Advertisement
Obituaries

Binyavanga Wainaina, author who helped lift LGBTQ communty in Africa, dies at 48

Binyavanga Wainaina
Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina, who won the 2002 Caine Prize for African Writing, speaks during a television interview in Nairobi in 2014.
(Ben Curtis / Associated Press)

One of Africa’s best known authors and gay rights activists, Binyavanga Wainaina, has died following an illness. He was 48.

The Kenyan author, who lifted the profile of the LGBTQ community throughout Africa when he publicly revealed that he was gay, died Tuesday at his home in Nairobi, said Tom Maliti, chairman of the Kwani Trust, which Wainaina founded.

Wainaina, who won the 2002 Caine Prize for African Writing, was a key figure in the artistic community and went out of his way to promote local authors. In an outpouring of tributes Wednesday, his friends and admirers shared his work, including his biting essay “How to Write About Africa.”

“Always use the word ‘Africa’ or ‘Darkness’ or ‘Safari’ in your title,” it began. “Subtitles may include the words ‘Zanzibar’, ‘Masai’, ‘Zulu’, ‘Zambezi’, ‘Congo’, ‘Nile’, ‘Big’, ‘Sky’, ‘Shadow’, ‘Drum’, ‘Sun’ or ‘Bygone’,” Wainaina advised in the piece.

Advertisement

It quickly became one of Granta magazine’s best-loved essays, the magazine said Wednesday.

“As a student, he sent the magazine a strongly worded letter condemning our 1994 Africa issue,” the magazine tweeted on Wednesday. “His ironic critique was so incisive and true that we published it.”

He went on to become a frequent contributor.

Advertisement

Wainaina also helped to create tolerance for the LGBTQ community by coming out publicly In Kenya in 2014 as gay, a difficult stance where laws still criminalize homosexual behavior and same-sex marriage is banned. He also revealed he was HIV-positive. He published a painfully honest essay online to mark his 43rd birthday.

He said he came out to help preserve his dignity.

“All people have dignity. There’s nobody who was born without a soul and a spirit,” he said in a 2014 interview. “There is nobody who is a beast or an animal, right? Everyone, we, we homosexuals, are people and we need our oxygen to breathe.”

In the interview, Wainaina, who dyed his hair in rainbow colors, lashed out at laws against homosexuality in Nigeria and Uganda. He also criticized Russian President Vladimir Putin, who promoted legislation banning “gay propaganda” aimed at youth.

“I can’t sleep at night because there are people who I may know or who I don’t even know ... who may be dying or being beaten or being tortured right now in a Nigerian cell or three weeks ago in a Ugandan one,” he said.

After he came out, Time magazine in 2014 named him one of its “100 most influential people.” For the piece, fellow author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote that Wainaina “demystified and humanized homosexuality,” saying he decided to speak openly after the death of a friend: “He felt an obligation to chip away at the shame that made people like his friend die in silence.”

Wainaina’s death comes just days before a long-awaited ruling is expected in a Kenyan court on whether to abolish laws that criminalize homosexual behavior. Kenya’s laws, like in many other African countries that outlaw same-sex relations, are vestiges of British colonial rule.


Newsletters
Get our Today's Headlines newsletter
Advertisement