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Binyavanga Wainaina, Kenyan Writer And Gay Rights Activist, Dies At 48


Binyavanga Wainaina, the Kenyan author, has died. Even if you don't know the name, you might be familiar with one of his most famous works, a biting satire called "How To Write About Africa." One tip - treat Africa as if it were one country. Another - among your characters, you must always include the starving African who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked and waits for the benevolence of the West. Wainaina was a fierce champion of African literature. He was also a vocal advocate of LGBTQ rights. He came out publicly in 2014. James Murua is a Kenyan journalist. He joins us now from Nairobi. Welcome to the program.

JAMES MURUA: Thank you very much.

CORNISH: You actually knew Mr. Wainaina, right? Can you tell us about your relationship?

MURUA: Well, I met him in 2003. I was doing a magazine project, and he was doing his project for his journal, The Kwani? Project. He was a larger-than-life personality. You actually walked into his life, like, into his world. And it was one of those guys who you spoke to and you left there thinking you could do anything.

CORNISH: He came out publicly in 2014 in an essay called "I Am A Homosexual, Mum." And he put out a series of YouTube videos to accompany it. Here's a little bit of one of those.


BINYAVANGA WAINAINA: I want this generation of young parents to have their kids see Africans writing their own stories, print their own stories. That simple act - I think that's the most political act that one can have.

CORNISH: How radical was the act of coming out in Kenya at that time? How important was this essay?

MURUA: It changed everything. I mean, the thing about the essay was it came from the background where it wasn't just in Kenya but across the continent where some really, really horrible legislation was coming out. The Nigerians had just criminalized being queer. The Ugandans were working on their own legislation. There was a lot of discussion. So, I mean, at the time he came out, he was the most prominent African to come out as being gay. So he really, really validated a lot of people who didn't have anyone they could look to and say, yeah, this is not unnatural for me to be this way.

CORNISH: I want to come back to his essay, "How To Write About Africa." He was asked about it in an interview with Al Jazeera about what he thought was wrong with the way the West talked about the continent. Here he is.


WAINAINA: Probably the vast majority of coverage on Africa by the West reinforces the pre-existing idea. The existing narrative must be a dependent and collapsed place and then, oh, maybe there's a good news story if you're lucky.

CORNISH: Why did this make such an impact?

MURUA: No. 1, it's because he was giving a message that a lot of us have known of for a long time. People of African descent, Africans know that we're covered badly, so he was speaking to us, No. 1. No. 2, he's a charismatic gentleman, and he's able to convey that - you know, he's able to tell you why this is so.

CORNISH: Beyond his work, Wainaina was a big booster of young writers on the continent. He founded a literary magazine and collective called Kwani? What was his impact on the next generation?

MURUA: Well, in Kenya, many of us will acknowledge that literature - there was a before Binyavanga and then there was an after Binyavanga. The literary community had been basically dead for about two or three decades. He and his team came and they give a new lease of life. It was a journal which he did, which now people could see their work in print for the first time. And then the second part was his team organized something they call Kwani? open mic, which, at the time, was revolutionary. So when he showed up, people started writing.

CORNISH: Kenyan journalist James Murua remembering the author Binyavanga Wainaina. Wainaina died yesterday at age 48. Thank you so much, James, for speaking with us.

MURUA: Oh, thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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