THE AGAINST NATURE JOURNAL

published by Council

 

 

 

THE AGAINST NATURE JOURNAL is a biannual arts and human rights magazine exploring “crime against nature” laws and their legacies, in print, in person, and online. Authors and readers from law, activism, social sciences, and the arts are brought together to foster dialogue on sexual and reproductive rights and rethink nature anew.

 

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How to Binj

by Amatesiro Dore

 

I

We’re at the Coast of Sierra Leone. The weather is like steam rising from a boiling kettle. Pores are open, and sweat is welcome. Unlike cooler places where sweat has the flavor of something fermented, here, it is the sheen of every limb. Sweat is only a perfume when fresh, free- owing. It is the only air-conditioner that works.

 

Cold things, iced things are silly here. They just give you the false illusion that you are chilled, before heat overwhelms you with a vengeance.

 

Pots stir in the midday heat. The kitchen is in the court- yard, kids are playing. Somebody is grinding chili. I have often wondered why chilis get hotter the hotter a place is. To get you to sweat, I guess.

 

From the Congo River to Nigeria, palates embrace musk and any other flavors that mimic the most sensual smells of the body. Yams. If potatoes ever were in heat, this is what they would taste like.

—Binyavanga Wainaina, “Prawn Palaver” (ca. 2001)

 

The Binj was a cook, and his favorite ingredients were words that produced imagery. His father, Job Muigai Wainaina, was the founding managing director of a Kenyan government parastatal; his mother, Rosemary Kankindi, was a hairdresser, mother of four, with Ugandan and Rwandan bloodlines, and a periodic Pentecostal. The upper-middle-class family lived as one of the most illustrious families in Nakuru. The Binj’s father abstained from looting public funds, chaired the local golf club, and managed a private farming enterprise to sponsor the cosmopolitan education of his children.

 

The Binj was loved. He was blessed with a doting mother and a compassionate father, who was easily manipulated by his children. That love became the seed that blossomed into the charitable lifestyle of the Binj. He per- formed the life of a savior, serving as an unsolicited literary agent of African writers; he was the number one referee for grants, scholarships, and residencies long before he was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most In uential People in 2014. It was boring old love for Africa and Africans that drove his life and career. From cradle to grave.

 

The Binj was a failure who tried to make success out of everything and for everyone in Africa, starting with food. He looked inward and commenced the process of exhibiting African excellence at the heart of Africa, South Africa. His contemporary Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie immigrated to America for tertiary education, like other upper middle-class kids, while the Binj went to the best place within the continent. The Binj cooked after failing in school and tried to run an African catering business (while he wrote on the side, gathering hundreds of recipes and publishing outstanding food criticism). He failed beautifully. The business never made a pro t. But he was serially published in two prestigious magazines in South Africa (Weekend Argus and the Sunday Times), and went on to win the Caine Prize for African Writing in the same year that Chimamanda was short-listed.

 

The Binj was the second male African writer of his generation to explode from the continent after Helon Habila, another struggling writer who made it big after win- ning the Caine Prize. Then he performed another act of magic: he set up the magazine Kwani? and published Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, whose story subsequently won the 2003 Caine Prize. He loved to be local, African, so he did not un- derstand the Afropolitanism of Taiye Selasi and lashed out against her 2005 essay about African identity in the diaspora. He would later recant and apologize. But I doubt if he ever regretted rejecting the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leader honor. The Binj preferred to sponsor emerging African talents with food and intoxication.

 

After food, he profiled soccer, and Western NGO behavior on the continent. “How to Write About Africa,” the Binj’s classic essay, was originally a letter to the editor of Granta magazine, castigating their 1994 issue on Africa. He developed the rhythms of his rst book, One Day I Will Write about This Place, during his years of curating African cuisine across the continent. While pro ling food, he also pro led talents via exquisite emails and his reliable word-of-mouth. Careers have been made on his recommendations, as a thousand tributes testify online. In a series of YouTube videos We Must Free Our Imaginations, you will find his motivations and why he insisted on original people and abilities, no photocopies.

 

The Binj was loveable. He would assemble and fund a feast of talented creatives whenever he entered any territory. He was a sugar daddy with a conscience. Having spent his twenties as an African food connoisseur and instigator of enjoyment, the rising homophobia and general conservatism spreading across the continent by Christian Pentecostals motivated his tirades against religious oppressors. He believed that New-Age Pentecostalism corrupted the faith of friends and loved ones. The personal fueled his public utterances.

 

Unlike his mother, he did not hear the Pentecostal God and did not regard African men of God. His god was a sci-fi , African ancestor consulting with spirits and technology. He believed that the proclamations of a Pentecostal pastor had convinced his mother not to vote in a multiparty system election; the pastor supported a one-party state government, despite evidence of wanton corruption and economic hardship in Kenya. He also believed that the reign of Pentecostal Christianity robbed Africans of original creative thinking and development. The church ascribed governmental failures and personal inadequacies to demons and so-called demonic activities. It was, for him, the very enemy of the people because it blocked their imagination. Some Pentecostal pastors in Kenya further believed they could “eradicate homosexuality” with government policies. The Binj compared their homophobia to the Salem witch trials. In an episode of We Must Free Our Imaginations, he says, “give me the book about demonology and how demonology is important for building roads, schools, and imagination . . . give me data . . . give me data that homosexuality is such a problem that is spreading virally.”

 

The Pentecostals made living in Africa difficult for the Binj. He railed against them. This was why he addressed his deceased mother and her generation of Pentecostal Kenyans in his coming-out essay, “I am a Homosexual, Mum.”

 

II

There are times that even Graham believes the story he has peddled for so many years, about how he came to be gay. That he had always known; that he used to dress up in his mother; that he had been riveted by the biceps of Mohammed Ali, the anger of those black panthers on television; that he had played the kerfuf e game in public school; that the old gay friends of his mother, who had hosted him when she was in rehab, or consulting her guru in Lucknow, had made it easy to see possibilities in this world. These things are all true, but only small accessories to the main event.

 

But the main event, as seen by him now, is also un- truthful: it was not as clear a sexual selection as he prefers to imagine, and he knows this enough not to share this story—it could well be that he was always gay, and that he would have come to it in one way or another, despite his self-protests to the contrary. But the unambiguous epiphany that the rst gay fuck gave him marked not his sexuality, but his approach to life itself, it was his Woodstock, his civil rights movement. And inside himself, he remains unconvinced of his visceral homosexuality, believes that he has willfully created himself.

—Binyavanga Wainaina, “Alien Taste” (2016)

Very few times was homosexuality the main event in the Binj’s writing. In the story “Alien Taste,” he compared the naturalness of queer sex to drinking beer. In his TEDGlobal 2007 talk, he said, “the most consumed stories in Africa were from the Bible.” He began to rewrite Africa by challenging the dominant homophobic narrative with his imagination. At the time of his Lannan Foundation conversation with Chimamanda in 2011, he had not published any queer literature, neither had he come out, so it was fascinating to watch him discuss her The Shivering, a Pentecostal queer story. During the dialogue, she said, “by the time we knew he was gay, we already liked him.” The Binj winced and complained about the dearth of queer literature from the continent. Then he continued to hide himself until many years later.

 

Pentecostalism also robbed the Binj of his mother. She believed in miraculous healing and stopped tak- ing the necessary medication for her diabetes. It led to her death before he could come out to her. After he did come out, he was invited as a guest of honor to his prestigious Kenyan high school, but on his arrival the ceremony was canceled on the counsel of an influential bishop of the church—the church first attacked the Binj before he attacked the homophobia and intolerance of the church. In a statement re- ported by The Nairobian, he said: “Oh! There is a lot of money in gay business . . . but if I wanted real money, I would start a church. First, I would make noise against the church, then I would wait for six months and go to the biggest church in Africa and ‘confess’ . . . Then I would marry a beautiful musician and be featured in all the cool press in Africa: ‘Meet Mr. Binyavanga and Mrs. Binyavanga, ex-homosexual and his model girlfriend sitting on a yacht . . . that is the life.’”

 

The Binj did not perform friendship, rather he was a friend indeed. He befriended ordinary Africans doing extraordinary things across the continent, from chauffeurs to cooks in Tanzania and Ghana, to street artists and merchants in Nairobi and Accra. Regular folks had his inter- continental phone number; everyone had direct access via his email, and he sent money for the mothers of his friends. Their pain was thereby accessible to him, and the injuries inflicted by the church on his friends stayed acute in his memory. When a church in Kenya excommunicated the mother of a late queer friend and the local community turned on the family of his deceased compatriot, he spoke back against the church. He castigated the public list of queer people authored by church-sponsored homophobes and denounced the state-endorsed discrimination against LGBTQI communities in Kenya.

 

When he authored his coming-out piece addressed to his late mother (and other aggrieved mothers in Kenya), he came out for a generation and interrogated the most homophobic powers in Africa: the church and the state. It was a verbal hammer to chip away at their influence. He also wanted to turn the eyes of the church away from the bedroom activities of his friends—why was the church so concerned with the sexual activities of his friends anyway? The Binj also named names and mentioned the individual homophobic bodies and personalities behind the murder, assault, and harassment of queer folks. The Binj spoke out at every opportunity and instance, challenging the homophobic churches in Kenya into a test of holiness, righteousness, and patriotism.

 

The Binj was a great writer, who happened to be gay. He wrote queer literature as a response to homophobia. He fought for his friends against state actors and known enemies of their lives. He was loyal to a fault because he also adopted the personal enemies of his friends, irrespective of whether his friends were wrong or not. He would have spoken out against Islam if it were part of the Pentecostal forces tormenting the health and freedom of his friends. After he came out, the Binj befriended the queer with his works and imaginations. He was not a conventional human rights activist. He had no regard for donor funds and despised the activities of Western NGOs focused on solving African problems. At the end of his life, he began to build the coalition of Upright People to stand against injustice and discrimination on the continent. He was not against a structural approach. He was simply against neocolonial Western approaches that propagate the image of a benevolent West with sinister motives. He was simple in his takedowns and tirades against homophobic Pentecostal churches in Kenya. He was not against Pentecostalism. He was against homophobia and homophobic Pentecostals who used their power to torment his friends.

 

III

Hey mum. I was putting my head on her shoulder, that last afternoon before she died. She was lying on her hospital bed. Kenyatta. Intensive Care. Critical Care. There. Because this time I will not be away in South Africa, fucking things up in that chaotic way of mine. I will arrive on time, and be there when she dies. My heart arrives on time.

 

I am holding my dying mother’s hand. I am lifting her hand. Her hand will be swollen with diabetes. Her organs are failing. Hey mum. Ooooh. My mind sighs. My heart! I am whispering in her ear. She is awake, listening, soft calm loving, with my head right inside in her breathspace. She is so big—my mother, in this world, near the next world, each breath slow, but steady, as it should be. Inhale. She can carry everything. I will whisper, louder, in my mindsbreath. To hers. She will listen, even if she doesn’t hear. Can she?

—Binyavanga Wainaina, “I am a Homosexual, Mum” (2014)

 

The Binj never came out to his parents. He imagined coming out to his mum in the piece above. “Sometimes I feel like your parents are hostage to you much more than you are hostage to them, and so, the fear of, sort of, wounding them, for me, I think, was a big thing. But then, this is the opportunity to test their hearts the way I didn’t give myself the opportunity to test their hearts,” the Binj said to NPR on the publication of his essay “I am a Homosexual, Mum.” In the essay, he takes us on his metamorphosis from shy to outspoken advocate of sexual rights and identities. He addressed parents, the basic unit of society, because he needed them to fight homophobia and homophobic institutions. He wanted Pentecostal parents to speak up like Bishop Christopher Senyonjo, an African hero of faith from his mother’s country, who preached against the homophobic gospel of his contemporaries and the church in Uganda.

 

The Binj wanted to create a world of “up- right people,” which he de ned as “people who love Africa.” He embraced upright people, irrespective of race, nationality, creed, or sexuality. He wanted an Africa where all people were welcome. He wanted a safe passage across the continent. He was committed to African unity, and he extended an invitation to the Nigerian president who signed the anti-queer bill into law. The possibilities of his own death broadened his empathy to forgive across the homophobic divide. His Upright movement required the cooperation and participation of all lovers of Africa. As the effects of multiple strokes and speech impediment slowed his body, his mind expanded into using previously unconsidered mechanisms to eradicate hate from the continent.

 

The Binj struggled to finish his love letter to Nigeria and the continent at large. It remained a work in progress at the time of his death. It was his dying work and labor of love for the continent. He wanted to interview the political youth of the next generation. He wanted to hear their voice and document their thoughts about his Upright movement. He was against “NGO funded youth.” He wanted to work with “political young people who live and survive the way the other citizens of their countries do.” On his in- tended tour across Africa, he wanted to live with upright people. In a YouTube video statement published on his Facebook page, he said, “it could be the person I am to stay with is a homophobe. That is OK because he signed up as an upright person. In Soweto, or in Kano, or in Juba, he is responsible for our security because upright people do not allow their guests to stay where it is not safe.” He could rely on the humanity of homophobes because he recalled how upright Africans across the continent rallied to raise US$30,000 to cater for his medical bills; contributors from various demo- graphics attended fundraising drives in Lagos and Nairobi. The Binj could rally the people.

 

The Binj asked for donations to fund the Upright movement from ordinary Africans on the Internet. He utilized social media to rally his flock, but his failing health discouraged many supporters. He grew religious and began to explore traditional African faith healers. He patronized a sangoma, “a person who helps people to get in touch with their ancestors,” who encouraged him to return to Kenya. In his home country, weakened by multiple sicknesses, he tried to build his coalition of Upright Africans. He ignored the homophobic Pentecostals and came to believe that the failure to recognize his ancestors was responsible for his strokes. He be- came quite spiritual during his last days and believed the practice of nondiscriminatory African spirituality was a pathway to a continent free of homophobia.

 

In the words of Adriaan van Klinken from his book Kenyan, Christian, Queer: Religion, LGBT Activism, and Arts of Resistance in Africa, the Binj was “a queer among the prophets.” The Binj was self-appointed to lead, as in the Book of Jeremiah 1:10, “over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and over- throw, to build and to plant.” Like Christ, the Binj intended to tear down the church and rebuild it without homophobia. If you dismiss his faith as the epitome of a sick body, the Binj authored a short story “Binguni!”as early as 1996 about a protagonist in an African afterlife, featuring ancestors from an Internet realm. In the story, the protagonist went to a liberal paradise, and the Binj sought the same at the end of his life.

 

At the time of his death, the Binj was scheduled to publish two books: How to Write about Africa and It Is Only a Matter of Acceleration Now. According to The Bookseller, the first book stems from a satirical piece he wrote for Granta magazine in 2005, and the second book is “based on travels and interviews across Africa, aspiring to change readers’ perceptions of Africa in the way V. S. Naipaul’s A Million Mutinies Now did with India.” Multiple strokes made the respectively 2017 and 2019 publication dates unfeasible. His death in Nairobi at 10 pm on May 21, 2019, ended his journey, but his works will always inspire a generation.

 

Amatesiro Dore is currently an ICORN, Region of Tuscany fellow living in Florence. He graduated from the Fara na Trust Creative Writing Workshop in 2009. In 2019, he was a writer in residence of the Wole Soyinka Foundation.

Map

The greyscale color grade shows the spectrum from Protection (against discrimination based on sexual orientation) to Criminalisation (of consensual same-sex sexual acts between adults). The darkest areas represent where there is Constitutional Protection and the lightest, where Death Penalty still exists.

 

The data presented in this map is based on “State-Sponsored Homophobia”, an International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) report by Lucas Ramón Mendos, December 2019. Courtesy of ILGA World. Map drawn by Stepan Lipatov.