Binyavanga Wainaina: Kenyan author and gay rights activist dies

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Binyavanga Wainaina
Binyavanga Wainaina was one of the first high-profile Kenyans to openly declare he was gay

Prize-winning Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina has died in Nairobi after a short illness at the age of 48.

He won the Caine Prize for African writing in 2002 and was best known around the world for his satirical essay How to Write About Africa.

Wainaina was also named among Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2014 for his gay rights activism.

He “demystified and humanized homosexuality” author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote at the time.

Wainaina was one of the first high-profile Kenyans to openly declare he was gay and “he felt an obligation to chip away at the shame” that people felt about being gay, Adichie added.

Kenyan writer and commentator Nanjala Nyabola said Wainaina had shown Kenyans that literature was not just a way to express oneself – it could also be a valuable career:

“He reopened the possibilities of Kenyan literature,” she told the BBC’s Newsday programme.

Wainaina challenged Kenyans to rethink their negative stereotypes about homosexuality, Nyabola added.

“Inasmuch as homosexuality is illegal in Kenya, there are people who are very comfortable with their identity… but the public space for acceptance and respect has always been lacking and even characterised by violence,” Nyabola said.

“What he said is ‘look I’m here and I’m still the same person that you know and love and respect ‘… I think it’s incredibly powerful,” she added.

Homosexual relations are currently illegal in Kenya but the Supreme Court is due to rule on Friday whether to overturn the law banning them.

Living in the fast lane

By Ferdinand Omondi, BBC News, Kenya

If life was a highway, Wainaina stayed on the fast lane. And when he swerved, he barely stepped on the brakes.

Wainaina kept tongues wagging and people breathless almost all his life. He shot to global fame in 2002 when he won the Caine Prize for African Writing for his short story, Discovering Home.

He then set up a literary magazine, Kwani, as a platform for emerging writers. Several contributors to the magazine world subsequently won the Caine Prize too.

In 2014, his personal life took centre stage when he told the world he had known he was gay since he was five.

A year later, he suffered a stroke. The next year, in 2016, he announced he was HIV-positive on World Aids Day. In 2018, against all odds, he said he would marry his boyfriend in South Africa.

Wainaina will not have his wedding. But he leaves behind an LGBT community in Kenya, many of whom were emboldened by his bravery.

Wainaina suffered a stroke in 2015.

His brother James Wainaina told the BBC his family wanted to celebrate his life:

“We are in a life celebration mood, we’re looking at this from a human level. It’s a human story. Allow that humanness to shine, people are hurting.”

Tributes have been pouring in on Twitter:

Five quips from How to Write About Africa:

  • Treat Africa as if it were one country
  • Be sure to leave the strong impression that without your intervention and your important book, Africa is doomed
  • Your African characters may include naked warriors, loyal servants, diviners and seers, ancient wise men living in hermitic splendour. Or corrupt politicians, inept polygamous travel-guides, and prostitutes you have slept with
  • Never, ever say anything negative about an elephant or a gorilla. Elephants may attack people’s property, destroy their crops, and even kill them. Always take the side of the elephant
  • Readers will be put off if you don’t mention the light in Africa. And sunsets, the African sunset is a must. It is always big and red. There is always a big sky

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-48363362

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