Obituary: Life and times of Binyavanga Wainaina
Before 2002, the name Binyavanga Wainaina was virtually unheard of outside literary circles. But when his short story Discovering Home clinched the coveted Caine Prize for African Writing that year, the Kenyan author and satirist became a cultural icon celebrated the world over.
For 17 years, Binyavanga’s name has featured predominantly in the newsreel, for his literary finesse and controversy alike. His death from stroke in Nairobi on Tuesday night brought down the curtains of not just a highly fruitful career in writing, but also on social activism.
Born in Nakuru County 1971, Binyavanga studied at Mangu High School and Lenana School in Nairobi. He later joined the University of Nairobi for a degree in Education.
After leaving the University of Transkei in South Africa, where he was studying commerce, Binyavanga freelanced as a food and travel writer for various magazines. His works have also been published by the Guardian, New York Times and the National Geographic.
He founded Kwani? in 2003 as a platform to nurture young East African writers.
He had also featured in the list of TIME’s 100 most influential people in the world in 2014. As his scope of influence grew, the World Economic Forum recognised him as a Young Global Leader in 2007, an award he turned down, saying:
“… although, like many, I go to sleep at night fantasising about fame, fortune and credibility, the thing that is most valuable in my trade is to try, all the time, to keep myself loose, independent and creative… it would be an act of great fraudulence for me to accept the trite idea that I am ‘going to significantly impact world affairs”.
In 2014, at a time when a heavy tide of anti-gay laws was sweeping across the continent, with most African countries passing laws that clamped down homosexuality, Binyavanga announced that he was gay himself.
This revelation, from a renowned writer, set in motion a sociocultural whirlwind, with the writer at the centre of it.
By coming out to state his sexual orientation, Binyavanga had opened a can of worms and generated a divisive debate on what has always been regarded a taboo subject in the African context.
He published the revelations in a stormy memoir I am a Homosexual, Mum, describing it as “a lost chapter” from his earlier novel One Day I will Write about this Place. From this moment on, Binyavanga emerged as a battle-hardened LGBT activist.
Born a decade after independence, Binyavanga belongs to a generation of writers from the continent who have successfully alienated themselves from the narratives of the struggle for self-rule, historical and cultural conflicts that have often defined works by the older cohort of writers including Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Grace Ogot.
He is credited with promoting a new dimension of African writing, through his essay How to write about Africa.
His works bore a bare-knuckled approach to sociocultural issues, as Binyavanga sought to debunk the skewed perceptions and portrayal of Africa by the western world.
As such, many literary critics have described him as one of the finest writers of his generation, although his scribal talents that anchored the country on the global literary map have always competed with his activism on LGBT issues.
Mourning his death, prolific researcher and author Joyce Nyairo described Binyavanga as a “child of luck who beckoned opportunities like a magnet”.
“Binya leaves an indelible footprint in the sands of that surge of creativity and production that defined Kenya in the new millennium,” Nyairo said in a tweet. “What immense talent; what an enormous personality.”
For three weeks in 2015, the author was admitted at the Intensive Care Unit at Karen Hospital after suffering stroke that impaired his speech.
In June 2016, Binyavanga narrated in a Facebook post how, after a scuffle, a taxi driver in Berlin assaulted him as his neighbours watched without intervening.
“I feel black, dirty,” he wrote.
During the World’s Aids Day that same year, he revealed that he was living with HIV/AIDS.
“I am HIV positive and happy. That’s all I can say,” the writer announced.
In May 2018, Binyavanga stirred yet another storm when he announced that he would be wedding his partner after dating for six years.
“I asked my love for his hand in marriage two weeks ago. He said yes, nearly immediately. He is Nigerian. We will be living in South Africa, where he will be studying next year,” he wrote on social media.
The wedding, slated for early this year, had not taken place by the time of his death.