I had planned to write about the significance of May 25, Africa Day, and ordinary Africans I meet from places viewed as a never-ending disaster but who are anything but. However, Binyavanga Wainaina has refused to let me be.
I have been, for years, an avid reader of Kwani? — the literary journal Binyavanga founded with money from the Caine Prize for African Writing. I read his book, One Day I Will Write About this Place with a lump in my throat, every scene – the effect of Brenda Fassie’s voice singing vul’indlela, James Hadley Chase novels, praise songs composed by our teachers for the president on Madaraka Day on June 1, travelling third class on the train to Kisumu and Nairobi’s lunchtime preachers – clearly recognisable as the story of my generation.
I followed Binyavanga on Facebook because he did not conform. Non-conformists change the world. I remember instinctively sharing his post describing the horror of being beaten by a racist taxi driver in Berlin – “I feel black and dirty,” he wrote after the experience. I remember my bewilderment that Kenyan media did not front page this big story – the tragic irony of writer of the seminal How to Write About Africa, beaten up by a racist. Some people shared his post, not in outrage that the first Kenyan to bag the Caine Prize could be treated this way, but in malice.
It was not hard to tell why. Each person has multiple identities, the core of which is human. Binyavanga self-identified as a Kenyan author, editor, publisher, journalist, winner of the 2002 Caine Prize and as a gay person.
The gay identity, according to the malicious ones, was Binyavanga’s overriding affiliation to the extent that it could be his only identity and therefore condemned Binyavanga to racial beatings and all the worst things life could throw at him.
Intellectually racist books like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness described Africans as cannibalistic savages. Binyavanga’s How to Write About Africa brought home the fact that the single identity, grass skirted, child-like, diseased, gesticulating or grinning natives making unintelligible noises to each other in the name of language was the description, not of Africans a century ago, but Africans today.
There were slight variances; the Africans are now starving and thin but the geographical descriptions of Africa as a single boundary-less mass land remain. There is still no shortage of people asking how is Africa, as if it were a country, or whether people spoke African in Africa. In May 2000, the respected Economist referring to Africa, titled its cover The Hopeless Continent.
Have those homophobic Africans read How to Write About Africa? Do they realise the racist taxi driver would not have differentiated between a straight African and the gay Binyavanga? Did Africa know that in his writing, Binyavanga had proved to be a much better African citizen than most of us?
Binyavanga emancipated the thinking of so many people on racism but homophobia clouded their imagination of a non-discriminating Africa.
So on Africa Day, Binyavanga occupied my mind. I wondered what Africa would do with her son, now that he was gone. Would a road be named for him?
Would the generation of African writers he germinated who had turned the tables on telling the African story as a story of doom lead us in demands that Africa should keep her son’s memory alive?
They have the language so will they give us a roadmap against the deafening rhetoric of ethnicism, racism and homophobia?
Binyavanga’s life is an onion we must peel layer by layer to reveal our lingering prejudices, social isolation, histories of oppression, imbalance of opportunities, and indisputably, the refusal to respect difference. A new book, The Return of Race Science by Angela Saini, warns of the re-emergence of “intellectual racism… a toxic little seed at the heart of academia. However dead you may think it is, it needs only a little water, and now it’s raining.”
In How to Write About Africa 2, Binyavanga reflects on the impact of Part 1. How it went viral, provoking liberal guilt, his opinion sought by those writing about Africa but not asking how to restructure power arrangements, which is what Africa needs.
Now, I suspect the reason Binyavanga would not let me be this past week is to point out his reflection: “If I were smart, I would have waited a few years and made an iPhone app: a little satirical story about how to write about Africa every day, interactive and adaptable…”
So I am looking at you, my Kwani peeps, Tom Maliti and Co. A Kwani Binyavanga app. Whatsapping stories every day, connecting writers across the continent, providing a rare glimpse of Africans reflecting on how they are written and spoken about, keeping Binyavanga alive, in ways not even a Binyavanga Avenue can.
Wairimu Nderitu is the author of Beyond Ethnicism and Kenya: Bridging Ethnic Divides. E-mail: [email protected]