The Binyavanga Wainaina interview, part 2 | This is Africa


The Binyavanga Wainaina interview, part 2

Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina is the most high profile person to come out as gay in Africa, earning a place at the centre of the emotionally fraught debate over homosexuality. This is Part II of a far-ranging interview with Mr. Wainaina.



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.

This is the second part of the interview. Part I HERE

You give creative writing workshops and other events almost every summer in Nigeria with Chimamanda Adichie. The Nigerian state has stipulated a 14-year sentence for anybody who engages in homosexual activity. Is this going to change at all your creative engagement with the Nigerian space? Or with the Ugandan space?


Initially I thought to myself, do I register a protest and say that I’m not going? The moral place of that law in the annals of laws goes even far beyond the idea of taming homosexuals. It talks about larger freedoms to do with Nigeria. But in the last few weeks, my instinct has been more the opposite. I just feel like I should continue. It just feels to me that we must test the openness of our spaces. The interesting thing to me was, are people now nervous? But the other day, Lola [Shoneyin] sent me an invitation to come to the Ake Book Festival for a second time. So I was like, ain’t you nervous? And she said, no, we’ll figure it out. It’s the same thing with the Port Harcourt Book Festival actually. So the conversation hasn’t really come up that it would be a problem. Of course the assumption coming from there—as it would be from Uganda—is that the state is not that keen to enforce it [the anti-gay law]. It’s an electoral game or something. But I don’t want to test it in that sort of, I’m standing and saying, “Come, come, come, shoot me.” That would be silly. But I think the idea is of being able to continue working. It’s important for me to live honestly, and it’s important for my name, my reputation to stand on its own two feet. Are people saying, I can’t work with you? Not a single person has. So that conversation hasn’t even taken off. Three priests in Kenya have returned a copy of my book—and that’s it. There are people griping somewhere.

Also, nobody with any intellectual stature out of the church or the conservatives here in Kenya has agreed to come and stand up and discuss. One well-known pastor was supposed to come. We were supposed to do this with Kenya’s leading interviewer, Jeff Koinange, but [the pastor] cancelled at the last minute. It’s not a question of fear or no fear. I feel like you have to have a society with conservatives, and you have to live with them. And they have to live with us. When you genuinely challenge stale institutions or institutional spaces, you start to know whether they’re working.

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Both of your parents died before you came out. Did either parent ever pressure you to take a wife? Was there ever any inkling on the part of your parents that you were homosexual? How do you think they would have taken your coming out were they alive?

That, of course, is hard. Because one of the reasons to come out is that you’re dying to have that conversation, and you can’t. My mother died in 2000 and never once asked me, where is your girlfriend. I manufactured a girlfriend once. But she never seemed to pick up on any enthusiasm for the idea. And my mother was a very intuitive person—maybe all mothers are. The way I see it is that she allowed me a lot of freedom because she felt herself to be a stifled creative. She felt she married too young; but she loved her family and whatever. I was a mommy’s boy from when I was young. Everyone had their special relationship with her: she was very close to my sisters, my brother too. After she died, my dad said to my sister, make sure you don’t do to your son what your mom did to Kenneth—that’s me. I found that really interesting. Sometimes second-borns are half ignored and protected. I was the second, so I could not be noticed. I’m pretty sure that my mother would not have had a sophisticated idea of what a homosexual is—in fact, that’s why I used the term rather than gay. So hindsight is hard.


My dad never asked either. And just before he died, I’d gone to visit him with my boyfriend. I had just had a stroke. [Binyavanga suffered a stroke a few years ago.] I had booked a hotel room for us but he was like, oh, but I made up a room for the both of you. And that was a very specific thing; it was not just normal. Because the room has one bed; it’s my bedroom, in fact. I was leaving for Ghana the next day—that’s in my second chapter. I was like, this guy has just opened a file for me to have that discussion with him—which I had been waiting to do. When I get back, Ill have that discussion; I was scared to enter the discussion then. But he never asked. He really, really hated as a child that Anglican Church-sanctioned violence, the idea of parents enforcing…[beating their children] he hated it. He hated it and, I found out he even dropped out of school in Form 2 and nearly killed a teacher. And when he was six, he ran away from home for a year out of fear of his own mom. After that, she never touched him. Among his own siblings, he was the super person, the very do-your-job kind of person. Compared to [the parents of] my friends at school, he was very tough about drinking, but he never ever came to say to any of us, this is what you must do as a career.

A protester wears a rainbow-coloured wig and glasses as people protest in Nairobi against Uganda’s stance on homosexuality. Photograph: Ben Curtis/AP

How do you view the response of the African elite to the series of anti-gay laws coming out from various countries?

The Kenyan elite is always very difficult to read. They were of course people who were proud that there is this writer called Binyavanga Wainaina who’s out there representing us with Lupita Nyong’o and other people in the world. [These people] don’t read, except Men Are From Mars, and they earn a lot of money. Of course, a lot of them expressed disappointment and shock. You are going to shame us, you know. The upper middle class and the artist communities could at least skip all that. So you can see that that’s kind of a disjuncture. I think also, that here in Nairobi, there is an age split. None of this is anything younger people like my cousins really bother about that much anymore. They know that this thing is there. Now, in Uganda, there is pretty much unanimity about the law. And with the exception of a very educated commentariat, who have come out strongly against it as individuals rather than as groups, there has been a lot of doubt. With part of the commentariat, part of the problem is not just the anti-gay law, but there is an anti-pornography law as well as a wire-tapping law. So their resentment often is simply how the West decided to pick out one set of problems at a time when Ugandans in general are unified by the idea that they have been going through very repressive times for the last six, seven years. So there was an overreaction based on the idea that the West decided to use just this one. And that’s a fair overreaction. Nigeria, of course, is much harder to read because the elite is so broad, big, complicated, Diaspora, home. One of the most disappointing things was…I think it was the musicians who came out with a statement saying they support the law. I thought that was shocking. I expect the elite to be hypocritical in the sense that we know that half of the gay elite is in Parliament and so on and so forth, and they would be the making the loudest noises. But I thought that people from the music and film industries where, inevitably, you find a very large percentage of gay people— coming out to speak like that was extremely hypocritical.

Nigerian cleric Peter Akinola (R) led the campaign against gay rights in the Anglican communion

Is there a danger that you have become a poster figure in the West for the homosexual cause in Africa? And how do you respond to this new visibility and attention around you, in the West especially?

Well, that’s a problem. Let’s put it this way. It took me a long time to figure out how I wanted to approach doing this. And once I did, it was clear to me how to do it. Those first two chapters would come out on African platforms and generate an African discussion. Also the six videos would do the same. It was very deliberate, for example, to speak in Kenyan, not just our pidgin or our Kenyan way—to the camera in that documentary. And I think the viewership is nearly 100,000 of those six parts now. And the vast majority [of viewers] are not Western people. A few scholars of African studies, but that was an African moment. So we waited forty-eight hours before responding to any media. I did not communicate with any media because I wanted those things to generate conversation. So what I have felt is my struggle is to keep the conversation burning.

Soon, I release Chapter Two. And maybe in a couple of months I will do a video on cynicism and talk about some of these acts of imagination and that sort of thing. So those are my priorities. In terms of dealing with the media, the storm was passed, as they do. And the storm itself was carried by the fact of the Ugandan law. When I came out it didn’t even look like it was going to get signed. So you had all these kinds of noises. I really kept away from commenting in the Western media around the Ugandan law. I did a lot about the Nigerian law because that was part of the reaction. So, even among the gay people with whom we think and talk, we are very much interested in an African movement that is part and parcel of larger movements for not just human rights—not in the reaction of just the suffering African body—but even in the questions of freedom of the mind. So those are the platforms that I look to. What has happened is that I have not responded to a lot of requests to go and speak. I am picking and choosing things that advance the idea, and that’s been all the way through. I said I am going to do “Hard Talk.” I turned down the BBC and Al Jazeera on all kinds of things for no reason other than the question of how is this taking it any further? I am very cognisant of the fact that in every Western interview I have done they just ask me three questions [which boil down to]: “Look at those Africans suffering from homophobia.” So you know it’s a reflexive conversation that really doesn’t go anywhere because it does not add value to what’s going on here.

In Uganda, clerics were vocal in their support of harsher penalties

Is there any religious objection to homosexuality that you are willing to respect?

The question around the religious responses to the idea of homosexuality, whatever they are—in Christianity for example—are always predicated on four or five lines in the Bible. The question of exceptional sin, for example; I documented, just in the African media since January, 335 cases of gross misbehaviour by Pentecostal pastors. 335. You have documented cases where, in London, there’s research showing that the spike in HIV transmission among African women is due to pastors. It’s crazy! So I don’t understand why we are having a religious, moral conversation around people who harm nobody when, as a continent, are in a grip of something so insanely self-serving, a sin against everybody’s moral platform and against everybody’s code of goodness. It’s very difficult for me to understand where you can start to have the moral conversation that talks about hounding people. We are all sinners. That’s the contract I know from every church I have ever heard of. We are all sinners, and we all seek sanctuary in the eyes of the Lord. And the sanctuary is a right given to all human beings. And that sanctuary is the sanctuary that the church gives. Its job is not to judge, condemn, influence law or such—it’s to give that sanctuary. There is zero noise from any of those churches, even on the back of that law, to just stand up in the media and say, if you are homosexual and you are going through stress, love is in my parish. Come and speak. Not one. I haven’t heard one. I think it’s extraordinary. So the question becomes: where did the crazy rightwing-ness come from? I don’t know whether I am an atheist or a lapsed believer. But I know that after a really bad time in the 80s and 90s in many kinds of ways in the continent, we are beginning to have rational platforms that allow people to make predictable decisions—for example, in six months, this is what I am going to do. It’s still very far from normal, but that’s an opportunity for healthy scepticism to mix with faith, for doubt and self-criticism. I think all these societies are ready to resume what was already resident. For now, I think it’s something good to expect there are enough people who can do that. And I think they are there.


Thank you very much.

Unidentified participants attend a workshop during the World Social Forum in Nairobi, January 23, 2007. Photo: Reuters/Antony Njuguna

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