Believing with Binya

Michael Onsando
21 April ,2020


“ How do we make new things? How do we have an education system that makes us think and innovate?”

  • Binyavanga Wainaina, We must free our imaginations, 2014

I’m not sure what form my grief will take. Most of the time we spent together I spent projecting my frustration over the state of the literary scene onto him. Perhaps it is because I thought that if there was someone who could save us, it was him. Perhaps it was because everywhere one turned there he was. Trying to get something done, to get someone out, to figure something out, to build something. 

I don’t know. 

I know that on my birthday in 2015 I was wandering the corridors of yaya centre looking to get a royalty payment so that I could, at least, buy myself a dinner worth calling it a celebration when I bumped into the man himself. As he paid for his books he made small talk with me, asking how the writing was going and such pleasantries. After hearing it was my birthday he bought me a couple of books (one of which was his that he then signed) and took me for lunch where we talked about the industry for hours. Of course by this I mean that I picked his brain on how to tackle this monster that is establishing a life as a writer. He spoke to me about things I then considered irrelevant, like listening perception and compassion. I imagine he was trying to simplify things that I was clearly making more complicated than they were. 

Things like, you can’t save everyone – even if you try. 

The memories are complicated. 

Everything is complicated. 

Because of the nature of how I saw him I spent a lot of time hating Binya. No, hate is inaccurate. Perhaps it was a loud frustration – an anger. Always burning in his direction. Always finding fault. . Always willing him to do more. Always looking at the things he missed rather than the things he did. Always expecting him to be more than, better than, above some things. 

In retrospect, it’s easy to see how this is dehumanizing. But hindsight is always 20/20 and time continues to move steadily forward. 

Perhaps if I had outgrown my anger sooner my spirit would have settled enough for us to have a conversation that didn’t end in my blaming him for the world I saw crumbling around me. Maybe if I had taken off my rose coloured glasses sooner I would have allowed myself to listen a little more to the man and less to my own frustrations. 

“I want to live in an ecosystem one where we say not that there’s a demon next door; But rather there’s something I don’t understand next door and I don’t have to understand it, because that person’s right to be a demon is theirs.”

  • Binya, we must free our imaginations

He always, as far as possible, took it with grace. Trying to explain, trying to reach a compromise or, failing that, peace of mind.  Maybe it’s because he respected my right to be a monster. Maybe it’s because I refused to let him show anything but grace. Maybe this is the compassion he kept speaking to, looking at the world through kind eyes that saw the pain in others before the hurt they caused. 

“To make new things we have to imagine. It’s that simple.”

  • Binya 

I’m not writing a saint into this essay. 

But I am writing a dreamer. And if there’s anything one must admire of a dreamer as persistent and unrelenting as Binyavanga is the consistent work. It is the commitment that they have to their vision that inspires us. So then perhaps it was his belief in bettering imaginations. In creating more room for more to exist. Always expanding, always imagining, always believing. Binyavanga gave us the power to will our worlds into existence.

I’m not sure how to end this. 

It would be nice to wrap things up in a bow and say something sentimental that encapsulates Binyavanga. Maybe reduce him to a queer activist, or to a Kenyan writer, or to a thinker. Perhaps something that will give him the “literary patriarch” crown that would have been his if not for the queerphobic nature of Kenya. 

“But who is making new things? (…) How do we make new things? How do we have an education system that helps us think and innovate?”

But no one thing seems to be able to speak to the whole man. Maybe it is because he recognized the enormity of the task that is working towards an equitable, shareable world and the importance of having everyone on board towards this goal. Maybe it’s because he believed that none of us can truly be free until we are all free. Maybe it is striving towards making a space where everyone can be saved while knowing that no one can save everyone. Maybe this, maybe that, maybe the other was the reason we all loved him; the reason we all struggled with this man who promised to write about this place. 

“And it is our job, our generation to say ‘us we are now in charge. We are in charge of our fate and in charge of our future’ and we can agree not to cooperate but we can agree that our ecosystem needs many kinds of things and many kinds of people in all kinds of ways.”

  • We must free our imaginations

Or maybe it is that he genuinely believed that it was within our capacity to make the change; to make the world a bigger, more accommodating space for all. And that a small part in all of us wanted to believe along with him. 

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