By Adriaan van Klinken
How to write an obituary for a person as creative, original and radical as Binyavanga Wainaina – the Kenyan literary writer, public intellectual, and queer thinker who passed away on 21st May 2019?
How to write an obituary for a person who, in his perhaps most famous satirical essay, “How to write about Africa”, suggests that “African characters should be colourful, exotic, larger than life—but empty inside, with no dialogue, no conflicts or resolutions in their stories, no depth or quirks to confuse the cause”?
Wainaina was such an “African character”: colourful, exotic, larger than life. With his African print blazers in the brightest colours one can think of, his spiky hair dyed in a different colour every time. Colourful and exotic. With the constant flood of words in which he energetically talked speculative ideas, supported by wild bodily gestures. Larger than life.
But he was far from empty inside. He was a brilliant writer and sharp thinker, creative and unruly. He left us a memoir, pieces of creative writing, novels in progress, essays, both written and video-performed – an incredibly rich archive of ideas and thoughts. He was a character, and a deep and complex character for that matter: confusing and quirky, humorous and sarcastic, a lover of life, of food, and of whisky, frequently also ranting and raving, angry and upset.
How to write an obituary for a person like Binyavanga Wainaina? Should I begin by stating the key biographical facts?
Born on 18th January 1971 in Nakuru, Kenya. Went to school in Nakuru, Thika, and Nairobi. Studied a degree in Commerce in South Africa (University of Transkei) and later for an MPhil in Creative Writing in the UK (University of East Anglia).
Winner of the 2002 Caine Prize for African writing, with his short story "Discovering Home”. Founding editor, in 2003, of African literary magazine, Kwani? Served as director of the Chinua Achebe Center for African Literature and Languages at Bard College in the US. Author, in 2011, of his acclaimed debut book, a memoir: One Day I Will Write About This Place.
Awarded the title “Young Global Leader” by the World Economic Forum in 2007 – an award he subsequently declined because he preferred the freedom as a writer, “loose, independent and creative”, over the pressure to “significantly impact world affairs”.
Came out as gay in 2014, at a time that African countries such as Uganda and Nigeria passed new anti-homosexuality bills. In the midst of virulent social and political homophobia, he published an intimate, autobiographical literary story, “I am a Homosexual, Mum”.
Another coming out, on World Aids Day 2016, when he announced on Twitter (perhaps his favourite media) that he was HIV positive “but happy”. Happy he was indeed, when in May 2018 he announced, on Facebook this time, to be in love and to get married to his Nigerian partner, in South Africa.
His body suffered from several strokes. Every time he fought hard to recover, remained ambitious. Signed contracts for two new books. Yet the last strike has become him fatal.
Is this what an obituary looks like? A short summary of Wainaina’s life from birth to death? Not for a person like Wainaina! It gives us a glimpse but does not capture the spirit of his life.
An obituary for Wainaina should begin by stating that he may have passed away but has not died. That sounds religious, doesn’t it? Raised as Catholic, and brought by his mother into the Pentecostal church, when growing up Wainaina soon became rather sceptical of Christianity, especially of the Pentecostal emphasis on religious ecstasy and the concern with demons. He claimed to have dedicated himself to “a rational, secular life”.
More recently, he has suggested that he is rediscovering indigenous spirituality, especially the practice of honouring the ancestors, under the guidance of a South African sangoma (diviner) and a Kenyan “spiritual guide.” In an open letter addressed to all Kenyans on the occasion of the contested 2017 presidential elections, he spoke out about Kenyan political affairs and suggested that his ancestors had encouraged him to do so. “I would like to say here and now with my ancestors witnessing this that what I am about to say is the truth,” the letter stated. He went on to quote the Bible: “I believe in the biblical verse that says, ‘the truth will set you free’” (John 8: 32).
Wainaina embodied a politics of truth, in many aspects of his life. As a self-declared pan-Africanist and Afropolitan, he was committed to reclaiming African cultures and traditions in order to free the continent from colonial and neo-colonial social, political, and religious forces, and he sought to boldly reimagine African futures. In his 2014 We Must Free Our Imaginations video essays, he stated: “I’m a pan-Africanist. I want to see this continent changed.” Referring to his gay sexuality, he added: “I’m an African, I was brought up here, my home is here. Being an Afropolitan, I am here to stay.”
How to write an obituary for a person like Binyavanga Wainana? By concluding that Wainaina may have died, but is here to stay. In the tradition of indigenous spirituality, which he rediscovered in the last years of his life, we may refer to him as a “living dead”, an ancestor, who remains a member of the family and community, who continues to inspire us with their presence in the spirit.
An edited version of this piece was published by The Conversation.