ONE of Kenya’s leading literary figures, Binyavanga Wainaina, chose an unlikely way to celebrate his 43rd birthday. He published an essay, “I am a homosexual, Mum”, and then had a “coming out” party with his friends.
As well as a hangover the next morning he had also earned recognition as one of the most high-profile, openly gay black Africans and done so in defiance of a wave of persecution of gays and lesbians in some African countries. The announcement triggered a noisy response on social media with plaudits and brickbats flying in from Kenya to South Africa and Nigeria, where a new law has led to the arrest of men accused of being gay.
The writer said his decision to come out had been based in part on events in Nigeria, where he has been a regular visitor, as well as neighbouring Uganda, where the president in January vetoed legislation calling for life sentences for “aggravated homosexuality”.
Mr Wainaina, the founding editor of Kenya’s respected literary journal Kwani, described his new work as the “lost chapter” of his 2011 memoir, “One Day I Will Write About This Place”. The essay is a mix of real and imagined memories and sees the author revisit his mother on her deathbed where he shouts into her ear that he is gay.
In a follow up documentary released online on January 22nd, What I Have to Say About Being Gay, he explained his decision: “I believe that Africa is rising in a creative way but it’s under risk from the puritans.”
A series of six monologues that mix humour and pathos, he blames the Victorians for their imposition of anti-sodomy laws and injection of puritanism into the colonial education system, where it remains to this day informing African middle class morality.
The 2002 winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing mocks populist notions of homosexuality as being “un-African” and the fake surveys and cultural research on which these claims are based.
“You’ve got to appreciate with a sense of humour when genuine stupidity really hits you… when it’s spoken on TV with a kind of seriousness.”
A self-declared pan-Africanist, he sought to place homophobia on the continent in the context of a failure of imagination and a hangover from colonial education systems designed to deliver clerks not thinkers.
“I want to see a continent where every kind of person’s imagination does not have to look for being allowed.”
He eschewed activists’ pushing for the legalisation of same sex marriages in a continent where homosexuality is banned in more than half the countries. And said he was not interested in a “gay takeover” of Africa.
But he also warned critics: “I’m not going away, I am just here so you deal.”