The African literary scene woke up on the morning of May 22, 2019, to the death of Kenyan writer and LGBTQ activist Binyavanga Wainaina who passed at the age of 48. The award-winning writer died at the Aga Khan Hospital in Nairobi, Kenya, following a short illness and a stroke in 2015. His death was confirmed by close family and friends.
Born on January 18, 1971, Binyavanga Wainaina’s involvement in the literary scene dated as far back in 2000 when he was first known as a freelance food and travel writer who dabbled in fiction. He has since collected over 13,000 recipes from around Africa and was an expert on traditional and modern African cuisines.
However, the Kenyan writer shot to fame after winning the coveted 2002 Caine Prize for African Writing Award with his short story ‘Discovering Home’. He became the first Kenyan to win the award which was by then in its 3rd year.
After winning the award, the enthusiastic writer moved back to Kenya and together with another literary activist Billy Kahorato set up Kwani, a literary magazine that published budding Kenyan and African writers and pioneered a new generation of literary journals, magazines and blogs in Africa.
Binyavanga’s bold and vivid writing made him one of Africa’s household names in the literary scene. He attended literary festivals, workshops and readings across the continent and later in other parts of the world honouring literary residencies and invitations. He was awarded by the Kenya Publishers Association in recognition of his services to Kenyan literature in 2003.
In 2006, he released the book How To Write About Africa which gained worldwide acclaim for its wit. In 2007, he was a writer in residence at Union College, New York. A year after, he became a writer in residence at Williams College where he taught while working on his novel.
In September 2012, he released his memoir, One Day I Will Write About This Place. A memoir which became a New York Bestseller. The well-received and celebrated book highlighted his life in Kenya, South Africa and other parts of the continent where he found himself for one reason or the other.
Aside from his success in the literary scene, Binyavanga was noted to be controversial following his public declaration of being gay at a time when such a thing in both Kenya and Africa was outrightly unacceptable. He came out in 2014 through an essay he had written titled “I am a Homosexual, Mum” followed by a tweet on Jan 20, 2014.
I am, for anybody confused or in doubt, a homsexual. Gay, and quite happy.
— Binyavanga Wainaina (@BinyavangaW) January 20, 2014
Choosing to come out as gay did not destroy his literary career but gave him a stronger voice leading the fight for the LGBTQ community in Kenya and many parts of Africa.
In 2015, he was given a writers residency in Germany but suffered a stroke which left him inactive in the literary scene for a while. He bounced back on a rather subtle note until his passing on May 21, 2019, at just 48. He was living with HIV since 2016.
He has written for the National Geographic, The Sunday Times (South Africa), Granta, the New York Times, Chimurenga magazine and The Guardian (UK) and was a current Bard Fellow and the director of the Chinua Achebe Center for African Literature and Languages at Bard College.