Binyavanga's short life was a lifetime of giving

Wednesday March 18 2020

Last week saw events to mark the farewell of Binyavanga Wainaina, the award-winning writer who passed away, earlier in May 2019.

At the two tributes, poets and musicians at the Kenya National Theatre (KNT) on Tuesday, and then friends and family at the National Museums on Thursday, narrated tales about “the Binj” or “Binya”, as he was popularly known. They included friends from his childhood and from his days at The Lenana School where he staged a play outside school that won a prize at the French Cultural Centre. One of his uncles spoke about how proud they were of their son who had made family names, Wainaina from Kenya and Binyavanga from Uganda, famous all around the world. There were tributes read from people he had interacted with from Europe, and the Americans and from more famous friends like Chimamanda Adichie and Ngugi wa Thiongo.


Binyavanga became world famous for his essay “How to Write About Africa”, which has been widely produced and shared and imitated. Later he published his memoirs “One Day I Will Write About This Place” about his growing up, his school days, studies and travels abroad, and the political and business changes he observed. Years later he published a chapter which was not included in the book, about his coming out as a gay man and which came to define the later years of his life. But a bigger part of the later years of his brief life was a medical condition that he suffered for almost a decade.

At both tributes, one thing was clear. Over the years, he was very generous with his talent, and with his time. Binyavanga won the 2002 Caine Prize for “Discovering Home”. After that, and after winning multiple other awards, he could have remained invisible, as a travelling award-winning writer, hard to find, who only spoke through his writing work.

But shortly after returning from the United Kingdom with the Prize he sought to help out and reach others. He is forever associated with Kwani?, which he conceptualised in the garden of Ali Zaidi, an editor at the East African newspaper who published his essays. He had started formulating the ideas of putting together different voices in a “literary journal” using his prize money that later became known as Kwani? after 2003.

Kwani? is his legacy, despite recent revisionist attempts to take away that credit. He edited the first four issues. He fundraised and led a series of activities – book readings and writing workshops, roping in friends and associates into the Kwani? fold as editors and managers and collaborators. Over the years, there were book launches and book readings and “open Mic” freestyle events, a “Pilgrimages” project around travel writing during the 2010 World Cup, literary festivals, poetry slams, open to almost anyone, at different venues in Lavington, Kilimani, Eastleigh, Lamu, and in downtown Nairobi at “Club Soundd.”

Kwani? had unique books with different themes like volumes about political elections, and collecting stories from Kenyans living in the diaspora. Kwani? published everything, poems, pieces in “sheng” and in other languages, graffiti, comics, and long pieces on revolution, conflicts, tribal identities, transformation and unwritten stories from Kenya’s history. He also edited Yvonne Awuor’s “Weight of Whispers” that won the Caine Prize the year after he did and Billy Kahora spoke about how his old schoolmate asked him to write a story about David Munyakei, the whistle blower who exposed the Goldenberg scandal. He turned ordinary people in corporate worlds into wannabe writers, persuading them to also take a stab, even if they had never studied literature.

Most important were calls for new writers to submit manuscripts for consideration and publication by Kwani? and institutions like Chimurenga and Kachifo that they were now collaborating with. To describe him in an ancient African context, he was not afraid to share his candle with others, letting others draw the flame, knowing that it would not diminish his and it would be better for everyone.

The networks and events around Kwani? fused linked legendary authors while nurturing a platform to give young writers, poets, cartoonist, visual artists and musicians and activists a chance to be published alongside other acclaimed ones to inspire them to Imagine and be creative. Kwani? editions had mostly new writers who had never been published before.


But Binyavanga also battled ill health and had major attacks of his body, starting back in 2011 when he was diagnosed with an incurable medical condition. He had a public falling with the board over funding for his treatment. While he was able to continue his travels and exploration as he also sought further diagnoses, he was not able to do much writing, as he was robbed of his gifts and he lost contact with most but a few of his close friends and family who looked after his treatment. But it got worse in recent months and ultimately led to his demise on May 21.

When other famous creative people pass on, there is a rush to buy up and collect their works. Kwani? is scattered now, the site is gone, and the books are collector's items on bookshelves that are hard to trace and its editors have moved on. At some point, he asked Kwani? to stop distributing and publishing his writing works. For now, all his writing works, magazine pieces, television interviews and TED talks, are compiled at the Binyavanga Wainaina Archive.

At KNT one of the poets gave a tribute to him that ended with “Rest in Print.” So, Rest in Print, The Binj.

Twitter: @bankelele