Obituary: Kenneth Binyavanga Wainaina

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Kenneth Binyavanga Wainaina (1971–2019) was part of a new generation of African writers who grew up after the radicalism of the independence struggles and the highs of Pan-Africanism and African Socialism in the 1960s and 1970s. He has died after a short illness aged 48.

His writing was subtle and critical. In an article on the terrible ethnic violence in the slums of Kenya’s capital Nairobi after the 2007 elections he recalled going there earlier to write an article on the spread of plastic bags:

“We ordered some tea and the proprietor asked whether I wanted garatathi — a plastic bag. The guide reacted to my puzzlement with a grin; in [the slum] Mathare, milk, he explained, comes in plastic bags and is so diluted with water that tea with very little milk was garatathi. So I nodded, yes tea with a very little milk like the English drink it, would suffice.”

Here he manages to combine a view of poverty with an environmental point and a partial explanation of the poverty behind the violence and self-depreciating humour.

In his bitterly satirical essay “How To Write About Africa” he advised Western authors, “You must always include The Starving African, who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked, and waits for the benevolence of the West. Her children have flies on their eyelids and pot bellies, and her breasts are flat and empty. She must look utterly helpless. She can have no past, no history; such diversions ruin the dramatic moment.”

Wainaina was the founding editor the Kenyan journal Kwani? (“So what?” in Sheng, Kenya’s urban street slang), which featured journalism, fiction, experimental writing, poetry, cartoons and photographs.

It is as an editor, essayist and activist that he made his biggest impact. In 2017 in a call to vote for a presidential candidate not from his own ethnic group he defined himself, “I am a Pan Africanist. I am a proud gay man. I am a proud Gikuyu man.”

The World Economic Forum recognised him as a Young Global Leader in 2007, but he turned the award down, not wanting to be associated with continued imperial influence.

Time magazine called him one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2014. It’s no coincidence that this list was published just after Wainaina came out as gay — so Western commentators could concentrate on his struggle against bigotry rather than his outspoken criticism of imperialism.

Kenya is one of several countries that used to be part of the British Empire that retains British anti-LGBT legislation from the colonial era. Wainaina has been key to the campaign to overturn Kenya’s anti-LGBT laws.

Sadly the latest legal challenge was defeated just days after his death. Wainaina told the world he was HIV positive in 2016, a year in which he nearly died from a stroke. He announced his engagement to his Nigerian partner in 2018, and they had planned to marry in South Africa.

His memoir One Day I Will Write About this Place (2012) was revealing. Wainaina has complained about clichéd views of Africa. His book is not about a heroic or pre-colonial past or really about a society in crisis. It is about everyday life growing up as a middle class boy through the 1970s and 1980s. As time passes he becomes more aware of the political background to what is going on and that texture is never missing from his writing. If you know Kenya the detail is right, and if you don’t there is enough explanation to feel what life was like.

His is not the story of struggling workers or peasants, but his Kenya is one that recognises their existence and role. He presents a class-divided and unstable country. And he complains about how the IMF slowly sapped the country’s independence. “Now the IMF has insisted that we stop spending so much government money on education. It is truly the only thing that works in Kenya.”

The Africa he presents is not a unified whole, but a range of different experiences that he has shared, travelling from small town to capital, observing different classes interacting from Kenya to South Africa and Nigeria.

Wainaina used words to present all the contradictions of modern Kenya. Beyond honesty his solutions were less clear, but his view gives an understanding of the wider society and its evolution over the past half century.