Sunset on the Age of Love
An homage to the Kenyan author and activist
The cremation had happened the day before, at the Kariokor Crematorium, a place that, even on the farthest outposts of Binyavanga’s Nairobi, would still have been an unlikely destination. Njue, in the unpublished The Fallen World of Appearances, one of those early protagonists that never made it to the printed page, survives death by fire. Scarred and disoriented, he negotiates the pockmarked aftermath of the 1998 US Embassy bombing while attempting to reconstruct his past. Through this odyssey, he discovers a city shrugging off the restrictions of colonial apartheid, a mutinous urban territory that will no longer shut up and know its place. We have not imagined this place into being, he said circa 2003.
This last voyage through his adopted city, the Nakuru boy still roaming, discovering new byways, was oddly fitting. Lee Funeral Home on Argwings-Kodhek Road, the road a back-handed homage to another iconoclast, stopped in his tracks 50 years ago because he stood against the crony dynasties now two generations in power, inheritors and defenders of minority rule. East down Ngong Road, along the eucalyptus boulevard, spoor of John Ainsworth, that dedicated colonial who inflicted these outsized Australian weeds with their unquenchable water-thirst on the landscape, that encloses the Nairobi Club on one side, Uhuru Park and the old East African Community buildings on the other.
Down to the Haile Sellasie roundabout, the boiling junction where west Nairobi meets east with undisguised hostility across Uhuru Highway, the city’s main artery that once delineated the white settler suburbs, downtown, and the Railway Corporation’s depot. Beyond them, the native settlements. This, then, is the junction at which Nairobi ’s race and class apartheids were settled.
If you followed the Haile Sellasie route, skirting Parliament, past the Central Bank to the Railway roundabout now governed by the riot of Eastlands matatus that have, like a rugby scrummage now all but obscure the entrance to the main railway station, you find yourself in the heart of the African City: derelict, defunct and throbbing with commerce.
Mkokoteni rickshaws carting off fruit and vegetables from Marikiti, Wakulima Market, past the KPCU buildings, the headquarters of what was once the biggest coffee union, and the Coffee Exchange, a whole petrified infrastructure of Black Gold where one night decades ago, someone managed to steal the coffee mill – that is to say, a three-storey mill disappeared one night, without a trace.
And then to Kariokor. Carrier Corps. Where the Hindus disposed of their own. The casket that imprisons the body is wheeled in silence into the incinerator. The door clangs shut. Prayers and final goodbyes are locked in a Moment of Silence. No words. This is the drama, which is to say, there is no drama.
There are no hilarious emergencies of the Kenyan Big Man variety, the kind that Binya so animatedly discussed in our conversations of trying to fathom our fathers and their comically dangerous secrets: a grieving non-widow, younger, emerging from the back of the crowd around the grave, armed with her brood, interrupting the minister’s last prayers, startling the official nuclear family surrounding the grieving widow and her official version of the Big Man, with a declaration: He was also my husband.
There he went. In silence. No prayers. No words.
October 2015. The writer and film-maker, Biyi Bandele has invited a few of us over to his flat in Brixton, south London. We pick up drinks at an off-licence along the way. It is Binyavanga’s last night in London. He’s been speaking at the Serpentine Gallery in Kensington. Biyi’s flat is cramped with books, vinyl and CDs, so much so that you literally have to clear space for yourself to sit. We are a motley crew: Phoebe Boswell, a London-based artist whose work Binyavanga has been raving about for a few years now; Nigerian producer, Makin Soyinka, an old friend of Biyi’s; myself and Biyi.
It is a typical Binyavanga night: laughter, drinks, an insane amount of cigarettes, and conversations so meandering, it is impossible to remember what exactly we were talking about.
What was striking about that night was the level of intensity of Binyavanga’s talk. At one point, we all fell silent and just listened. There was something different there, something of a man urgently trying to utter all his truth. As if he realised he didn’t have much time left and just had to say EVERYTHING, I thought to myself even at the time. We shared a cab from Biyi’s.
“I’m leaving for Boston later today. Then I’m in Oslo. How long are you around for?”
“Another few days. I’ll be back in Nairobi Thursday.”
“Okay, bana. See you back home.”
“Sawa. See you, Binya.”
I felt a strange new warmth towards him. We had not been as close as we used to be, these past few years. It’s not that we had drifted, or fallen out (which we had, many times over the years, the way brothers do). What can I tell you? We knew each other so well, the takes and critiques on politics, literature, Kenya, The Novel, Nigeria, that what we were doing with each other these days when we met amounted to no more than animated updates.
Our shared fascinations had become so familiar that there were times I’d remember say, a scene on Kuramo Beach in Lagos and then have difficulty recalling whether some of the details were really mine or had come from a similar Binyavanga experience, vividly rendered over beers in my porch in the Kileleshwa house, or his converted garage in that rundown old bungalow in Karengata (where he kept his books, and that massive Lamu bed that he’d been lugging around the city for a decade – the one piece of furniture that could bear witness to Binyavanga’s history in Nairobi).
Friday, five nights later. I am slumped on a sofa in my living room, exhausted from a day in Nairobi traffic, the city’s mobile but permanent Berlin Wall. A call. It’s from somebody who owes me some work. I assume he’s calling with some more excuses. I’ve taken to calling him an Unreliable Narrator. I don’t want to answer the call but I do anyway.
“Binya is in hospital, in Karen. Looks like he’s had a stroke.”
“Chief, where do you get these stories from? Binya’s not even in the country! Why would you make up a thing like that?” I’m more irritated with him than I know.
“No, he is. He came back yesterday. Look, if you don’t believe me, call Melissa or Kima. They are at Karen Hospital as we speak.”
I call. It’s true.
And so it begins. The slow, heartbreaking journey of three-and-a-half years that would lead to Kariokor. The stroke specialists in three different continents, in Bangalore, Nairobi, Munich, all of whom admit they can do nothing except mitigate the effects of a rare, possibly congenital affliction that, on that night in October, went off like a bomb in Binyavanga’s head, abducting first his speech, then his eyesight and then, towards the end, his mobility.
In ‘Since Everything Was Suddening Into a Hurricane’ (Granta 138, February 13, 2017, he describes his first stroke event, in Albany, New York, in 2011:
Three months ago I have, over four days, many headaches. Sometimes it is a thick wet wringing tongue moving there inside the raw roof of my brain, sometimes tiny skinless creatures tiptoeing, tickling and mischieving in my brain. Sometimes it is a big twinkling sponge of squeeze, sometimes some silently ticklish thing, walking upside down barefoot under my naked skull.
He had been told, then, that he would have to remain within an hour’s drive of the Northern Duchess Hospital, for the rest of his life. So, quite naturally, he immediately packed his bags and headed to the other side of the world.
About 200 people have gathered in the Botanical Gardens of the National Museum for a memorial to Binyavanga, a day after he was cremated. It is not a religious event. The tributes are sometimes so moving, you get the sense that religion has been transcended. It is almost unbelievable how many people Binyavanga touched, how many lives he quite literally transformed in the decade and a half that he worked as a writer and activist.
The Ugandan contingent, his late mother’s siblings, tell us that his name ‘Binyavanga’ is actually their family name. In other words, in ‘Binyavanga Wainaina’, two families, one Ugandan from Kisoro, the other, Kenyan from Kiambu, were fused together.
“He made our name great. The name Binyavanga is now known all over the world,” says one of the Kisoro uncles.
When Binyavanga returned home in the early 2000s after a decade in South Africa (where he had attempted, and abandoned, a degree course in accounting, before becoming a travel writer and Cape Town restaurateur specialising in African cuisine, making such exotic dishes as ugali and sushi), he lived for a time, in Nairobi’s Mlango Kubwa slum, a section of the larger Mathare slum. In Mlango Kubwa, he meets the matatu graffiti artist, Joga. It was from this period that he is able to capture the zeitgeist of a city in magnificent flux, the subject of his first major commission, ‘Inventing a City’, in National Geographic.
There are few writers for whom a literary award has been so valuable – and who have, themselves added more prestige to a literary award. Before Binyavanga’s 2002 Caine Prize victory, the Prize itself was hardly known outside Africana literary circles. Binyavanga’s victory significantly boosted its notoriety and stature of the Caine Prize.
The founding of Kwani in Nairobi a year later and its direct association with the Caine Prize suddenly gave the Prize a legitimacy on the continent that it had previously lacked.
Kwani was born at the height of Kenyan euphoria – and itself added a new dimension to the growing sense of optimism in the country. Moi was leaving. Many of the folk who had emigrated from Kenya in the 1980s, fleeing the misrule and IMF-imposed economic austerity faithfully supervised by the Moi regime, were returning. The language with which we talked about home was defunct, locked up in 1970s nationalist categories that had failed to revise and update themselves – the literatures of commitment.
Binyavanga’s contribution was to liberate literature from those stuffy ivory towers. To do so, he had to evacuate ideology from the Kwani canon. Nairobi’s bourgeoisie, more than a little wary of how a conscious literature implicated them, now found themselves willing and able to express themselves in print without the self-consciousness imposed by Ngugi’s literatures of commitment.
In the Age of Love, that first flush of infatuation that had Kwani was its centrepiece, a small group of budding artists gathers at Ali Zaidi’s Sunday afternoon open house events in the garden in Loresho in the northwestern suburbs. Ad-men and women, teachers at the GCSE schools, UN expats and in-pats, journalists, civil society types encounter Binyavanga and are duly transformed. Into writers, poets, thespians. So profound is the encounter, some of them actually give up their day jobs, leave their lives, start wearing dashikis, kitenges, akaras.
Binyavanga started out with Discovering Home, his 2001 novella about his journey from Nakuru to Kisoro for a Binyavanga Family gathering. A decade and a half later, the entire continent was home: his pan-Africanist assault on the continent’s conservative establishments was so pervasive that when he announced that he was gay, in 2014, it was with an eye on an impending Nigeria trip where Goodluck Jonathan had recently passed draconian anti-gay legislation.
Years earlier, he had campaigned vigorously for the re-issuing of Kojo Laing’s Search Sweet Country, an homage to Accra, which Binyavanga considered one of the 20th century’s great novels. In South Africa in 2017, he had discovered sangomas, the missing link to his own middle-class cultural alienation. He was at that point, developing an African cosmology, a spiritual language that he could use to begin understanding a world outside the conservative, Christian straitjackets that he was now encountering wherever he went.
There was nothing that Binyavanga did not confront with courage, enthusiasm and an intoxicating sense of humour. Of all the victories and many, many failures, ultimately this is what I would have affixed on his epitaph:
He freed a generation to begin imagining itself into being.