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Obituary: Binyavanga Wainaina

How do you mourn three days that had an impact for a lifetime?

I am googling Binyavanga Wainaina. For the umpteenth time. It has become a ritual that whenever I am about to write anything, I google Binyavanga and read at least one of his works. Now I am writing an obituary for him. But before I do, I close my eyes and imagine I am in Kaduna again, finding Binyavanga. I had met Binyavanga only once and spent three days with him. He would come in, staggering, swaying. A colourful Mohawk, with blue and a mix of cypress green on the side of his head. He stuttered, his words elastic, stretchy and crackling, with texture and a measurable circumference. Binya was like an empty well trying to fill up with knowledge. Fast. Talking. Learning. Slowly, finding Binyavanga…

When I met Binya in my hometown of Kaduna in Northern Nigeria in 2016, he was recovering from a stroke, and the voice was a stutter, not the Binya of the numerous You Tube videos I had binge-watched, or the melody of the voice I had imagined in One Day I Will Write About This Place. Yet this Binya was still oozing knowledge, because the Binyavanga way is the hurricaning way, the thundering way, the lightning way. A month after Binyavanga’s visit to Kaduna, I had penned a chronicle of three days that meant a lifetime, because, just like Binya, the story of those three days kept hunting, and I had to write them down, to pour them out, to free them.

Binya: ‘Kaduna is one of the few places you live in and constantly feel in-between. It doesn’t allow your system to be singular, you exist being half-human and half-something depending on what powers that Kaduna lets into you.’

I am googling Binyavanga Wainaina. Wikipedia reports his words when he turned down the World Economic Forum’s “Young Global Leader” award in 2007: “The problem here is that I am a writer. And although, like many, I go to sleep at night, fantasising about fame, fortune and credibility, the thing that is most valuable in my trade is to try, all the time, to keep myself loose, independent and creative… It would be an act of great fraudulence for me to accept the trite idea that I am “going to significantly impact world affairs.”

Two months later, I summon up the courage to send Binya an e-mail of my writing. Of our experiences. He had spelt out his e-mail address to me, sounding the letters while I typed on my phone. 

‘Hello Binyavanga,

Hope you are good. I have been struggling to put together this essay about your visit to Kaduna, and our movements together.’

An e-mail pops into my inbox 15 minutes later. And this man has copied in Chimamanda! The Chimamanda! Forwarded her my writing, my terrible, terrible writing, and replied in the e-mail thread:

‘Wow. this guy is copying my writing style….and he does it well!! Man, this is sooooo beautiful!!!! What would you like to do with it?’

Binyavanga Wainaina. Binyavanga Wainaina official Facebook page

I stare at the e-mail for the next hour. From: Binyanga Wainana. Cc: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. To: Sada Malumfashi. I am a frozen statue in front of a laptop screen, contemplating the different ways I had imagined my writing possibly meeting Chimamanda. Not this way.

But the Binyavanga way is the hurricaning way, the thundering way, the lightning way. And so are his e-mails. He sends long-form e-mails to a long list of addresses, like a poorly handled Binya newsletter. I am now on the subscription list and the Binj e-mails are dropping.

Binya: ‘I want a continent of upright people. By this I mean people who love the continent, and those who have its best interests at heart.’

‘I am an empath.’

‘If I am going to Kano, I would like to be safe. I do not want anywhere in this continent of ours to be exempt from me to visit.’

On 23 October 2018, I would receive the last of the Binj newsletters. It would also be my last communication with Binyavanga.

Binya: ‘A healer based in Paris told me death is natural; it happens. I do not fear death at all now. If it comes today to take me, I will say, Shit, I hope somebody can finish my hip hop album you all think I am mad to do, but I am doing it.’

Right now, I am googling Binyavnaga and his Wikipedia page pops up. There is something different about it. It used to be “Kenneth Binyavanga Wainaina, born 18 January 1971”. A continuum. But now there is closure. “Died 21 May 2019.” Finality.

We have lost Binya.

Wikipedia: Wainaina died after a stroke on the evening of 21 May 2019, at Aga Khan Hospital in Nairobi. He had experienced several strokes since 2016.

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