NAIROBI (Reuters) – Binyavanga Wainaina, the award-winning Kenyan writer who challenged stereotypes of Africa with biting satire and took on prejudice by documenting his life as an openly gay man, has died aged 48.
The author, essayist and campaigner – who also championed African literature through the Kwani Trust he founded with other writers – passed away in Nairobi on Tuesday, the organization’s chairman, Tom Maliti, said.
Wainaina’s 2005 essay “How to Write About Africa”, was a pointed and hilarious lesson to would-be journalists and historians. Its compilation of the absurd, yet all-too-common, clichés was a call for more nuanced portrayals.
“Among your characters you must always include The Starving African, who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked, and waits for the benevolence of the West,” Wainaina wrote in satirical instructions to aspiring writers.
“Her children have flies on their eyelids and pot bellies, and her breasts are flat and empty. She must look utterly helpless. She can have no past, no history; such diversions ruin the dramatic moment.”
Wainaina won the prestigious Caine Prize for African Writing in 2002 for his short story collection “Discovering Home” and went on to set up Kwani?, a literary journal dedicated to publishing new writers from Africa.
“His legacy is Kwani? and the many new writers who were contributors to that journal and for whom opportunities opened up,” said Maliti.
“Kwani? inspired a generation of writers younger than Binyavanga to also write poetry, short stories, novels and writing became something that people believed was a career that they could pursue.”
Wainaina, who announced in 2016 that he was HIV positive, had been in and out of the hospital for the past year and suffered several strokes, Maliti said. “He had been ailing for a while,” he added, without going into further detail.
Wainaina was also known for his decision to live as an openly gay man in Kenya, where gay sex is illegal under a colonial-era penal code and homosexuality is taboo. A high court ruling on whether to uphold that law is due on Friday.
In 2014, he spoke to the Guardian newspaper about his decision to make his home in a Nairobi suburb, rather than abroad: “This is my place … I want to put a stake in the ground. My mum and dad are not here. It’s kind of my turn.”
Both new and established writers posted tributes on Twitter, many of them noting Wainaina’s influence on their work.
“His writing packs a punch, makes you nostalgic and then leaves you unsettled,” wrote Archie Okeyo, who describes herself on her Twitter profile as a Kenya-based writer.
“Binyavanga Wainaina was the public intellectual we needed but didn’t deserve. The world is worse off today without him to challenge our prejudices and defend the humanity of everyone. And now his watch is ended,” wrote BBC Africa Business Editor Larry Madowo.
Reporting by John Ndiso; Writing by Maggie Fick; Editing by Andrew Heavens