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Nothing was impossible for a writer like him

Billy Kahora on Binyavanga Wainaina’s work

I had two first meetings with Binyavanga Wainaina. The first was when he joined Carey Francis House (CF) in Lenana School as an incoming Fifth Former in the old A-level system. Binya turned CF into the house that produced prize-winning house plays in a rugby-crazed school. I was a Third Former, part of the first newly introduced 8-4-4 class, and he cast me in one of his theatre productions. The next year my Fourth Form class and his Sixth Form class became existential enemies, fighting in corridors for control of the house , with one of my Fourth Form friends engineering a bullying scenario that ultimately led to the expulsion of one of his best friends. The two of us, however, continued exchanging books to read, he still cast me in the house play, and CF won the prize again. Binyavanga is the only Lenana schoolboy to have snuck out of school to present a play at the Alliance Française in the city. He did not tell the organizers that he was still a schoolboy and when his play was announced as the winner his major fear was that the school administration would find out.

I met Binyavanga Wainaina again in 2005 at his home-from-home in the Java Mama Ngina coffee house.  Now he was Founding Editor at Kwani?, Caine Prize winner and larger than life.  I had sent him a short story called “The Applications’” from South Africa, where I was studying, and he had loved it. When I returned to Kenya we met and he asked me what I thought about Kwani? (there were already two issues out of the journal). I blurted out that it was great, but it needed to capture the post-2002 moment that had voted out a Kenyan 24-year political regime more. I was fresh from journalism school and obsessed with creative non-fiction. I thought there was a lot the form could do with all that was being unearthed in the post-Moi Kenya commissions of enquiry of the time. Genge music was blowing up the airwaves, the comedy trio Redykyulass were gods. Sheng, the urban patois, was Kenya’s new muse. I did not realize that this really was an informal job interview of sorts. The next time we met he told me about Kenya Central Bank whistleblower David Munyakei. Could I write a creative non-fiction piece based on this? And could I accompany him to hangout with Ukoo Flani Mau Mau, musicians and poets who he thought were the most talented wordsmiths in Kenya at the time and the country’s equivalent of the Wu Tang clan. He was generous that way in opening up the Kwani? space for me. When I was finding my feet, he was the only one who did not take my criticism as a threat. He willed me into writing Munyakei’s story that would eventually become a book. He invited me to edit the next Kwani?, issue 3, and we called it the sheng issue.

I quickly learned that everything with Binyavanga happened at warp speed but only starting in the afternoon and going deep into the night, an outright rejection of the Kenyan 9-5 ethos. He sat and started working in cafes from 4 p.m.—in those days, the Kwani? office was at Queensway House and he favored Trattoria, an Italian restaurant with outdoor seating. Work was meeting different people and talking Kenya and then the world. At this time he smoked Sportsman cigarettes incessantly. He continually drank coffee and then moved to Tusker beer. There, the Kwani? journal was commissioned and strategies were laid out to take over the world. He conducted interviews and ranted against anyone in Kenya he thought was policing who and what writers and literature could be. He obsessed about Polish writer Ryszard Kapuściński’s racism. He asked me again and again what I thought had happened between Fourth Formers and Sixth Formers at Lenana school. He liked to work into the early hours of the morning and resurface again at the very earliest at lunchtime. And then another cycle would begin.

Even after having become perhaps the most visible new writer in Kenya after winning the Caine Prize, he spent most of his time in these years talking about the work of others. For such a confident and brash person on the outside, he could be very reticent about his own work. When stories that he’d written quietly emerged somewhere it was almost without notice, even for those who spent a lot of time with him. But the glimpses of him at work taught me how unserious I was about my own work. He was excruciatingly exacting with himself, much more so than with many writers he published. With his close writer friends he was as harsh as he was with himself. He would cut links with even the most talented if they showed too much laziness. The Kwani? production process was an exceedingly brutal one. He could decide at a whim that the look of the full journal was terrible and we had to start again. Many fell by the wayside, including close friends. But he also immediately recognized a good idea. When we were struggling with a look for the Kwani? book series, exhausted, I half jokingly said the series should look like the Kwanini? series. “That’s it,” he said.     

He was generous to a fault with so many artists, not only writers. He would champion someone’s work both artistically and practically in incredible ways. Nothing was impossible for a writer like him. I remember him calling me to ask how we could sort out a visa for Nigerian writer A. Igoni Barrett to come to Kenya for a writing residency. Or Ugandan newspaper columnist Kalundi Serumaga telling me how Binyavanga had found him a small grant to help him continue building his arts centre. Or Binya housing a Ugandan poet who was a refugee in Kenya. He also not only instinctively understood how narrative worked, but more importantly, he had an unfailing knack for understanding the person who was writing it and how they could improve on a piece for Kwani?. And yet for all his kindness, his aesthetic standard was so fixed that he would never compromise. He did not mind being cruel if necessary. And so he made so many enemies, particularly with those who he found on the literary and cultural scene who had attained status the old fashioned Kenyan way, through networks of privilege and informal social circuit. He could not stand what he described as the textbook and campus literary mafia and their boiled sukuma wiki way of thinking. Binyavanga was terribly funny when he chose to be but could also be a bad sport. When we quarreled he shouted you 8-4-4s. Social media at times brought out the worst in him. It was the perfect space for fueling a nature that could become obsessively pugilistic about everything. When there was no one to talk and rant with in the early hours of the morning, it was there for him—a space he let it all out.       

In his healthier days no one was as hardworking—he was always quietly writing another novel draft. By the time he finished One Day I will Write About This Place he’d destroyed several fiction manuscripts. Binyavanga’s creative impulse was his driving force and he very much made his own yardstick for cultural value. He famously rejected recognition as a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum while through his work as Kwani? editor financing a studio for Ukoo Flani Mau Mau and the hit songs “Angalia Saa” and “Mashairi.” He was the emotional force behind 24Nairobi and the only supporter of an unknown photographer, Nick Ysenburg, who appeared from nowhere on his doorstep wanting to produce a collection of photography and writing about the city featuring yet-to-be-known names such as Boniface Mwangi and James Muriuki. Meanwhile he was the only Kenyan writer to have appeared on Oprah. There will always be debates about the founding of Kwani?: who, where, when? What about all the others who were there? In truth, no one spent as much time as he did getting things off the ground. He was the focal point who buzzed between the moving parts and that got it up and running. The writers. The small fledgling office. The board. The donors. The international writing community. Everybody else dipped in and out—they had grown-up jobs, other valid concerns, family. For Binya, Kwani? was all these things and more. He was the one that harangued writers to submit their stories to Kwani?, to submit for the Caine Prize. From this needling Yvonne Owuor sent him a story called “Weight of Whispers” a week before the deadline. He harassed the whole Kwani? office day and night to get it published and sent to London. He told me when he saw the story he just knew.   

When he took up a position at Union College in Upstate New York, Kwani? had ballooned into a journal, a literary festival, a Kwanini? series, a book series and a monthly open mic. And he let Kwani? breathe by leaving me to make my own mistakes as the new editor. He was unfailingly generous with his time when I asked. He continued to open doors in those years after he had left. When we met it was always like the old days—we spoke long and deep into the night. He drank coffee, smoked cigarettes and then we’d share beers. He’d always have new obsessions, from the Leakeys and their legacy in Kenya to Nnedi Okorafor before she became well known.

His advice was uncanny. Nobody understood African literary and cultural shifts better. He anticipated the Afro Futurism boom years before it happened. He recognized the genius of Just A Band when they were only known by a few in Nairobi and flew them to New York to be part of a mini-festival. He called me to tell me about amazing Nairobi photographer Msingi Sasis before anyone else was talking about him. As “How to Write About Africa” continued to generate critical attention, as One Day was named a 2011 New York Times notable book and he became in constant demand as a speaker internationally, Binyavanga remained a restless artist and his creative spirit an ever-wandering one. He was seriously considering a shift to becoming a curator rather than a writer before he fell ill in 2016. And he started writing a fantasy novel in Germany at the DAAD fellowship in 2017.

The first stroke happened weeks after he’d submitted the final manuscript of One Day I Will Write About This Place, years ago, and came as a complete shock to all his friends. It was as if he’d expended all his magnificent energy in the book. And in true Binyavanga fashion he could not quite decide what the book was—it was part memoir, part travelogue and part political rant. But read again the brilliant section about Ki-may, the Babel of his childhood for all who did not speak English. In One Day those who know him well can detect the Nakuru boy who was for many years still uncomfortable in Nairobi. And alongside that, the assured traveler who understood people so well that his character portraits were unforgettable. And yet there was a part of himself he had not given to that book. When he published the lost chapter and came out publicly as gay it opened up both him as a person and his writing. One Day was made visible as a queer narrative. In the years that followed he seemed more comfortable with himself, given less to ranting and open to new experiences. He went to live in Touba, Senegal because he wanted to study their old trading ways. He fell in love with Nigeria and spoke about making Jo’burg his home because of the freedoms it offered the queer community that Nairobi did not. He wanted to travel on the continent, to write a book of essays about new obsessions such as the evangelist movement in Mpumalanga, South Africa and Islam in Senegal. Kwani? was not his last big venture. For several years he worked on getting the idea of a new digital genre series off the ground. These were the things that drove him, even if he will be known most outside the literary world for his hair and his style, as a radical who dared to be different. He will be remembered by many for his great spirit, his bravery, his outspoken-ness. But most of all he needs to be remembered for the writing. “How to Write About Africa” has eaten much of that recognition and it still stuns me how limited the recognition of his writing oeuvre is. In 2017 Achal Prabhala and Issac Otidi Amuke archived much of this online. Here we can all read and remember, and, hopefully, now the world will now be able to access his broad range.    

These last years were hard. Binyavanga loved to talk because that is how he thought. He talked himself into a thought. And without the ability to rant he wilted creatively. And yet how his body held firm with all the ailments he was suffering from was nothing short of a miracle. There was a constant searching look in his face as if he could not comprehend what had happened to him. But last August when I visited him with Yvonne Owuor, he seemed happier than ever. We shared literary gossip. I brought him news of old friends that he had not seen for a long time. I could not remember a Binya who let others talk and just listened but now he had little choice. That magnificent energy had continued catching up with itself and his body seemed to have shrunk. The confused searching look was gone and he thanked us for making him laugh, something he had not done for a long time. I will miss him. RIP Binyavanga Wainaina.

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