It is now a matter of acceleration. The energy is active, mobile, he said. It is time for kinetic existence. I am reading his notes about ships in high transits, submarines, spaceships, nuclear energy. The exorcism has long ended.
‘Hey Binyavanga, what’s the noise about?’
It is a question thrown at him by someone from the house next door. It is a dark house and the person is invisible to us when we turn around to take a look.
We are in a neighbourhood near the government quarters in Kaduna, where Binyavanga is building a large workspace. It will be a place for creative people: offices, rooms, studios, computers, internet, bookshop and a library. It will be an open space, the happiest and most creative and liberal workplace in the world. From here, he said one recent night while standing in the middle of the compound, we will curate the Open Space Festival, a literary Glastonbury, and stir a new school of imagination across the continent. Next year we will begin work on a large farm. We are setting up a restaurant in town, opposite the state university. Later this year, maybe in October, we will travel through Central Africa: a journey that will end in Senegal for a sci-fi workshop.
‘Let’s go,’ Binyavanga shouts. I am reluctant but my feet quicken; something is moving, crawling in my body.
Days later he and I stand on an old mossy embankment facing the Kaduna River. Two shirtless fishermen are paddling past us; a boy of ten or eleven sits in the front of the boat smoking a cigarette with one hand and grabbing the fishing net in the water with the other. The water is neither clean nor dirty. It’s a little transparent, so that the rocks beneath the surface show. The scene is a verse from the poetry of Derek Walcott; the poetry of fish, the poetry of water immersing Golgotha.
We are in Kaduna metropolis. So dreamy. The past days have been trafficked in energy. Now everything is calm, an exhilarated aura descends on us. ‘Je suis calme,’ Binyavanga says. We are still standing on the embankment. He turns to face me and makes a sweet face. His face glistens in the evening air. There is a taste of water in the air. ‘Je suis calme,’ he says again, and this time he pouts, femininity spilling over his face. I feel so happy. His voice is rich with coffee. In the past this voice has been filled with beer and cigarettes – these, and love.
He moves away from me and steps down on to the concrete. On land he puts his right foot into the soil like a herbalist, the way my grandmother did in the fields, and toes out some earth. What does it smell like? Burnt farmland? The legacy of ancient fire? Or does it smell of the wind? Asking these questions with a sudden intensity, Binyavanga seems to be in a trance. As a child, he says, he once dreamed of being a tornado, a whirlwind, something forceful and mobile, or, in better words, something forcefully mobile. ‘I possessed an affinity with chaos. That’s why I came to trust language.’ He says he would stand in the back of his father’s pickup or tractor on some field in Nakuru, in the Kenyan Rift Valley, hands spread wide against the passing wind. He loves air, clean air, fire and water, he says: these are the elements that make up a free man. He moves further down the river and scoops more soil, this time with his left hand. What does it smell like? Dead fish? It smells like water?
I collect a handful of the soil and smell it. ‘Binya,’ I say, ‘it smells of deadness. The place smells of dead leaves, leaves that have stopped being lush and have come to new ashen colors of grey, brown and earthy poetry.’
‘Quit being sentimental,’ he says. The man detests sentimentality and melodrama. He desires to simply arrive at naked meaning. Whatever is stripped bare. Perhaps this is his reason for walking back to meet me where I stand on the embankment. His walk has transitioned to a sashay, so appealing when I allow myself to see the movement of the tutu he is wearing around his waist. He is a big man, a man who has become my second mother.
He removes his shirt, and dives into the night river. Two strokes. Four strokes. Eighteen strokes and he is in the middle of the river, a river full of crocodiles and tilapia and fresh water. Binya. Binya. Binya. Binyavangaaaa. My dry throat tries to crack. I cup hands around my mouth. ‘Binya. Binya. What is your destination? Where are you swimming to?’ He hears me. He laughs a big laugh that shakes the four corners of the water. ‘Me,’ he says, ‘I can swim anywhere and anytime I like. Me, I am a free man.’ Another laugh. ‘Me,’ he says, ‘I have always dreamed of freedom. Where am I swimming to? To Africa. To Africa. On my way back I will bring my mom with me.’
‘Binya, are you bringing back your baba too?’
‘Yes,’ he says, ‘I am bringing them back to Kenya. I will also bring more imagination.’ Two strokes. Four strokes.
I cup my hands around my mouth one more time and shout. ‘Does the river go all the way to downtown Nairobi?’
‘Yes. Yes. I think so,’ he answers. ‘And if it does not, I will link it there. Water or air, Kaduna to Nairobi is a four-minute flight. Binyavanga Airways. Flight: 18/01/1971– 2019.’
Daydreaming is a form of prophesying, too.
In one of Binyavanga’s writing classes in New York, he refused to accept dreams in his students’ writing because, he said, it’s so melodramatic. Writing, or literature, he argued, gesturing with his hands in the air, is already in itself enough dream.
I am disobeying him. I will have dreams in my sleep, and I will write them in literature. Did he not once tell me that he would break any rule that was unappealing to his imagination?
On June 29, 2016, Binyavanga Wainaina summoned me to his hotel room in Lagos to say that he was thinking of visiting Kaduna. He was teaching a writing workshop alongside his longtime friend, Chimamanda Adichie, and I had just arrived from Kaduna three days earlier to spend time with him. Since 2007 Binyavanga had been visiting Nigeria every year to teach workshops or attend literary festivals. ‘Lagos,’ he once told me, ‘is the one city in the world where I find everything to be complete. It is unpretentious and ultimately postcolonial. I love being in postcolonial spaces.’
Binyavanga had suffered a series of strokes in 2015 and, even though we stayed in close touch via email and telephone, this was our first meeting in nearly a year. That June morning, I went to his hotel room and found him at a table hunched over tea and his MacBook Pro. His head was shaved, except for a small, thin patch of hair that was dyed blue. He wore a white bathrobe, and there was a hint of coffee in the room. The strokes had affected his tongue; his speech was slurred. He was writing two ‘big books about the continent’, and planned to visit places that would expand his vision of Africa: Zaria, Kaduna, Kano, Nok, Timbuktu, the Nuba Mountains, Bangui. The trip to Kaduna, he said, would be an opportunity to go to Lokoja and stand at the bank of the Niger Benue confluence, as well as to visit my mother. He hadn’t met her (and would not meet her), but he had sent money several times to help cover the medical expenses for her chronic illness.
July 2, 2016, we took a flight from Lagos to Kaduna. Binyavanga was too ill to continue to the hotel. He was dehydrated, and fainted in my arms just as we disembarked from the plane. We waited at Kaduna Airport for some two hours. Immense fatigue had seized his body. He refused to go to the hospital for rehydration, drinking several bottles of soda water instead. Twice he vomited uncontrollably. I sat beside him, holding him. It was obvious that he was too sick for this journey. Another person would have postponed the trip, but not Binyavanga. Even against nature, he sought freedom.
His cough was dry and sickly. He sat in a chair in the waiting area sweating, staring at me and at everything, an empty look that obviously stemmed from suffering. When he spoke, his speech slurred and childish, it was to ask about the book I was writing. And, curiously, he talked about death in a visceral sense. Since we had met up a few days earlier he had become mildly but seriously obsessed with his own mortality. It was the beginning of pessimism in Binyavanga. ‘I wake up these days thinking I won’t finish the books after all,’ he told me that evening at Kaduna Airport.
That was my first time with Binyavanga in a low moment. He was travelling on a slim budget, utterly dependent on my presence. I knew the pin code to his bank card, and read his emails to him. For the first time, someone I so adored and loved for his force, for his independence and strength, appeared vulnerable.
There must be ways to organise the world with language. As hopeless as everything might appear, the simple arrangement of words can tame chaos.
But Binyavanga had a temperament that thrives in chaos. He had just resigned from his teaching job at Bard College, an attractive position.
In the weeks before Binyavanga dived into the River Kaduna, where he promised to return with his father and mother and imagination, before he declared ‘Je suis calme’, my life had become chaotic. I was without language, and had no way to tame the violence of distance. Binyavanga had not been replying to my emails. The chaos accelerated when my emails failed to reach him, because his inbox was full. February 15, 2019, he had emailed to say that he loved and missed me, that he was recovering from another stroke, that he was in a serious but stable condition.
May 11, 2019, I discovered that Binyavanga had suffered another series of seizures and strokes and had been placed in intensive care. My desire to travel to Kenya and visit him deepened. His sister Ciru told me he was in a coma. Someone else said he’d had difficulty seeing for a time.
Use language to tame chaos.
It was in an apartment in Dakar. This was January 2011. Binyavanga was still teaching at Bard. A little party was happening that night. An after-party. He had given a talk on the writing of Alain Mabanckou earlier that evening. Five people were dancing. A big woman with her hair dyed blond walked over to meet Binyavanga. ‘Happy birthday,’ she said, and led him to the middle of the room, surrounded by the other slowly dancing people. Binyavanga’s hair was dyed yellow and blue. His jacket, made of Senegalese fabrics, was light yellow and sky blue, embroidered with leaves and trees. He wore a pair of silvery sneakers, and they shone in the low light of the room. His trousers were black, and if one looked closely they seemed to sag at the waist.
The woman was leading the dance, but Binyavanga was involved too. He looked the woman in the eye, his right hand held her left and his left hand stayed on her waist; they looked like lovers making up for lost time after a quarrel. I stood by the door, smoking a joint, passively relishing the party.
‘Where is Igoni Barrett?’ he asked. ‘Is he not coming to the party too? Remember that from here I’ll be going into a coma. Remember.’
Coma is the place for gathering momentum. Thereafter, the acceleration. Why does Wangechi Mutu wonder why butterflies leave powder on the fingers? It is only a matter of acceleration.
July 2, 2016. By the time Binyavanga had checked into his hotel room in Kaduna, nearly four hours after we left the airport, he had passed out twice. A doctor recommended that I stay close and watch him all night. He was supposed to give a late-night interview to a journalist from Abuja, and I cancelled the appointment without informing Binyavanga. I was now effectively combining the roles of friend, guide and caregiver. He got into bed and I took another room.
Two a.m., I went to check on him. The light was on. Opening the door, I found Binyavanga awake, sitting at the table with his computer. The AC was on high; the room was cold. He said he was fine. He couldn’t sleep, but his strength had returned. He said he wanted moi-moi. I moved to the bedside and used the telephone. It was too late to prepare moi-moi, the kitchen said. He said he would like anything that was peppery. Hot chicken wings. Hot spaghetti. Chicken wings were possible.
‘Which of the young writers in Kaduna do you think deserves representation, an agent?’ he asked, turning from the computer to face me. His intention was clear enough and his strength was visible, but his slurred speech invoked pity. I had learned to listen to him without showing a reaction.
‘Writers who you think need agents,’ he emphasised.
Hajara Hussaini Ashara. We were friends. Schoolmates in Zaria. Katung Kwasu. We are friends. He was my first true reader.
‘Get me their works. I have to read them before daybreak.’
I emailed him a book-length manuscript by Hajara and a short story by Katung.
The wings arrived. Binyavanga wanted to have them with soda water.
He refused to go back to bed all night. To a fault, Binyavanga put other people’s progress above his own. You could argue that his writing slowed down because he was preoccupied with establishing other writers, as well as a publishing house. There are many writers, including myself, who owe their careers to Binyavanga. He was the most generous writer of his generation.
Binyavanga, I believe, saw himself as a link between privilege and generosity. He desired Power (capital P) because it was the only way to bring the revolutions he nursed in his mind to reality. He believed he was a member of the group, or the platform, that had to take charge of the African continent. He began building a movement across Africa and the black world that he named Upright People. When talking about this, Binyavanga found expression in the following words: Sankara, love, middle class, African languages. There was a socialist sensibility to his thinking. His essays should not appear behind paywalls; writing would be a collaborative effort between African curators, writers and translators; businesses would be set up and run by the community. He had gone on a forgiveness spree of his ‘enemies’ in the literary space on the continent. ‘Boy,’ he said. ‘Everyone has to come on board. No more time for hate.’
Several days after we arrived in Kaduna, my friend Katung suggested a tour of the library: a small room with high, white walls and bookshelves. Katung and I had both worked there as volunteers in 2015.
The two men walked away from the crowd on the lawn and climbed up the stairs to the library. I moved closer to the building. I had noticed that Binyavanga was sweating, and I had his soda water.
Inside the library, Binyavanga moved around the shelves, head to one side, gleaning the titles, when suddenly he turned and hurried out. Katung followed him. Binyavanga was crying.
What had happened?
All eyes were on him.
‘How dare you,’ Binyavanga cried. He was not addressing anyone in particular. ‘This is the whitest library in the world. How dare you. You cannot even find anything close to this in England or America.’ He was weeping now. ‘A library in Africa that does not have books by Chimamanda, Helon or me? How dare you.’
He walked out of the compound. ‘Take me out of here,’ he said, in-between sobs. ‘I will never give a reading in such a terrifying place. Take me somewhere else.’
Baby sister Ciru and Binyavanga were playing in the yard. Ciru sat in the sand; around her were some balls of blue yarn and knitting needles. It was Binyavanga’s thirteenth birthday and for some reason he had asked for blue butterflies. Since his seventh birthday he had been obsessed with butterflies. Butterflies and books. He dreamed about both the way you dream about pleasure. His head was full of colours and words; two vital parts of language. Even as a child he knew that chaos could only be tamed by language. An unknown imagination had begun invading his system. ‘This is why,’ Binyavanga once said, ‘I am still possessed by the Nandi woman; the woman standing on the wall of the kitchen.’ Ciru was knitting the gifts: handcrafts. Binyavanga was inside the house looking at the painting of the Nandi woman. As a matter of fact, he wanted the butterflies from Ciru so that he could put them around the painting.
‘Hi, Ciru. Is Binyavanga recovering well?’
‘Yes; but he’s still in a coma.’
‘I am thinking of him. I love him so much.’
‘Thank you. We all should continue to love and pray for him.’
Little Ciru’s arms were fatigued. Four hundred butterflies had been created. Blue butterflies. Binyavanga had been out there with her but was just summoned inside by his mom. His dad lay on a couch in the living room reading an English magazine; he was keen on articles about tea. An Englishman had written an interesting take on growing tea in East Africa. Not about marketing and distribution and export. Just on the variety of teas grown by Kenyan farmers. Below the essay’s masthead stood a photo of a Masai woman serving herself tea: cups and jugs and tea bags on a square stainless-steel tray. He said hi to his dad, and walked up to his mom, who was sitting at the dining table reading the Bible. She asked what he would like for his birthday.
It’s Ciru calling. Her little voice tried to pull her big brother outside to see the butterflies she was knitting. Her fingers hurt from the needles and yarns. Both of her thumbs were dark with blood.
Binyavanga did not answer her call.
‘Binyavangaaaa.’ She called out again.
How long do people stay in a coma? Do they hear when we talk to them? Is a coma the end of chaos, or a thoroughfare that leads to an accelerated beginning?
Binyavangaaaa. Open your eyes a little. See the butterflies in your bed. They are the colors of your hair. Some of them are sitting on the intravenous drip. They bear the colours of your imagination. They fly the richness of your love and vulnerability. Some are standing on your hospital gown, flapping little wings; these ones seem alive in the wavelength of the medicines and fluids. The butterflies are leaving powder on your shiny face, your greying beard. What are they doing to you?
Please answer one of us. Say something. Or have you arrived at the end of language?
Ciru was calling me from Nairobi. I was asleep, my phone was off. I waited for the call until chaos shook me and diminished my language. I fell asleep.
Four minutes later, I was awake.
‘I missed your calls. Is everything okay?’
‘We lost him.’
‘Ciru. Ciru. You say?’
‘Binya just passed away.’
Artwork © Diriye Osman, Queer Pan-African Joy as Revolution: A Portrait of Binyavanga Wainaina, 2017