and narratives were Adhiambo Owuor’s The Weight of Whispers, the illustrated narrative called The Life and Times of Richard Onyango, and Kama Sura—a photo-captioned story about an Afro-Asian love affair hatched in a Parklands (a Nairobi surburb of mainly Kenyans of Indian descent) ice cream parlour.

I started writing Coffee, Miraa, and All that Jazz.

That late evening phone conversation led to periodic episodes of quality hang-out time together over the next decade, including a couple of sojourns away from the crowds in the Lamu archipelago in Kenya's North Coast.

I think this was Binyavanga’s best period as a writer and as a daraja (bridge) for the diverse collective of creative persons for whom the Kwani Trust provided a platform.

A creative movement coalesced around his charisma and expanding cast of characters. He had a plan, however ad hoc, that before long was transcending the physical and mind-forged borders of this imagined but unrequited nation.

Although it was supposed to appear on a biannual basis but never did, Kwani? did provide the centerpiece for an enterprise that expanded to include open mic readings, creative writing workshops, and high profile events, like the LitFest held in December of 2006.

The LitFest began in Nairobi and culminated in Lamu with several days of activities attended by a never-to-be-replicated mix of local writers, journalists, bloggers, sheng rappers, up and coming African authors like Chimamanda Adichie, and a sprinkling of international participants, including editors from the New Yorker and the literary magazine Tin House, to help synergise the gathering.

The set pieces for the most part came off well and the unplanned experiences crackled with spontaneity, gravita and moments of comicality.

Connections were forged. I had spent 10 years based in the same university hosting the famous southern writer, Padgett Powell — and met him for the first time at the Lamu gathering.

It produced at least one genuine example of how not to write about Africa, and a literary gem in the form of Ed Pavlic’s, But Here Are Small Clear Refractions, an insightful window into the soul of the archipelago that should now be read as an antidote to the media’s appropriation of post-Mpeketoni Lamu.

LitFest foreshadowed Lamu’s mergence as Kenya’s capital of cultural festivals. It also marked one of the high points for the Binj business model.

I participated as a resource person and ended up doing a lot of trouble shooting. There were hassles and loose ends and money cock-ups along the lines of Shalini Gidoomal’s account of Kwani? event management published in Pambazuka. I never got my copy of the Rings of Saturn.

The Binj business model, as it turned out, was akin to repurposing a Mercedes Benz into a space shuttle. The thing actually soared for a while, leaving a trail of luminosity across the continent. Who else could have pulled off such a feat?

For Binyavanga, the awards and recognition were never about flying solo. He made a point of reinvesting his success in cultivating a new African wave of creative expression.

He remained committed to this mission, although the second phase of his fame as a writer and residence abroad inevitably led to separation from the vehicle for African voices he launched.