It was stunning to hear the news of Binyavanga Wainaina’s passing and I expected to be hit by an accompanying shockwave of grief.
Somehow it came as flashes of memory: A glinting look in his eye, curiosity, quickness and laughter. It was, unexpectedly, a feeling of peace and gratitude. I am beholden: His powerful confessional writing has had a deeply personal impact on me and influenced my own work.
In May of 2012 I was lucky to meet Binyavanga in an informal setting. We were attending a massive conference, and I was hanging out in a Wi-Fi lounge area when I spotted him in a lime green kitenge jacket being interviewed.
Like any good eavesdropper I found an excuse to casually move myself with laptop to a “more comfortable” couch nearby and proceeded to eyeball the situation. Yep, it was him.
Him of the Granta How to Write About Africa article fame that told the world to shove their execrable writing about Africa up where the sun doesn’t shine.
A lot grew from that – a career for him, a set of new possibilities and vistas for those of us who are aspiring. And there he was, this giant, quietly checking his phone messages after the interview.
I approached him, part of a small group of admirers who couldn’t let the opportunity pass. He was amiable and we exchanged pleasantries before the others had to leave. Suddenly it was just us, a tired Kenyan and a wired Tanzanian who couldn’t believe her luck.
“Sasa?” he nodded to me, code-switching. We were back in East Africa now. The wattage of his personality dimmed ever so gently.
Late night, too many fans, flew in on a red-eye, or just life, I wondered? “Do you know where I can get some cigarettes around here?” he asked.
I didn’t, but I would be more than happy to join him on a quest outside the conference centre for a duka where a guy can buy a pack to get him through his travails.
As soon as we got directions from the doorman and set off, he turned to me and said: “So, tell me about yourself.” I obliged of course, because I understood: He was tired.
We walked and chatted lightly about my background as I got my second lesson from Binyavanga about being a writer: Even when we need respite, we are always on.
I, of course, was filming the entire thing in my head: The quality of the light, the perfect paving so unlike Nairobi or Dar, which areas of my life interested him – locations, upbringing – and the way he finally loosened up when we got to the duka, leaning against the counter and chatting with the vendor as though he were just around the corner from his home on a regular afternoon. He was letting me meet him, in a small way.
We had a lovely time. We did not talk about writing.
I don’t know how to end this article other than to say: Intimacy. That’s what he embodied for me with his writing – the courage to be vulnerable in his chronicling of the human condition, offering himself up.
Such ones do not die, really – their spirit just moves on, leaving behind peace and gratitude for communion while he was with us. See you at the duka, guy.
Elsie Eyakuze is a consultant and blogger for The Mikocheni Report. E-mail: [email protected]