Rest In Love, Brother Binyavanga, By Adewale Ajadi
I am not sure he got anything from me for our brotherhood. We simply found a connection that was truly curious and engaging. Binya’s incredible kindness defined him, and his wonderful humanity, as well as lust for life, even his love for all things Nigerian. We shared an African possibility, with Martin and only a few brave ones.
Binyavanga could write. Period. And, the world has shrunk a tad further without his semi-confessional, risqué truths. There are many people better placed to write about Binya – his lovers, fans, etc. – than this born-again, middle-aged, Nigerian refusenik that I am. However, he was my brother. We were neither blood or even from the same community nor did we agree often. Worse, we met all of six times or less in this existence. He was a truly special brother, made entirely of heart, his feelings and intellect and possibly his carnality. He was kindness, with eyes always tinged red, and cobalt black skin set off by the whiteness of his teeth.
I met Binya through one of the rarest brothers I ever met, Dr. Martin Kimani, or Ambassador Kimani as he is now known. Martin and I were never friends but brothers from our first formal meeting at the African Leadership Centre, so why should I have expected less from meeting Binya? August 24, 2013 is a date I should never forget. It was the launch of my book Omoluwabi 2.0 in Lagos. And, I was looking for blessings. My first blessing was that Martin had arrived in Lagos the night before, from Nairobi. Binya joined us at the Four Points Sheraton late into the book launch. He had missed the melancholy of my wistful fear that too few people were in the audience. He had missed Martin’s powerful and thoughtful speech. He had missed the incredible, eclectic rendition of the Odu Ifa that were repositioned by Governor Kayode Fayemi. By the time he joined us, there was no sitting space. He stood out with his Adire of contrasting colours, top and bottom, the hair on his head an unearthy glow of the syrup ice shavings sold on street corners across the Caribbean. I knew who he was immediately. He had the East African hue down to a science. I remember Binya bought a copy of my book that he insisted was for someone else. I later got to know he was in town for Chimamanda Adichie, his friend, and my book was a gift to her. I remember our lunch that day. It was a tour by three Pan-Africanist brothers. I had one of the most delightful lunches ever. Binya was quite a conversationalist, and with the rest of the group we talked up a storm. Our Africa was no longer a romantic refrain to be disdained. All of us knew the day would come when humanity would embrace its Africanness. The question was whether the continent would be ready.
The brotherhood with Binya took off from that day. We all went out that evening, and I spent as much time as was polite with them. My renewed love with Christ and family obligations stand out in my recollection ofas to why I left early, but I also do not drink, and there is nothing more disturbing like being sober amongst merry drinkers.
I remember seeing Binya uptown with his crew at a Senegalese restaurant after one very tiresome workshop in Harlem. He was all love, covered in fans and well-wishers but Binya would find time to pass the time of day. Underneath his façade of a fun-loving risk taker was a tiredness that was beyond jetlag. There he was drinking hard in spite of it. I was worried.
After that day, we all went different ways but stayed in touch. I was in touch with Binya, with no certain focus but always in vague emails and reflections. I was in the Niger Delta till 2015. As I was coming out from the Delta, once again Binya reached out, even though I did not know it was from him at the time: I got an invitation from PEN America to be part of an African writers’ gathering in New York. I was not a literary light but Martin had written a review of my book for Chimurenga. It seemed just good fortune as the timing was amazing: I thought or hoped my book had opened the door until I discovered it was largely a gathering of novelists. I decided to investigate how I got this invitation, as I raced to media events and speaking engagements across Manhattan. It was Chimamanda and, of course, the only real link was Binya. In a few days, he turned up, my benefactor, to join a tribe that included Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Lola Shoneyin, Alain Mabanckou. His legendary kindness endeared the brother to me even more. His humility and control was a contrast to the haughtiness that permeated the spaces he inhabited. A honourable and humble brother who went to bat for you whenever he could or you needed it.
I remember seeing Binya uptown with his crew at a Senegalese restaurant after one very tiresome workshop in Harlem. He was all love, covered in fans and well-wishers but Binya would find time to pass the time of day. Underneath his façade of a fun-loving risk taker was a tiredness that was beyond jetlag. There he was drinking hard in spite of it. I was worried. We never found time to discuss his personal care that day, but our next meeting was already planned. I got an invitation to visit Nairobi, from Kwani Trust. I was invited to speak on the Next 100 Years of African Transformation or something similar. It seemed tailor made for me.
He left the world with trails of his kindness. As I continue to read his writing and delight in his style and reflect on missed opportunities, I know we have lost a rare spirit. A genuinely kind and humble man who is defined by what he gave, not what he received.
However, Binya and I never got to discuss that great and crazy perspective, the theme of my speech. Martin called to confirm that Binya had had a stroke and was only lucky to be alive. We both talked about how he needed to look after himself. I would later see Binya in bed, unable to talk, and I was sad and scared. Life seemed to be running away from him with spike shoes. However, it did not stop Binya from trying to talk. I did not want him to talk, as every effort showed his entire journey into illness. The words crawled out at a pace slower than his usual eloquence and clarity, but his eyes had the sparkles of mischief always. The Kwani event went very well and I had a wonderful time with some great people but Binya was in my thoughts. His medical travels part of my catch-up with mutual friends. In my regular vision, Binya had a heart shaped like our continent. He was the centre of a world of love and kindness. I was never to physically see him again.
I am not sure he got anything from me for our brotherhood. We simply found a connection that was truly curious and engaging. Binya’s incredible kindness defined him, and his wonderful humanity, as well as lust for life, even his love for all things Nigerian. We shared an African possibility, with Martin and only a few brave ones. Binya worked for that Africa even though people often focus on his sexuality. He left the world with trails of his kindness. As I continue to read his writing and delight in his style and reflect on missed opportunities, I know we have lost a rare spirit. A genuinely kind and humble man who is defined by what he gave, not what he received. Rest in Love, Binya.
Adewale Ajadi, a lawyer, creative consultant and leadership expert, is author of Omoluwabi 2.0: A Code of Transformation in 21st Century Nigeria.