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 In the unpublished The Fallen World of Appearances, Njue, one of those early protagonists who never made it to the printed page, survives death by fire.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