Kenyan writer and activist Binyavanga Wainaina passed on after a short illness on the night of May 21, 2019.
Binyavanga Wainaina was a colossus in 21st Century African literature. He shot to continental fame in 2002 when his short story Discovering Home won The Caine Prize for African Writing. While the prize was new then, he went on to become its most famous winner in the years that followed.
As a writer his work featured in G21: The world’s magazine which had featured his award winning short story Discovering Home, Chimurenga, Virginia Quarterly Review, Granta, The East African, National Geographic, New York Times, Transition, Bidoun, Harper’s Magazine, The Guardian, Africa is A Country, Jalada, Brittle Paper, Bomb, Etc as well as a column in Mail & Guardian. One of the best places to find his work is PlanetBinya.org curated by his onetime personal assistant and writer Isaac Otidi Amuke.
From these, his 2005 Granta essay How To Write About Africa where he satirises how European writers talk about our continent became one of the most shared at the respected literary journal. Also memorable was I’m A Homosexual Mum which was published in Africa Is A Country in 2014 when he came out as gay.
One Day I Will Write About This Place was his personal contribution to the canon in 2011. It was a memoir of tumbling through his middle class childhood and his travels to study in South Africa and his moves across the world. The book, which was favourably reviewed, made it to Oprah’s Book Club in 2011.
While his own writing career was nothing to sniff at, his biggest contributions came from elsewhere. With his winnings from the Caine Prize he set up the Kwani Trust which jolted the African literary establishment. A space that had become a “literary desert” after many years of inactivity got a new lease of life with a literary journal called Kwani? (which in Kenyan slang means “so what?”). That journal gave us the next winner of the Caine Prize Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor. In the next few years, the journal introduced many writers to the African literary community.
Apart from the journal which quickly became a mainstay of the growing African literary community his team came up with the Kwani Open Mic where people could do readings of their work whether it was poetry or prose. It became an important space for the community of the arts to get together and meet every first Tuesday of the month. From these events, many relationships both professional and personal that endure to this day were formed.
His and his team’s efforts weren’t welcomed by many in Kenyan publishing and academia with some calling them “literary gangsters.” They plodded on and the organisation that was most linked to Binyavanga came up with the Kwani Manuscript Project in 2011. It was aimed at identifying the next big writing stars from the continent and boy did it deliver. The shortlist included the manuscripts of Ayobami Adebayo’s Stay with Me, Ayesha Harruna Attah’s Saturday’s People, Toni Kan’s The Carnivorous City, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s The Kintu Saga, and Saah Millimono’s One Day I Will Write About This War. It was ultimately won by a writer who is arguably the biggest star in Ugandan writing today Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi.
In the last few years, Binyavanga has been involved in several projects like the Africa 39 list that we featured recently on here. He has been plagued sadly by illness in the last few years starting with a stroke in 2015 that led to many across the continent rallying to raise funds for his medical cover. In 2016, he announced that he was HIV positive.
His family announced that last night he breathed his last. He was 48.
His passing has been followed by tributes to one of the most important literary voices to come out of the continent in our generation. Here are a few;
Darling Binyavanga, Love you always. pic.twitter.com/uxyGIJYlqG
— Lọlá Shónẹ́yìn (@lolashoneyin) May 21, 2019
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor
He worshipped life.
Dived into it head first, broke his head on the rocks.
Didn’t matter. The rocks also shattered.
& out of old fragments, ten thousand still lives rub open their eyes and emerge.
An army made out of words, called into being by the mad, fierce cosmic summoning of this one who saw, who knew, who believed in another ‘us’, a wilder, fiercer, flamboyant (as he was) African ‘us’ writing our universe and then more, and then others.
Goodnight, darling, goodnight.
Today, and tomorrow and the day after tomorrow…look…there is no one word that can contain (for me) the meaning of this, your crossing…(Look)…Next year maybe, or the year after that..
But today my love, as you stride (past us) towards those dim, unknown horizons….
A frantic, futile howl inside the wordlessness of this the darkest of nows…(a phrase that has been cried out before in disbelief….):
Requiescat in pace!
My brother. My friend. My teacher. My champion. Iconoclast.
Oh my human! My human!
Good night, again. Goodnight, my love.
RIP Kenneth Binyavanga Wainaina.
What immense talent;
what an enormous personality;
a child of luck who beckoned opportunities like a magnet, Binya leaves an indelible foot-print in the sands of that surge of creativity and production that defined Kenya in the new millennium.🙏🏿 https://t.co/aDoOeXhueg
— Joyce Nyairo (@jnyairo) May 22, 2019
This is devastating. We have lost a great writer and person. He was the most audacious writer I know. Kind, sweet, charismatic, honest, blunt and such a biting sense of humor. He always spoke his mind and I’m glad he did. His voice was so necessary. ❤️💐🌈🇰🇪 https://t.co/MNbSgm0uaT
— Nnedi Okorafor, PhD (@Nnedi) May 22, 2019
Very sad to hear that author Binyavanga Wainaina has died. I am honoured to have met him, broken bread with him, and shared much laughter with so many mutual friends. Rest in power, Binj. L: With @aleksandarhemon Paris 2015. R: NYC 2017 with many friends after Pen World Voices pic.twitter.com/PsqXztlH5Z
— Mona Eltahawy (@monaeltahawy) May 22, 2019
What a sad, sad day, to wake up to the death of Binyavanga Wainaina!Go well, firebrand thinker, always painting outside the box, avante garde of that bold generation that paved the way for ours, encouraging staggering imaginations, re-dreaming “Africa,” Kwani warrior! 💔
— Novuyo Rosa Tshuma (@NovuyoRTshuma) May 22, 2019
I remember the early days, from SA to Kwani? open mic at Yaya. Audacity of possibilities. You started something special. You made important contributions to our writing space. You lived your truth. Now go in peace bro. “Binyavanga Wainaina”
— Oyunga Pala (@realoyungapala) May 22, 2019
#Binyavanga made Kenyan writing accessible and present.
Rest well Binyavanga Wainaina 🙏🏿❤️. Game changer for real.
— Blinky (@HeyHeyBlinky) May 22, 2019
For your words, for reminding us that we are possible, for so much more. Thank you, Binyavanga.
Rest well comrade. You came, you saw, you wrote. Life on the African literary map will never be the same. You represented our generation well.
The gods have gone crazy. They have taken a second intellectual pillar in the space of a few months.
Binyavanga knew that Kenya was crazy. He knew that there was something deeply inauthentic and insincere about Kenya. He knew that the Christian, middle class nonsense some of us were raised on was preventing us from being whole.
And he struggled to be whole. To openly love whom he loved. To take his art where his imagination took it.
I first met Binyavanga in form six, when we went to Lenana School for the national drama festivals finals. We were both acting for our schools. Then we were in KU together for a brief moment before he left for South Africa. When I was in the US, he came to the college I was at to listen to my lecture. Can you imagine? It was such a pleasant surprise. I didnt even know he was in the US.
When we came back, we met off and on and tried to be intellectuals and artists in this very dysfunctional space called Kenya. Binyavanga left us a rich legacy: Kwani?, the arts festivals and celebrations of urban creativity, against a rigid literati of the education system, especially at the university literature departments.
Those of us who grew up in the fake, Stepford Wives scenario that was the Kenyan Christian evangelical, bourgeois, heterosexual family are too shy, or too twisted, to admit that we grew up on a very dysfunctional social model. Binyavanga knew. And he tried to tell us.
Rest in love, my brother.
Binyavanga was a special person, one of the most unique and brilliant minds, and an exceptional writer. He was kind and generous, more than once I was at the receiving end of that kindness. The world has lost a gift of a man. Robala ka kagiso, Binyavanga.