Binya­vanga Wainaina

18/01/71 - 21/05/19


The cre­ma­tion had hap­pened the day be­fore at the Kar­iokor Cre­ma­to­rium, a place that, even on the far­thest out­posts of Binya­vanga’s Nairobi, would still have been an un­likely des­ti­na­tion. In the un­pub­lished The Fallen World of Ap­pear­ances, Njue, one of those early pro­tag­o­nists who never made it to the printed page, sur­vives death by fire. Scarred and dis­ori­ented, he ne­go­ti­ates the pock­marked af­ter­math of the 1998 US em­bassy bomb­ing while at­tempt­ing to re­con­struct his past. Through this odyssey, he dis­cov­ers a city shrug­ging off the re­stric­tions of colo­nial apartheid, a muti­nous ur­ban ter­ri­tory that will no longer shut up and know its place. We have not imag­ined this place into be­ing, he said circa 2003.

This last voyage through his adopted city, the Nakuru boy still roam­ing and dis­cov­er­ing new by­ways, was oddly fit­ting. Lee Fu­neral Home is

on Arg­wings-kod­hek Road – the road a back-handed homage to an­other icon­o­clast, stopped in his tracks 50 years ago be­cause he stood against the crony dy­nas­ties now two gen­er­a­tions in power, in­her­i­tors and de­fend­ers of mi­nor­ity rule. East down Ngong Road – along the eu­ca­lyp­tus boule­vard, spoor of John Ainsworth, that ded­i­cated colo­nial who in­flicted these out­sized Aus­tralian weeds on the land­scape that en­closes the Nairobi Club on one side, Uhuru Park and the old EAC build­ings on the other. Down to the Haile Se­lassie round­about, the boil­ing junc­tion where west Nairobi meets east with undis­guised hos­til­ity across Uhuru High­way, the city’s main artery that once de­lin­eated the white set­tler sub­urbs, down­town, and the Rail­way Cor­po­ra­tion’s de­pot. Be­yond them, the na­tive set­tle­ments. This, then, is the junc­tion at which Nairobi’s race and class apartheids were set­tled.

If you fol­lowed the Haile Se­lassie route, skirt­ing par­lia­ment, past the cen­tral bank to the Rail­way round­about now governed by the riot of East­lands mata­tus that, like a rugby scrum­mage, now all but ob­scure the en­trance to the main rail­way sta­tion, you find your­self in the heart of the African City: derelict, de­funct and throb­bing with com­merce. Mkokoteni rick­shaws cart off fruit and veg­eta­bles from Marik­iti, Wakulima Mar­ket, past the KPCU build­ings – the head­quar­ters of what was once the biggest cof­fee union – and the Cof­fee Ex­change, a whole pet­ri­fied in­fra­struc­ture of Black Gold where one night decades ago, some­one man­aged to steal the cof­fee mill - that is to say, a three-storey mill dis­ap­peared one night, with­out a trace.

Cap­tur­ing the zeit­geist

And then to Kar­iokor. Car­rier Corps. Where the Hin­dus dis­posed of their own. The cas­ket that im­pris­ons the body is wheeled in si­lence into the in­cin­er­a­tor. The door clangs shut. Prayers and fi­nal good­byes are locked in a Mo­ment of Si­lence. This is the drama, which is to say, there is no drama.

His con­tri­bu­tion was to lib­er­ate lit­er­a­ture from those stuffy ivory tow­ers

There he went. In si­lence. There were no prayers. No words.

About 200 people gath­ered in the botan­i­cal gar­dens for a memorial, a day af­ter he was cre­mated. It is not a re­li­gious event. The trib­utes are some­times so mov­ing you get the sense that re­li­gion has been tran­scended. It is al­most un­be­liev­able how many people Binya­vanga touched, how many lives he trans­formed in the decade and a half that he worked as a writer and ac­tivist.

When Binya­vanga returned home in the early 2000s af­ter a decade in South Africa – where he had at­tempted, and aban­doned, a de­gree course in ac­count­ing be­fore be­com­ing a travel writer and Cape Town restau­ra­teur spe­cial­is­ing in African cui­sine, mak­ing such ex­otic dishes as ugali and sushi – he lived for a time in Nairobi’s Mlango Kubwa slum. In Mlango Kubwa, he meets the matatu graf­fiti artist, Joga. It was from this pe­riod that he is able to cap­ture the zeit­geist of a city in mag­nif­i­cent flux, the sub­ject of his first ma­jor com­mis­sion, ‘In­vent­ing a City’, in National Geo­graphic.

There are few writ­ers for whom a lit­er­ary award has been so valu­able – and who have them­selves added more pres­tige. Binya­vanga’s 2002 Caine Prize vic­tory sig­nif­i­cantly boosted its no­to­ri­ety and stature. The found­ing of the lit­er­ary mag­a­zine Kwani? in Nairobi a year later, and its di­rect as­so­ci­a­tion with the Caine Prize, sud­denly gave the prize a le­git­i­macy on the con­ti­nent that it had pre­vi­ously lacked. Kwani? was born at the height of Kenyan eu­pho­ria – and itself added a new di­men­sion to the grow­ing sense of op­ti­mism in the coun­try. Pres­i­dent Daniel arap Moi was leav­ing. Many of the folk who had em­i­grated from Kenya in the 1980s, flee­ing the mis­rule and Imf-im­posed eco­nomic aus­ter­ity, were re­turn­ing.

Writ­ers, po­ets, thes­pi­ans

Binya­vanga’s con­tri­bu­tion was to lib­er­ate lit­er­a­ture from those stuffy ivory tow­ers. To do so, he had to re­move ide­ol­ogy from the Kwani? canon. Nairobi’s bour­geoisie, more than a lit­tle wary of how a con­scious lit­er­a­ture im­pli­cated them, now found them­selves will­ing and able to express them­selves in print with­out the self-con­scious­ness im­posed by writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s lit­er­a­tures of com­mit­ment.

In the Age of Love, that first flush of in­fat­u­a­tion that had Kwani? as its cen­tre­piece, a small group of bud­ding artists gath­ered at Ali Zaidi’s Sun­day af­ter­noon open houses in Lore­sho in the north­west­ern sub­urbs. Ad­men and women, teach­ers at the GCSE schools, UN ex­pats and in-pats, jour­nal­ists and civil so­ci­ety types en­coun­tered Binya­vanga and were duly trans­formed into writ­ers, po­ets, thes­pi­ans.

Bin ya van ga started out with Dis­cov­er­ing Home, a 2001 novella about his jour­ney from Nakuru to Kisoro for a fam­ily gath­er­ing. A decade and a half later, the en­tire con­ti­nent was his home: his pan-african­ist as­sault on con­ser­va­tive es­tab­lish­ments was so per­va­sive that when he an­nounced that he was gay, in 2014, it was with an eye on an im­pend­ing Nigeria trip where Pres­i­dent Good­luck Jonathan had passed dra­co­nian anti-gay leg­is­la­tion.

In South Africa in 2017, Binya dis­cov­ered san­go­mas, the miss­ing link to his own mid­dle-class cul­tural alien­ation. He was de­vel­op­ing a spir­i­tual lan­guage to un­der­stand a world out­side the Chris­tian strait­jack­ets that he was now en­coun­ter­ing wher­ever he went.

There was noth­ing that Binya­vanga did not con­front with courage, en­thu­si­asm and an in­tox­i­cat­ing sense of hu­mour. He freed a gen­er­a­tion to be­gin imag­in­ing itself into be­ing.

The au­thor and rights ac­tivist took aim at con­ser­va­tive es­tab­lish­ments across the con­ti­nent

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