To The Binj, My Brother: by Ike Anya

Binyavanga Wainaina speaking at TEDxEuston in 2014.

The first time we meet, it is, I believe, in the shiny glass Marriott Hotel on Cromwell Road, in a corner of the bar, with the friend, C, who has brought us together. She has spoken of you to me so often that on that evening when we finally meet, we fall into conversation easily, bound by the sister that we share.

It is the day before the Orange Prize award ceremony for which C’s debut novel has been shortlisted. We are perched gingerly in the sterile hotel bar, reminiscent of a thousand hotel bars in a thousand different Western cities. We wait endlessly for our orders to be taken, and as we wait, we wonder if it is because we are black and African and loud. Our orders finally arrive. There are nuts, crisps, a gin and tonic for me, and a whisky for you, the first of several set out on the low table before us. C sips sedately from a glass of water, dipping her carrot sticks into the hummus she has ordered, with relish. We tease her, this African sister who has adopted the healthy eating habits of American liberals. We fall into an easy familiar banter even though we have only just met; bonding over our shared heritage as book loving middle-class children of the post Empire. And by your firm conviction that our Igbo and your Kikuyu share so much in common. We laugh at the incongruity of our love for Enid Blyton. And are amused at the puzzlement of C’s publishers that she has turned down the grand historic hotel, replete with literary history, where she was originally booked to stay.

“Yes, it may be bland and soulless here at the Marriott, but it’s clean. That other hotel looked like it hadn’t been cleaned since Thackeray or Dickens or whoever stayed the night there.”

We talk about politics, about Africa, about race and about all sorts of things. But above all we bond over books, reeling through excitedly over who and what we have read recently, what we have liked and what we have not. There is in that meeting, an instant recognition of kindred spirits, but I am particularly enthused by the passion with which you defend your choices, often quite radical, quite unexpected.

Writing this now, it strikes me how early in our relationship this must have been. For us to have sat formally in the hotel bar and not immediately retire as we would in later years to C’s room tells me this.

We talk long into the night and when I leave, grudgingly, reluctantly, having exchanged contacts, it is without question even if we do not say it, that we are now firm friends.

The next day at the award ceremony, inside the white canopied tent on the South Bank, we form a small group of C’s friends, this large group of Africans distinct by our presence in this place where there are few other black people, apart from the waiters and waitresses. You and I stand close together, as stars of London’s literary and cultural worlds flutter around. You stand close and whisper in my ear, rude witticisms about various people, about various aspects of the ceremony. We laugh out loud, raucously, often, drawing censorious stares, but as you stare back defiantly, you bolster me to do the same. It is you who relates to us how you overhear one of the judges, after Andrea Levy’s Small Island has been declared winner, saying: “we thought we knew so much about what the West Indians faced but until we read this book, we didn’t know!”

Our friendship is firmed up even more, strengthened by these conspiratorial chats and our mutual love of C.

The next time I remember seeing you is during those four days that changed my life at the TED Global Conference in Arusha. I arrive late one evening, at the Ngurdoto Mountain Lodge, having flown in on the same tiny plane from Dar to Arusha as a small, elderly white woman who I later recognise as the eminent primatologist Jane Goodall. After stowing my bags in my room, gingerly beginning to explore my surroundings, I find you comfortably holding court at a table with Chris Abani, Ernest Madu and a few others ranged around you. You break off your conversation on seeing me and leaping up, envelope me in one of those hugs which over the years, I come to cherish. Hugs that envelop the recipient, enfolding them completely in your warm being. You introduce me to the others, and we don’t stop talking. And talking. And talking. And talking.

We talk a lot in Arusha, but a few memories stand out.

First, the moment when Martina, from the World Economic Forum shyly approaches you to introduce herself. You had only just days before written an excoriating piece turning down the nomination to be a Young Global Leader and declining the invitation to Davos and so there is an awkwardness when you meet. I see a mischievous boyish look of remorse, one that I was to come to know so well, wash over your face as you mumbled something to her about your letter, assuring her that it was nothing personal. I insist on taking a photo of the two of you and the look on your face is a study in so many unspoken things, so much unsaid.

Then there is the night in Arusha, when after dinner, with Chris, you and the tech guy from Rwanda, how could I have forgotten his name, we sit in the hotel bar chatting, covering all sorts of topics, from the intellectual to the mundane and the bizarre. From why all hotels in Rwanda have plastic sheeting under the bedsheets, to what would need to happen for Africa to regain a position of respect in the world; to how we censor ourselves in our writing, and again back to the books that we have read and loved and why. You had just, as was your way, become obsessed with a new thing. This time, it was the book, R Kojo Laing’s Search Sweet Country. A battered copy that you had found on some second hand book sellers stand was, that week, permanently stuffed in your back pocket. From time to time you retrieved it, brandishing it high before reading us a passage, asking if we had ever heard something so beautiful, so profound. Your sizzling brain found a way to make connections, however obscure, between that book and whatever topic our wide ranging, free flowing discussion had moved to. Lubricated by bottle after bottle of the Konyagi, the locally bottled spirit to which you had introduced us, we talked and laughed as the night crept past, lost in that little magical circle, until the shuffling sounds of the hotel waiters arriving to set out breakfast alerted us to the fact that we had, without intending to, been up all night talking. And that you and Chris were supposed to be giving your TED talks in a few hours. As we panicked, you swung into action, charming, pleading, cajoling, persuading the waiters in rapid fire Swahili to serve us coffee, even as they protested that breakfast did not open for another hour. And as you so often did, you had them eating out of your hand as they brought us pot after pot of coffee and even threw a few pastries in…

Then that afternoon, just as the sun was falling, lending a limpid golden-limned light to everything, we spilled out of the hall where you and Chris with the mesmerising beauty of words, stirred this gathering, which up till then had been caught up more in politics and money and things. The two of you lifting, elevating, taking us to a place of joy and poignancy and thoughtfulness with your words. And my heart swelled with pride, for these two brothers of mine who had held everyone, powerful hardbitten businessmen included, captive with your thoughts and lyrical words. I remember hugging you both, one in a long queue of people wanting to hug you. And I captured on my camera the hug that Noah Samara, the Ethiopian chairman of World Radio, gave you. Not saying a word, just opening his arms wide. And how you did the same and the two of you clasped each other as if you would never let go. And watching, I was filled with a sense of possibility for our continent. For our race.

And there were all the smaller conversations, the one on ones, in the spaces between the raucous sessions, where you shared so deeply of yourself, honouring me with your trust and candour.

And the night, when we were all sitting outside at dinner in a garden, when a text from my classmate, Sarah in London announced that C had just won the Orange Prize, for her second novel. We leapt up, embraced and shouted the news out causing the Nigerians present, Dele Olojede and Ernest Madu, to join in raucous celebration as the other conference delegates wondered what had happened.

I remember leaving Arusha energised at the end of those four days of thinking and listening and strategizing and laughing and plotting. On getting back to London I sent you a brief email to thank you. I found it again in my inbox the day that I got the news that you were gone, as I scrolled through all our messages, trying to see exactly when we had last been in touch. And I found your equally brief response echoing my feelings. I think it was then that our brotherhood was sealed. And together, with our stories of those magical days in Arusha, we persuaded an initially sceptical C to accept an invitation months later to speak at another TED conference, a talk that was to reverberate around the world.

From then on, coming to London, you would always let me know, so we could arrange to meet. On occasion, you stayed over, and I would sometimes wake up, having left you in the living room in the early hours to see you, whisky or other bottle in hand, feverishly bashing at the keys of your laptop. You were often late for our meetings, or turning up in the wrong place, or arriving with some new effervescent person that you were determined I should meet, in tow. And so that was how you enriched my life, with the blessings of friendships with Ellah, with Phoebe, with SA, with Diriye, with Yvonne and with so many others.

I remember most vividly, meeting Ellah for the first time, through you. You had emailed saying you were coming to London for the UK launch of your book, One Day, and that you were looking forward to seeing me. I had replied, saying that of course the book launch date and venue were firmly inscribed in my diary. You had replied, worrying that in the frenzy of the launch party, we would not have enough time to properly catch up. Why not come, you suggested, to the intimate smaller reading you were holding for the Black Book bloggers group led by Tricia Wombell on the top floor of Waterstones Piccadilly the day before the launch. We could get a drink and dinner afterwards you insisted. And that was how, once again, you amazing, generous-spirited man, altered the course of my life.

I had arrived at Waterstones, having come straight from work, and perched in a corner of the room, watching you deftly dealing with the many questions from the mostly female, black bloggers rounded in a circle before you.

At the end of the reading, after you had signed their books, your eyes lit up as you saw me. You walked over and enveloped me in one of those your hugs, those hugs that always felt like home and warmth and safety and love, all wrapped up together in one.

And then, pulling away, as if suddenly realising your rudeness, you turned to the dreadlocked woman beaming beside you and said: “This is my editor, Ellah”. I had heard of Ellah, who hadn’t? The most powerful black woman in the British literary world, Deputy Editor of the hallowed Granta magazine, commissioning editor at Granta Books. We shook hands, after you had, as you always did, with great generosity, effusively introduced me to her, ascribing all manner of magical powers and towering achievements to me.

Outside, on Piccadilly, Ellah suggested that we all go for dinner, perhaps with drinks first. One of us, I can’t remember who, suggested we try Chinese. Our first thought was to go to Chinatown, but I had recently been taken to Yauatcha, and had enjoyed the contemporary twist on Chinese food and the inventive cocktails. So, I asked Ellah if she liked cocktails. Her enthusiastic response signalled that another epic Binj night was in the making. Sure enough, as we entered Yauatcha and were shown to a table behind the bar, we soon settled into a night that we knew would be magical and special. As we downed cocktails and plate after plate of the delicious food, we excitedly, one Nigerian, one Kenyan and one Zimbabwean, deftly dissected contemporary literature, particularly that emerging from Africa. We talked about whose work we loved, whose work inspired us, whose books we were looking out for, which writers we thought were doing new and exciting things. It was like the kind of literary evening I had often dreamt of as a child in Nsukka. Sitting in a trendy restaurant and bar in Soho, in the heart of London, downing exotic cocktails and delicious food, conversation enlivened by literature and politics and art and music and culture. But that was who you were, brother, in your presence, dreams came true. I remember stumbling out of Yauatcha at midnight or well after. I remember Ellah hailing a black cab that raced across the cobblestones of the narrow Soho alleyways to pick her up. As we all hugged in farewell, she pressed her card into my hand and said: “Email me, call me, don’t wait till the next time your friend is visiting. We are both in London so we should keep in touch and do this again soon.” I don’t remember where you headed to, or how I managed to ward off your persistent urging for one last nightcap somewhere, but I did, because I had to go to work early the next morning. But that night changed my life, bro, even though I never told you, because as a result of that meeting with Ellah, many months later through a series of barely believable incidents, I had a piece published in Granta magazine. I, who had believed that my writing days were long gone, that my dreams of one day writing a book would never come to pass. I had looked forward so much to the day when my book would be published, when I could finally tell the full story of your pivotal but unknowing role in making that dream come true.

Binj Ellah Me

There were many more emails, many more chats, much more sharing of ideas, of writing, of banter. There were more lunches, more dinners and drinks, more introductions to all kinds of wonderful people. There were the requests for advice, for opinions on some writing, some humorous take on contemporary events.

Then there was your health scare, your first crisis in New York and the miracle of your recovery. The stern lectures from me and all your other friends about looking after yourself better, about making the most of your second chance. You would put on your chastened schoolboy look, your eyes cast down and sad, you nodding meekly and promising to do better, until the next time when I would see you, cigarette in hand, a glass of spirits in your hand. You did try. To live healthier, eat better, exercise more, but too often, perhaps unsurprisingly, you returned to being the exasperating but utterly lovable and adorable Binj, living life large and loud.

There was Haverford. The conference to mark the 50th anniversary of Arrow if God. Your room just across the corridor from mine. Your dogged focus amidst all your chaos on delivering to deadlines and doing the work. That night in the bar with Niq Mhlongo and Mensa from the FOKNBOIS and others, drinking the blasphemously named Sweet Baby Jesus in that little Haverford bar, well into the early hours.

There were our fights, short lived but never deep or cutting to the bone. I remember my many attempts to get you to TEDxEuston to speak, a steady campaign pushed over the years, until you finally said yes in 2014. And how when you arrived the morning before, exhausted, having flown overnight, your hotel room was not ready. I remember how you rang and harangued me, unleashing a verbal tirade, in a way that I had not expected. That forced me to quickly book another room that was available immediately using my personal credit card and arranging a taxi to take you there. I remember vowing silently after informing you of these arrangements, that I would never in my life, talk to you again. And then, the next day, after you had stressed the team out trying to get your tutu just right, you delivered that poignant and powerful talk, moving so many close to tears. And as you came off the stage, in the corridor leading to the Green Room, you opened your arms to me and enveloped me in another one of those hugs, as I whispered over and over into your ear, “Thank you bro”

Still in characteristic Binj fashion, you ended up missing your flight home a day or so later. I then, in order to spare the rest of the exhausted TEDxEuston team the not inconsiderable challenge of handling you, had to take a day off work in order to meet you at Heathrow, settle you into a hotel there and rebook and get you on your flight home. And yet rather than feel resentment, I cherished that time spent with you, every second felt precious, as ideas and plans and words and schemes, spilled forth in an unending stream from you as we sat in that drab airport hotel room.

When I nearly died in 2014, after collapsing with a bleeding duodenal ulcer, serendipitously, you happened to be in London. You turned up at St Mary’s just as I was being discharged, and taking charge, you gathered my stuff together, hailed a cab and took me home. A day or two later, still reeling with exhaustion, every short walk leaving me breathless, I insisted on coming to your event. And so, sprawled weakly on a chair, I watched you captivate an audience at LSE, the room filled to capacity, people squatting on the floor and pushing their heads through the door just to hear you.

Then there was the lunch, that magical golden afternoon, the day you introduced me to Diriye. It was the day that the London Olympics ended, and we sat outside the pub as London basked in the sun. Huddled together on a bench outside, we spent the afternoon eating and drinking and talking talking talking, till you almost missed your flight. In our frenzy to get you to the airport, I ended up with the book that Diriye had signed for you, and you ended up with mine. One day we agreed, texting furiously back and forth, as you boarded the plane, that we would meet and exchange our copies, restoring each to its rightful owner. When will that now be, Binj?

There were more health challenges ahead for you, the trip to Germany, the fundraising, the frenzied phone calls and emails with you and your family and friends. The social media posts and tweets. The long conversations with Christina and Sevket, friends from TED in Arusha who, living in Munich tried to ease things. We had many difficult conversations, long silences as you battled your challenges. We continued to talk infrequently after you returned to Nairobi and I kept meaning to come and see you, postponing the trip each time, for one reason or another. I must confess that my hesitation was partly because of how unnerved I was by the last time we spoke. I remember how difficult our conversation was, because of your speech impediment. Although you bravely soldiered on, your eyes flashing with that glint of Binjness, I found it hard. Listening to you whose words had always constantly spilled out in a gushing torrent, now engaged in halting conversation was heart rending. And I sensed your frustration. And so, as I told myself, caught up in the chaos of my own life, I kept putting off making proper contact, making that visit. And so apart from the occasional WhatsApp message, we never really caught up properly for many months. And so, it was that I let you down in the end.

The night I got the message from C, saying you were gone, frozen and sleepless, I replayed our many meetings again and again in my mind, each episode vivid and colourful, like you my friend. I wished that I had done so many things differently, that I had tried harder, that I had been there.

I kept returning to the night at Malabar when you turned up with the iridescent, ethereal Phoebe Boswell, with whom I quickly bonded over our shared reverence for the beauty of Yvonne Owuor’s Dust. At the end of the delicious Indian dinner, fuelled with beer and rambling life-giving conversation, it was getting close to 11pm and as we had to work the next day, I called it a night. But you were having none of it and insisted that the night was still young, and we should carry on. Your friend Simon wisely demurred and went home, but Phoebe and I followed you down the stairs to the club in a basement near Notting Hill Gate tube station. Drinks in hand, we followed you to a semi-hidden corner where we continued our conversation, over the din of the pulsing music and the discombobulation of the strobing lights. A few minutes in, you fished out a cigarette and lit it, ignoring the protestations from me and Phoebe about smoking being banned in public places. Soon enough, one of the club staff following the smell, found us, accompanied by a formidable looking bouncer. They accosted you, and you, you my crazy crazy friend transformed yourself, into a bumbling African, pretending not to speak English well, or to understand what they were saying. And so, as Phoebe and I nearly choked stifling our laughter, we watched the staff explain in words of one syllable, accompanied by hand gestures, to one of our greatest contemporary writers and thinkers in English, that “Smoking – Is-Not-Allowed-Inside in England”. Within a few minutes, you had exerted your characteristic Binj charm and arms round the bouncer’s shoulders, both of you laughing, he escorted you outside to finish your cigarette.

There are so many more stories that I could tell-of your generosity, your championing of other people and their work, your surprising thoughtfulness even in the midst of your whirlwind life, your zest for life and living, your constantly churning brain spilling ideas and plans and projects, your craziness, your bravery and the wonderful chaos that you wrought in your wake, but of what use will they be? You are no longer here.

You will not be there when I finally make that first visit to Nairobi that you always chided me about. You will not be there when my book is finally published. We will never again share long sessions of talk and thought and drink and passion.

Each morning I wake up to the reality of a world that does not have Binyavanga in it, and it is an incomprehensible thought.

But again, as you did all through our friendship, in departing, you have blessed me yet again. In a painful but necessary way, you have reminded me never to take tomorrow for granted, to always make time for the people, the places and the things that I love, today and not tomorrow.

And so, I know that you, my beloved brother will always live. You will live in the memories, the words, the thoughts, the ideas and the seeds that you planted in the hearts, minds and lives of so many. And although we all, Africa and the world, have lost you, in so many ways you will always be with us.

So, go in peace, Kenneth; go and rest, Binya, and go, go and stir mayhem among the ancestors, The Binj, you wonderful, generous, brilliant soul.

 


Ike Anya (@ikeanya ) is a Nigerian public health doctor and writer. Co-founder of the Abuja Literary Society, TEDxEuston, EpiAfric and Nigeria Health Watch, he co-edited the Weaverbird Collection of Nigerian Fiction. He is working on a memoir, early excerpts of which have been published in Granta and Catapult.

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