KENNETH BINYAVANGA WAINAINA
Kenneth Binyavanga Wainaina (1971-2019) was writer, speaker and activist. He worked to promote and support African writers. As a gay man himself, he spoke out against homophobia. His writing is mostly essays, his most famous text is How to write about Africa.
9 July 2020, Laura Webb
Kenneth Binyavanga Wainaina was a gay Kenyan writer and speaker. He wanted more opportunities for African writers and an end to homophobia.
He was born in Nakuru, Kenya on 18 January 1971. His mother was Ugandan and his father was Kenyan.
Binyavanga loved to read. He used to get into trouble with his parents for daydreaming. When he finished school he moved to South Africa for university. He could not concentrate on his studies and he stopped going to lessons. He only went out at night to have fun with his friends. Luckily his sister June was sensible and she took care of him.
After a while he realised what he was doing was not good and decided to go home to his parents in Kenya. His mother gave him a little work in her salon, but sometimes he would hide in the bathroom and read instead of working. Then he got another job, travelling around Kenya and visiting farms. He enjoyed this job because he got to see different places in Kenya and meet different people. One day he was on a trip and he decided he should become a writer.
In December 1995 he travelled with his family to visit his grandparents in Uganda. It was his first time in Uganda and he enjoyed spending time with his family celebrating his grandparents’ wedding anniversary.
In January 1996 he returned to South Africa, he thought he would work hard and finish university. He only managed one week of university before he gave up. He spent all his money and had to stay with friends. Instead of studying he used the computers at university to find out about becoming a writer. He didn’t tell his parents about all of this; he pretended that he was still studying.
In 1997 Binyavanga moved to Cape Town (South Africa) and worked a lot. He was trying to write a book but realised that it was bad! He wrote an email to a friend; he told his friend about visiting Uganda with his family. His friend said that it was a good story, so Binyavanga emailed the story about Uganda to a newspaper. They replied straight away and said they loved it! He was very pleased that they put it in the newspaper.
In 2000 his mother died and he moved back to Kenya. He lived in a tiny flat in Nairobi and had just a little work writing for a website called g21.net. He liked living in Nairobi even though he had little money. After some time, g21.net can’t afford to pay him so he has to move in with his dad in Nakuru.
In 2002 he got an invitation to the ceremony of the Caine Prize for African Writing in the UK. He won! He set up a magazine called Kwani? (meaning ‘so what?’). Kwani? Magazine is for publishing writing by African writers.
In 2005, Binyavanga read Granta (a literary magazine) and he was horrified by how writers in Granta described Africa. To show how ridiculous it was, he wrote an essay called How to write about Africa. In the essay he made fun of how some people write about Africa. How to write about Africa is Binyavanga’s most famous work.
In 2006 he moved to New York State, USA to teach creative writing at Union College.
In 2007 he gave his first TEDtalk, the title was The reality constructed by stories. In his talk he said that stories help us imagine. For example, if we have stories about peace then there will be more peace. Binyavanga also said that there should be more opportunities in Africa for African writers.
In autumn 2009 Binyavanga found out he had diabetes, his health got worse and he reacted badly to some medicine.
In 2011 he visited Kenya and his father died. After this 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. Binyavanga was angry about homophobia, in many African countries homosexual acts were illegal. He realised that it was time to speak up about his sexuality and about homophobia. In January 2014 he published some videos called We must free our imaginations. In the videos he spoke out against homophobia. As well as the videos, he published a text called I am homosexual, mum.
Time Magazine put Binyavanga on their list of 100 the “Most influential people in the world” 2014. The same year, he decided that it was time for him to live in Kenya and he left the USA.
In 2018 he proposed to his partner. In a message on Twitter he wrote “I am beside myself with excitement that he has agreed to spend the rest of his life with me”. He died in 2019 in Nairobi, after 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
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Ngozi Adichie, Chimamanda. “Binyavanga Wainaina: TIME 100.” Time, Time, 23 Apr. 2014,
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Strauhs, Doreen. African Literary NGOs: Power, Politics & Participation. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.