9 July 2020, Laura Webb
Kenneth Binyavanga Wainaina, known as Binyavanga, was born into a middle-class family in Nakuru, Kenya on 18 January 1971. His mother, Rosemary, was from the Ugandan tribe Bufumbira, she ran a hair salon in Nakuru. His father, Job, was a Gikuyu from Kenya and was managing director of an agricultural company.
Binyavanga was a daydreamer and loved to read from a young age. After finishing school he moved to Tanskei, South Africa to study finance and marketing at university. However, he lost motivation in his studies and stopped going to classes. He used to go out only at night to party and began to run out of money. His sister June was also studying in South Africa, she was motivated in studies and careful with her money. June took care of Binyavanga, bringing him a little food or money.
After some time, he realised he would have to return to Nakuru as he was not making progress in South Africa and his parents were worried. Once back in Nakuru he ran errands for his mum’s hair salon, though he sometimes hid in the bathroom and read his book instead of working. Then he got a part-time job driving around central and eastern Kenya, encouraging farmers to grow cotton. He was happy to be travelling in Kenya and enjoyed meeting people in the different villages. He continued to read a lot. It was whilst working in Maasailand with his father that he began to write down his thoughts and to think about writing something for publishing.
In December 1995 he travelled with his family to visit his mother’s parents in Uganda. It was his first time travelling to Uganda and he enjoyed spending time with his family celebrating his grandparents’ wedding anniversary.
In January 1996 he returned to South Africa, he wanted to finish his degree and thought he could do it in one year, if he focused. He only went to class for one week before he stopped and began to party too much. He was kicked out of his flat, and had to stay with friends. Instead of studying, he used the university’s computer labs to contact other writers and spend a lot of time writing, he has begun to write a novel. He pretends to his parents that he is studying.
In 1997 he moved to Cape Town (South Africa) and works a lot - he is writing and also running a catering business with a friend. He continues to work on his novel but realises that it is bad! In an email to a friend he tells him about the trip he made to Uganda in December 1995. The friend suggests he gets that story published instead, so he emails it to South Africa’s Sunday Times. He gets a reply the same day from Andrew Unsworth at the Sunday Times, it says “Love it. Love it. It runs on Sunday”. This is the first time his writing is published.
In 2000 his mother was unwell, she has diabetes and is dying. He travels back to Kenya arriving just after she dies. He decides to stay in Nairobi, Kenya where he lives in basic accommodation and has little money. He visits his father in Nakuru every few weeks. Binyavanga writes for different publishers and regularly for Rod Amis at g21.net and he is very glad to have the regular pay, even though it is small.
He decides that he will enter a piece of work for the Caine Prize for African Writing, but suddenly realises that he won’t make the deadline. He asks Rod Amis to help and publishes an edited version of his story on g21.net about the trip to Uganda, he calls it Discovering home. Then the Caine Prize said they only consider work that is published in print, he is frustrated and puts it out of his mind.
On top of the disappointment about the Caine Prize, g21.net can no longer afford to pay him so he has to leave Nairobi and move in with his dad in Nakuru. He continues to network with other writers online and through this become friends with the writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
He is surprised to get an email from the Caine Prize, they have considered his entry afterall and he is shortlisted for the prize. They invite him to the prizegiving in the UK and he wins the Caine Prize 2002! He uses the funds from this to set up a magazine with other writers. The magazine is called Kwani? (meaning ‘so what’ in Sheng - Swahili slang) and the aim is for it to give opportunities to Kenyan and African writers.
After winning the Caine Prize, he travels and writes a lot. He is given one job by the EU, they want him to write about the conflict in Sudan, they say that he can write what he wants. He travels there with a photographer, but when he submits his writing the EU is not happy. They don’t like some of the language he uses and he mentions South Sudan which the EU did not recognise as a country at that time. The EU says that they will still pay him and he can just write a caption for each of the photographs. This does not fit with Binyavanga’s principles, he tells them he doesn’t want their money. Instead he takes what he has written and publishes it in Kwani? magazine.
In 2005, Binyavanga read Granta (a literary magazine) and he was horrified by how Africa is portrayed. As a response he writes an essay called How to write about Africa. In the essay he uses sarcasm to show how ridiculous portrayals of African in literature can be. That essay is his most famous work.
In 2006 he moved to Schenectady in New York State, USA and teaches creative writing at Union College.In December 2006 Kwani? organised a literary festival, it was so successful that he was offered the Young Global Leader Prize by the World Economic Forum. However, Binyavanga did not think he would be true to himself if he accepted the prize, so he refused it. Increasingly, Binyavanga was in demand, not just as a writer but also as a speaker. Binyavanga was a proud Pan-Africanist, this comes across in his speeches as much as in his writing. In his first TEDtalk in 2007, the reality constructed by stories Binyavanga emphasised the importance of stories in allowing people to understand reality, he suggested that stories which exemplified peace and harmony across cultures were needed in order to create that peace and harmony. Binyavanga also highlighted the need for African writers to have space to share their writing in other African countries: “It is easier for an African writer to do a reading in London than to cross his border to Uganda - this is a problem”. He continued to live in the US and began to notice that his health was weakening and by autumn 2009 he knew that he had diabetes. His health continued to deteriorate, he had some small strokes which led to angioplasty. His doctor prescribed him some medicine to help him give up smoking but the medicine has a bad effect and leads to him having a type of breakdown.
In 2011 he visited Kenya and on 11 July 2011, exactly 11 years after his mother’s death, his father had a severe stroke and died four days later. The same year Binyavanga published his memoir: One day I will write about this place.
In 2013 a friend of Binyavanga died, the friend was a young man who was gay and who Binyavanga had helped with his career. The friend probably had an Aids related illness though the family said it was throat cancer. He was sad that his friend hadn’t felt able to tell even his friends about his illness. Binyavanga was also angry, in many African countries homophobia seemed to be growing as governments brought in harsh punishments for homosexual acts and he realises that it is time to speak up. Even though Binyavanga had known he was gay from the age of 5, but only came out aged 39. He had never told either of his parents and he never found out if they knew. In January 2014 he published a series of six videos entitled We must free our imaginations, in the videos he talks about how education is stunting children’s imaginations and also about homophobia in Africa and its connection to colonisation. Also in January 2014 he publishes what he calls a ‘lost chapter’ from his biography One day I will write about this place, the title is: I am homosexual, mum. “He felt an obligation to chip away at the shame” surrounding homosexuality,” Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote in Time. “By publicly and courageously declaring that he is a gay African, Binyavanga has demystified and humanised homosexuality and begun a necessary conversation that can no longer be about the ‘faceless other’.” Also in 2014 Binyavanga was included on Time Magazine’s list of 100 “Most influential people in the world”. In 2014, he felt that it was time for him to be at his home now and he moved back to Kenya.
In 2018 he proposed to his partner: “I am beside myself with excitement that he has agreed to spend the rest of his life with me,” he wrote on Twitter.
Binyavanga died on Tuesday 21 May 2019 in Nairobi following a short illness.
“2006 Kwani? LitFest : Ideas, Words, Markets.” Kwani Trust.
Adams, Tim. “Binyavanga Wainaina: Coming out in Kenya.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 16 Feb. 2014,
Binyavanga Wainaina, Kenneth. “How to Write About Africa.” Granta 92, 2 May 2009,
Binyavanga Wainaina, Kenneth. “I Am a Homosexual, Mum” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 21 Jan. 2014,
Binyavanga Wainaina, Kenneth. One Day I Will Write about This Place: a Memoir. Farafina, 2013.
Mervosh, Sarah. “Binyavanga Wainaina, Pioneering Voice in African Literature, Dies at 48.” The New York Times, The New
York Times, 22 May 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/05/22/obituaries/binyavanga-wainaina-dead.html.
Ngozi Adichie, Chimamanda. “Binyavanga Wainaina: TIME 100.” Time, Time, 23 Apr. 2014,
Pilling, David. “Binyavanga Wainaina, Author and Activist, 1971-2019.” Financial Times, Financial Times, 31 May 2019,
Strauhs, Doreen. African Literary NGOs: Power, Politics & Participation. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.