Writer Tells Africa What He Couldn’t Tell ‘Mum’

Nairobi, Kenya — When the Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina published his acclaimed memoir three years ago, he concealed an important part of his life from the public eye. Last Saturday, he unveiled “a lost chapter” of the book on the Internet titled, “I am a homosexual, mum.”

The chapter, about missing the opportunity to tell his mother before she died, is intensely personal. The response has been extremely public, a “gay bombshell” in the words of the newspaper The Daily Nation.

That is because, as a successful author, publisher, journalist and commentator, Mr. Wainaina, 43, has become one of the most prominent Africans ever to come out publicly. He did so at a moment when the issue is being fiercely debated here in sub-Saharan Africa.

The signing by President Goodluck Jonathan was not publicized apparently to avoid offense to other countries where such relationships are permitted.Nigerian President Signs Ban on Same-Sex RelationshipsJAN. 13, 2014

Even as gay rights have gained ground in the United States and other Western nations, Africa has in some cases moved backward, with several countries increasing penalties against gays. Nigeria’s president this month signed into law a tough ban on same-sex relationships that threatens violators with 14-year prison terms, amid reports that gay men have been rounded up, arrested and even tortured.

“The law is extremely cynical,” Mr. Wainaina said. “Any kind of bill like that has such extreme consequences that an immediacy of reaction of every kind is necessary.”

Mr. Wainaina, voluble and expressive, with his hair shaved on the sides, dyed red on one side, blue on the other, and yellow sunglasses perched atop his head, labeled homophobia a Victorian export brought to Africa by British colonialists. He placed the debate over gay rights in the context of a young, rapidly growing continent.

“I’m extremely optimistic about rapid transformation and change of things in Africa in general,” Mr. Wainaina said. “It’s set off. It cannot stop. It’s going to be turbulent. There’ll be dark bits and there’ll be bright bits, but it’s a speed train.”

While Mr. Wainaina has spoken out against the new law in Nigeria, his decision to come out was equally about his own experiences in his native Kenya, in particular, the death of a young gay friend called Kalota whose parents were forced to leave their church afterward. Another friend died of AIDS last year, and the aftermath also left Mr. Wainaina pensive.

He was uncomfortable with “that whole feeling of a certain kind of surreptitiousness, why didn’t so-and-so come to the funeral, but they loved him and they’re very close.” It was hard for him to pin down why he went public, he said, because “it’s not so much the event as a singularity but how that singularity compounds on things that happen all the time,” he said.

Since his chapter went online, Mr. Wainaina (pronounced wye-NYE-na) said he had been getting messages of support, both public and private, from friends, relatives and even a retired Roman Catholic priest who was close to the family.

“Someone who was in high school with me who I haven’t seen or talked to in years, you know, sent me a private message saying, ‘I’m a cop now, so if you need any help, give me a call,’ ” Mr. Wainaina said.

It was generous, and in a way comforting, but also a sign of the severity of discrimination and public insults, blackmail and beatings gay people in Kenya still face, said Peter Njane, a member of the task force for the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya. “The kind of oppression we go through, it forces us to come out and say who we are.”

It is not just Kenya. On his visit to Africa last year, President Obama found himself trading barbs with President Macky Sall of Senegal. After Mr. Obama praised the United States Supreme Court decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act, Mr. Sall retorted, “We are not ready to decriminalize homosexuality.” The news media and public in Senegal, where gay sex is illegal and gays are often persecuted, celebrated his defiance.

Mr. Njane said that while the coalition applauded Mr. Wainaina’s decision to come out, there had been “a lot of negativity on social media.” Some compared gays to pedophiles, while others made crass jokes or uncomfortable statements about gay sex, calling it “weird” and “unimaginable.”

“I blame the parents!” one Kenyan Twitter user said, for giving him an uncommon name like Binyavanga.

He was born Kenneth Binyavanga Wainaina, and his family still calls him Ken. But “the exotic” of the name Binyavanga “gave me a thrill,” he said, and he began going by his middle name.

His mother ran a hair salon in the city of Nakuru, while his father was a successful executive. In the lost chapter, Mr. Wainaina said that he had known he was gay since he was 5 years old.

He described shaking a man’s hand at 7: “This feeling has made me suddenly ripped apart and lonely. The feeling is not sexual. It is certain. It is overwhelming.”

He studied in South Africa during the final years of apartheid, and had friends there who were gay.

His mother died in 2000, and he still had not faced up to the thoughts he had been having since he was a child. He did not act on it until five years later with “a man who will give me a massage and some brief, paid-for love” in London, as he described it in the chapter. “I cannot say the word gay until I am 39, four years after that brief massage encounter.”

In the meantime he had become an important voice in African literature. He won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2002 and was a founder of the literary journal “Kwani?” His critical essay, “How to Write About Africa,” in the British literary journal Granta in 2005, took foreign journalists and authors to task for their clichéd approach to covering the continent.

For photos, he advised, “an AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these.”

“If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress,” he wrote. Acceptable characters include “The Starving African,” but “she must look utterly helpless.” The biting piece became a minor sensation.

In 2011 he published a memoir, “One Day I Will Write About This Place,” which was a critical success at home and abroad. Women, especially, Mr. Wainaina said, noticed the absence of a love life. “I’m not ready to go there,” he recalled thinking at the time.

He had come out to confidants but had not taken the step publicly. He said that he and a few friends had been “brainstorming what to do for a while,” in half a dozen conversations in bars over the last eight months.

When he finally made the decision, it became a multimedia coming out, the initial online chapter followed by a cyclone of Twitter messages and a six-part video where he talks about education, creativity and his own experience, posted online as “We Must Free Our Imaginations.”

On Twitter Mr. Wainaina declared that he would travel to Nigeria, but when asked about it in an interview he said, “Such ideas really have to generate from Nigerians.”

“I’m not even sure I want to use the term ‘coming out,’ ” he said, offering “being gay in public” instead. Mr. Wainaina seemed like a man at ease with the momentous decision he had made, but also still getting used to how the way he related to the world around him had changed.

“What is my urinal policy? Do you chat casually with the person next to you as would be the case before?” he asked, with his deep, knowing chuckle. “These are all the sorts of questions in my head.”

But he said he had no doubt that he had made the right decision. “There’s no point for me in being a writer and having all these blocked places where I feel I can’t think freely and imagine freely,” Mr. Wainaina said. “There just really is no point.”

by Nicholas Kulish
Source – The New York Times