Kenneth Binyavanga Wainaina, an eminent Kenyan author and gay activist passed away at 48 years of age on 21st May 2019. The writer died on Tuesday just a few minutes past 10 pm at the Aga Khan Hospital in Nairobi. The death of Binyavanga came after a stroke attack, according to family sources and news. Previously, Binyavanga had suffered several stroke attacks since November 2015. His death comes just days before the Kenya High Court gave a ruling regarding petitions to repeal article 162 (a) and (c) on decriminalization of homosexuality on May 24th 2019.
His childhood and education
Kenneth Binyavanga Wainaina was born on 18th January 1971 in Milimani, Nakuru County, Kenya. His late father, Job, was a successful executive while his late mother, Rosemary (Binyavanga) Wainaina operated a hair salon in Nakuru. His family referred to him as Ken but, he later adopted Binyavanga as his official name as he approached adulthood. This name Binyavanga, means mixed up. It stuck as his official name because when he was young, he had the tendency of mixing up all his food right before eating it. Binyavanga was the second born son in his family and as per the Kikuyu custom; he was named after his maternal grandfather.
Through his own admission, Binyavanga was a timid and shy child. While growing up, he wanted to be an accountant as this was popularly perceived as a lucrative career. He went to Moi primary school in Nakuru and later joined Mang’u high school in Thika. Binyavanga completed his secondary school studies in Lenana School in Nairobi. He then briefly joined the University of Nairobi to study Bachelor of Education before transferring his credits to the University of Transkei in South Africa, where he studied commerce. This transfer in the year 1991 was the beginning of his stay in South Africa. Binyavanga later attended the University of East Anglia in the year 2010 where he completed an MPhil in Creative Writing.
Career and awards
While studying in South Africa, Binyavanga started operating a restaurant business in an attempt to raise money to complete his studies. While on this, he started working as a freelance food and travel writer for Weekend Argus in Cape Town.
Being the legendary African author he is, Binyavanga’s short story ‘Discovering Home’ won the Caine Prize for African Writing in July 2002. After being announced the winner of the Caine Prize in 2002, Binyavanga confidently stepped into the world of the literary stage. A year later, he co-founded the Kwani? journal, a publication that was mainly founded by women amongst them, Irene Wanjiru, Rasna Warah, Atsango Chesoni, Andia Kisia, Ebba Kalondo and Muthoni Wanyeki. This journal, which has been able to foster a number of young African writers, has since then become one of the important sources of new African writing.
In the year 2003, Binyavanga was awarded by the Kenya Publisher’s Association for greatly contributing to the Kenyan literature. He has since been a contributor for The Guardian (UK), The Sunday Times (South Africa), The EastAfrican, Granta, National Geographic, Chimurenga and The New York Times.
In 2005, Binyavanga wrote a satirical essay to the Western world on “How to Write About Africa”. This piece was then published in Granta magazine in the year 2006. After attracting wide attention all over the world, this piece is considered as Binyavanga’s most widely known work.
In the year 2007, Binyavanga served as a writer in residence at the Union College in Schenectady, New York, in the USA. In the fall of 2008 Wainaina was in residence at Williams College where he served as a lecturer and teacher while working on his novel. Binyavanga Wainaina was also a Bard Fellow, as well as, the Chinua Achebe Center for African Literature director at Bard College. Interestingly, he collected more than 13,000 African recipes and this hugely contributed to him being an expert on modern and traditional African Cuisine.
In January 2007, the World Economic Forum nominated Binyavanga Wainaina for the award of the Young Global Leader. This award is only offered to individuals who have proven their capacity to contribute to shaping the future of the world. Surprisingly, he declined the award through a letter that he addressed to Queen Rania of Jordan and Klaus Schwab. This letter read;
“I assume that most, like me, are tempted to go anyway because we will get to be “validated” and glow with the kind of self-congratulation that can only be bestowed by very globally visible and significant people, and we are also tempted to go and talk to spectacularly bright and accomplished people – our “peers”. We will achieve Global Institutional Credibility for our work, as we have been anointed by an institution that many countries and presidents bow down to.
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”
Kenneth Binyavanga Wainaina’s biggest legacy is challenging Africans to free their imaginations.
Besides his writing work, Binyavanga was outspoken. He was at the forefront of advocating for LGBTQ rights both off and on the page. In addition to this, in 2014, Binyavanga came out as gay in his essay that he described as the “Lost Chapter”, in his work known as “I Am a Homosexual, Mum,”. In Kenya, same-sex relationships are illegal and so it was very courageous of him to write about his sexuality. Through this essay, Binyavanga revealed a lot about his personal life, something that hasn’t been done by many writers in the country.
According to Binyavanga, he knew about his sexual orientation since he was 5 years of age. He, however, chose to keep this as a secret until 2014. From his Lost Chapter essay, which was a re-imagination of his mother’s last days on her deathbed, Binyavanga wrote;
“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.”
While talking to NPR, Binyavanga revealed that the wave of anti-gay rights that were passed in various African countries like Nigeria and Uganda triggered him to come out in public as gay. His revelation and public admission as a homosexual triggered confusion and some people speculated that this was just one of his many literally works as fiction. To clear the air, Wainaina tweeted,
“I am, for anybody confused or in doubt, a homosexual. Gay, and quite happy”
This confession reinvigorated the conversation on the rights of homosexuals in Kenya. For such a public figure coming out as gay, this threw him into a role of an activist and this later earned him recognition from the Time Magazine in 2014 where he was named as one of the world’s most influential people. Something else that provoked him to publicly reveal his sexuality was the death of his friend in 2012. His friend was a fellow gay who had spent his entire life in pretence. Through this, the Kenyan writer thought it was wise to come out and chip away at the shame that made his own friend die in silence.
While in Germany on World AIDS Day on 1st December, 2016, Binyavanga revealed that he was HIV positive through his Twitter account. He tweeted;
“I’m HIV positive and happy! That is all I can say,”
On May 2018, Binyavanga Wainaina dropped yet another bombshell, in spite of the anti-gay laws in Kenya, and announced that he had proposed to his long term Nigerian lover. The two had plans to get married in South Africa, where gay marriage is allowed, early this year.
In 2015, Binyavanga developed health problems, and later that year, he suffered a stroke attack where he appealed for help. With this attack, he was admitted in the ICU at Karen Hospital and after 3 weeks of treatment, he was discharged. On 21st May 2019, he suffered another stroke and passed on some minutes past 10 pm according to stroke to family sources and news.
In his Facebook post last year, Binyavanga wrote
“I don’t fear death anymore and I just have a single thing to do this year.
This post came just a few months before his engagement. He further wrote that;
“If I die anytime, it is okay since I have reconciled myself with that. After I do what I need to do this year, I would like to live longer. However, when I don’t live long after this, it is okay. Don’t mourn me but celebrate my life.”
Binyavanga Wainaina contributed to The East African newspaper. Here is why The EastAfrican is more than just a newspaper