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Kenyan author and LGBT activist Binyavanga Wainaina dies

Wainaina won the 2002 Caine Prize for African Writing.

Binyavanga Wainaina has died aged 48 (AP Photo/Ben Curtis, File)
Binyavanga Wainaina has died aged 48 (AP Photo/Ben Curtis, File)

One of Africa’s best-known authors and gay rights activists, Binyavanga Wainaina, has died aged 48.

The Kenyan author died on Tuesday night in Nairobi after an illness, Tom Maliti, the chairman of the Kwani Trust which Wainaina founded, told The Associated Press.

Wainaina, who won the 2002 Caine Prize for African Writing, was a key figure in the artistic community who promoted local authors. Friends and supporters in an outpouring of tributes on Wednesday shared his work including his biting essay How To Write About Africa.

“Always use the word ‘Africa’ or ‘Darkness’ or ‘Safari’ in your title,” it began. “Subtitles may include the words ‘Zanzibar’, ‘Masai’, ‘Zulu’, ‘Zambezi’, ‘Congo’, ‘Nile’, ‘Big’, ‘Sky’, ‘Shadow’, ‘Drum’, ‘Sun’ or ‘Bygone’.”

Wainaina also helped to create tolerance for the LGBT community by coming out publicly in 2014 as gay in Kenya, a country where laws still criminalise homosexual behaviour. He also revealed he was HIV-positive. He published a painfully honest essay online to mark his 43rd birthday.

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Wainaina helped to create tolerance for the LGBT community in Kenya (AP Photo/Ben Curtis, File)

He said he came out to help preserve his dignity.

“All people have dignity. There’s nobody who was born without a soul and a spirit,” he said, in an interview with The Associated Press in January, 2014. “There is nobody who is a beast or an animal, right? Everyone, we, we homosexuals, are people and we need our oxygen to breathe.”

In the interview, Wainaina, who dyed his hair in rainbow colours, lashed out at laws against homosexuality in Nigeria and Uganda. He also criticised Russian President Vladimir Putin, who promoted legislation banning “gay propaganda” aimed at youth.

“I can’t sleep at night because there are people who I may know or who I don’t even know … who may be dying or being beaten or being tortured right now in a Nigerian cell or three weeks ago in a Ugandan one,” he said.

After he came out, Time magazine in 2014 named him one of the “100 most influential people”. Fellow author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote there that Wainaina “demystified and humanised homosexuality”, saying he decided to speak openly after the death of a friend: “He felt an obligation to chip away at the shame that made people like his friend die in silence.”

Wainaina’s death comes just days before a long-awaited court ruling in Kenya on whether to abolish laws that criminalise homosexual behaviour. Kenyan laws, like in many other African countries that outlaw same-sex relations, are vestiges of British colonial rule.

PA

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