Binyavanga Wainaina’s rich legacy of writing as event

The award-winning Kenyan writer and activist has died at the age of 48, his restless search for sense and voice incomplete but nonetheless comprising a body of significant work.

It was in May 2012 that I met Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina for the first and, now that he is gone, only time. The Center for Historical Reenactments, a curatorial and artistic initiative by curator Gabi Ngcobo, was hosting an evening with the Caine Prize-winning writer at August House, then an enclave for artists at the corner of End and Pritchard Streets, in downtown Johannesburg.

Ngcobo and Wainaina knew each other, I think, from New York, where the former had gone to study for her masters and the latter had been the director of the Chinua Achebe Center at Bard College. Johannesburg, or at any rate South Africa, wasn’t really new to Wainaina. At the age of 20, the Kenyan had moved to the country to study commerce at the then University of Transkei (Walter Sisulu University) in the early 1990s, before relocating to Cape Town, where he started writing.

A few weeks, perhaps months, before the event at August House, I had started reading One Day I Will Write About This Place, his memoir of growing up in Uganda and Kenya and then moving to South Africa, where he discovered his destiny as a writer. About the evening itself, I don’t remember a lot, as if a flock of wine-guzzling vultures had set upon not just the wine – which was flowing that night – but also my memory. About Wainaina himself, my memories are even more blurred; I only remember him as strangely subdued, as if he had been on a long-haul flight and was tired, seeking rest.  

My first encounter with Wainaina was, in fact, in print. But unlike most, it was not the famous essay “How to Write About Africa”, said to be the most-read piece in British literary magazine Granta. It was a strange and beautiful piece published in South African magazine Chimurenga’s football issue, Futbol, Politricks and Ostentatious Cripples, in 2006 that I have never forgotten.  

Football, but not

When I read the piece – which was part travelogue, part literary criticism and part city writing under the somewhat misleading title of “Ghana has no politics” – it was clear the author didn’t know much about football. In fact, he confesses this at the end of the piece, in a biographical sketch in which he mentions something about being kicked out of his class football team when he was just seven after letting in nine goals.

But I wasn’t reading Wainaina to understand how Togo coach Otto Pfister would be setting up his side for the 2006 Fifa World Cup, its inaugural appearance at the tournament.   

Rather, it was about the famous West African markets; about former president Gnassingbé Eyadéma’s dictatorship (Eyadéma’s son was, not surprisingly, the head of the Togolese Football Association); about textiles; about the Francophonie (former French president Jacques Chirac described Eyadéma as “a great friend of France”); about the Ivorian writer Ahmadou Kourouma; and also about bras. Apparently, Anglophones know nothing about “uplifting engineering with the right aesthetic”, which is what a good bra is really about.  

All of these things were mixed together, written with empathy, wide-eyed wonder and humility, which is to say with love.

Humour in truth

When Wainana writes about Togo’s descent into its doldrums after the tourists are gone, it is not with the viciousness of, say, Trinidadian-British writer VS Naipaul or the inventive pen of Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński, who made up facts and added colour to fit his reportage into the template of how to write about Africa.

Wainaina writes, “Togo’s main official export is phosphates – but it has always made its money as a free-trade area, supplying traders from all over West Africa. Markets like these have been in existence in the region for centuries – and there are traders from seven or eight countries here. Markets in Lomé are run by the famous ‘Mama Benz’ – rich trading women who have chauffeur-driven Mercedes Benz. These days, after years of economic stagnation, the Mama Benz are called Mama Opel.”

You can’t help but laugh at this arresting metaphor of the decline in the circumstances of these women. Nothing in there of the Naipaulian drama and hysteria as in the first line of his novel, A Bend in the River: “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.” Or even the finality of The Economist magazine’s dystopian cover featuring “The Hopeless Continent” (subsequent remedial attempts such as the “Africa Rising” issue failed to redeem the magazine in the eyes of Africans).

Call-outs and timing

On the Shakespeare and Company podcast recently, Ian Jack (editor of Granta between 1995 and 2007) and current Granta editor Sigrid Rausing started talking about the journal’s problematic history. Granta magazine is 40 and has published an anniversary edition to celebrate the journal (re)founded by American editor Bill Buford in 1979. But Jack and Rausing spoke about how there were entire issues done in which no women writers were featured and even one about Africa in which they didn’t have any African writers.

Granta are not the only culprits. In 2013, the British Broadcasting Corporation or BBC did a programme on the Berlin conference in which they didn’t have a single African panelist. Just like at the original conference in the late 19th century, at which European powers sat to partition the continent.

Rausing said that after the magazine put out that issue, they received an angry letter from Wainaina from which grew the famous essay “How to Write About Africa”. It began, “Always use the word ‘Africa’ or ‘Darkness’ or ‘Safari’ in your title. Subtitles may include the words ‘Zanzibar’, ‘Masai’, ‘Zulu’, ‘Zambezi’, ‘Congo’, ‘Nile’, ‘Big’, ‘Sky’, ‘Shadow’, ‘Drum’, ‘Sun’ or ‘Bygone’.” The essay ended with, “Always end your book with Nelson Mandela saying something about rainbows or renaissances. Because you care.”  

That stinging satirical piece wasn’t ordinary writing at all, more like an intervention – writing as an event. At his best, Wainaina tapped into the zeitgeist and gave us the writing we didn’t know we had been waiting for all along.

Think of the timing of his piece in Africa is a Country, “I am a homosexual, mum”, and the way it dropped like rain falling the day before the maize crop wilts. Or the piece about his life in South Africa that he wrote for Business Day newspaper during a period of xenophobic attacks.  

Still searching

Wainaina is dead at just 48, which is not only young as a writing metric but also a young age for anyone to die – even one living with HIV, as was the Kenyan.

That sentence addressed to American author Richard Wright by activist and writer James Baldwin is especially apt: “Unless a writer is extremely old when he dies, in which case he has become a neglected institution, his death must always seem untimely.”

It’s germane because, as suggested in the tentative title of his memoir, One Day I Will Write About This Place, Wainana was still searching, trying to find a voice, a register. About how to write about this continent called Africa. About how to make sense of his own queer self. About the post-colony of Kenya and how he fitted into the jagged geometry of all that.

Now he has left us, before completing that task. But his small, rich legacy remains, for at his best Wainaina was a soaring force who wrote as if possessed, channelling the voices of the gods and the ancients.

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