The Binyavanga Wainaina interview (Part 1) | This is Africa


The Binyavanga Wainaina interview (Part 1)

In February, Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina earned a place at the centre of the emotionally fraught debate over homosexuality in Africa. In this far-ranging interview, Mr. Wainaina offers a provocative critique of some of the cultural objections to homosexuality.



In the wake – or anticipation – of stern anti-gay laws in Nigeria and Ugandan, Mr. Wainaina riveted global attention by publishing a lost chapter from his memoir. Titled “I am a homosexual, Mum,” the essay represented the author’s carefully orchestrated coming out.

Mr. Wainaina is working on another book, but also maintains a hectic schedule of speaking engagements in different parts of the world. He recently spoke to me from his base in Nairobi, Kenya. In a fascinating and far ranging interview, he offers a provocative critique of some of the cultural and religious objections to homosexuality in Africa, probes the historical roots of the anti-gay sentiment, and explains why he decided to come out. Excerpts:

So, how are things for you in Nairobi?

Actually, really good! Well, you know, last year was very depressing, generally, politically. It’s not that it’s less depressing [now], but I got tired of being depressed.


Let’s talk about your coming out essay. How has your life changed since it got published?

On the one hand it hasn’t. It’s a funny thing to say, but it hasn’t, really. I think, for Kenyans, I was already so way out there. The only thing that has been weird was this one TV interview where, clearly, the idea was to sort of gang up on me. Which I don’t mind.

This was in Kenya?

Yes, this was in Kenya. For K24 [a Kenyan TV network]. There’s this small group of people called Maendeleo Ya Wanawake, the oldest kind of women’s political organisation in Kenya. It’s called Progress for Women. And now these guys, these buffoons, started something called Progress for Men, because they feel men are being oppressed. So they had a protest about homosexuality. Only thirteen people attended. But then what happened was that they brought a bishop to that interview. I thought it would be one of the mainstream church bishops, because that’s what I had requested. They brought a very rich bishop—those people who talk about Leviticus, the old Redeemers Church—and a Member of Parliament, whom I think [the church people] are funding, because they’re trying to make noise. So I did like ten minutes of the live interview and then I just stood up and left. I realised that I was giving them an opportunity to get themselves broadcast, and give themselves a name, notoriety—which they have not earned. If you want notoriety, go and earn it yourself. Don’t use me. The TV people, of course because it was live, were now freaking out. So they were like, “We’ll chase them. We’ll chase them if you come back.” I said, No, you’re lying.

Nairobi is a strange and interesting place. Unlike Lagos or Kampala, it really doesn’t belong to anybody. That’s the worst and best thing about it. People may have very strong opinions about things, but they also inherently hate the idea of you saying, “This is African culture or this is whatever culture.” They say, No, no, no, me I just want to be anonymous in the city. I don’t need you imposing this weird thing. I do my thing. There isn’t the same sense you get in Kampala that everything is everybody’s business.


The common belief across the continent is that homosexuality is un-Christian, un-Islamic and “un-African”

You’ve mentioned this question about African culture, which is one of two planks driving the anti-gay movement in Africa—the other being the religious angle. How do you respond to the argument that acceptance of homosexuality is not part of Africa’s cultural practices or heritage?

The first thing about it is, if you look at gay culture in any part of the world, there’s always been the movement from the hinterland into the cosmopolitan place. Gay people are a minority in pretty much any society they live in. And therefore, they are usually very much driven, as are many kinds of threatened minorities in general—including black people in rural England—to cities and cosmopolitan spaces. There is no difference in terms of what gay people are the clear light of this digital world. So it’s kind of difficult to talk about an exceptional Africanness when the phenomenon is widely documented in every human society, Africa included. The term African culture is one that I am quite eager to embrace, but it’s a mixture of ands, ors. We don’t have a f—–g constitution. And the argument itself has always been made under the banner of the church. They start the conversation with “it’s not African culture because it says XYZ in Leviticus.” But nobody has sought to document any arguments [besides what they read in the Bible]. I think it’s a church conversation; it’s a conversation that has come into the African space via the church.

I never saw a pan-African conference on the subject. So people say what they say like received bullet points [from the church]. They use the same language and the same argument; utterly consistent. I think, though, that there is a certain place where there is a more visceral reaction to the idea of homosexuality and to the idea of male homosexuality. And you can clearly find those cliques in those countries where there was a colonial imposition on the idea of something that had already existed. Uganda is a prime example. There’s the idea that the colony was built upon a so-called homosexual King Mwanga who must have been deposed. And so people become Christianised. The majority of African martyrs in the church are Ugandan. And there are these twenty-two so-called martyrs who were killed by Mwanga. Remember that much of the written history comes from the victory of the colony and the victory of the church. The most important public holiday in Uganda is Martyrs Day, where people recount over and over again how the beastly, homosexual Mwanga wanted to impose his sexual will on his twenty-two [male pages]. It’s in every textbook in Uganda.

David Bahati (center), the architect of Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill, is blessed by Pastor Martin Ssempa (R), Sheikh Badruh (L), and other religious leaders during an anti-gay church service at the Christianity Focus Centre (Photo © Bénédicte Desrus)

Do you believe this accounts for the particular virulence of the Ugandan response to the gay issue?

Yes. You also have a particular virulence in a certain cultural way in Senegal, even though they never had anti-sodomy laws. You had documented brothels where older pre-colonial Senegalese elite would have young boys and that sort of thing. Whatever evidence we have is sparse and that’s because, as Africans, we generally don’t self-document in that way. In Kenya, there’s a casual knowledge — as in many societies — that [homosexuality] has always been there. What it’s never had was legitimacy to marry. The question about what a man or a woman does in bed has never really been part of the platforms of people’s cultural values. Virginity, to some point, was valuable in some societies. But the questions of what else you were doing or this idea of fidelity or whatever—all those were things that came with the Christians. The questions about one’s duty to family did not necessarily overlap with the question of what, then, is sexual morality in the easy biblical way we like to speak of it. So, of course, you have all these questions of hindsight—a kind of hindsightisation of culture.

You’re arguing, then, that this invocation of a certain African cultural prohibition of homosexuality is a borrowed memory—and that the idea has its roots in Christianity?

Yes, I am. Now, of course, you have other problems. You can see this in Jamaica, for example, or places where homophobia is really crazy. Where it only would take [in Kenya] various settlers sleeping with young boys in a colonial situation and the idea of sex and dominance penetrating—for a certain fear to enter our society. There is no doubt that in different parts of the continent, there were certain things that happened like that. So you would expect to see a certain kind of homophobia in South Africa or in parts of Kenya that would be a response to such things. But I haven’t seen them documented really, except in the Caribbean, yes. [What Binyavanga is saying here is that the hostility towards gay people is received, and inspired by religious precepts. This hostility in places like Jamaica and Kenya has to do with a memory of white imperialists/colonists using homosexual sex as part of the broad tool for the subjugation of “natives.” That’s why he suggests that the memory of such colonialist predation lends a particular violence to the anti-gay cause in Jamaica, Kenya and elsewhere. He feels that Christianity lent African tradition a rhetoric based on Christian creed but also emphasises the role of colonialist deployment of homosexual sex as a tool of power.]


Gay rights laws in Africa

Since last year, there has been this violent phase of the anti-gay sentiment on the continent—in Uganda, Nigeria and elsewhere. Do you think this has to do with a corresponding liberalisation of attitudes in the West, hence this fear in parts of Africa that we need to shut the gates against this Western liberal ethos?

First, I think that this conversation, more than anything else, is a middle class conversation. By middle class I don’t mean anything other than people who are reasonably educated, who may or may not even be employed. Through my travels in Ghana and elsewhere, I [got to] know of the first gay man who was ever arrested for sleeping with Norwegians. The entire village welcomed him back with nine lorries when he came out of remand prison. This was because—according to them—anytime the state intervenes in their lives, you have to be cleansed of a curse. It’s part of the book I am writing. I thought it was fascinating because he was waiting for people to come and condemn him. And they were like, “You were just doing what you need to do.” His mom was there and they came—in nine lorries—with witch doctors to cleanse him with gin.

That particular village, called Christian Village, is next to Achimota Golf Club. It’s where colonial white men used to sleep with caddies in the fifties. So the entire village grew up to service this need. The Scandinavian aid workers came at the time of Nkrumah’s socialism. So this subculture developed—with the Norwegians in particular—where a man would marry, have his [male] lover, would go back to Norway and come [to Ghana] on holiday—and stay in his room. He had a room built for him. And he was this interactive supporting uncle whom the children knew, the whole village knew. So the entire village was built around this idea. Now, when this young Christian Village man gets arrested—he had been partying with some Norwegians—and he’s in the newspapers, the Ghanaian authorities are like, “Look at the moral collapse of our country. Arrest him; finish him.” And then, after two months, the moral fervour got tired. Then they said, “Oh, why are we putting our boys in jail? Why don’t we blame the white man?” His own people at Christian Village organised all these lorries when he came out. It was a three-day party. They took a convoy from the remand prison all the way to Christian Village to celebrate, first his heroism for surviving, and to cleanse him of the curse of the state—a state that, of course, does nothing for you.

So my point about the question of the middle class idea is this. In societies where the state is weak—and Uganda is one—the kingdoms are relatively strong. Which is to say: there are still functional, traditional systems that govern people’s lives together with the church. And [this is] where families—at times when the state has been extremely corrupted or in war—become very conservative and reactionary, wanting to control the fate of their own futures. So it’s easy to understand the fear that these people are going out into the world to become individuals, to take all these risks. And the family cannot govern its economy as well as it wants to. These problems are probably global problems. We’re in the age of this kind of neo-liberalism. Some people use it to acquire certain freedoms—women in particular, for example. But it brings all kinds of threats. You have societies like Kenya where your traditional systems are completely destroyed. So they have no real force and power. And so the idea of a person as an individual in the world is stronger in Nairobi and other parts of Kenya than it is in different parts of Africa. It’s also pretty strong in Cote d’Ivoire, which I realised when I went there. But part of the problem is that there are all kinds of fragilities embedded in that idea too.

Binyavanga Wainaina signing a reader’s book during the Nairobi launch of his memoir, “One Day I Will Write About This Place” in June 2012. © Jerry Riley Photography

You’ve mentioned that there’s a book you’re working on and you’re examining some of these questions. Did you decide on the book since coming out as a gay man or was the project on your table even before then?

It sounds very selfish to say that part of the reason for coming out was I needed to clear my brain [in order] to attack the issues. I had been feeling—after a couple of friends died last year—a certain kind of hypocrisy in my situation, needing to write this book, which I had already started writing. I was stuck. And writing that chapter [about his sexual identity] has released the writing for the book. The book is not really about homosexuality per se. Over the last two years, you look at your Twitter feed and you read of oil wells and railways popping up every ten seconds in different parts of the continent. And at the same time there are the huge, huge sorts of social collapses. And then there’s the explosion of Nollywood, the explosion of Boko Haram. There are these spaces, especially spaces outside very laid-back state systems. Like the Nigerian music industry decides to move and make a space for themselves—and they create a giant territory. Boko Haram decides to do the same, and al Shabab in Kenya. And Al Shabab can decide to go into Westgate [the upscale Nairobi mall that was bombed last November)—just some kids—and humiliate [the state]. We’ve reached this kind of season where the past, the present and the possible future are just sort of operating on a very fast moving thing running downhill very quickly. All kinds of openings for possibilities of change exist, and equally every kind of threat you can imagine also exists inside this space. I find that quite fascinating, and I have been trying to use a language to experience that as opposed to comment upon it. So even coming out was like coming back home. Can I live an honest life as an open gay man? It just seems to me that these are not times to be fearful.

I have had a growing frustration with the preciousness of our own progressive upper middle classes who—it’s not even just that they don’t vote—who fear Africa like a white man fears Africa. All these little gated communities and precious conversations that just go on and on, but people don’t take jobs in the public service, not even for duty. Not even for career advancement, which, if you’re in your thirties or whatever, is when you’re in desperate need of good skills. And they’re not hiding that they are in desperate need of good skills. It surprises me how [often] people tell me that the public service is not good enough for them. But at the same time they want to be back from the Diaspora. Today we were having this conversation about why they don’t pay tax [to Kenya] in the Diaspora. Because you keep complaining, you want all these services, you want to vote abroad. If [each of] you were to work three hours a day and you pay $500 a year, that’s half a billion dollars to Kenya’s exchequer. Then you can demand first-rate civil services. But now you want us [in Kenya] to pay taxes, but when you want your passport renewed, you moan on Twitter that they didn’t do it in one week. Actually the Kenyan embassy does it in a day.


The shape of how things look is hard to see, but the shape has arrived. That’s really what’s fascinating me. So one of the things I wanted to ask myself is: am I scared to say that it’s actually happening? Am I supposed to be scared to say that it may be that the state called Kenya really has ceased to exist, that the regions in the new constitution are probably what’s likely to be valid, together with larger regional contracts? Things are tumbling off their own energies and steam.

Kenyan gays, lesbians and others wear masks to preserve their anonymity as they stage a protest against Uganda’s stance against homosexuality and in solidarity with their counterparts there, outside the Uganda High Commission in Nairobi, Feb. 10, 2014

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