In memory of Binyavanga and our shared fondness for Nakuru town

Friday May 24 2019

A portrait of Binyavanga Wainaina. ILLUSTRATION | JOHN NUAGAH | NATION MEDIA GROUP


Nakuru has a way of producing brilliant minds. I think it has the highest concentration, per capita, of creative minds. And I am not saying that just because Binyavanga Wainaina, who breathed his last on Tuesday night, hailed from there. Binyavanga is probably the county’s most famous export since Lord Delamere set foot on the floor of the Rift Valley and turned Nakuru into a theatre of heartache, and bequeathed it a monument to uncommon love.


When it came to travel writing, Binyavanga was the best that Kenya has produced since Wilfred Thesigger published his travelogue on his journeys across the northern badlands of the country.

There is one piece in particular that Binyavanga wrote for National Geographic titled “Nairobi by Night”. If it were possible to come close to writing the nocturnal biography of a city, this was the closest snapshot that any Kenyan writer has ever taken - capturing the heart and soul of the capital in its glory as much as its foibles.

This flash of genius also comes through in the parts of his book One Day I Will Write About This Place, in which he recalls his travel experiences. There is especially one poignant segment where he regales readers with his experiences traversing across Ukambani and meeting a chief who loved his tipple to death.

That he offered part of his Caine Prize for African Writing money to start a publishing company speaks volumes about his uncommon love for creatives and creativity. Kwani? gave many new young writers a voice and space to come to their own. This gave rise to such voices as Yvonne Owuor's and other subsequent winners of the prize from Kenya. He also used his influence to bring to Nairobi such gifted literary voices as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, among others.



With other writers, led by Kinyanjui Kombani, he was part of the Authors' Buffet, an initiative that brought together new Kenyan writers to market their books in partnership with Text Book Centre.

This later metamorphosed into the Creative Academy, hosted by Daystar University, through which the authors taught up-and-coming ones the tricks of the trade. But he was barred from teaching the class when he left the closet.

Binyavanga will also be remembered for the Open Mic sessions that Kwani? used to host at Club Sound, and although the artistes insisted on being called poets, I thought and still think they were versifiers and spoken-word performers, not writers.

This was one of my points of divergence with Binyavanga and the Kwani? philosophy.

The other was the school’s laissez-faire attitude towards literature and the belief that even slang made suitable robes in which to dress art and thought. Anything could pass for literature if anyone said it did.

But my original beef with Binyavanga arose about 20 years ago, when he published an article, “How to Write about Africa”, and called it a book. He also believed that he had to duel with established writers like Ngugi wa Thiong'o in order to carve a reputation as an author.


Less fundamentally, I disagreed with parts of his book One Day I Will Write About This Place, which describes Nakuru. His remembrance and mine rarely found an intersection but that is not to mean that either of us is right and the other wrong. Memory is fickle.

That is why there are those who only remember him for his sexual orientation or for cross-dressing, yet no artist is mono dimensional.

Every creative spirit is a complex creature and the receptacle of numerous influences, seen and unseen. But when we come to the end of our life journeys, as we must, it ought to be the import of our life’s work that matters.

That is why I celebrate Binyavanga in memoriam even though I had my differences with him in life.

Ng'ang'a Mbugua is the managing editor of the Business Daily and the author of 15 books.