Africa has never been short of avant-garde, maverick and daring writers – one of them is a Kenyan Binyavanga Wainaina. In contemporary literary circles, Wainaina is respected for his eloquence, wit and love for the continent. It was for the same reasons he drew a full house at the auditorium of the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), in Johannesburg. It turned out to be a bizarre winter evening with the writer and gay activist.
It was awkward and excruciating to listen to Wainaina, who struggled to speak without breaking mid-sentence. Sitting there, in front of his loyal admirers, he was a shadow of himself. Wainaina, with a clean-shaven head, in black kaftan adorned with an elegant necklace, sipped beer between sentences in this hour-long conversation with Wits literature lecturer Danai Mupotsa and Indian writer Achal Prabhala. Wainaina was the guest at the event titled ‘How To Write About Everything’, which echoed his essay How To Write About Africa.
In 2015, at the age of 44, Wainaina suffered a series of minor strokes that impaired his speech. I don’t know how many beers he had, but sitting in the second row, I noticed his head lolling at times.
Like many in the audience, I had admired his work since childhood. We could have walked the same streets when I was growing up in Port Elizabeth, Eastern Cape, where he lived for nine years. He stayed in Mthatha, the small town where Nelson Mandela was born, while studying accounting. He dropped out and earned a living copywriting on his way of becoming a renowned essayist.
In 2014, Wainaina was named as one of TIME’s 100 most influential people but he refused to attend the function. Similarly, in 2007, the World Economic Forum acknowledged him as a young global leader but he declined again. He said the organizers should have asked him first before publishing his name.
At the time of writing his memoir, One Day I Will Write About This Place, Kenya was going through violent elections and Wainaina was home during his recess at Union College, in the United States. He said the book made it difficult for him to return to the college.
“This affected the book very immensely because it was supposed to be personal. I must tell you, many African writers face the same thing, where you say, ‘I believe in art for art’s sake, I believe I am supposed to just write this book about my life’, and then shit happens that politicizes the thing. And that is beautiful, but it doesn’t feel like that at the time,” said Wainaina.
Wainaina is well known for his scathing reviews of fellow writers but has also fostered talent all over the world.
“…He has a kind of yearning for utopia, an Africa utopia. It’s because of his glorious heart, his capacity for love. Once we had a fight and I was in the wrong but I didn’t acknowledge it then. He taught me with grace what real friendship means and for that I will always be grateful. I love him, I respect him, I admire him, and I am glad he finally listened to me about the cut of his kaftans,” said Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in her message.
Wainaina knew at the age of 10 that he was gay but he refused to talk about it until Chimamanda asked.
“Of course, I said no. But she liberated something in me, already, just by asking me. Because normally the skies will fall if you say yes,” says Wainaina, overwhelmed with emotions in a continent that often misunderstood him.
Chimamanda’s question led him to pen his popular essay I Am a Homosexual, Mum, which was published on his birthday.
“It’s hard to describe the kind of effect it has had. It sort of stopped the world in a little while in a great way. Binyavanga, ironically, was very keen to produce this essay as a conversation he wanted to have on the African continent with people that he felt close to, rather than be published in the New Yorker, which he could have an easy access to do. Ironically, of course, the New Yorker had a headline Binyavanga Comes Out a week later. Binyavanga had to deal with the world press. There’s not a single publication anywhere in the world that didn’t cover this event,” says Prabhala.
Wainaina, and his bizarre, bombastic world, is likely to write more headlines yet.