African literature lost one of its most prolific figures with the passing of Binyavanga Wainaina on May 21.
The award-winning author was celebrated across the globe for his thought-provoking essays on gender, sexuality, and postcolonialism in Kenya and Africa overall.
Wainaina was much more than a literary figure: He had come to symbolise Africa’s complex relationship with some its most pressing issues; the open and fearless way he lived his life created a fine legacy for the continent.
"I want to see a continent where every kind of person’s imagination does not have to look for being allowed. Me, I’m an African, and I’m a pan-Africanist. I want to see this continent change . . ."— #PushForStellaNyanzi (@bwesigye) May 22, 2019
- Binyavanga Wainaina
As the founder of Kwani? literary magazine, he inspired a generation of Kenyan fiction and creative nonfiction writers.
“I would not be a writer today if it weren’t for Kwani?,” writer and journalist Christine Mungai said.
Award-winning Kenyan writer and activist Binyavanga Wainaina, once listed as one of Time Magazine's 'most influential people’, has passed away. pic.twitter.com/Is4BMxXhkr— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) May 22, 2019
Wainaina was a giant in the continent’s writing and critical thought circles, winning prizes like the Caine Prize for African Writing, writing for publications like the New York Times and the Guardian, and being a fellow at the private liberal arts university Bard College in New York.
He was also named in Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2014.
Here are three ways Wainaina’s life and work made an impact on the continent.
#BinyavangaWainaina, a renowned #Kenyan author and journalist , 2002 Caine Prize winner for #African Writing and #LGBT rights activist passes on after a short illness, family confirms. pic.twitter.com/J985XAvXCr— Stream Africa (@Stream_Africa) May 22, 2019
1. He changed Africa’s relationship with homosexuality
“I am twenty-nine. It is 11 July, 2000. I, Binyavanga Wainaina, quite honestly swear I have known I am a homosexual since I was five.”
This statement from “I am a homosexual, mum” — a previously unpublished chapter of his memoir, One Day I Will Write About This Place — was his public announcement of his sexuality.
It was published in 2014 and followed by praise from Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for having “demystified and humanised homosexuality”.
Homosexuality is criminalised in many African countries, including Kenya, where Wainaina was born and raised, and even in places where LGBTQ people have full constitutional rights, like South Africa, there is still widespread stigma and discrimination.
This is why Wainaina’s public declaration of his sexuality in 2014 was important.
I am, for anybody confused or in doubt, a homsexual. Gay, and quite happy.— Binyavanga Wainaina (@BinyavangaW) January 20, 2014
He was one of the most well-known people in Kenya and his coming out created a conversation in his country and across the continent and the world and once again reminded us that gay rights are human rights that we should all pursue relentlessly.
Kenyan writer and commentator Nanjala Nyabola told the BBC that by coming out, Wainaina challenged Kenyans to examine their negative stereotypes about homosexuality.
"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.”
I knelt down and asked my love for his hand in marriage two weeks ago. He said YES. We will be married in South Africa early next year. I am beside myself with excitement that he has agreed to spend the rest of his life with me.— Binyavanga Wainaina (@BinyavangaW) May 2, 2018
2. He was openly HIV-positive
In 2016, Wainaina used his public profile to shine the spotlight on another issue that Africa is grappling with when he announced that he was HIV-positive on World AIDS Day.
“I am HIV-positive, and happy,” he tweeted. He said nothing more of his HIV status when contacted by Nairobi’s press but it didn’t diminish the impact of his announcement.
i am HiV Positive, and happy— Binyavanga Wainaina (@BinyavangaW) December 1, 2016
Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest number of people living with HIV/AIDS, with UNAIDS estimating that 64% of all people living with HIV globally are in the region.
Despite all the progress that has been made in treating HIV, including the availability of antiretroviral treatment and pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), which reduces the risk of infection if taken within 72 hours of exposure, HIV/AIDS remains one of Africa’s most challenging health issues.
The region still has high numbers of new infections, and not everyone who is HIV positive knows their status. This makes destigmatising HIV important.
South African HIV and human rights activist Yvette Raphael says prolific people who are open about their HIV-positive status, like Wainaina, help to demystify the disease.
“It gives hope,” she told Global Citizen.
3. He renewed conversations about health
Wainaina, who also lived in South Africa, the US, and Germany at various points throughout his life, passed away at a Nairobi hospital after a stroke.
It was one of several he had between 2016 and 2019. Along with diabetes, hypertension, heart attacks, and cancer, stroke is classified as a noncommunicable disease (NCD) by the World Health Organization (WHO).
Collectively, NCDs are the leading cause of death globally, with the WHO reporting that NDCs were responsible for 40 million of the world's 56 million deaths in 2015.
“The burden of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) in the WHO African Region is gradually increasing and is predicted to overtake the burden of mortality and morbidity from communicable diseases by the year 2030,” according to WHO.
Very sad to hear that author Binyavanga Wainaina has died. I am honoured to have met him, broken bread with him, and shared much laughter with so many mutual friends. Rest in power, Binj. L: With @aleksandarhemon Paris 2015. R: NYC 2017 with many friends after Pen World Voices pic.twitter.com/PsqXztlH5Z— Mona Eltahawy (@monaeltahawy) May 22, 2019
It’s very rare for public figures in Africa to be as open as Wainaina was about the most intimate details of his life, from his impending marriage to is partner to his politics and health.
And as the world and Africa reflect on Wainaina’s life and passing, it’s worth remembering what he stood for, and honouring his legacy by working towards a just world.