The late writer and activist Binyavanga Wainaina was much more than a man of letters--he worked intensely to give African intellectuals and artists a place from which to tell their stories in their own ways. This tribute is from a friend.
A storyteller died last month. A new kind of African minstrel. A campaigner, an entertainer, an African patriot, a madman. His name was Binyavanga Wainaina. He was a friend of mine.
His health had not been good. Like my finances. For those reasons, we neither met nor communicated effectively, since our last very interesting meet-up in New York City, way back in 2011.
I got to know him in 2007 through the Kwani? project. This was a publishing venture set up in Nairobi in the initial form of a literary journal. It went on to produce a series of essay collections, booklets, and can even be credited with the first version of the widely praised novel Kintu, by Anglo-Ugandan writer Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi.
Kwani? was the first place any of my own creative writing was published. It would not have existed had it not been for Binyavanga's determination to establish a place where stories, not seen or heard in the mainstream, could have a place.
This was, and is, as much a challenge of form as it is of substance. Our problem is not simply wanting to tell stories about issues that may be hard to consume, our problem is also that the subject and nature of the stories often mean that conventions need to be broken in the telling. Finally, it brings to the fore the challenge of asking to whom we should be writing, or performing for.
I think Binya may have been 'one of the ones' Frantz Fanon had told us was coming. In his essay On National Culture, the revolutionary thinker predicted:
"The crystallisation of the national consciousness will both disrupt literary styles and themes, and also create a completely new public. While at the beginning the native intellectual used to produce his work to be read exclusively by the oppressor, whether with the intention of charming him or denouncing him through ethnical or subjectivist means, now the native writer progressively takes on the habit of addressing his own people."
Kwani? created new avenues, opened new doors and allowed a new language to emerge. Most critically, it asked of writers that they start writing for their own people, without permission, without approval.
It made 'African' writing live again. To date, he is the only controller of an arts budget who has ever...