KAHORA: Most people aren’t ‘sawa.’ Deal with it

Friday May 31 2019

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


I’ll miss Binyavanga in many ways.

I’ll miss talking books. No one talked books like Binya.

He would pause and something would build in him and it was big and intangible – not unlike that special thing that those who love books from childhood remember and are unable to summon up because it has been erased by adulthood. And he would say something so unexpected and ridiculous that it would have to be true.

And all the authors he recommended with such a fervour could only come from him. Steven Millhauser. Peter Chernoff.

I’ll miss talking Kenya with Binya. When I would complain about another thing gone wrong, how difficult it was to get things literary going. Or all the bad things about Kenyan politics. He would say; “Once you realise that many people aren’t really sawa (ok) and you’ve got to deal, you’ll be Ok. Just deal.” I’ll miss that cutting to the chase.

The sheer informality of going through the big things to get things done. Just deal. But I’ll also miss the chaos because beyond it all there was something of value.


Only Binya could have rediscovered Kojo Laing and gone all the way to Ghana and tracked him down running a school and spent as much time with him.

And recorded a makeshift documentary of the man. And then made a publisher reissue his work. And then made Kwani? invite him to a LitFest.

We sat and listened to Laing and it was truly not like any other experience I’ve had of any other writer in a public space.

When asked a direct question, Kojo would answer with a maze-like story whose point would only come to you later because he understood the value of making the audience part of things. Only Binya could have brought Kojo to us. I’ll miss that.

Only Binya would have found Kenyan artist Joga who was still drawing murals in barbershops in Pumwani and Eastleigh neighbourhoods of Nairobi, and brought out his greatness out into the world.

And when Joga disappeared because he liked to be alone so that he could work, Binya made sure we all looked for him. And when we found him, Binya persuaded him to take us on a tour with a photographer to take photos of his work so that it could be used in Kwani? books and he would be credited as a designer and accordingly paid. That was Binya.
I’ll miss him.

Billy Kahora is editor of the literary journal Kwani?