Author and playwright, Binyavanga Wainaina was born in 1971 in Nakuru County, Kenya and went on to live a colorful life. He did his undergraduate in commerce at the University of Transkei before he joined the University of East Anglia to gain a Master of Philosophy (MPhil) in Creative Writing.
He then went on to have an exemplary literary career becoming one of the most renowned writers of this generation. In fact in 2014 he was named by the Time 100 among the “Most Influential People in the World”.
Wainana was also a beacon for the LGBTQI+ community, becoming one of the first prominent Africans to publicly announce his sexuality. In response to a wave of anti-gay laws passed in Africa, he made the bold proclamation in stages. First writing a short story titled, “I am a Homosexual, Mum” that he described as a “lost chapter” of his debut book; a memoir entitled “One Day I Will Write About This Place”, published in 2011. Then tweeting “I am, for anybody confused or in doubt, a homosexual. Gay, and quite happy.”
The chapter imagined scenarios in which the writer told his mother on her deathbed – she died approx. 18 years ago – that he was gay, and set them against what actually happened, which was that he had been stuck in South Africa with visa issues, having not seen his mum for five years, and arrived too late to tell her anything at all.
In the imagined scenario he wrote, “Nobody, nobody, ever in my life has heard this. Never, mum. I did not trust you, mum. And. I. Pulled air hard and balled it down into my navel, and let it out slow and firm, clean and without bumps out of my mouth, loud and clear over a shoulder, into her ear. ‘I am a homosexual, mum.’”
Wainana’s brave revelations on a majorly anti-gay continent did not stop there. Later in 2016 during World Aids Day, he came out once again, revealing his HIV status. He said in a tweet that he is living with the virus, “What I said (in a tweet) is true. I’m HIV positive and happy! That is all I can say,” he said.
Again he gave voice to an issue that many battled with but do not openly speak about. Not only was he an activist for both the LGBTQI+ community and the de-stigmatization of HIV, he was a living testament of both.
Outside of his activism and life Wainaina was a literary force. He is the founding editor of Kwani?, which is the first literary magazine in East Africa since Transition Magazine. Over time Kwani? Has become a source of new African literature with several featured writers nominated and some winning the Caine Prize for their work.
In his own capacity he has published several short stories, essays and a memoir. These include: the short story “Discovering Home” which won him the 2002 Caine Prize, the short story “An Affair to Dismember” (2002), “Beyond the River Yei: Life in the Land Where Sleeping is a Disease” (photographic essay; Kwani Trust), with Sven Torfinn, the internationally acclaimed satirical article “How To Write About Africa“ (Granta 92, 2005), the article “In Gikuyu, for Gikuyu, of Gikuyu” (Granta 103, 2008), the memoir and autobiography “One Day I Will Write About This Place” (2011) and more recently an essay titled “A Letter to All Kenyans from Binyavanga Wainaina or Binyavanga wa Muigai” (Brittle Paper 2017).
Aside from receiving an award from the Kenya Publisher’s Association, in recognition of his services to Kenyan literature in 2003, he has in his career written for The East African, National Geographic, The Sunday Times (South Africa), Granta, the New York Times, Chimurenga magazine and The Guardian (UK).
Wainaina was also a writer in residence at Union College in Schenectady, NY (USA) in 2007, had a residencey at Williams College in 2008 and was before his death a Bard Fellow and the director of the Chinua Achebe Center for African Literature and Languages at Bard College.
In between, he wittily declined an offer from the Queen of Jordan to become a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum saying tongue in cheek, “The problem here is that I am a writer. And although, like many, I go to sleep at night fantasizing 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’.”
There has been an out pour of love for the author since news of his death. Some of the messages that are celebrating him include:
For those of us who grew up with "the best Kenyan writers" (whatever that means) living in exile, jailed and persecuted, or poor and under appreciated, or censored heavily, he came back and that was major. He was a complex man, but I think for this he deserves endless gratitude.
— Nanjala Nyabola (@Nanjala1) May 22, 2019
These 1370 words have had a profound influence on my career – and they ring as true today as they did when first published in 2005. Rest in peace, Binyavanga Wainana. https://t.co/PDzFuywrci
— Simon Allison (@simonallison) May 22, 2019
I remember the early days, from SA to Kwani? open mic at Yaya. Audacity of possibilities. You started something special. You made important contributions to our writing space. You lived your truth. Now go in peace bro. "Binyavanga Wainaina"
— Oyunga Pala (@realoyungapala) May 22, 2019
As we mourn his demise we remember two of his quotes:
In a talk at TEDxEuston, titled ‘Conversations with Baba’, Wainaina shared the exchange he would have liked to have had with his father before he died, concluding, “We can’t think of our continent as a hostile place.Too many of us have learnt to fear it. I feel that if you trust it, engage with it and be involved with it in conversations of building, as adventurers, this continent will start to sing to us again.”
He also aptly said in One Day I Will Write About This Place: A Memoir, “Cloud travel is well and good when you have mastered the landings. I never have. I must live, not dream about living.”