On October 31st, 2015, Kenyan writer and all-round brilliant mind Binyavanga Wainaina suffered a stroke. We didn’t know this until he himself wrote about it on a Facebook post that he has since deleted.
For those who don’t know him, Binj, as he’s fondly called by friends and acquaintances is the winner of the 2002 Caine Prize (which had on its shortlist Nigeria’s Chimamanda Adichie) and the founder of Kwani? online magazine, which he founded with his Caine Prize winnings. He authored the famous Granta essay How To Write About Africa and the memoir One Day I Will Write About This Place (2001). In January 2014, he came out as gay in an online essay titled “I’m Homosexual, Mom.” In the same year, he was featured as one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People. The profile was written by his good friend, Chimamanda.
More than any of his literary prizes however, Binyavanga is an all round humane (and childlike) soul. He is friendly, unassuming, and down-to-earth, as many who know him will attest. About five weeks ago, I featured him on Writer Sightings, using pictures taken during my last conversation with him in his house at Karen, on the outskirts of Nairobi. There was no hint that he was about to break down nor that he would not be making this year’s Aké Festival. His energy was as infectious as ever, and we talked into the evening, discussing everything in African writing, art, entertainment, language, among others, over mandazi and cold smoothie. Having him still come to Facebook to write, “like” posts, and share interesting links (as he has done many times) after the stroke is a testament first to his resilience, and his commitment to never be silenced.
He is now about to undergo some medical procedures in India to put him back together, and a few fundraising efforts have been set up to support his treatment. This morning, I gave my token to this cause, run by Kwani Trust (that has now raised 50% of the target goal. You can do the same, with Paypal or any other means, particularly if you live in Kenya, or anywhere else where Paypal works). For those living in Nigeria, Ake Arts and Book Festival (in collaboration with Nigerian artists, writers, and friends of Binyavanga) has set up a fundraiser this weekend at Freedom Park (poster attached). You can also donate through the Nigerian bank account that you can also see on the poster above.
Needless to say, this is a worthy cause. Binyavanga is one of Africa’s (and certainly this generation’s) living original and finest thinkers. Through his work, his words, and his life, he has given so many people new ways of interrogating set assumptions, and charting a new course for a battered continent. For this, for his large heart, and for more, he deserves our prayers, but more importantly, our help.
In the picture, he’s there holding my son who seemed to have fallen in love with him. Photo was taken at Aké Festival 2014 in Abẹ́òkuta.