How to not weep about ‘The Binj’
Bongani Madondo pens an elegy to fellow rabble-rouser Binyavanga Wainaina
The first time I espied Binyavanga Wainaina — since our decade-long little literary kerfuffle over things well-meaning white people will make you do — was a segment straight out of Moulin Rouge gone African.
The spring Tuesday we had an appointment he arrived at my writer’s residence office in a billowing colour-riot plume of Vlisco-chic Africana: patterned jacket, ballooning pants, Masai neckwear, bangles, trinkets, wearing a huge grin. The front-of-desk lady ran up to my office, breathless: “He, he, he is here!” Awww, “The Binj”.
I’d hang out with him some more at a Melville book launch of Booker Prize-winning Paul Beatty’s novel Sell Out a few weeks later, where he failed to recruit me to a late-night party in Maboneng.
Fast-forward two decades, and the literary world was hit by news of Wainaina’s death after “a short illness” in Nairobi. For a man so brim-full of life, he was still at the tender age of 48 when death sneaked in and made away with his flesh. A short abbreviated illness indeed.
I’m tempted to say Aids did not define him. But The Binj would not have wanted that. He would have laughed dismissively: “Huh, so you think you are protecting me with that. Be a bit creative, man!”
And yet illness, which he never saw as an impediment, didn’t define him. His work — nah, his mind and his joyous, stubborn, spirited approach to life did. Though Wainaina was and will remain known more for his witheringly sarcastic essay How to Write About Africa, an idiot’s-guide, bitch-slap at the Western literary and news media’s patronising “love” for Africa published in Granta magazine in the summer of 2005, he found his voice much earlier.
“Always use the word ‘Africa’ or ‘Darkness’ in your title,” the essay began. “Subtitles may include ‘Zanzibar’, ‘Masai’, ‘Zulu’, ‘Zambezi’, ‘Congo’, ‘Nile’, ‘Big’, ‘Sky’, ‘Shadow’, ‘Drum’, ‘Sun’ or ‘Bygone’.” From then on, the bombs rained.
“Also useful,” he implored his Western readers, are words such as ‘Guerrillas’, ‘Timeless’, ‘Primordial’ and ‘Tribal’. “Note that ‘People’ means Africans who are not black, while ‘The People’ means black Africans.”
In hindsight, there was nothing new in his laceration of the Western establishment’s exhausted Heart of Darkness trope. Writers such as Chinua Achebe, Ayi Kwei Armah, Ama Ata Aidoo and Lewis Nkosi, among others, had bemoaned such hackneyed white-man-in-Africa missionary deceit for aeons before Wainaina was born.
What imbued the essay its sting is that it came out in the post-George W Bush era, when not only the US but “the West” as a political bloc once again slouched towards progressive liberal democracy last experienced during the Jimmy Carter days.
The piece was akin to drunkenly shouting “fire!” at your host’s son’s well-heeled bar mitzvah. While it called out all shades of writers — white, black and every hue of grey in between — you could not mistake how its petulant bull’s eye was especially trained on our “settler cousins”: white Africans filing back home to the Anglo-Saxon Metropole.
One of the pervasive subtexts was that white African writers — the likes of Peter Godwin, Alexandra Fuller, Aidan Hartley and my boer gonzoid broer Rian Malan, in concert with the usual suspects Ryszard Kapuscinski, Paul Theroux, harking back to Elspeth Huxley and Evelyn Waugh — were not only full of succour for the continent. They were also full of distrust, anxiety, and inevitably full of s**t! Not because they are white, but because their heartfelt devotion to the continent did a terrible job at hiding their Colonial Anguish, which tends to slip up and seep through in their most well-meaning moments.
The “natives” weren’t safe, either.
By implication, Wainaina also laid siege to African scribes who for reasons such as an omnipresent loop of coups, civil wars, coupled with a yearning for overseas university tenures, ascended to the Metropole, rowing the proverbial Mr Kurtz’s canoes baring scars, torn limbs and grotesque tales to fire several spaceships of Child Soldiers lit, right into the heart of the moon. The horror! The horror! The Binj skewered ’em all.
While all announced him as the new enfant terrible on the publishing scene, it was actually his love for food that made him. Wainaina, who had arrived from Kenya to study at the then UniTra (University of Transkei), quickly fell for SA’s charms, as he recalls poignantly in his memoirs, One Day I Will Write About This Place (Granta Books, 2013).
He decamped from the hinterland and, like most good colonial subjects from eKoloni, headed further south-west to “the Mother City”, where he expanded his knowledge of African cuisine, and worked and landed a gig as a chef.
His love for cuisine — not to mention a more demanding love for a riveting yarn, most of which he mined from his interactions with the locals and African émigrés in Cape Town’s dingy dives — led him to submitting delectable literary tall tales masquerading as reviews for the Sunday Times Lifestyle’s travel and food section.
The mid 2000s were his to own, mock, shine or lose. In 2008 he was one of a tickle of African writers tapped to contribute to Vanity Fair’s ode to Africa issue. With a byline in Graydon Carter’s mag, who famously banned the use of the word “legendary” from his monthly periodical — itself a bible of “legendary” Hollywood sleaze-balls, pampered counts, dukes and their mink-coated flappers — this could have been the highlight of Wainaina’s own literary ascent. Not so fast.
Instead of prioritising African voices, the end result lapsed into the very same project Wainaina had sharply mocked with his famous essay. While the Bono guest-edited issue eschewed big game, safari stuff, scarlet sunsets and lean Masai warriors with assegais, it yanked the agency of telling African stories out of African hands. Sigh.
For all his chutzpah, Wainaina was commissioned to write yet another story of a corrupt African leader. This time it was Daniel arap Moi, who for most of Wainaina’s life had ruled Kenya as a benign dictator whose regime was riddled with scandals, such as land-grabbing large tracts of land from widows and, of course, snaking in and out of the national purse with ease. Familiar?
For Wainaina it felt as though the subject was too obvious. The piece was flat and devoid of complexity. It was also a perfect fit into an editorial stereotype one would have wished he’d eschew. I wired him a brotherly note saying so. As expected, he sent me packing along the lines of me wishing to be the only “negro” round the dinner table. Ouch.
The dinner-table metaphor was expected. “Negro”? That was not playing nice with other kids. Why? You’d have to be called a “negro” by another black man, in a heated exchange, to experience the extent of the knife inching deep into your racial armour.
In 2013 Wainaina “dropped” his much-anticipated One Day I Will Write About This Place, and the reception matched the book’s cool-toned beauty. The Binj was back. It came as I was also wrestling with the biography genre and, as these things happen, we quickly forgot our ego-driven dick contest and became friendly once more.
This is also the time he wrote a fortnightly Africa column for the Mail & Gaurdian. One of the memorable pieces was a self-dramatising set-piece on how he had cajoled his far more famous BFF pal Chimamanda Adichie Ngozi to protest the presence of Polish writer Kapuscinski at a swooshy Manhattan writer’s dinner.
I had a mental picture of readers marvelling at his concocted protest drama: hand-scrawled placards, shouting into the din of the cold Manhattan night. The shouts descending into a murmur as he finally dragged his friend for an intermission rest on the stoep of a downtown Gotham City address, cold, sulking and defiant to the last hour as fellow scribes and publishers exchanged bon mots, hot gossip washed down with Prosecco on the rooftop of a wealthy patron’s duplex. Handkerchief, please!
A year after dropping One Day I Will Write, he published a memoir-essay, “I am A Homosexual, Mum”, which he told the world was his full memoir’s “lost chapter”. Thus he came out as gay in an age that was still untenable for queer folks of any stripe.
For my sins, I can’t think of any contemporary writer more imbued with the cynical beauty of Evelyn Waugh than The Binj, if you can imagine Waugh dialectically wisened and force-fed a healthy diet of Arundhati Roy’s marvellous fire and brimstone polemics on a weekly basis. Though relatively “young” in his creative writing career, Wainaina left us with bellyful lessons, and material solid way beyond the ideological satirical real.
I will never forget his enumerated profile interview of Senegalese songbird Yossou N’ Dour, whom he went to meet in Dakar, under the heading “It’s Only a Matter of Acceleration Now”. Just its enumerated narrative arc beggared belief: How did he do that?
That piece and a chapter on Brenda Fassie — in fact Fassie, his rebel muse, is sprayed all over the book — in his memoir are manifestations of what John Coltrane conceived as “A Love Supreme”. You’d be a fool to spoil that metaphor by saying one more word.
• Bongani Madondo’s latest book is Sigh, the Beloved Country (Picador Africa). He is an associate editor at the Johannesburg Review of Books.