Growing up, The Bold and The Beautiful was a must watch for me. Even though it was not advised for viewers under the age of 16, I still watched it. I sometimes had to struggle to stay awake past nine o’clock to watch it, but I was somehow proud of that; I felt that it gave me an edge over my kindergarten counterparts. But at times, I wonder, did this, and other television shows I watched as a child subliminally programme me to prefer white partners over African and black ones?
My earliest recollection of indirect contact with white men was on this show. Ridge, Thorne, and Eric Forrester, two brothers and their father, were so enamoured by the love of one woman – Brooke Logan – that they were willing to lay everything on the line, including their filial ties, for the sake of her love. They were the definition of crazy in love for me before Jay Z and Beyonce sang about it. They expressed their love for the women they loved unashamedly and unabashedly, suffering heartbreak and humiliation, but never abetting in their quest for everlasting love. It was magical to watch this saga unfold on screen, not in the least because it was the men who made absolute fools of themselves in pursuit of true love. It underscored the ‘difference’ between emotional men and women. An emotional man is ‘passionate’ whereas an emotional woman is ‘hysterical’. These men were surely passionate.
Comparing this to locally produced programmes, it was evident the local fare never stood a chance. From the slapstick comedy stylings of shows like Vioja Mahakamani and Vitimbi, I got my preliminary insight into the contrast between African men and those on American shows. For one, the men on Vioja and Vitimbi seemed to relish lying to their wives, in the process making buffoons of themselves, trying to cover their tracks, and ultimately being discovered to hilarious results. While their intention was to presumably depict a simpler folk with simpler problems, the result was an imprint on a young mind of the untrustworthiness of black men, which was so prominent to their female counterparts that from episode to episode, the ladies on screen sailed from hysteria to hysteria.
As far as programmes verging on serious dramas went, the same pattern held, only these depicted authoritarian who did everything to keep their womenfolk in their place, or lower if they could, while the women constantly tried to find ways to outsmart them. The verdict was in. Kenyan men were unnecessarily bossy and ultimately witless. I mean, if they insinuated that women were lesser than them but still managed to be outsmarted by them at every turn, they must not have been very smart, must they? The aim of these shows, I believe, was to speak to a marginalised generation of women with an aim to subtly empower them to find their own way around patriarchy. But this might have had adverse effects on younger generations such as mine, who were as yet, unable to comprehend the nuances in programming but rather took what was offered at face value.
Regional and international black programming wasn’t any better either. Watching the likes of Egoli and Generations from South Africa, I was exposed to a more violent side of the black/ African man. I knew, as a child in the Kenyan education system, male teachers were certainly more punitive and less understanding than female teachers, and seemed to relish using corporal punishment. The pattern seemed to fit. Black American comedies seemed to patch things up, but only to a certain extent. It seemed, though happy, these depictions of happy black suburban families were constantly on the verge of being broken up by alleged infidelity, sexism and colourism. At a very young age, I knew that my father had a penchant for women. He had several wives and numerous girlfriends. I took this to be the reason why I would go for months, sometimes years, without seeing him. Again, the pattern seemed to fit. So even though I was cognisant of geographical and cultural differences between peoples of colour from Africa and the Diaspora, time and time again, from Nigerian films, to Kenyan and American sitcoms to South African dramas, the patterns were consistent and continually reinforced. This was a community to avoid. But how does one do so when, despite having this knowledge, one still identifies with and shares the same geographical and physical characteristics as the very group he is trying to avoid?
I had even further incentive to distance myself from this seemingly violent group when my sexuality was discovered in my early teens. Teachers both in upper primary and high school, mostly male, made it their mission to make an example of me, taunting me, calling me names, putting me in awkward situations just to prove a simple point – that as far as being a ‘real African man’ was concerned, I didn’t make the cut. But at the time, I had no interest in being a typical African man. I had already had an introduction into the world of ‘the real African man’ by way of my father, and my mother’s colleagues who took advantage of my mother’s single status to constantly try and romance her, despite most of them having wives and children of their own. They lied, drank too much, cheated, were the source of anguish for their families, and in the end, died too soon as a result of their reckless lives. Never more than then did I wish to escape, to have my very own white knight to rescue me from all the madness around me.
In my teens, I turned to online dating apps. In high school I’d had a few friends who were more exposed than I was, and who had been experimenting with their sexualities online for years. I, on the other hand, was still struggling to get the hang of using a computer, which I could only access in school or at cyber cafes in my neighbourhood. By this time I had suffered tremendous abuse and relentless attacks from Kenyan men who wished to change my ‘problematic’ sexuality while secretly trying to take personal advantage of it. It was enough of a motivation to log onto sites recommended by friends. From television shows, and now the Internet, I understood that there were safer spaces for people like me. And importantly, they all lay outside of Africa, in countries that promised nothing but the Ridges and Thornes of the world in abundance. The dating apps, and later Facebook at its infancy, were a sanctuary.
Whenever I met Kenyan men on these platforms, however, they had a few things in common. They would preface the online dating ritual by emphatically saying they were actually married, or say that their foray into same-sex love affairs was just a passing phase, a rest stop on the way to heteronormative marriage and life. I’m not a faggot like you but I think you’re cute, as long as you can keep this a secret, maybe we can have something. Needless to say, this was all quite off-putting. The white ones however, were quick to declare their desire, infatuation and love for me. They loved my physical features, my dark skin, my slender body, where their Kenyan counterparts wished I was a little lighter skinned, had curlier hair and was a littler rounder. There was also the issue of my being effeminate. While for the Kenyan men, this was an absolute turn-off in the larger sense, for the white ones this added to my charm. White men declared their intention of finding none other than Mr. Right, shipping him over to their country and settle down. I got to star as Brooke in my very own digital version of the dark, young, bold and beautiful and it was intoxicating.
This was also the time when I got to connect with a few returnees and ‘summer bunnies’ – Kenyans who had lived abroad – who shared their dating realities with me. The message was clear. If I wished to be treated right by a man, if I wanted pure unadulterated love and devotion, then I needn’t waste my time with black men. White men were the way to go. Not long after that, I got my shot. By then, the Kenyan programming sphere had been infiltrated by South American shows, depicting the all sensual, mysteriously handsome, athletic and hot tempered (read as passionate) Latin man who would stop at nothing to get the woman (or man) of his dreams, including sweeping gestures and garish declarations. If the Forresters were crazy in love, then these Latin men added a deliciously heightened, even forbidden level of insanity to the love game. And as it happened, I landed myself a Spaniard. He was not, strictly speaking, Latino (Central/ South American), but a pretty good approximation by my estimation; my friends agreed.
But that is where I began to understand the pathology of the broken man rather than the shortfalls of an entire race. For, while he was indeed European, he had very distinct ideas about his and my place in the world. He was the appointed saviour and I was the appointed impoverished African looking to be rescued. He was a racist bigot, who saw nothing wrong in insulting an entire continent simply based off of the actions of a few individuals he had encountered or heard about in Europe. Even though he sought after me, he insinuated that I was only after the almighty European passport as a way to save myself and my family from wretched poverty, which was apparently consuming Africa, my loved ones included. I voiced my concern with those around me about his behaviour towards me, but again, the message was clear. Even at his worst, he was still better than the best Kenyan around. Was it because of the promise of what he could offer me or just by virtue of his nationality? No one could say, but they held firm in the belief.
Even after the end of said relationship, I was questioned constantly about why I would let such a catch get away. Apparently, trauma suffered while in the relationship was not enough to warrant a breakup. Frankly, I was told, Kenyan women and men stick around suffering a lot more at the hands of their Kenyan or African partners, for a lot less in return. I was aware of the changed perception of me held by others. I was now ‘one of those’- The ones that date white men for whatever reason. The ‘whatever’ being a passport, money or status, none of which I was interested in. But public opinions had changed. Subsequent dating experiences proved that. My Kenyan dates would ask whether I was constantly comparing them to my ex, and then bring up the inevitable sexual innuendo that no man can ever satisfy me as well as an African man can.
My Kenyan dates, like I mentioned earlier, were quick to point out the transient nature of our soon to be liaisons, as they were actively hiding their sexual orientation from their families and the women they hoped to marry. In short, it was ‘I’ve got hoes in different area codes’. I was made to understand that I was one of many to be seen and serviced as often as my dates’ schedules and affinity for me allowed, and for this, I had to be grateful. I was also informed that my aesthetic wasn’t exactly to their taste, as I leaned more towards the androgynous-looking, overtly sexually deviant, while they were looking for the regular boy-next-door who could pass for straight in a pinch. For this reason, I would never be granted access into their inner sanctums of family and friends. If I wished to proceed, I would be a lone star orbiting them and their lives while simultaneously having nothing to do with them. Even though at the time I had sworn off white men and what I believed to be their potential for craziness, I felt compelled to reconsider the idea of dipping my toe in the interracial dating pool once more.
By this time I was working in the television industry – a hilarious coincidence that I ended up there after my early formative experiences via television – and I noticed a pattern, particularly among my female colleagues. The more successful, well travelled, educated and financially stable they were, the more likely they were to be dating or be married to a white man. In passing conversations, I asked why this was the case, and they recounted the same horror stories that I had experienced. Shameless infidelity and physical violence, jealousy at their success and admiration by other men, deep-seated insecurities, and lack of emotional maturity. The list was as long as the women were different. But the conclusion was the same. The women said they never suffered this level of horror at the hands of their white partners. Granted, white men were far from perfect. There were the odd cheaters, and jealousy was a natural part of life, but for the most part, they were more supportive, loving and entirely faithful, with a policy of absolute honesty which even went to termination of relationships in the event of incompatibility. Never having to guess what their partners were constantly thinking, trying to read in between the lies for half truths in whole lies, was a freeing experience.
I wondered how many of them were shaped by the early images of the white knight and his willingness (more than ability) to move mountains for his fair maiden. Or did it go deeper to our encounters with the men around us and how we watched them interact with us, our mothers and those around them? Did they all have experiences of their fathers cheating on their mothers? Many admitted to this. Did their fathers subjugate their mothers? Another overwhelming yes. Were they themselves victims of violence and abuse at the hands of men around them? Another overwhelming yes. Were their looks or intelligence called to question by the men around them? Another yes.
I think though, that the long enduring image of the white knight, loyal, faithful and honourable, is a notion that is being disabused from the minds of the Kenyan, and I suspect, African Millennials. Africa’s new economic boom has seen the surge of western infiltration in certain key sectors. The expat is a mainstay in certain cities, especially Nairobi, where they are found grazing on croissants in top tier coffee houses, lunching at five-star hotels, dancing all night at the latest hotspots and jetting down to the coast every weekend or so to unwind from their incredibly strenuous lives in the city and take some sun. With them has come the advent of dating apps like Grindr catering to an exclusively gay clientele, as well as Tinder and Bumble that are more inclusive in preferences. The expats might arrive bright-eyed and bushy-tailed hoping to embark on their own African romances, and find their own African princes and princesses to ride into the sunset with.
But this dream is typically not long lived. For one, they realise that the demand for those with their complexion and nationalities is high, while supply is low. For every white face you see on a dating app somewhere in Africa, are over twenty locals trying, some desperately, to woo the foreigner. Some quickly enter into relationships with locals that also quickly end on allegations of cheating on the part of the local. And after this earth-shattering experience, the expat is lost to the world. Most assume a ‘take no prisoners’ attitude in the dating scene, often having multiple partners and being quite open about it, because they realise, while this might be unacceptable back home, in their host countries, this is not only acceptable but encouraged. Everyone wants a piece. Everyone wants to be seen on the arm of the tall, blonde, blue-eyed stranger while strutting into the club, and as such, is not subject to the demeaning security checks or even worse, being turned back at the door.
The expats soon realise that they are social currency and they use it to their advantage, getting their pick of the most intelligent, attractive, wealthy, socially mobile, well educated urbanites in their host country, where back home people with such attributes honestly wouldn’t give him the light of day. It becomes a world of Average Joes dating super models, successful professionals, public figures and personalities while not being expected to be anything other than their regular white/European selves. And even though there have been instances of public outcry, particularly on social media on ‘blancos behaving badly’, society still continues rewarding them by upholding them as the ideal, what to aspire to. Whites can do no wrong. They are only in the wrong places and the wrong time. Secretly, parents continue to wish their children end up with white men, if only for the social recognition and social mobility their new status would afford them. But that is a story for another day.
The truth of the matter is, despite best intentions on either side of the colour and race divide, we Kenyans were groomed on drastically different imagery as compared to our European and North American counterparts. Much like my Alejandro turned wacko; most of the west was raised on the images of starving African, eyes and stomachs bulging, in need of urgent help. If not hunger, then war and genocide – in Rwanda, Sudan, Somalia… Africa, for all its diversity and relatively rapid growth and development, is condensed to handful of desperate situations, which didn’t even last forever.
When Europeans see African migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea in those flimsy boats, it confirms that long held assertion by the western imagination that justified historical atrocities of colonialism and slave trade. The African is a savage that needs to be saved from himself. He is responsible for his own hell. He has brought hunger, war and death upon himself and it is up to the west, once again, to rise and save him from himself.
How then does a modern white man, who believes he not a racist by virtue of dating, loving, even marrying a person of colour, then reconcile these images of the disenfranchised African with the reality of present day African Millennials? In my experience – not so well. For while the myth of the white knight still beguiles many in Kenya and the African continent, the complex of absolute salvation hangs heavy on the shoulders of the to-be knights. For every white knight, there surely must be a damsel in distress.
Granted, times are and have changed somewhat. With the push for equality, mass education through the media and the emergence of Africa as a new and formidable world player, the perception of Africa, Africans and people of colour around the globe has began to shift. But what has replaced it is the illusion of fantasy. Africa is where it is now hunger campaigns have since been retired, but they have since been replaced with a dramatic presentation of Africa the beautiful, a land where the sun never sets, with ever welcoming natives, curvaceous, sun baked beauties frolicking on white sandy beaches between intermittent dips in the crystal clear waters. Then you have the highland maidens and their complicated coffee customs, or the southern African topless dancing beauties that are unabashed about their sizeable endowments.
A western man, who wishes to be a part of this new world by falling in love with a person from the continent, falls in love with a holiday package fantasy. Standards of beauty have changed, replacing pale with bronzed skins, such that even the people of Africa have become something to acquire and possess. We are shiny new toys sold under the banner of exotic, expressive and smouldering sensuality. All the while, the images being presented to the people of Africa are still aspirational. They continue to advertise the west, and all that emanates from it as the ideal, as a goal to achieve. A convergence of both illusions creates a fertile ground for fetishisation rather than understanding.
The white man is no better placed to explain why he is suddenly looking to Africa and peoples of colour as possible romantic liaisons other than the fact that it being advertised as not only permissible but also highly encouraged in order to be a part of globalisation. The attraction for the European is the African and his or her potential. Africa no longer represents savagery, but rather something interesting to experience and acquire. It is the birthplace of the Chimamandas and the Binyavangas of the world. It is an intellectual powerhouse more connected with the present and the future, while the west stagnates and ossifies. It is the land of potential and holds much the same appeal it held hundreds of years ago when the first Europeans ‘discovered’ its ‘undisturbed’ ‘virgin’ land the bounty it held. Is there anything more intoxicating than the notion of salvation and the notion of potential, mixed together in a heady combustion of cultural fusion? And while the Kenyan woman or man seeks be more accepted in the world via his or her white partner, the white partner seeks to be a part of progress, using his black partner as proof of evolution in a culture in decline.
Education in a Time of Coronavirus: How e-Learning is Impacting Poor Rural Students
Unable to exploit the internet like their more fortunate peers, poor students in Kenya’s rural areas are losing more of what little chance they have to succeed in an education system that already does not favour them.
“[T]he Government of the Republic of Kenya at this time (. . .) is not going to consider stopping e-learning. Well, I keep saying that (. . .) all our children are equal. Those who can access content, they will get access of the content (. . .) I think it is better to allow the ones to get, and hope that the period is as short as possible, and when the time comes we shall empower the others.” – Education C.S. George Magoha
Solomon sent me a message to say that he wouldn’t be coming in the following day; he wanted to finish some tests he had started the night before on Tusome and send them in for marking. Solomon is a student in a boys’ boarding school in chilly Kinangop, high up in the Aberdares, but he’s been back home since the coronavirus came to play havoc with the school calendar.
The message was sent from a cheap smartphone with a cracked screen. Solomon didn’t always have a phone; I used to have to call his granny, an irascible old woman with a harsh tone of voice and an abrupt telephone manner, if I needed to talk to him. “Uga!” (Say!), she would bark, leaving me momentarily confused about why I had called.
Left to fend for three orphaned grandchildren at an old age and with no income other than the money she could make as a casual labourer, Cũcũ wa Solomon had no choice but to send the children out to look for work during the school holidays, and that is how I first met Solomon, a pimply lad in an oversized hoodie and a tattered pair of sneakers. Since then Solomon has come to me during the school holidays, helping with the weeding and trimming the hedge, making a man’s daily wage to supplement the family’s income, and recently buying himself a second-hand cell phone.
Solomon is in Form Four now and will sit for his Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education this year; he tells me that he has received a message from his school confirming that the exams will start on the 4th of November. He has his smartphone and the wages with which to buy himself internet bundles, but without the textbooks and his teachers’ help, I do not know what Solomon’s chances are.
Mose’s situation is quite different. His mum has a kabambe of a phone, with a long-lasting battery and a bright torch that takes over when the electricity tokens run out in the two-room rented home she shares with her two boys. It is not of much use to Mose, who is in his last year at our local primary school, and who would need a smartphone to register on the Tusome platform in order to access revision notes and mock tests.
The closure of all schools was announced very abruptly on a Sunday by the government, leaving the teaching staff at our local primary school with very little time to prepare homework for the pupils while they waited for schools to reopen. And so, the head teacher, a deeply committed educationist who accomplishes very much with very little, has resorted to sending links to downloadable learning materials to the parents of Class Eight pupils even while acknowledging that, for a great many, access is impossible. Registration on the Tusome platform is free but it still costs 50 shillings a day to use, 300 shillings a week and 1,000 shillings monthly (contrary to the misleading information on the site).
Wa Mose works as a casual labourer on the surrounding farms and on building sites, earning 250 shillings from eight in the morning to one in the afternoon. She’s an industrious woman; she knits school jumpers to order in the evenings and does other people’s laundry in the afternoons. Still, her earnings have not stretched to the acquisition of a smartphone and now she is fretting over Mose’s prospects come the exams.
But even if Wa Mose did own a smartphone, her son would have to spend hours squinting at the small screen, scrolling through all the 141 pages of mathematics before taking the online tests and moving on to the next subject. The pages are not printable, and even if they were, they would cost 1,410 shillings to print. Wa Mose would have to find money for that one subject alone (and there are five in total), not to mention the cost of the internet bundles it would take.
One might be led to believe that the Tusome platform is an initiative of the Ministry of Education since it borrows its name from a programme run by the ministry, but it is in reality a private money-making initiative that is merely providing access to PDFs of scanned copies of existing learning materials.
Over at Teachers Arena, a website that started out as a WhatsApp group where teachers shared resources and information, there is no need for registration; access to the content is free and the material is downloadable and printable. However, the mathematics section alone runs to 54 pages. At our local cybercafé, Wa Nancy charges 10 shillings per printed page, so it would cost 2,700 shillings—at the very least— to print the revision notes and mock tests for all the subjects.
To avoid leaving her children at home unsupervised and getting up to no good, Wa Mose has sent the boys to their grandmother where, fortunately, there is a radio on which they can listen to the educational programmes that are broadcast by the Kenya Institute for Curriculum Development.
However, even this choice is not open to all. When I asked Kahiga’s mother if at least the family had a radio, her answer was simple and stark: “We have nothing.”
Wa Kahiga lives with her children in a rented room on the edge of our township, selling her labour to others for 50 shillings an hour. Work is not always easy to find and hunger is familiar in her home. And although quiet and soft-spoken, she is forthright and brutally honest if the choice is between the PTA contribution and keeping the family fed. Nevertheless, the head teacher keeps Kahiga in school and waits patiently for the money to be found. Now Kahiga is at home, waiting, and lacking the means to improve his chances of escaping the grinding poverty that is his lot.
Mose’s head teacher is not sure how the school will make up for the lost time. Although the majority of the school’s pupils are day scholars, the school does offer boarding facilities for pupils coming from further afield, as well as those from our locality whose parents wish them to board. He had contemplated proposing that all the 176 KCPE candidates become boarders for the rest of the year once schools reopen in June (if they do), with the staff teaching from early in the morning till late in the evening after supper, as well as on Saturdays, so that the syllabus can be covered before the exams. But space in the dormitories is limited and squeezing in more beds would compromise the social distancing necessary to stop the spread of the coronavirus. And so the head teacher has had to give up that idea; as it is, he is not even sure how the school will practise social distancing in the classrooms.
Still, it is unlikely that many parents of day scholars would have taken the head teacher up on that suggestion, even were it workable. The extra money to cover the boarding fees and the necessary supplies would have to be found, yet many of the parents have not paid last term’s boarding fees in full, which has in turn had a knock-on effect on salaries. The school relies on the fees to pay the ten support staff who include the workers employed to cook and clean after the pupils and the groundsman who also doubles up as the school’s baker. The head teacher has had to call upon the goodwill of the school’s banker to pay their April salaries but he has forewarned them that May salaries may not be paid on time.
The rains have been abundant, though, and there is plenty of work available weeding on the farms around us. All hands are on deck now, with parents and their children going out to sell their labour and earn as much as they can before the rainy season ends, so the wherewithal to settle last term’s balances and cover next term’s costs might yet be found.
Even though mobile telephones have become ubiquitous in much of the country, the digital divide remains firmly in place, a vast chasm that keeps children from rural areas and disadvantaged backgrounds separate, unable to exploit the internet like their more fortunate peers, and, in this time of coronavirus, losing more of what little chance they have to succeed in an education system that, from every fathomable point of view, does not favour them.
The Binj, a larger-than-life personality who, through sheer force of will, opened up the literary space for young African writers who have gone on to give us some of the best writing in generations.
In the early noughties, I was working on a project to publish a lifestyle magazine that my team called Miro. “Miro”, deriving from “Amero” or African American, is a word that urban Nairobians of yore used to describe black people. We were hoping to come up with the first urban lifestyle magazine in which Nairobians would see themselves represented as they did in the Ebony and Essence Magazines published in the US.
During that period, I met a guy named Peter Achayo who had a clothing label and believed in what we were doing. He also knew some other guys doing something similar but their focus was mainly literary. He offered to make the introduction and in early 2005, I met the leader of that group, Binyavanga Wainaina, at the Java Coffee House on Mama Ngina Street, a dreadlocked, dark-skinned, heavyset fellow of medium height, sitting in the company of several people. We sat at a booth where I explained to him what my team and I were doing and trying to achieve. He listened keenly, offering several suggestions which I noted. Binyavanga told me that Ghanaian writer Ayi Kwei Armah, who wrote The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, was in town at his invitation and wondered if an interview with him would be useful. I jumped at the opportunity as I had read the book as a teenager and rated the writer highly.
On the day of the interview, I made my way to Lillian Towers, aka the Nairobi Safari Club, where Binyavanga had me sit at the lobby and wait to meet the great writer. At the time, our magazine Miro hadn’t seen the light of day but he was willing to accord me the same respect that I had seen accorded to journalists who had been around for a while. That respect was something that I carried with me into a career as someone who catalogued the lives of those whom I met. For Armah it was probably just another interview but it forever changed my perception of what being African was.While our efforts at creating a publication failed only months later, I cherished the meetings I had had with this guy with a weird name and with the famous writer from Ghana.
A year later, I founded a new website/blog called NairobiLiving.com (since discontinued) to catalogue a city that was evolving in multiple ways. Some of the hottest gigs at the time were the monthly Kwani Open Mics, an even which was first hosted at the Yaya Centre and later at Club Soundd on Kaunda Street. My reviews of the Kwani Open Mic events got me an invitation to the East African Writers Summit at Lukenya in 2006 organised by Kwani Trust because I was cataloguing the literary revolution that was taking place.
My life was a mess when I received that invitation. My mother had invested a huge sum of money to ensure that I received the best private university education. I had left the country for a year and a half and returned floundering. I was a thirty-one-year old man with no income who had moved back to live with his parents. The magazine project that I had initiated had failed spectacularly and I was desperately looking for something to fill that void both as a career and for income.
I attended the Lukenya writers’ summit and adopted a sort of mute position, one that I would adopt for many years to follow where Binyavanga was concerned. I sat and listened in on the panel discussions by day and, in the evenings, on the conversations that took place by the campfire over copious amounts of alcohol. Listening to Binyavanga, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor and others discussing the challenges and the opportunities in their writing careers had a marked influence on my life. Binyavanga spoke about the need to write back to the European canon, challenging the writing that defined Africa from the likes of Ernest Hemmingway and Joseph Conrad. It was an amazing opportunity for someone seeking purpose in life. That weekend was a turning point for me and I committed to this writing world fully in the months and years that followed.
In making this commitment, I got to know more about this dude who went by the name Binyavanga—or The Binj, or Binya to the many who knew him in the African creative community—and who was central to my making such a life-altering decision. Over the years of a glittering career, his work was featured in many of the world’s most famous publications. Starting with G21, the magazine which had featured his award-winning short story Discovering Home, his work could be read in Chimurenga, Virginia Quarterly Review, Granta, The East African, National Geographic, New York Times, Transition, Bidoun, Harper’s Magazine, The Guardian, Africa is A Country, Jalada, Bomb, etc. At one point he had a regular column in the South African newspaper Mail & Guardian.
The year I met him, Binyavanga’s essay How To Write About Africa, satirising how European writers talk about our continent, was published in Granta. That essay reminded me of sitting around a campfire listening to him railing against those who brought Africa and Africans to disrepute with their writing. It became one of the most shared pieces of writing in that respected literary journal and brought him worldwide fame.
His 2011 memoir One Day I Will Write About This Place was his personal contribution to the canon. It was a memoir of his middle class childhood in his Nakuru hometown, his time as a student in South Africa and, after he return home, his travels across the world. The book, which was favourably reviewed, made it onto Oprah’s 2011 Summer Reading List . It was The Binj at his best, showing what English could become in the ownership of a writer with his singular talents.
Also memorable was I’m A Homosexual Mum which was published in Africa Is A Country in 2014 when Binyavanga came out as gay. At the time, several African countries including Nigeria and Uganda were either drafting or passing new laws that would make it very difficult for gay people to be who they were. Outing himself in this “lost chapter of his memoir” and following it up with a series of videos that outlined his views on what was happening to the social fabric of the continent was a revolutionary act.
While his own writing career was significant, his biggest contributions came from his ability to influence others with his larger-than-life personality, his compassion and his sheer determination. It started with the winnings from the Caine Prize, part of which he used to set up the Kwani Trust, jolting the literary establishment in Kenya and across the continent. Before he showed up, there was no Kenyan literature in the true sense of the word as, for a quarter of a century, the industry had been hobbled by anti-intellectual dictator Daniel Arap Moi. At the time the publishers association was a text book lobby that focused mainly on selling books to school children while onn the continent, there was a lull in African writing after the glory years of the Heinemann African Writers Series in the 1960s and 70s.
The appearance of Binyavanga Wainaina signified a shift not only in Kenya but across the continent. After many years of inactivity, the “literary desert” got a new lease of life with the publishing of the literary journal Kwani? (which in Kenyan slang means “so what?”). That journal gave us the next winner of the Caine Prize, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor. In the years that followed, the journal introduced many writers to the African literary community like the aforementioned Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, Parselelo Kantai, Muthoni Garland, Dayo Forster, Billy Kahora, Andia Kisia, and many more that became the foundation of the literary community that we all look up to today.
With Binyavanga editing Kwani?, he challenged the idea of what literature looked like, what it sounded like or even in what language it was expressed. Experimentation was the name of the game and nothing demonstrated this as well as his association with Ukoo Flani Mau Mau which many considered the biggest hip hop group to come out of Kenya. Led by the inspirational Kama (Kamau Ngigi), young artists who came mainly from Dandora could be spotted at the Kwani? offices huddled around an office assistant who was typing their poetry and other musings. These musings, written in Sheng—a constantly evolving urban language made up of Kiswahili, English and many other Kenyan languages—ended up in the journal much to the consternation and fury of those in academia who considered themselves the arbiters of good literature.
When not ensuring that their work was immortalised in his preferred literary medium, Binyavanga also influenced the young artists as the executive producer of the 2016 Dandora Burning album. He raised money for studio time as well as for living expenses for the artists who featured on the album like Juliani, Kitu Sewer, and a whole host of others.
It wasn’t just experimenting with language that became a trademark of the journal under The Binj. Stories refused to follow any familiar patterns, with fiction, nonfiction and poetry mixed in with everything one could imagine, being published in the smaller version Kwanini when the journal wasn’t in publication. For a long time, there had been a yearning for something new and exciting and the breath of fresh air that was Kwani? was welcomed by those who had been rejected elsewhere. There was now a new space in which to showcase their talent. The new methods were however not as welcomed by those in publishing and academia, with one commentator famously calling the Kwani? writers “literary gangsters”.
One of the methods that the Kwani?, team employed to share their work with the Nairobi audience was the Kwani Open Mic. At the beginning, the events were hosted away from the Central Business District at the Yaya Centre Café Crème and at Kengeles in Lavington. Writers would read from their current or forthcoming entries to the Kwani? Journal, the readings interspersed with poetry and music including from the aforementioned hip hop artists who were part of Ukoo Flani Mau Mau. The open mic events were a occasions where some of the city’s well-heeled residents met some of the least well off, continuing on a theme that had been prevalent in the wake of the 2002 “revolution” where everything was possible without Dictator Moi; even the rich could sit with the Dandora boys.
The open mic events eventually moved to Club Soundd which was located in the Central Business District. People coming to Club Soundd had convenient access to public transport until the late hours and so more people attended and stayed longer. The events became a spectacle, with the person on stage having to be extremely compelling with whatever poetry, prose, or rap they were presenting or else the audience would switch off and turn to conversation with whoever they were with. Showtime at the Apollo had the Sandman; Kwani Open Mic had a crowd that became easily bored and tuned out.
As the years went by, it became the stage on which many of the poets of the last decade and a half cut their teeth. It was an important space for the community of the arts to get together and meet every first Tuesday of the month. From these events, many relationships, both professional and personal, were forged that endure to this day. That open mic spawned what became Nairobi’s vibrant poetry scene.
Eventually, Binyavanga had to leave the day-to-day running of the organisation to other people as he took up writing gigs “in the abroad”. He was the writer-in-residence at Union College in Schenectady, New York, in 2007 and in 2008, at Williams College, in Massachusetts. He then became director of the Chinua Achebe Centre for African Writers and Artists at Bard College, New York state. While not physically present at the organisation, Binyavanga sat on the board, giving valuable energy and input.
The organisation he once led came up with the Kwani Manuscript Project in 2011 to identify the next big writing stars from the continent and it delivered the motherload. The shortlist from the hundreds submitted included the manuscripts of Ayobami Adebayo’s Stay with Me, Ayesha Harruna Attah’s Saturday’s People, Toni Kan’s The Carnivorous City, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s The Kintu Saga, and Saah Millimono’s One Day I Will Write About This War. The Kwani? Manuscript Prize was ultimately won by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, arguably the biggest starin Ugandan writing today.
Binyavanga was involved in other projects with varying degrees of success. In 2010, he led a team of writers in the Pilgrimages project where 14 African writers travelled to 13 African cities and to one city in Brazil to explore the complexities of disparate urban landscapes. From this experience, the writers were to create 14 works of non-fiction about their trips, capturing each city against the backdrop of Africa’s first World Cup. In the list of writers were Chris Abani, Doreen Baingana, Uzodinma Iweala, Alain Mabanckou, and Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor. The much-hyped works never saw the light of day; even the charismatic Kenyan couldn’t always deliver on the hype.
The Binj did deliver on many other occasions though. One of these was the Hay Festival/World Book Capital Africa39 list, a project to identify the writers, under 40 years of age, most likely to influence African writing in the future. That project, for which Binyavanga did most of the initial research, gave us a list of writers who would theoretically influence African writing in the future. Many on that list like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Lola Shoneyin, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Shadreck Chikoti, Novuyo Rosa Tshuma, and Zukiswa Wanner continue to live up to its premise. Binyavanga was also the biggest supporter of the 24 Nairobi book project which showcased Nairobi as a modern African city through the eyes of its own photographers.
Away from his hits and misses, Binyavanga was plagued by illness in the last few years of his life, suffering a major stroke in 2015 from which he never truly recovered. He announced that he was HIV positive in 2016 and battled with his body until it all ended on the evening of May 21, 2019.
There were two Binyavanga Wainainas; the man before and the man after the 2015 stroke. After he recovered, Binya as I knew him, was not the the same force of nature that he had been. The man who was clumsy in an endearing sort of way was now having that clumsiness seep into all of his life, and it showed. He spent many hours on social media sharing whatever he was thinking and doing while getting into unnecessary virtual battles with perceived or real enemies.
The Binyavanga I wanted to remember was The Binj of before 2015 who showed up one day and changed the game by sheer force of will. I remember meeting him two weeks after being hired as an editor at the Star newspaper in Nairobi in 2011 and was invited to his birthday party where we chatted and he encouraged me, reminding me just how important the work that I did was. This coming from him was a boost that drove me for a long time. I knew that, being in an influential space, I had to ensure that the literary arts occupied their place of honour in Kenya.
We met on and off over the next few years until he was hospitalised by illness. His last words to me were, “You’ve grown a beard”. I laughed and said, “Yes”. They were the last words we shared.
The last time he was at my house, he took a nap in my living room then woke up and dominated the conversation at the smoking area at the backyard. I could tell that he could be a bit frustrated with his speech but he still held his own on in a wide variety of topics. That night showed me the best and the not-so-great of the great man. Being down because of a physical challenge but still coming to the conversation, opening with his signature, “you knowwwww…”
Thank you Binya. You saved me, and many like me.
Rest in Peace Binya. Rest in Power.
You can find a gallery of Binyavanga Wainaina’s writing at PlanetBinya.org.
The Capture of Kabuga Frees Me to Hope Again
A Kenyan investigative journalist reflects on the capture of a genocidaire in Paris after 26 years on the run and its significance to the families of the victims left in his wake.
May 16th, 2020 1:43 pm
News of the arrest in Paris, France of Felicien Kabuga, the man long accused of funding the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda 26 years ago, has now reached a one-bedroom house in Pangani estate, Nakuru, Kenya. Josephat Gichuki, the tenant in this threadbare home, calls me to ask if I have heard the news. We talk now and again, our conversations mostly prompted by the slightest of wisps of news about Rwanda’s octogenarian outlaw. Today I can hear excitement in his voice. I ask to interview him on his thoughts and call back eight minutes later.
“I am very, very happy. This is important to me because there is no office I have not gone to seeking justice”, he says. Josephat has cause to be happy. His younger brother, Kenyan journalist William Munuhe was murdered hours before he was set to lead Kenyan and US authorities to Felicien, Kabuga on January 16th 2003. Kenyan Police first claimed that he had killed himself by lighting a charcoal burner and inhaling carbon monoxide fumes. Yet the evidence found in his Karen home told a completely different story.
Josephat has been searching for the truth for the last 17 years. Just like that, he very possibly could get the closure he has sought for close to two decades. Pushing for the Kenyan government to provide him with the answers his family needed hasn’t been good for the Gichukis. His father passed away in 2018. Gichuki says that his father was “distraught” that he “struggled so hard to raise a child only to see him killed” and no one to answer for it. “Heartbreak killed my father”, he says. Almost as if his mouth was working on muscle memory, he fires off nearly every attempt he has made to get a response from the government, as well as every missed opportunity.
“[Former President] Kibaki was a guest of the Rwanda government in 2004. We expected him to say something. He didn’t. In 2014 at the 20th commemoration of the genocide, [President] Uhuru was a guest of the Rwanda government. We expected him to say something. He didn’t”.
Neither one of us would be surprised by this. The Kenyan government has long denied any knowledge about the whereabouts of Felicien Kabuga and the crimes that have been linked to him. The day of his capture doesn’t seem to inspire any volunteering of information either. “He isn’t our criminal”, I can almost hear some local public relations spin doctor say. Would Kabuga’s arrest matter to a population whose median age is 19 anyway? It should, in the way that all life-altering events do matter.
May 16th, 1994
A situation report issued daily by the United Nations Mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR) rattles off statistics on food, water and fuel rations, a rundown of the fighting between the RPF (Rwandese Patriotic Front) and the RGF (Rwandese Government Forces) on this day. Fighting between current President Paul Kagame’s forces (RPF) and government troops was focused in the north of the country and in Kigali, the small nation’s capital. Journalists had visited various refugee camps to look into distribution of food rations. A meeting brokered to discuss a ceasefire took place at the Hotel Diplomat. The RPF didn’t send any representatives. It makes for a mundane reading of the facts about one of the worst tragedies to have ever taken place on the face of the earth. Yet every detail is important. This one line sticks out:
“HA (Humanitarian activities) team held a meeting with the OPS (operations) officer of the Gendarmerie, GSO II of the RGF and representative of the Interahamwe and the militia, concerning the evacuation of orphans from Giimba and Gitega. Numerous problems were posed regarding the evacuation of orphans”.
This statement meant two things: first, that any humanitarian aid organisation working in Rwanda at the time had to work with the approval of the Rwanda government. That is normal. Secondly, a representative of the Interahamwe, a brutal, bloodthirsty militia responsible for the murder of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis and moderate Hutus was also at the table. That should strike out any doubts of how central it was as a player in the civil war.
26 years later, in the middle of the second month of Rwanda’s Kwibuka commemorations, it also spotlights how important the arrest of the Interahamwe’s chief benefactor Felicien Kabuga is bringing the arc of history that much closer to the endgame; bending it towards justice. Kabuga bought hundreds of thousands of machetes that were given to these men. He owned media houses that trumpeted the “cut down the tall trees” narratives that captured a misled public’s imagination that their brothers and sisters were actually vermin. He was at the heart of the plans to eliminate more than 20 per cent of Rwanda’s population. He was a rich man whose money bought him 26 years of freedom – in Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo and France.
Few people have walked the earth freely after committing the crimes that he is accused of. Many of the main actors in the holocaust were arrested, tried and hung. Dictators responsible for bringing untold suffering to their citizens have risen and fallen in the time since Felicien Kabuga escaped imminent capture (and possibly a similar fate) by the RPF in the early days of June 1994, starting a 26-year life on the run that ended on May 16th 2020.
Kabuga traveled to Switzerland first, where he was denied entry, before coming to Kenya. Here, he was received with open arms. He and his family bought properties in Kilimani, owned fancy cars and lived quiet lives between 1994 and 1997. His children went to school here. He registered his businesses here and was well on the way to gaining a foothold in the Kenya-Rwanda logistics industry when he was arrested and jailed at the Kilimani Police Station. He was released at the behest of very senior Kenyans including a current Member of Parliament. He would go underground, and official accounts denying his presence in Kenya would begin.
May 16th, 2012
My wife and our two children had just moved into what would be our home for the next one month. I had been investigating Felicien Kabuga’s whereabouts and my sources and I had begun receiving threats. We were in the process of getting passports for our two young children just in case we would need to leave the country. We had already pulled them out of school and my wife had to take leave from work. Meanwhile, I needed to keep on the track of the story. I had turned in the first draft and it was decided that I would need to travel to Rwanda to deepen it.
I had picked up the thread of Kabuga’s sojourn in Kenya in December of 2011. I would read about the man whose money and beliefs sowed bitterness in the hearts of his countrymen through his radio station, Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines in the years before the start of the genocide. I visited Kigali Prison to speak to a woman who worked for Kabuga at RTLM as Rwanda commemorated 18 years since Kabuga and senior Rwandan government officials plotted a genocide.
I pored over documents linking Kenyan military officers to a cabal of Kabuga’s protectors in Kenya. I interviewed former senior government officials in confidence about the man’s whereabouts. I read books about the genocide, spoke to foreign correspondents and senior Kenyan journalists who had covered the genocide. I spoke to genocide survivors, broke bread with young Kenyans working in Rwanda and watched in horror news of a helicopter crash that would kill, among others, Kenya’s internal security minister, George Saitoti. I had planned to interview Saitoti when I got back to Kenya on the subject of Kabuga. I chased leads that led nowhere, and received some that opened up even more information about what Kabuga was up to while in Kenya.
I also interviewed the former Prosecutor General of Rwanda, Martin Ngoga, about Kabuga’s whereabouts. Earlier in the year I had received a photograph of a man who my sources claimed was Kabuga. I showed it to Ngoga, as well as to the lady I interviewed in Kigali Prison, and to a doctor who it was claimed had treated Kabuga in Nakuru, among other people. With the exception of the doctor (who passed away weeks after my documentary aired), everyone else was agreed on the identity of the man in the photo. It was the photo that would cast doubt on a story I had toiled so long to tell.
The man in this photo was produced at a press conference addressed by former Kenya Police Spokesman Eric Kiraithe. Daniel Ngera, a businessman from Isiolo, had been forced into the frame by what Kiraithe called shoddy journalism on my part. I couldn’t respond because I wasn’t there to do so. My wife, our children and I had left the country the Friday before the story ran, and were just settling into life on the run. My heart sank and my stomach turned. I could never have imagined that an error on my part would serve as a distraction from the existing facts about one of Rwanda’s most dangerous men.
The month that followed was one of the darkest in my life. I spent it fighting anxiety attacks. Would I have a job to come back to? My wife had already lost her job because she couldn’t explain in detail why she had to be away from work for three months. All through this, I was trying to reassure my wife that everything would be alright. To be honest, she did most of the reassuring.
Fortunately, I had a boss—Linus Kaikai—who stood by me, and (I hope) believed in the integrity of my intentions and the rigour I had applied to the story. I will always regret having exposed Mr Ngera, a man I had never met, to that kind of ridicule—even if I hadn’t set out to do so, much less plot to pass him off as a genocidaire. Yet for all the efforts that my team and I made, or the shame that Mr Ngera was exposed to or the anxious days and weeks that followed, this was the least important part of the story of Kabuga’s life as a fugitive.
Kabuga’s freedom, enabled by people in different countries across the world, was a slap in the face of every Rwandese citizen; those who lost lives during the genocide, those who have endured life without loved ones, even those who were brought to justice years before he will see the inside of a courtroom. The soil that turned red and the rivers in which bodies floated, the churches that were turned into slaughterhouses, all of the history that heaves with the weight of this dark chapter deserves a twist like this one. The hilltops from where the cries of the innocent rang out 26 years ago should hear news of Kabuga’s capture loudly beamed.
Back to May 16th, 2020
My day draws to a close with a call from my mother. She called to say she’d seen the news about Kabuga’s arrest, and that she was proud of me for playing my part in bringing to justice an evil man. “You may not have succeeded, but you did your best—and I feel vindicated on your behalf”. Those words wrung out a bitterness I’ve carried for eight years because of how my attempt to find a bad man ended. If only for tonight, I feel a lightness I haven’t felt whenever I have thought about Kabuga. Earlier, Josephat had ended our call with the same note of hope that he had had for answers 17 years ago. Maybe the request for a public inquest into his brother’s murder will be heeded now that the chief suspect in that murder is behind bars. Maybe not. All he and his family have wanted is justice. Josephat was 33 years old when his younger brother William was murdered because some people in Kenya chose to stand on the side of a butcher than with the millions for whom Kabuga’s crimes can never be fully atoned. His hope may have wavered many a time, but on this day, May 16th 2020, his ageing eyes opened to see the day when an ageing criminal’s luck ran out. The end of Felicien Kabuga’s freedom has freed Josephat and I to nurse the hope that justice does not have a sell-by-date. I know we must nurse this flame with care and not shout too loudly, lest we extinguish it before we have fought the many other battles ahead of us. Hope, it seems, may actually spring eternal.
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