This past week Africa lost an literary icon, a cutting edge rationalist, a man who courageously tested what we considered ‘ordinary’, and boldly lived to tell the story. Binyavanga Wainaina is referred to in certain circles as a weaver of mindful stories told in a playful way, and in others as the person who went on TV to turn out as gay.
Binyavanga’s life and times reflect the strides we continue to take today as we struggle to open up the space for civil interactions in this country, as we confront reflexive bigotry and drag our republic into the twenty-first century, kicking and screaming.
The last time I met Binyavanga was at the Milimani Law Courts in February last year, after spending seven hours providing testimony in a case seeking to decriminalise homosexual behaviour. Despite the toll his illness has had on his physical health, Binyavanga was his effusive self, witty and brilliant, and as expressive as ever. He was a force of nature, and by the sheer power of his personality alone, he has helped many to come to terms with their inner selves, and to discover their talents.
Binyavanga Wainaina was a master of pushing boundaries, and the mixed reactions his passing has attracted testify to his ‘extremist’ nature. He was not a conformist in any sense of the word, and once convinced of the veracity of his position he would prosecute it fearlessly and without regard to conventional wisdom.
Death has robbed our generation of an inspirational figure, and even those that disagreed with his opinions or disliked his way of life benefited from his existence for the opportunity it gave them to discover themselves. Today, many Kenyans have learnt that they are homophobic bigots through their reaction to the private life of this great man. Many more have learnt that it is possible to have a non-heterosexual sexual orientation and still be a fundamentally good person. Still more have come to appreciate that you can fight for the rights of others without necessarily having to belong to their group.
While this may seem intuitive in the modern world we live in, in Kenya we still live in a place where expressing your opinions openly can be a risky venture when you still depend on social capital to get ahead in your chosen vocation. One hopes that at least a few Kenyans have found their voice through interacting with Binyavanga, and in doing so, have experienced the freedom that comes with not having to worry about what will happen to them for just being themselves. Our ability to live with difference, with variety, is an important determinant of the likelihood of our success in all our endeavours. We cannot develop as long as we leave those we disagree with behind, as long as we denigrate the opinions of those that are different from us, and as long as we see everything selfishly.
Hopefully, we have learnt to introspect a little more before demonising and dismissing the ‘other’, to see greatness even in those we disagree with, to understand our place in this world and our role in helping everyone to pursue and achieve their personal goals; or as one of my favourite writers, Christopher Okigbo, would say, to observe and ask:
The stars have departed
The sky in monocle
Surveys the worldunder
The stars have departed,
And I- where am I?