05/06/2019

Binyavanga Wainaina (1971-2019) | Conquering the mentality of slavish obedience

Blog / By Bart Luirink & Madeleine Maurick

In this excerpt from their book Homosexuality in Africa. A disturbing love, Bart Luirink and Madeleine Maurick explore the writer’s innovative and truely decolonizing approach towards one of the continent sexual warzones. The chapter is based on interviews with Wainaina in Amsterdam and Nairobi and the readings of his rich oeuvre.

If there's one African who personifies and, without doubt, embellishes the 'coming-out' story, then it has to be the Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina, known as 'the Binj' to his friends. Wainaina is enjoying a growing reputation, not only in Kenya but on the African continent and beyond. He first comes to notice in 2002 when his short story Discovering Home wins the prestigious Caine Prize for African literature. His controversial essay How to write about Africa? which appears in the British literary magazine Granta three years later, attracts a lot more attention. The essay is an ironic dissection of clichés and preconceptions about Africa:

'Always use the word Africa or darkness or safari in your title . . . in your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving . . . Always end your book with Nelson Mandela saying something about rainbows or renaissances. Because you care'.

He also founds the writer's collective Kwani? in Nairobi, a bevy of 'angry young (wo)men' and a hotbed of literary talent and free thinkers. In 2007, when unrest grips parts of the country after a disputed general election, he sends an email to the hundred or so members of his collective with just one word attached - write! The eruption of ethnic tensions and violence, that culminates with a number of Kenyans being brought before the International Criminal Court in The Hague, is the catalyst for the emergence of a striking number of short stories, poems and other writing sharing an antipathy towards a self-important ruling elite not averse to inciting violence if its interests are at stake. A few years ago we were present at readings Wainaina gave from his own body of work during the biannual Kwani? Litfest in a crowded nightspot in the centre of Nairobi. Poetry mixed effortlessly with disco lights. It's no wonder the World Economic Forum in Davos nominates the Binj as a 'young global leader' and in 2010 he's the recipient of a Prince Claus Prize - one of the Netherland's most prestigious awards.

On 19th January 2014, Wainaina publishes a brief text on three separate blogs - in Nairobi, Cape Town and New York. The title is: I am a homosexual, mum. It's presented as a 'missing chapter' from a piece published three years earlier entitled One day I will write about this place. It starts with a 'fictional version of events' during the time of his mother's death in 2000 from the effects of diabetes. Wainaina rushes back to Nairobi from South Africa, where he's studying, holds her hand as she lay on her death bed and whispers into her ear 'I am a homosexual, mum'. The truth, however, is quite different. In reality, he's unable to get a visa in time - leaving South Africa quickly and without the relevant documentation could result in him being refused re-entry and unable to finish his studies. Wainaina's story then continues with childhood memories of his father who dies a little over ten years after his mother:

I am five years old. He stood there, in overalls, awkward, his chest a railway track of sweaty bumps, and little hard beads of hair. Everything about him is smooth-slow. Bits of brown on a cracked tooth, that endless long smile . . . he lifts me in the air and swings. He smells of diesel, and the world of all other people’s movements has disappeared . . . there are no creaks in him, like a tractor he will climb any hill, steadily. If he walks away, now, with me, I will go with him forever. I know if he puts me down my legs will not move again. I am so ashamed, I stop myself from clinging. I jump away from him and avoid him forever. For twentysomething years, I even hug men awkwardly.

The feelings released from the touch of his father keep returning:

Stronger, firmer now. Aged maybe seven. Once with another slow easy golfer at Nakuru Golf Club, and I am shaking because he shook my hand. Then I am crying alone in the toilet because the repeat of this feeling has made me suddenly ripped apart and lonely. The feeling is not sexual. It is certain. It is overwhelming. It wants to make a home. It comes every few months like a bout of malaria and leaves me shaken for days, and confused for months. I do nothing about it.

Many years later, on a visit to London, Wainaina has his first brief homosexual encounter, but keeps the experience to himself. He thinks friends probably suspect something (and after his coming out a Kenyan newspaper writes that Nairobi has been awash with rumours for years), but Wainaina remains silent. Until this day in January 2014.

It's not just the imaginative power of Wainaina's writing and the deceptively simple way he manages to express what it's like to be homosexual that gives such depth and originality to his work. It's also the sincerity and honesty - a heartfelt cry of literary verve that gives an extraordinary energy to his creations, but, Wainina says, it's a heart that I never allowed to grow - 'I touch no men. I read books'. Now that his secret is out, wrapped in a love paean to his parents, he writes 'my heart is learning to stretch'. He's finally told them what he was unable to do during their lifetime. 'I have never thrown my heart at you mum. You have never asked me to'. And why? 'I did not trust you', he writes apologetically.

There's a massive public reaction to Wainaina's literary disclosure. The internet response is overwhelming and supportive, with a stream of likes and shares. Others tell their own 'coming out' stories. It remains Nairobi's main topic of conversation for days to come, and just twenty-four hours after the 'lost chapter' appears, a surprise party is organised by friends and family in honour of Wainaina's birthday and 'for coming out of the closet'. The international media follows. Newspapers, radio and television stations from all over the world report on the writer's public affirmation.

What accounts for all this attention, nationally and internationally? Of course, the beauty and originality of his writing plays a large role. If an Oscar existed for 'best coming out story', then Wainaina would have been a shoe-in for the 2014 award. But the timing is also a factor. For many weeks beforehand, there had been a series of negative images coming out of Africa relating to homosexuality: an angry crowd advances towards the office of an LGBT club in the Ivory Coast and arrests are made; there's further tightening of gay laws in Nigeria and Uganda. Wainaina had been highly vocal on these issues for some time, using social media to share his views. A few months before publishing 'the lost chapter' he takes part in a debate about the decision to place the novel The Whale Rider, by the known homosexual New Zealand writer Witi Ihimaera, on the set reading list for Kenyan high schools. 'A child growing up in this country will meet a homosexual, but you can’t maintain purity by shutting out everything you don’t agree with. This is part of ancient madness,' Wainaina says in his response to calls for its censorship. And when, in the same period, the Kenyan newspaper the Daily Nation asks him why, at the age of forty-two, he hasn't yet married, he replies with: 'Because I haven't yet found a reason to.'

Wainaina's announcement doesn't just trigger messages of support. 'What's the big deal?' a fellow blogger asks. 'You're gay, I'm hetero, what does it matter?' Another blog waspishly suggests it's a great new way of attracting attention. And of course the customary accusations appear in the Kenyan media. How is Wainaina going to answer to God? Is it surprising that he's lured to commit a homosexual act in far away London (although Wainaina states that it was his initiative)? Does he not understand anything about 'the African culture'? Wainaina is playing directly into the hands of western imperialists. 'It is Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve! How can the earth go on if there are no more children being born? It's immoral'. The Daily Nation journalist Kwamchetsi Makokha adds his penny's worth with a wonderful display of ironic humour:

For an African man of his unique talents and numerous achievements, Binyavanga should know better than to go revealing the continent’s secrets to the world. Africans have never been gay, at least not publicly. They cannot start now. That is why, as an African, Binyavanga must uphold, promote and protect the doctrine of heterosexuality according to the natural order . . . The mere thought of same-sex relations irks African gods so much that they visit drought, locusts and pestilence upon the continent . . . In South Africa, vigilantes against gay activity administer corrective rape on lesbians; in Uganda and Nigeria, they make strict laws to formally save gay people from angry mobs that would lynch them.

Makokha's article receives a huge response from the newspapers readership, the majority not fully realising its sardonic pitch. 'You are 150% correct. Tell them again! I am just fed up about everything western being shoved down our throats in the name of human rights'. Although one reader writes that Makokha shouldn't exaggerate: 'Gays shouldn't be blamed for all the continent's natural disasters, otherwise those who oppose homosexuality may once again have cause to doubt'.

The way in which Wainaina's 'coming out' is the precursor to a 'free for all' for so many people to express an opinion will have come as no surprise to the writer. The issue is too important to him for it to be taken lightly or flippantly, and there's every reason to believe he was busy anticipating the fall-out even before his piece was published. Just days after it appears, he downloads six short testimonies on to YouTube. They're viewed thousands of times by friend and foe alike. The first is an explanation of why Wainaina decides to make this open declaration. The catalyst, he says, is the death of a young gay friend called Kalota. The man's sexual identity is completely suppressed at the funeral service, replaced by disparaging and cryptic remarks from many of those present. Kalota's parents are later forced to leave their church as a consequence of their son's sexuality, and local church leaders are conspicuously absent from the private memorial service later organised by The Binj and other friends. He describes this small tragedy as symptomatic of a society that has destroyed the imagination. For years Kenya is a one party state with one prevailing opinion and an obedient media (it was only in 2002 that Daniel Arap Moi relinquishes the presidency, after twenty-five years in power). The education curriculum of the former British rulers was kept on, just as in many other post-colonial countries in Africa. Wainaina:

What you have is the same school that said, “Bring the obedient children of you Africans to this school so that you can become clerks. And then we drum a syllabus into you, make you go sing ‘God Save the Queen'” . . . the syllabus of I don’t know what you call: moral-boring, moral-flat, moral-crap. It’s horrible! . . . How do you have an educational system that makes us think and innovate? Why do I feel like I’ve gone places where you sit with a bunch of kids and they challenge you in class, and here, to challenge a thing in class is to be bringing, as my maths teacher used to call it, queer behavior.

There's a mentality in Kenya that believes in the concept of demons, he says, and it happens in environments where there's no public discussion and where education and growing up is all about drilling into you the mentality of slavish obedience. It's drummed into you by pastors and preachers - the 'brokers of the forces'. Is something wrong? Then it's because someone is messing with you - it must be because demons are present in the neighbour. Those who remove their demons will prosper. The pastors, according to Wainaina, will say 'I’ve been given power because I went to Nigeria for Bible study, and I’ve been taught how to handle these forces'. He then gives another example of their 'mind-numbing' practices:

. . . my mum took me to a funeral of a guy — let’s call the guy Paul. Paul was much older than me, and he had a tragic story about him, when I was a kid: he was sixteen, and he had taken the car, and then he knocked a kid and the kid died. So now Paul is knocked back — hit-and-run . . . Nobody really knows this story, because he was found dead . . . So we go for a funeral. First, the whole angle of the testimony was: “We really don’t know if in that microsecond, before that car hit him, he confessed his sins and then he’s gone to heaven. But I must tell you that if he did not, he’s burning in hell right now.” And there are the parents clapping in this ecstasy of madness.

Wainaina says he has counted twenty-seven churches in the neighbourhood where he grew up:

The way the churches are built is so nice. Poor people paid to build churches that are beautiful and expensive. But the places you are supposed to build for your children’s imagination to grow to build new things, I don’t see them.

The significance of Wainaina's 'responsibility' lays especially in the feeling that he didn't do enough to question the prevailing notions of homosexuality dominating African society: it is not part of African culture; it does not respect traditions or faith, or it's a 'western product'. All of these, he argues, stem from a lack of imagination, and many Africans are still thinking within the boundaries set by the mzungu (whites). The way many of his countrymen pronounce the word sodomite (which he describes as 'the most Victorian word ever) is a typical example. 'Sodo-Miites' Wainaina exclaims - with a prolonged emphasis of the second syllable and a theatrical roll of the final 's', as though, when you say it, 'the world is supposed to shake'. He also swipes aside the plea to return to the 'values of the original African society': '

Give me data that says that the people who speak three thousand languages in this continent — you have communities of twenty-five million — who belong to one kingdom . . . So what’s an African society? At least do the data.

The accusation that traditional marriage is threatened if gays are permitted to tie the knot is also rejected:

I’m not interested in gay marriage. If that thing comes three generations from now, that is cool . . . Already there are four states in Nigeria where you’re going to be stoned to death by law if you’re even suspected of [homosexuality]. That’s Sharia law. That’s like shit-from-a-thousand-years-ago hate.

He calls it a witch-hunt.

But what does Wainaina want to replace all this hate and suspicion?

I believe that Africa is rising. There’s a kind of a spirit, a level of creativity, that’s growing, and that creativity itself is always under risk from the Puritans. Now, I’m not interested in saying that the Puritans must go away. Everybody has Puritans. In a family it’s always nice to have one or two. In a society it’s always nice to have many. It’s okay. I’m an African, I was brought up here, my home is here . . . Being an Afropolitan, I am here to stay. I want to live inside an ecosystem where people go and say not that there’s a demon next door but “There’s a thing I don’t understand next door, and I don’t have to understand it. Because that person’s right to be a demon the way they want is theirs. And me, I have mine. And if my values are strong, I don’t need to go running to beat, arrest, or peep inside people’s bedrooms.”

Of course Wainaina is African. More still, Pan-African, but refuses to declare his religious beliefs, or which parts of Africa's traditions he holds dear, although he laughs at the idea that homosexuality is 'un-African'. His dream is to establish an African refuge, where people feel safe and free. He's set it in motion by blasting his way out of the closet, by posting a constant stream of messages on social media, and with his unerring ability to think outside of the box. The Facebook message that he was to become the new Kenyan ambassador to Uganda was also widely shared and 'liked'. Alas, it was an April Fools joke.

Note: Homosexuality in Africa. A Disturbing Love was published in August, 2016 (Aspekt Publishers). More information: https://www.ebook.nl/ebook/9789463380829-homosexuality-in-africa-bart-luirink-madeleine-maurick/

Planet Binya: A library of articles, essays by Binyavanga Wainaina, reviews of his work and videos also featuring Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Nuruddin Farah.