No artist is mono-dimensional: every creative spirit is a complex creature and the receptacle of numerous influences, seen and unseen. And when we come to the end of our journeys as we must, it ought to be the import of our life’s work that matters. That is why I write this in memory of Binyavanga, to celebrate him and his influence in our small world.
There are those who will only remember him for his sexual orientation or for his cross-dressing. I for one have to admit that the very first time I ever heard about him was the time he hit the headlines for wearing that very shouting red tutu dress. I also think he had lipstick; I don’t remember the color. There are others who will remember him for the great writer he was, the indelible mark he left and the fresh ideas he injected into the Kenyan literary scene that attracted many young Kenyan writers.
Since I heard the sad news of his demise, I have spent the last two weeks looking into his life’s work as a writer. Suffice it to say that I already had a post scheduled for last week but I could not go through with it before I finished this one. I cannot help but feel that every writer who has interacted with him or his work owes him something; gratitude if not anything else. So, I did not want to post anything between his death and this post. It did not feel right.
Let it be clear that I am not here to write his eulogy. I am here to highlight his achievements as a writer and call out these social media dimwits and incurable dullards tainting his name on social media over his sexuality. We are men of free will, free to choose whatever lifestyle we deem fit for ourselves. I am not just saying that because as a writer I am required to be liberal, no. I am speaking as a man who proclaims Christianity and subscribes to the simple principle of “let he who has not sinned be the first to cast a stone”. When the issue of homosexuality is brought up, every Christian that smokes, drinks alcohol, lies, gambles, curses, has premarital and extramarital sex is suddenly concerned with what the bible says and allows. Is it not the same Bible that is against all these vices? After all, the good book does point out that there is no sin greater than the other. Check yourself before condemning others.
As I searched for content for this article, I came across several tributes written by renowned authors and writers across the world among other great personalities from respective fields all paying homage to Wainaina in touching messages. While he was receiving flowing accolades from all over the world, most of his fellow countrymen were roasting him on all social media platforms. But I am not surprised. Kenyans have a fatal attraction to scandalous stuff. It is no wonder we have a soft spot for flashy drug dealers, fake pastors, flamboyant gunrunners, loudmouthed ethnic bigots and irritatingly loud matatus. All this obsession with the sensational is an indictment of our lack of critical thinking.
As a writer, I cannot regret never meeting or interacting with this great literary genius who died two weeks ago. While most writers I know were piling glowing tributes to the fallen giant, I sat there awkwardly, trying to catch up on Wainaina’s life and most importantly, his work. I finally got to understand the feeling that those who had never watched Game of thrones felt after everyone was ranting about it on social media after the premiere night of its season finale. It didn’t feel very good to be in the dark especially about someone with Wainaina’s stature. But perhaps I should take this as a warning that introverted personalities, aloofness and cavalier disregard for professional groups and “networking events” might cost one more than we care to admit.
So, who was Binyavanga Wainaina?
First, a few facts for readers who might not know the man. Wainaina died at the age of 48. He was a peerless writer and riveting storyteller; a man whose works and ideas will outlive him for decades if not centuries to come. He won the 2002 Caine Prize for literature for his story Discovering Home– a story whose structure is so fascinating and its prose beautiful. His eye for detail, the nuances of many variegated thoughts, images, and themes are enough to throw the greatest critics of his work to the ground. The painting of each scene as the story continues is nothing but further evidence that Wainaina is a master storyteller. His use of subtle humor and his care for grammatical felicity could even appeal to the mighty Prof Henry Indangasi who despises anything that does not come with advanced literary aesthetics.
He went ahead and offered part of his Caine Prize money to start a publishing company Kwani? This in itself speaks volumes about the man’s uncommon love for creative and creativity. Kwani? gave many new young writers a platform to have a voice of their own. Not before long, Kwani? grew into an army of young writers who wished to write and be published. It became a fraternity without the typical writers’ demeanor of withdrawn, self-effacing and humble. They were, as a certain professor of literature named them; loud and reckless in their utterances and dismissed any literary regulations that came before them. Kwani? was to literature what the Ethics crew, Ochunglo family, Boodocks gang and the rest are to Kenyan music.
Folks who think that Boniface Mwangi, Robert Alai and Njoki Chege are controversial have clearly never met Wainaina, for nobody understood the consequences of courting controversy like he did. In January 2014, against the backdrop of a wave of criminalization of homosexuality in African countries such as Nigeria and Uganda, Wainaina confessed to the world that he was a homosexual.
In 2016, he dropped a second bombshell and told the world that he was HIV positive “and happy”. However, I am not here today to talk about the sexuality of a 48-year-old man. I am here to discuss the utter hatred, vitriol and cruelty with which a section of Kenyans, the “Christians”, are treating Wainaina
In the hours following his death, the Internet was full of dreadful and vile comments about the writer with most comments suggesting that he would “never see heaven”. Armed with Bible verses, the official online “Christian” brigade threw barbs at the late Wainaina, urging him to say hello to “Satan” and enjoy his stay in “hell”.
The death of Wainaina was supposed to bring the country together in celebrating a man who used his talent to open doors for younger writers, but instead it brought the worst out of us, and especially our hypocrisy and inability to process reality. But unlike others, I am not surprised by this treatment of him, a man whose only crime was to love another man, occasionally dress up as a woman and even wear some lipstick. In fact, I was the more unsurprised that the poor treatment of Wainaina came from “Christians” because these so-called “Christians” and other religious folks are among the vilest, most hateful and venomous people we have in this country.
From my experience, the most judgmental, gossipy, wicked and pretentious folks I have ever encountered are those who are purported to be “Christians”. I too subscribe to Christianity, but if I’m to be honest, some of the most corrupt persons including those who kill, steal from and destroy the poor in our society are people who say they are Christians.
We have people in this country whose relatives have been accused of stealing money meant for children’s vaccines and medicines, but they do not get half the scorn we poured on Wainaina.
We live in a society teeming with men who got married in church who “sponsor” university girls and priests accused of molesting little boys, but Wainaina cannot wear his red tutu skirt in peace. For a country where pastors are using your tithes and offerings to finance their lavish lifestyles, these so-called “Christians” should first put their daddy pastors to task before they touch Wainaina. For a country where the spread of HIV and sexually transmitted infections is higher in marriages, these “Christians” should read the Bible to their spouses before they can litter our timelines with useless religious platitudes. Wainaina was the most unlikely candidate for everything Christian and religious but through his actions, he helped more people and changed more lives than all the devil-chasing homophobic pseudo-Christians put together. Of course, I am not against Christianity or Christians but the point I am trying to put across is that Wainaina may have been different, you might not agree with his lifestyle but that does not give us the right to judge him. For Christ’s sake, let’s not pretend here. We are all sinners, what is different is how we sin. So, let he who has not sinned be the first to cast the stone.
As for Binyavanga Wainaina, may his soul Rest in eternal Peace.