Binyavanga Wainaina: The early years

On the occasion of the release of 'How to Write About Africa,' a collection of early essays and short fiction by Binyavanga Wainaina, Achal Prabhala remembers his friend’s earlier beginnings and literary breakthroughs.

Image © Hamish Hamilton.

One day in September 2006, three visitors to London walked up to the door of The Village, a gay bar in Soho. Two of the three were men, one of whom had just flown in from India, the other from Kenya. Earlier that evening, they had both endured dinner with a pompous American law professor who would, years later, mount a forgettable run for President. After dinner, they walked along the river to the Tate Modern Museum to pick up the third of their trio, an Indian woman who had just staged a performance involving a Palestinian mime artist and Bombay electronica. They proceeded to join a mutual friend’s birthday party, which is how they ended up at The Village.

Now it just so happened that each one of them was dressed in non-Western clothes. The Indian man wore a cotton kurta that went below his knees, the Indian woman was dressed in a silk saree, fresh flowers in her hair, and the Kenyan man wore a full-length kaftan with dramatic bell sleeves that he had got made in Dakar. (He insisted on calling this a boubou.) At the door of The Village, they were met by a kindly bouncer, who drew them aside and gave them the chance to admit they were hopelessly lost. This is a gay bar, he said. At that very moment, behind a window to their side, a go-go dancer vigorously bounced against the glass, his groin only a few inches away from their faces. Yes, thanks, they replied. Look, the bouncer pleaded, shaking his head. It’s a gay bar. It’s five pounds entry. Are you sure you want to go in? Yes, they said again, and here is fifteen pounds for the three of us. It went on like this for a bit, until the bouncer threw his hands up in the air and let them through.

In the basement of The Village, the party was in full swing. The Kenyan leant back against the bar, under a thundering cloud of disco and smoke, like a grand Sufi mystic. Naturally, all eyes turned to him. A stranger walked up and said, Are you that … and the Kenyan smiled. You must sign my copy, he continued. It’s right here, in my bag. But, of course, it was not. Whereupon the stranger unbuttoned his shirt and dramatically declared, Write anything! The Kenyan motioned for a pen and wrote his name down on the stranger’s chest. He inscribed the letters carefully so as not to hurt: BINYAVANGA. Then, he looked around, delighted, as if it had just dawned on him how much he enjoyed generating this peculiar mix of bewilderment and adoration. It’s true. I know, because I was there—I was the Indian chap with him that night.

Binyavanga Wainaina was born in 1971 in Nakuru, the agricultural capital of Kenya. At this time, the country of his birth was only eight years older, having just wrested itself free of the British Empire. His mother, Rosemary, who trained in secretarial studies, ran several businesses, including a hair salon, and his father, Job, headed a government-owned company that produced pyrethrum, a natural insecticide harvested from chrysanthemum flowers. He was their second child, and, in his mother’s eyes, her favorite—the shy one. To her, he was KenKen; to the rest of his family, Ken; to his siblings, sometimes, also SweSwe.

He went to primary school in Nakuru. When he turned twelve, he went to an all-boys boarding school, as one did. His first attempt at high school was disastrous: an ill-fated one-year stint at a school called Njoro Boys, where he was savagely abused. His sister Ciru remembers him coming home depressed, anxious, and also missing two full thumbnails as a result of bullying by fellow students. Binyavanga’s horrified parents pulled him out at once. They enrolled him at Mang’u, a better-regarded school that provided him with an altogether happier experience, and, finally, at Lenana, among the most prestigious schools in the country.

Ciru’s most consistent memory of her slightly older brother is that his kindness attracted other students to him like a magnet. At Lenana, he made a lifelong friend in Martin, who he roped into the high-school production of a play he wrote. Binyavanga himself played the lead character, a femme fatale named either Désirée or Jacqui—on this point, recollections differ—dressed in a Tina Turner wig, a shimmering ballgown that belonged to his mother and stilettos “borrowed” from his sister Ciru.

Martin remembers his friend as someone who clearly understood the power of words. In their late teens, they once went to a Wimpy (a fast-food restaurant) and got into a fight with a waiter over the food and service. They demanded to see the manager, who came and promptly asked them to leave. Binyavanga protested in the poshest voice he could summon. “Do you know who I am?” he said. “I am the editor of the student magazine. I can break your restaurant with one story.” The manager threw them out anyway.

Chiqy, his youngest sister, remembers one trauma they had in common. They were both naturally left-handed infants who were forced by their teachers to become right-handed in nursery school.

She remembers all the younger siblings growing up in the shadow of the eldest one, Jimmy, who was perfect. He was the all-rounder and star basketball player whom every girl adored. In fact, Chiqy built a whole economy around Jimmy, providing advice to girls who were interested in him in exchange for snacks and treats. Binyavanga, the sensitive lover of the arts, was of no such practical value. Regardless, he remained his mother’s favorite child. Chiqy remembers her mother handing her the very worst job in the kitchen—to slaughter chickens, dunk them in boiling water and pluck them clean—while giving Binyavanga money to go into town and swap books, in lieu of housework. “He’s a reader,” her mother would explain, much to Chiqy’s chagrin. “Let him read.” She took her revenge by hiding raw chicken feet under Binyavanga’s bed sheets before he went to sleep, and listening with satisfaction as he screamed the house down upon discovering them.

Jimmy’s earliest memories of his younger brother are of a gentle, loving child, lost inside his head. Except perhaps for that one time when Binyavanga was seven, and Ciru, who was a year younger and something of a child prodigy, was upgraded to the same class as him, leading to a serious case of status anxiety: he was outraged beyond belief that she had become his equal.

Jimmy’s physical resemblance to Binyavanga is uncanny; they even speak almost identically, with the same cadence, the same rhythm and in the same precise accent that is exclusively their own.

In 1991 Binyavanga moved with his sister Ciru to a small town called Mthatha in South Africa, to study for a Bachelor’s degree in accounting. They enrolled at the University of Transkei, which has ceased to exist, as has the eponymous region. Ciru sailed through her courses, but her brother found that accounting—or, indeed, getting out of his dormitory room, going to class, passing exams or extending his visa—was not for him. After a few tortured years of trying and failing, he fled to Cape Town, South Africa’s second-largest city, a bona fide metropolis, to reinvent himself, in a city and a country that were doing much the same.

It was the late 1990s. South Africa had liberated itself from 350 years of settler colonialism, and it was a time of new beginnings and opportunities. At first, with the help of the son of a family friend, he took over the café at the Pan-African Market. A few years later they ran a restaurant called Waka Mundo. When both ventures failed, they set up a catering service specializing in African food. He closed his catering operation in frustration after one of his clients, a housewife in Constantia—the wealthy Cape Town suburb that was home to such eminences as Margaret Thatcher’s son and Princess Diana’s brother—asked if he might come dressed in nothing but a loincloth to inject a dash of authenticity into her weekly ladies’ lunch.

Through this time, Binyavanga had been writing too, and soon he found editors willing to publish him. Some of his earliest essays were published by the country’s leading newspapers – the Sunday Times, Cape Times and Cape Argus. Often, these essays were about food, but just as often he appeared in these papers as an authority on food.

“If you’ve been visiting the same-old-favorite restaurants and eating the same-old-food and getting the same-old-vibe, and you’re dying for a change, give Ken the Kenyan a call,” a columnist wrote in the Cape Times, in September 1998. Speaking to a reporter for the same newspaper later that year about his catering outfit, the cheerily named Ubusuku Be Africa, or African Nights, Binyavanga declared he was tired of hearing that traditional African cuisine didn’t exist. “Of course it does,” he said, “but no one ever asks for it, especially in Cape Town.”

In due course, Binyavanga met Graeme, a DJ and designer, who in turn introduced him to his friend Rhoda, a music producer. The three of them became instantly inseparable and moved into a house together. Rhoda remembers that time, in that house, in the vibrant, student-dominated, bookshop-filled area called Observatory, as the happiest household she has ever lived in.

They were young and free. There was music, there was dancing, and there were people dropping in every hour of the day to stay late into the night. And Binyavanga, writing furiously in a room that was a chaotic mess of cigarettes and clothes and papers, from which he emerged once in a while to cook something wonderful, especially when he was dissatisfied with the words he had written.

At the end of that decade, as the world gave itself over to a new century and a new millennium, Binyavanga received devastating news: his mother’s life had ended too. He fought the tears and scrambled to leave. Graeme made him a mixtape as an expression of love, to bring him comfort on the journey home. He labeled it “For Rosemary’s Baby.”

Nearly two decades later, Binyavanga wrote a love letter back to the country in Business Day, a South African newspaper. “I thank you and love you deeply for looking out for a lonely young man, confused, lost and depressed,” he wrote. “I am writing to you to thank you for loving me when I lived in your country for ten years. Illegally. I thank you for taking care of me, for growing my mind. For stretching my heart. For building an African.”

He couldn’t resist throwing in a postscript from his life circa 2015: “I wanted to be a hardworking, 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. I had an S-curl and Xhosa girls told me I looked like Luther Vandross. That made me very happy.”

Binyavanga returned to Kenya a writer. With new eyes to survey the country of his growing up, he wasted no time. He was an irresistible gravitational force, pulling a whole generation into his orbit. “We could taste it, the freedom to come. We wanted to be the new, unshackled Kenyans —our whole selves and not the staid old Kenyan selves epitomized by the then literary space whose walls he was determined to bring down,” the political scientist Muthoni Wanyeki wrote in The Elephant, of Binyavanga’s role in the new wave. “He moved into my flat. As did, for a while, all the people he was gathering around him. There was food—he loved to cook, messily, things full of butter and cream and everything as artery-clogging as it could be. There was drink, a lot of it, fuelling all the passionate conversations about writing and life.”

Two years into his return, he had gathered enough momentum to take a shot at the Caine Prize for African writing. There were the online writing communities he had enthusiastically signed up to, the newspapers in Kenya and South Africa that wanted to publish him, and there was his new friend Rod Amis, the editor of an Internet-only literary magazine called G21. He wrote an essay, called it Discovering Home, published it in G21 and sent it to the Caine Prize. They declined to accept it, explaining that they were a serious prize and could therefore accept only serious writing in serious journals. “Now, in the last twelve months, if not a single collection of writing or short stories has been  published in Africa, where do you think you’re going to get submissions from?” he protested. They relented. He won the prize. And used the money—and the tornado-level energy surrounding him by this point—to start the literary magazine he wanted to read.

He called it Kwani?, which means “So what?”

The very next year, Yvonne Owuor won the Caine Prize for her short story The Weight of Whispers, which was published in this defiant upstart of a magazine.

Then came that essay. It started out as an angry email driven either by low blood sugar or by a passionate hatred of the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, or by both. It ended up with Binyavanga being courted by at least two European heads of state and Bono. (And that was just the beginning.) The publication of How to Write about Africa in 2005 was a turning point. For one thing, it was because of the astonishing velocity of the essay, which remains, to this day, Granta’s most-circulated article ever. For another, it was because of that voice: that singular, hilarious, worldly, biting, flippant, and meaningful voice that set fire to a whole millennium’s worth of assumptions about what a writer in Binyavanga’s position was supposed to do.

Mainly, however, I think the essay was a turning point because it made Binyavanga possible. I met him for the first time only a few months after the essay was published, exactly at the time it was circling the planet. To be sure, I grew up thousands of miles away from him, in another country on another continent. But I recognized his predicament because it was mine too: the impossible and almost civilizational chasm that separated expectation and circumstance. The ambition to prove here is just as significant as there without enough power to; the desire to engage the world without anywhere near the means to.

At the time of Binyavanga’s early wins, all of which happened in quick succession—the Caine Prize, the launch of Kwani? and the Granta essay—it seemed like he could do just about anything. I certainly thought so when we first met. He had an assured air about him that suggested he was in no hurry. At the same time, he left no doubt that he wanted to remake the world in a hurry. And why not? The world waited, with arms outstretched.

Finally, everything was possible. Finally, he was possible. I can’t fully convey what a heady feeling it was to be around him then. It was his time. He knew it—and loved it. KenKen had made the jump to Binyavanga Wainaina. He had found the world he had been waiting for, the sky was the limit, and the future was wide, wide open.

Further Reading