I first met Binyavanga Wainaina on the road, long before I knew he was called The Binj and that his voice and laughter filled a room no matter how big.
Long before I knew that someday, on a day like today, I would be asked to write a piece about his death, a piece to celebrate him, not to mourn him because that was what he asked of us.
“I am very happy and fulfilled now,” he wrote on Facebook in January 2018. “I do not fear death anymore. I just have one thing to do this year. If I die any time after that, it is okay. I have already reconciled myself with that. I would like to live a long life after I do what I need to do this year. If I don’t live for long after this, it is okay. Celebrate my life. Do not mourn me.”
Forty-eight is no one’s idea of a long life, but in these 48 years and in just a few books and countless talks, Binyavanga had walked the long road of immortality and joined his ancestors a fulfilled man.
By no means a prolific writer, the profundity of what he has written has defined and will continue to define generations of African writers. In How to Write About Africa, the Binj built a road, cobbled from words baked in the oven of his brilliant mind, and has forever redirected the stream of African literature and conversations about it.
It was on this road that I first met Binyavanga. After reading How to Write about Africa, I immediately sent him a message on Facebook, asking for permission to republish it in the newspaper whose cultural pages I edited at the time. He was generous enough to permit it.
By the time we met, years later, and shook hands for the first time on the grounds of Port Harcourt’s Presidential Hotel, this cordial beginning never quite followed up. Things had happened, things had changed. My first book had been published, the title story had been shortlisted for the Caine Prize. There had been a controversy. There were exchanges, needless words had been said, some out of anger, some directed at his best friend.
When we met in Port Harcourt, Binyavanaga shook my hand, with respect but with a certain formality, some distance even. I did not expect him not to take his friend’s side. I would have questioned his integrity if he hadn’t. We politely posed for pictures, congratulated each other and went about our business.
That night, I was invited to a party in Binyavanga’s room. There were a bunch of writers attending the now rested Garden City Book Festival and a lot of The Binj’s fans. Too many people in too small a space. When I decided to call it a night, he decided to have a talk with me on his hotel room balcony. Half-tipsy, a glass in one hand, a cigarette in the other, he spoke, his powerful voice carrying over the balcony into the balmy night. He talked about the brouhaha, his position on the controversy, which he had already articulated on social media, his fiery loyalty to his friend, his bitterness about the whole episode. In all honesty, I missed half the things he rambled on about but his opening line is one that cracks me up every time I think of it—a treasure for dinnertime anecdotes. What I took away from that conversation was that The Binj was a man of fierce loyalties—to his friends, to his ideas, to his booze, and to the idea of life, and he had no qualms whatsoever making this known. We parted that night with hugs and back pats.
Days later, we left Port Harcourt as friends.
“Send me your manuscript when it’s ready,” he said when we said good-bye.
I’m not sure why I didn’t. Maybe something in the back of my mind kept reminding me of what he had said during a conversation, about the laziness of some writers who want someone to lead them by the arm and do for them what they could do for themselves with internet and an email address. Or maybe it was the fact that he had fallen ill then, struck by a stroke, before which we had met several times on the road, at different writers festivals, shared rides, and conversations and a great deal of mutual respect.
So knowing him as an individual, and learning of his illness, the fundraising, the prayers, the nonsensical comments by people trying to tie his sexual preference to his illness, was all a bit too overwhelming. But The Binj had always been a lightning rod for controversies and it would only be natural that his illness too would draw some.
After my Berlin book tour, my second book and debut novel had been published by then, Binyavanga reached out again, he wanted to know if I was still in town. I had left by then. He said he had wanted me to sign him a copy of my book and to tell me in person how much he liked it. I had no idea he had recovered enough and was doing a Residency in Berlin at the time and I felt I had missed a chance to see how he was doing after his stroke. I promised I would get the chance to sign him that book. I was wrong.
When my publishers asked him for a blurb for a new edition they were printing, he was very happy to contribute one. I was moved when I saw how generous he was in praise of my work.
We exchanged correspondences. He introduced me to people, wanted to introduce me to others. “For your next book,” he said.
I did not see him again until New York.
Many of the African writers at that year’s PEN World Voices festival, (Helon Habila, Maaza Mengiste, Frankie Edozie, Mona Eltahawy, Chinelo Okparanta, etc) and many of those who knew the robust, lively The Binj before, seeing the state he was in that night in New York were shocked. He was slimmer and his speech was nearly incomprehensible. When we posed for an impromptu photo that night, something told me it would be a significant shot.
He didn’t stay long. He needed to go and rest, he said. Everyone agreed he should. That would be the last time I would see The Binj.
In the months since, I took joy in snippets of news about his recovery, his attempt to start an ‘Upright African’ movement, something visionary that I fear his health challenges did not allow him to articulate very well, and in the fact that he found love, got engaged even. And if in the last months I heard nothing from him, it was under the assumption that he was savouring the happiness he had discovered in what would turn out to be the twilight of his life.
When I think of his death, I imagine it was in a warm, bright sunlit room, with The Binj surrounded by the love he had found and the one he had always had—his family and friends.
When I think of him leaving for good, it is not the frail, sick man he had become I see. It is the robust man with a funky haircut, with neon red and electric blue streaks in his hair, a glass in one hand and a cigarette in the other, gingerly walking down the road to meet his ancestors. This is The Binj I see.