Binyavanga Wainaina, 1971 - 2019

Volume 16, Issue 2  | 
Published 31/10/2019

When Kenneth Binyavanga Wainaina joined your table, it was likely he would dominate the conversation after a short while. Sometimes he helped change the conversation, taking it in a different direction. Sometimes he was irritating because, after all, he did find you in the middle of a conversation. But he always had something to say, to share and, if you were at the table long enough, he would as easily invite others to join in.

This was the personality of Binyavanga, as he was commonly known among friends and colleagues. He was Kenneth or Ken to his family.

Binyavanga’s legacy is Kwani Trust, the literary organisation he founded in 2003. Kwani Trust grew from the ideas of many but Binyavanga  - who died on May 21, 2019 aged 48  -  is the one from that group who took those ideas and shaped them into what became Kwani Trust. Over the years he called on many who contributed to the ideas that became Kwani Trust to play a role including as trustees, writers, editors, designers, sounding boards and all-purpose people.

What later became the flagship publication of Kwani Trust, the literary journal Kwani?, began as a question that Wanjiru Kinyanjui asked on an email she sent to people she knew. Her question was why it was we were not reading new Kenyan writers.  She wondered why it seemed the only people who were writing were the ones who had been doing so for decades. That is Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Meja Mwangi and others.

In today’s parlance, Wanjiru Kinyanjui’s email went viral with the initial group of people she emailed it to forwarding it to others and those others forwarding it to more people. Many said they had been wondering the same thing. Others said they had submitted work to the major publishing houses and either did not get any feedback or received a rejection letter a year or more later. Eventually Wanjiru proposed that as there were quite a number of people who had something to say on the matter, maybe people would like to meet in person and discuss what can be done.

Many discussions followed that initial call to meet offline. Lots of ideas and experiences were shared. Much of what was discussed following Wanjiru Kinyanjui’s email was published in the first edition of Kwani? that was launched in September 2003. New writing was published in Kwani? 1 including Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s haunting and evocative Weight of Whispers. Owuor’s short story had won that year’s Caine Prize for African Writing. Wanjiru Kinyanjui’s email challenge is acknowledged as being the inspiration. There is Kama Sutra: A Love Story, in part a homage to the photo comics of the 1970s such as Big Ben, which many of us had read and referred to in those discussions before Kwani Trust was formed. Also in that edition was an article written by one of Ugandan’s leading intellectuals, Mahmood Mamdani. Transition had first published the article, A Brief History of Genocide, which Kwani? then reprinted. Transition was one of the reference points of what kind of literary journal Kwani? should be because Rajat Neogy founded and published Transition in Uganda but the journal had a global impact. Seen as a whole, Kwani? 1 distilled the discussions that preceded its publication.

The Kwani? editions that followed continued the quickly-set tradition of publishing new writing by writers known and unknown. They continued being a platform for the arts to mix with photo essays and cartoon boards published alongside essays, short stories and long form journalism. In that sense Binyavanga and the editors who followed him stayed true to the original aspirations of the conversations Wanjiru Kinyanjui’s email provoked.

But Binyavanga did not settle with just publishing a literary journal. He developed relationships in the global literary world that saw Kwani Trust evolve to become a hub for writers. Binyavanga collaborated with Mikhail Issoel, who brought one of his creative writing programmes to Kenya for several seasons. This interaction with Issoel and his Summer Literary Seminars saw the inaugural Kwani Literary Festival, or Kwani Litfest, taking place in December 2006 which saw writers such as M G Vassanji and Doreen Baingana participate.

Chimamanda Adichie Ngozi was also a participant in that inaugural Kwani Litfest. Her second novel, Half of A Yellow Sun, had just come out but she was yet to be the literary star she is today. Chimamanda had been friends with Binyavanga since the time they were shortlisted for the 2002 Caine Prize for African Writing. Binyavanga won the prize that year with Chimamanda becoming a runner-up. Over the years they collaborated on various projects including a creative writing programme Chimamanda ran in Nigeria for some years.

Other partnerships Binyavanga developed was between the South African literary organisation Kalakuta Trust and Kwani Trust. Binyavanga ceased to be editor of Kwani? in 2008 but years after he left Kalakuta Trust and Kwani Trust co-published two editions of The Chronic, a Pan-African magazine. Kalakuta Trust publishes Chimurenga, a revue of the arts and society.

Binyavanga had stopped working full-time as Kwani? editor by the time he left the post in 2008. He was a writer in residence at Union College in New York between 2006 and 2008. He taught at Williams College between 2008 and 2009. He taught at Bard College and was the inaugural director of the Chinua Achebe Centre at Bard between 2009 and 2012. During this time Binyavanga graduated with an MPhil in Creative Writing (2010) from the University of East Anglia and Graywolf Press published his memoir, One Day I Will Write About This Place (2011).

In October 2015 he suffered a debilitating stroke that spurred a global fundraising effort to get him the best possible medical care. His speech was impaired as was some of his physical movement but the following year he recovered enough to be able to take up a writing fellowship in Germany in April 2016. In December that year he publicly declared he was HIV positive. After his fellowship ended, he went to live in Senegal and South Africa for some time before returning to Kenya. When he died in May this year, he had been in hospital for close to two months.

Tom Maliti has been Chairman of Kwani Trust since 2003. He and Binyavanga were schoolmates at Lenana School. Maliti was Class of ’88 and Binyavanga was Class of ’89.


Poet Chris Msosa also read the poem 48 For Binyavanga shared here with permission;


48 For Binyavanga

Another 48
Another echoing act
Not of love
But of transition
Into the nether regions
Humanity’s most haunting plays
Are the most haunting
Another 48 sacraments
There should be 48 gun salutes
For this 48 was colourful, brave
Witty and shocking
But we are too ashamed and scared
To discover our otherself
Because this one carried in its body
In its blood
Our very lungs
Our very heart
Our very beliefs
Because this one was unapologetically African
Until it showed us how to love


Obituary: Kenneth Binyavanga Wainaina

By Ken Olende

Kenneth Binyavanga Wainaina (1971–2019) was part of a new generation of African writers who grew up after the radicalism of the independence struggles and the highs of Pan-Africanism and African Socialism in the 1960s and 1970s. He has died after a short illness aged 48.

His writing was subtle and critical. In an article on the terrible ethnic violence in the slums of Kenya’s capital Nairobi after the 2007 elections he recalled going there earlier to write an article on the spread of plastic bags:

“We ordered some tea and the proprietor asked whether I wanted garatathi — a plastic bag. The guide reacted to my puzzlement with a grin; in [the slum] Mathare, milk, he explained, comes in plastic bags and is so diluted with water that tea with very little milk was garatathi. So I nodded, yes tea with a very little milk like the English drink it, would suffice.”

Here he manages to combine a view of poverty with an environmental point and a partial explanation of the poverty behind the violence and self-depreciating humour.

In his bitterly satirical essay “How To Write About Africa” he advised Western authors, “You must always include The Starving African, who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked, and waits for the benevolence of the West. Her children have flies on their eyelids and pot bellies, and her breasts are flat and empty. She must look utterly helpless. She can have no past, no history; such diversions ruin the dramatic moment.”

Wainaina was the founding editor the Kenyan journal Kwani? (“So what?” in Sheng, Kenya’s urban street slang), which featured journalism, fiction, experimental writing, poetry, cartoons and photographs.

It is as an editor, essayist and activist that he made his biggest impact. In 2017 in a call to vote for a presidential candidate not from his own ethnic group he defined himself, “I am a Pan Africanist. I am a proud gay man. I am a proud Gikuyu man.”

The World Economic Forum recognised him as a Young Global Leader in 2007, but he turned the award down, not wanting to be associated with continued imperial influence.

Time magazine called him one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2014. It’s no coincidence that this list was published just after Wainaina came out as gay — so Western commentators could concentrate on his struggle against bigotry rather than his outspoken criticism of imperialism.

Kenya is one of several countries that used to be part of the British Empire that retains British anti-LGBT legislation from the colonial era. Wainaina has been key to the campaign to overturn Kenya’s anti-LGBT laws.

Sadly the latest legal challenge was defeated just days after his death. Wainaina told the world he was HIV positive in 2016, a year in which he nearly died from a stroke. He announced his engagement to his Nigerian partner in 2018, and they had planned to marry in South Africa.

His memoir One Day I Will Write About this Place (2012) was revealing. Wainaina has complained about clichéd views of Africa. His book is not about a heroic or pre-colonial past or really about a society in crisis. It is about everyday life growing up as a middle class boy through the 1970s and 1980s. As time passes he becomes more aware of the political background to what is going on and that texture is never missing from his writing. If you know Kenya the detail is right, and if you don’t there is enough explanation to feel what life was like.

His is not the story of struggling workers or peasants, but his Kenya is one that recognises their existence and role. He presents a class-divided and unstable country. And he complains about how the IMF slowly sapped the country’s independence. “Now the IMF has insisted that we stop spending so much government money on education. It is truly the only thing that works in Kenya.”

The Africa he presents is not a unified whole, but a range of different experiences that he has shared, travelling from small town to capital, observing different classes interacting from Kenya to South Africa and Nigeria.

Wainaina used words to present all the contradictions of modern Kenya. Beyond honesty his solutions were less clear, but his view gives an understanding of the wider society and its evolution over the past half century.


Last modified on Wednesday, 06 November 2019 18:12

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