The late Kenyan writer, Binyavanga Wainaina, made a career out of collecting and creating certain truths, whether of Africa, or of food, or of colonialism, or of racism, or of any of the other things that excited him intellectually. In a new posthumous collection of essays collected by Achal Prabhala, the truths most important to him are presented to us.
There is a moment in ‘Beyond River Yei’, one of the essays in How to Write About Africa, Binyavanga Wainaina’s posthumous collection of writing, when a lean young man with a rifle on his shoulder calls out to Binyavanga, who’s being driven around in a large Land Cruiser. ‘Kawaja!’ he shouts, and in that instant, Binyavanga writes, ‘his fat sleek self has been granted a promotion.’ He is now a white man. In this essay we see Binyavanga at his strongest—the cynicism that pockmarked much of his writing, the humour that flashed throughout his work, and the ease with which he inserted himself into domestic scenes foreign to him and wrote about them with the liminality of an insider-outsider.
How To Write About Africa, named for the famous Granta essay that supercharged his career as a writer, is a collection of work—both essays and short fiction—by the deceased Kenyan writer, collected and edited by Achal Prabhala, the Indian writer and researcher who was his friend and confidante. The collection encompasses both Binyavanga’s early writing, some of which was lost before Prabhala’s intervention, to his later work, stretching between ‘Binguni!’ in 1996 to his column for Mail & Guardian between 2006 and 2009.
The difficulty in writing about Binyavanga lies in questions about what his legacy is in Kenyan literature. He was one of the founding editors of Kwani?, where he poured a lot of energy in building one of Africa’s pre-eminent literary outfits. He championed the careers of several writers, editing their work, writing recommendations, and introduced some of them to editors and agents. In addition, he was a gay rights activist, and in his coming out, became a beacon to many LGBTQI+ people in Kenya and beyond. He also had a reputation as something of a bully, and had, by the time of his death, fallen out with many of the writers he had started Kwani? with, as well as some of those he had served as a mentor to. His political leanings were suspect, swinging between a blasé sitting-on-the-fence attitude with respect to Kenyan elective politics and a drum-beating support for suspects of war crimes. When a fellow writer was accused of sexual assault, he turned on the accusers, presumably dismissing one of them, Wambui Mwangi, as an alcoholic. And, perhaps more worryingly, after his death there emerged new (at least to some of us) allegations of sexual assault levelled against Binyavanga himself. Binyavanga passing away means we can’t quite put these questions to him in the way we would have had he been alive. Instead, what we have is his writing.
The first story he ever published was in 1996. This was ‘Binguni!’ a fantasy story that involved a protagonist who died and went to African heaven. Even this early, we see the same sparks of craftwork that would litter his later, more mature work. The second part of the story reads a lot like the opening of his memoir One Day I Will Write About This Place. In both, the protagonist’s body is an ephemeral metaphysical existence where, in the memoir, a ‘thousand suns are breathing’ and ‘each piece of the sun is always a complete little sun’, and, in the short story, ‘life thrills and memories concentrated into tiny capsules of pure feeling.’
This story was published when he was studying in South Africa. Back then, Binyavanga dreamt of middle-class normality. He ‘wanted to be a hard-working, middle-class boy from Africa, and earn R16,000 a month as a chartered accountant, buy a sixteen-valve car, pretend to fall in love with a yellow-skinned girl who looked like she lived in an R&B video, and pose cool.’ He never did qualify as an accountant, instead becoming a writer. Neither did he, as far as we are aware, buy a sixteen-valve car. Having abandoned his university education, he moved to Cape Town in the mid-1990s to become a freelance writer whose beat was culinary culture. He only got back to Kenya in 2000 when his mother died, whereby he, as Prabhala tells us, ‘burst into the church where his mother’s funeral was being held, surprising his siblings, who thought he was far away in South Africa.’ A year later he moved back to Kenya permanently, writing ‘for anyone who would have him’, and in 2002, he won the Caine Prize.
There are multiple Binyavangas. The earliest iteration was the food writer, writing very methodical recipes for, among other dishes, Mushy Pea Mukimo, Shingo ya Kondoo na Maziwa Lala (Lamb’s Neck Medallions with Mustard and Amasi), Swahili Braised Chicken, and mutura. Mutura (a type of blood sausage popular in Kenya) was his favourite dish. Mutura has a reputation as dirty street food, but Binyavanga writes, ‘Is it really good for us to be sanitized? Why are we so afraid of real food?’
But he was at his best when he wrote about the intimate spaces he inhabited. In an essay about his circumcision, he describes how he steals another boy’s circumcision story because while his, Binyavanga’s had been done in a hospital, his friend Maina’s circumcision was the real deal, done ‘in the village with booze, earthworms that were eaten, classes on sex, secret names, a dawn ‘dip in an ice-cold mountain stream.’” When writing about personal spaces, or public spaces in which people shared their private lives, we see the full breadth of his wit, for instance when he writes in ‘Discovering Home’, the essay packaged as a short story to win him the Caine Prize, ‘After the soft light and mellow manners of Cape Town, Nairobi is a shot of whisky.’ Or when he described a man in a bar as wielding ‘his potbelly like a sexual magnet.’
Then there was the political Binyavanga. Here, his cynicism came to the fore and it, mixed with the other things he had picked up from writing about food and about intimate spaces, became a portent weapon where, to quote him, ‘phrases swell, becoming bigger than their context and speak to us as truth.’ One of his truths was a double hit on both the UK and his beloved South Africa, where he described the idea of multiculturalism in the UK as tasting ‘like Rainbow Nation, a line of bullshit to disguise much grit.’ This Binyavanga’s favourite target was the class of colonial writers who had made careers out of writing caricatures of Africa, in particular the Polish writer and fabulist Ryszard Kapuściński. He writes:
Whenever I read something by a white writer who stopped by, or lives in Kenya, I am astonished by the amount of game that appears for breakfast on their patios, and the number of snakes that drop into their baths, and the cheetah cubs that become family pets. I have seen five or six snakes in my life.
One of the stories in the collection is a short story called ‘All Things Remaining Equal’. In the short story, a Kenyan woman gets the upper-class mobility she’s been desiring by getting romantically involved with a white NGO worker called Gordon. Gordon is obsessed with black bodies, and he, a Leakey facsimile, collects black Kenyan men he calls ‘indigenous peoples’ Maasais, Pokots, Turkanas.’ He says, ‘Man has lived here maybe longer than anywhere else. The Turkana who live not far from here have been found to be the oldest society of humans so far to be traced by DNA tests. It is here that man evolved. We know these landscapes in our bones.’ More to the point, Gordon loves Kapuściński. His models of Africa and of Africans are from Kapuściński. He says to his lover’s daughter Milka, ‘Ah! Kapuściński. Fucking amazing. Did you read The Emperor?’ Milka doesn’t answer, and he fills in the silence by bragging about everyone who knows who personally knows the Polish writer.
Now, as a writer, Binyavanga had a certain opacity in the politics of his writing (rather like late-stage Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o). And one of the things that appeared most frequently was his disdain for Kapuściński. His famous essay ‘How to Write about Africa’ was prompted by a take-down by John Ryle of the Polish writer where Ryle pointed out Kapuściński’s habits of making up events and facts, and by the fact that, despite this, Granta had included an essay by Kapuściński in their ‘Africa’ issue. And now here in this short story was Gordon, the Africa expert who loves Kapuściński.
Once, Binyavanga and his good friend Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (who, in 2018, he told me he had once been engaged to in the time before he came out) crashed a party in New York where they hoped to heckle Kapuściński. ‘Soon, Chimamanda was whisked away by a warm and fruit cloud of Important People in Publishing,’ and Binyavanga was left on his own. However, Adichie returned to introduce him to the Booker-winning and fatwa-receiving British-Indian writer, Salman Rushdie, and when Binyavanga asked Rushdie why he had invited a racist writer—Kapuściński—to speak at a PEN conference, Rushdie denied that Kapuściński was racist.
There is a certain kind of foreign visitor to Africa who loves Kapuściński, whether it’s an NGO saviour type like Gordon, or a foreign correspondent, or the white settlers in Kenya and Zimbabwe. In another short story in the collection—‘Ships in High Transit’, first published in Virginia Quarterly Review in 2005—a character is described as ‘A sexy fraud if he is one. He hangs out with Peter Beard at his ranch in Nairobi. I saw it in Vogue. He drinks with Kapuściński.’ People like these, who drink with Kapuściński, or worship his writing, are attracted to the Polish fabulist because he backs up a tinted image they already have of Africa, and because of the way he made himself the hero of his quests—the white saviour here to save the poor Africans from their misery by his writing. In the same story, Binyavanga provides us with a list of white saviours here to save the Africans: ‘Feminist Female Genital Mutilation crusaders, cow-eyed Nature freaks, Cutting-edge Correspondents, Root-Seeking African Americans, Peace Corps workers and hordes of NGO folk: foreigners who speak African languages and wear hemp or khaki. Daadab chic.’
The thing Kapuściński understood was that what his readers (and intelligence minders) desired was an image. The truth of the image did not matter. The Kenyan writer Dalle Abraham, in an essay about a Google Arts and Culture Project about Kenyan heroes, observed that:
…the images shown on the Google Arts and Culture Project depict people who individually and collectively seem to emerge from an aesthetic, curatorial, cultural, political and artistic vacuum into the ready straitjacket templates of Hollywood and the digital age. The cartoonified heroes seem to be dying for a representation that will portray them in a positive light and release them from the heathen cells into which they had been locked for decades by colonial superstructures, laws, policies and attitudes.
In the same way, Binyavanga presents us with a character in the business of collapsing several myths into one in order to come up with an Africa that appeals to the Western voyeur. ‘When the Maa-saa-i-a Empire fell apart, after a great war with the Phoenicians over trade in frankincense and myrrh, the remaining Maa scattered to the winds.’, he writes, ‘Some left for the south and formed the great Zulu nation; others remained in East Africa, impoverished but noble. Others fought with Prester John, and others became gladiators in Rome.’ Or, he presents us with a character called Otieno who is known to tourists as Ole Lenana. Otieno is a pretend Maasai. To the Western Kapuściński-loving/Blixen-loving/Peter-Beard-loving visitor to Kenya, Maasais (Ole Lenana) are sexy. Non-Maasais (Otieno) are not. So we all don red Maasai shukas and jump and say ‘ero’ and make up stories about lions.
Other myths: Kibera, ‘a place they had built themselves in that wondrous, Swishy-Light-in-Dubai way that white people built things[…] This Kibera had choppy verbs: Flying Toilets, Death by Machete, AIDS, a whirlpool. Slumlords. A thriller.’ And Kenya: ‘The Kenyan’s smile is the friendliest in the world. He will tell you “Jambo” and serve you dawa cocktails.’
Sometimes, you’d have visitors who were more interested in Kenya and in Kenyans, visitors whom Binyavanga described as visiting Kenya in order to get their ‘multicultural orgasms’. These ones are more varied in their reading, and, Binyavanga writes, ‘Ngugi is recommended only to those who come to Kenya to self-flagellate; those who would embrace your cause with more enthusiasm than you could, because their cause and their self-esteem are one creature. They also tend to tip well, especially after reading Petals of Blood.’
THE CAREER OF A WRITER
I hardly knew Binyavanga, or Binya, as his friends called him. I met him only once when I went to interview him at his house on Naivasha Road in Nairobi in 2018 for a story about Kwani? that I was working on. During the interview, he was reticent and guarded, unwilling to answer any questions I asked him about his rifts with other Kwani? writers. He only opened up when the conversation shifted to his friendship with Adichie, cricket (he had fallen in love with the Kenyan cricket team that reached the World Cup semi-finals in 2003 and was excited when I told him I was also writing about this team) and Kojo Laing, whose work had been very influential to him. His speech, affected by his years of illness and his stroke, was halting, but even as he struggled to verbalize his thoughts, I could sense a hidden luminosity in his eyes. When I left, I wrote off that interview as a bust and told a writer who was a mutual friend that I had failed at getting Binyavanga to trust me. But then, the next week he called me. He said something about having liked my energy. ‘I want you to be my assistant,’ he said.
Of course, I said no. I wanted to be a writer, not a writer’s assistant. Convinced already of my own literary talent, I saw no merit in undertaking an apprenticeship under another writer. Regardless, it felt affirming to be noticed by Binyavanga. In the mythology of the Kenyan writer, there is Ngugi first, but then in the 2000s there was Binyavanga, and here he was noticing me, 22 years old and with writer dreams.
In his twenties, around the time he was failing to graduate as an accountant and ‘pretend to fall in love with a yellow-skinned girl who looked like she lived in an R&B video,’ Binyavanga started to be obsessed with writing. He writes, ‘I am obsessed, at this point, with a conversation with myself. Writing, a vain pursuit. Everywhere, everywhere, boxes are imposed. Responsibilities. Who is your audience? Who are you writing for? Why are you not writing in your mother-tongue?’
A character in one of the stories in the collection, ‘According to Mwangi’, writes a novel, ‘a beautiful thing, like stained glass, shining with prose so stark it seemed naked; some characters were gritty, some were magical but real; some deconstructed; some stoof in existentialist angst; others spoke in decolonized English. Oh! The publishers went bananas—a Kenyan voice at last!’ Was it Binyavanga’s dream to write a novel like this? Was he mocking himself? Hiding his ambitions behind mockery?
Mwangi’s novel is a stylistic tour-de-force. ‘Irritated by contradicting rules and defunct spellings and neo-colonial biases, Mwangi reinvented grammar, made it efficient, polished it, and it stood like clean bones in the bundu; a new set book for the world.’ Then:
Mwangi took off to promote his book in America. Kenyans abroad stood straighter with their African compatriots. ‘Have you read Mwangi?’ they would ask some Nigerian or Zimbabwean. In Kenya, people with visitors from abroad finally stopped giving their guests Karen Blixen to read. Our Voice, they would think, as the guests would unwrap the gift and smile with pleasure and say, awed, ‘He’s Kenyan? I thought he was from South Africa!’
The key difference between Mwangi and Binyavanga, besides the fact that the former was a fictional creation, is that Binyavanga never published a novel. There were attempts to write one, and there are, no doubt, unpublished manuscripts somewhere in a drawer or a hard drive, but he never did produce the novel it had been his ambition to write. Sure, he has a memoir that is a beautiful thing, but no one ever dreamt of writing the Great Kenyan Nonfiction Book or the Great Nigerian Nonfiction Book. For a lot of us, the dream is to succeed Things Fall Apart or Maru or The River Between. It doesn’t matter how many clever essays you write. If what you wanted was to write a novel that would reinvent grammar and have shining prose, gritty characters and have people from different countries claim you as ‘our Voice’, the essays wouldn’t mask this void.
Still, the essays. One of the unfortunate things about Binyavanga the writer is that he could be a bit narrow-minded about tribe. He was no Kapuściński of course, and is very far from him, but as he observes people from different communities, he was a bit too eager to reduce them to their tribal identities. Some of the characters were easily identified as The Maasai, The Luo, The Somali, The Meru, et al, and at certain moments he would reduce them to the myths they had been stereotyped into.
The worst of this propensity to reduce people in this way appears whenever he wrote about politics. There were, in his essays, clear villains and clear victims. In ‘I Hate Githeri’, he reflects on several Kenyan politicians: ‘Although we see Uhuru and Raila and Kibaki as very different people representing very different ethnicities, they are brothers—of the same class of families who have the right to rule.’ This is a lazy kind of reductionism. Uhuru and Raila’s fathers were important politicians when Kenya got independence from Britain—Uhuru’s father was the first president of independent Kenya, and Raila’s the first vice-president. But then a few years later, Raila’s father quit government, became a critic of the government, and was jailed at Hola Detention Camp without trial. Raila himself was detained and tortured for several years by a government Kibaki was vice-president of. It wasn’t quite the same political class, but in Binyavanga’s pen, everything became starkly black and white. Kapuściński: bad. Kikuyu: business-savvy. Githeri: bad. Non-politician: good. Politician: bad. Foreign correspondent: bad. Mutura: good. When this sort of reduction works, his writing is funny, poignant and powerful. For instance, the ‘How to Write About Africa’ essay, or when he recalls a family reunion held in Uganda which he describes as, ‘And now our Christmas movie: a touching story about the reunion of a family torn apart by civil war and the genocide in Rwanda.’
Because he passed away, there is a temptation to desist from criticizing either his writing or himself as a person, a sort of we-are-African-we-don’t-embarrass-our-dead-relatives attitude. When he asked me to work for him, before I turned him down, I asked around to see what he was like as a person. From multiple people came warnings about his flakiness, his tantrums, the ways in which he could bully the people around him, and the fact that he had a history of forgetting to pay his assistants, leaving them strung along for months on end.
How then do we think about Binyavanga now? Do we cancel him post-demise? Do we talk about the writers he championed and whose careers he made possible? Do we talk about how he drove Kwani? dangerously close to ruin because of his financial irresponsibility? Do we talk about the fact that there was a Kwani? to begin with, driven heavily by his energy? Do we talk about his powerful critiques of colonial images of Africa? Do we talk about the way he pandered to ethnic stereotypes in his writing? About the presence of an excellent memoir? About the absence of the Mwangi-esque novel? In the reductive Binyavanga scale, where does he fall? Bad? Good?
But I suppose what we’ll do is pick out the things about his writing and his life that we liked and not think about the rest. This is how it works, how we think about our difficult artists, especially when you have the privilege of not ever having been directly in their lives. So I’ll veer his description of Nairobi (‘Nairobi is crawling with five-dollars-a-day, twenty-five-year-old backpackers who came and loved and compassioned and are now the beneficiaries of five thousand dollars a month consulting for the United Nations.’), Congolese music (‘Any Ndombolo song has this section where, having reached a small peak of hip-wiggling frenzy, the music stops, and one is supposed to pull one’s hips to the side and pause, in anticipation of an explosion of music faster and more frenzied than before.’), and Kenyan moral panic (When he was a kid, Kenyans ‘couldn’t not kiss on television because it was result in instant national sexual orgies.’)
In ‘Beyond River Yei’, Binyavanga the newly-baptised kawaja—ascended to this post because of his huge chauffeur-driven car—stands before the river, and the tse-tse fly-infested region around it. He thinks of German photographer, Leni Riefenstahl, who ‘would have camped out on the other side of the river and snapped away, the large protrusion on the front of her camera thrusting forward and back, forward and back: finding intimacy with the young man who stands in the shallow waters, parading heavy muscles, superlative arrangement of form and seamless black skin, scrubbing himself.’ He thinks of the doctor he is shadowing, a man who also published a book of poetry mostly about Sudan. He thinks of the ‘Vaseline-faced government servants of progress’ and the succession of people who have used the region for their own purposes, writing, ‘For centuries, occupiers of this land treated it like a supermarket of manageable muscle: slaves for the Middle East, for Khartoum; soldiers for British East Africa, for Khartoum; cheap labour for the Belgian Congo, for Khartoum; nude photographs for Europe, for Khartoum.’
Then, lastly, he thinks of himself, the ‘writer in Sudan picks out from the stories about the place, or the ones he finds out in how two-week stay there, only those that leave Sudan feeling good about itself.’⎈
***Update: An earlier version of this essay stated that ‘When a fellow writer was accused of sexual assault, [Binyavanga] turned on the accusers, dismissing them as alcoholics.’ However, this has been updated to specify that Binyavanga dismissed one of the accusers.
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