Remembering Binyavanga: The cost of friendship and other stories - Isaac Otidi Amuke
One year ago today, Kenyan writer and satirist Binyavanga Wainaina went to be with the ancestors. Towards the evening of his life, Binyavanga was fond of African spirituality, especially the need to connect with and listen to those who walked the earth before him. He exchanged loads of correspondence with gifted friends in the Black Diaspora who had things to say about his preordained life, just as he obsessed about his South African sangoma and his extended sojourns to Senegal, where he believed he encountered a deeper reawakening. Around this time, he started wearing earrings, terming it a sublime instruction from his forebearers. It is therefore safe to assume that he, too, is now becoming an ascendant – an unorthodox one at that considering how he lived, that is if one’s mannerisms transition with them into the afterlife.
I wasn’t going to perform the ritual of observing Binyavanga’s first death anniversary, save for various inquiries concerning his work, the latest coming from two Nigerian publishers asking whose permission they should seek before reissuing his work. His literary agency or his family, I told them. These weren’t completely unfounded asks, going by my history working for him.
On his passing, I was listed as the curator of an online repository for Binyavanga’s work. What wasn’t said was that I had neither put the material together nor did I deserve any credit as the project’s originator. It was all the work of Achal Prabhala, Binyavanga’s friend, who finalized the archive when Binyavanga was still alive. As tends to happen, the depository only gained notoriety posthumously. Wishing to stay away from the limelight, Achal asked me to oversee the catalogue, which I accepted. However, later on, I had to graciously ask to be excused, for personal reasons. These past associations which make some believe I could be useful as they purpose to republish Binyavanga’s work, alongside more recent unrelated occurrences which I address below, prompted me to want to say a word in memoriam, and clear somethings up.
Not too long ago when (out of my own volition) I wrote a piece titled The Struggle for Kwani?’s Soul, imagining it would be one of many efforts revisiting the collapse of one of Africa’s most audacious literary experiments, I was reminded of the misfortune of being Binyavanga’s friend.
I was psychoanalyzed and told my predicament was well understood, which is that I wrote the piece because I was still mourning Binyavanga. It was such a low blow. My writing had now found a new muse in the form of Binyavanga’s death. I should belatedly break the news that we write not because our friends are dead, but to make sense of things. If not that, I was supposed to be seeking vengeance against Binyavanga’s foes, a fallacy which forgot that I hadn’t shied away from venturing into Binyavanga’s self-confessed complicity in Kwani?’s woes. If not these, I was busy recovering from being a recipient of Binyavanga’s patronage, and was now positioning myself for funding opportunities for some undisclosed future hustle.
The idea of being a beneficiary of untold gain because of being Binyavanga’s friend isn’t new to me. Binyavanga pushed me hard and didn’t hesitate from speaking about my work to anyone he thought needed to hear about it. But when it came down to it, it was Commonwealth Writers who gave me opportunities to learn and earn from my early writing. When I was signed up by The Wylie Agency, it was once again supposed to be a Binyavanga through-pass. I am sorry to report that it wasn’t. Whenever I made any stride – applied for a workshop, landed a writing gig – Binyavanga always learnt about it post facto. He had done a lot. The rest was up to me.
When Binyavanga attempted to rescue Kwani? and cited my name among those he wished to see play a role in the initiative, I politely declined. The moment he sent out the initial email, attacks of me either unfairly profiting from my proximity to him or being a bad influence on him surfaced. This time, I was accused of having encouraged his alcoholism. I forwarded the text messages to him, reminding him that it was for these reasons that I had chosen to not get involved with anything he touched. I exited the WhatsApp group he set up for the endeavour.
The hurt of being reduced to being Binyavanga’s sad friend quickly brought back memories of the grief I encountered for being around him when he was alive. One of the commonest was the recurring homophobic question, how can you be friends with an openly gay man? There were instances when friends Binyavanga and I shared asked me condescendingly whether I, too, was gay. One of them went as far as asking whether Binyavanga and I were secret lovers.
These queries, asked in an you-seem-to-be-keeping-some-little-dirty-evil-secret or you-must-be-up-to-some-mischief fashion were the burdens to be endured for being around Binyavanga. It would be a lie if I said I wasn’t bothered. My only consolation was that these individuals were absolutely ignorant of how and why and where Binyavanga picked and dusted me up.
Binyavanga and I joked about these speculators. Whenever we joined friends for a drink, he would say ‘‘Please don’t let being seen with me ruin your game. Go do your thing.’’ We’d laugh. He imagined if we were perceived to be always together, I would ruin my chances with the opposite sex. As absurd as it may sound, Binyavanga knew the implication of his much publicized sexuality on some of his heterosexual friends, and knew to not ask for more from those who needed to keep a distance in public even if they professed deep affection privately.
In one instance during a house party, a photographer was asked by the host to ensure the man of the house didn’t appear in any photos with Binyavanga. It was good to have him over, but it wasn’t acceptable to have paper trail that they were close. When the photographer whispered this to me, I was shocked but not surprised. Over the years, as his health deteriorated and his by-association celebrity worth dwindled, I witnessed those who often camped at Binyavanga’s house, jammed his phone with calls and packed his inbox with asks strategically distance themselves from him. When they could, they took anything and everything. Now that roles were reversed and he needed them, nothing was forthcoming. It was the curse of fleeting fame.
On the flipside, it wasn’t easy being Binyavanga’s friend. He was stubborn and demanding. His Twitter and Facebook feuds, most of which he regretted behindhand, made him adversaries who turned hostile against anyone associated with him. To say you are Binyavanga’s friend was to accept to bear his sins. It became understandable that majority of those who wined and dined with him chose to not hint at any affiliation to him. In the end, much as they knew he was in his deathbed – sometimes asking for them to come over and have a word, they never showed up, or came grudgingly. It’s fair to say Binyavanga made his bed and had to lie on it. At the same time, it was revealing to see how fickle and disingenuous human relations can be.
One day during the early stages of his ailment, Binyavanga started talking about the value of our friendship. He revisited a 2014 incident when while his Nigerian partner B was visiting, a group of us went for drinks at Klub House. In the course of the night, he and B disappeared as if going for a smoke. After an eternity, I went to check on them, walking straight into a drama. The story was that as the two were having a cigarette, someone standing next to them inquired whether they wanted to procure a joint, to which they said yes. They were supplied with a stick of marijuana. Unbeknownst to them, this was a racket between the peddler and plain clothes policemen from Parklands Police Station, such that the moment the spliff got halfway, with B holding it, the policemen pounced. B fit the profile – a Nigerian caught handling pot in Nairobi.
To make matters worse, B didn’t have his passport on him that night.
Possibly panicking, Binyavanga started shouting. I found him engaged in an exercise in futility, trying to wrestle B away from the police. Before I could say a word, B was quickly thrown into a waiting police vehicle and driven to the police station. I pulled Binyavanga away, asking him to let me handle the matter, knowing it would only escalate. I started talking to the policemen.
‘‘You need 300,000 to get him out,’’ one of them said, asking for $3,000.
Once at the police station, I was directed to the man in charge of the operation. After pleading and on possibly sensing we didn’t have the money, he agreed to $50. B was released, his body shaking. To calm him, I placed my hand across his shoulder, and kept telling him everything was okay as we walked towards a shuddered Binyavanga. We got into the waiting taxi and left.
‘‘That’s the day I knew how much love you have in your heart,’’ Binyavanga told me.
I could say the same thing about Binyavanga. He showed me, a stranger, the deepest form of love. In One Day I Will Write About This Place, Binyavanga writes: ‘‘People pull you out of yourself, and from the day I met Trust Mdia, he has done this. Each time I have come to him, drunker and dirtier, he has taken what he has seen, ignored the beast, and spoken to the friend, so I have found myself being, with him, a considerate, eloquent person, a normal person.’’
With all his baggage, Binyavanga was, to me and others, the person Trust Mdia was to him.
Isaac Otidi Amuke is a Kenyan writer and journalist.