We Must Free Our Imaginations — Binyavanga Wainaina

A great thinker. A great artist. A great Kenyan.

Part One (see also Parts Two, Three, Four, Five and Six)

[youtube.com/watch?v=8uMwppw5AgU]

Joyce Nyairo of the Daily Nation has written a stinging critique of Binyavanga’s short documentary. Nyairo takes umbrage at Binyavanga’s bashing of Pentecostals and giving a dumbed down, even simplistic, account of Kenyan history over the Moi years. 

The ultimate tragedy of Binyavanga’s documentary is the ease with which he slides into a diatribe against Pentecostals — as if homosexuality can only be popularised by bashing something or someone else’s conformity…..

Each one of the titles of this six part “documentary” is a quote from Binyavanga’s long and frighteningly convoluted tirade against the hypocrisies of Africa’s discourse on homosexuality.

The quotes are as clever as they are memorable. But they represent isolated flashes of brilliance in a text that is neither articulate nor lucid. Binyavanga struggles too hard to be profound, repetitively swinging from mimicry and lazy stereotyping to banal imagery that does nothing to enlighten. His style is unworthy, an injustice to his subject.

I think Nyairo has missed the point of this short “tirade” by miles. The style of delivery and everything about this documentary show that Binyavanga’s intended audience is not the class of Kenyans who go to Blankets & Wine. He is not trying to preach to the choir – most upper middle class Kenyans already have liberal views on homosexuality and those that don’t often have to hide them behind their middle class civility. Neither is he trying to engage in an enlightened rebuttal of the claim that homosexuality is “un-African.” No. What Binyavanga is trying to do is to take the conversation to the streets, and the homes of regular Kenyans. He is aiming at the middle middle class and lower. Binyavanga knows that this is the demographic that will matter the most in changing Kenya, whether it is economically or in the further expansion of human rights.

Yes, Binyavanga has hoisted up the Pentecostal movement as his ultimate straw man. But that’s just in reaction to the hijacking of the conversation on homosexuality in Africa by religious moralists. It is hard to see how one can have an open conversation about homosexuality in Kenya today without addressing the question of sin and hell and Sodom and Gomorrah. This precedes even the macho talk of “natural African” (read heterosexual male) and “un-African” sexual habits. The language of “rights” alone will simply not fly, and when attempted will most likely result in an ugly backlash. This is what Binyavanga is speaking to.