Let me first tell you a story before I get into today’s story.
Before I joined campus in 2004 (do you hear that Real G?), I worked for a year with a private architect’s firm off Lenana Road. One of those old neighbourhood blocks converted into a commercial pocket. It was an intimate office of five: two managing partners, one permanent architect chick, and one architect major from the public universities who interned with us every three, four months. Our quantity surveyor sat in one of the rooms upstairs. Our engineers four doors down, the last house in the block.
Private architect’s firm sounds fancy, eh? Please. I was a messenger. Doubled up as a receptionist. Sometimes the tea girl. Later, as an accountant and intern. But mostly, as a messenger. I told my pals I was an Office Administrator. Whatever the hell that meant.
When I wasn’t delivering cheques and buying Telkom calling cards, I was taking phone messages. I was settling our power bill in Electricity House. I was buying Kiswahili Bibles from Kijabe Street. I was queuing outside KRA filing tax returns that I had prepared myself (imagine that, an untrained form four leaver balancing books and completing input/output tax for a private architect’s firm. Who’s fooling who?) I was learning archiCAD and artlantis; the apps they used for their work.
But mostly, I was out there underneath the sun. Brown envelopes and dusty shoes were my thing. I had a fake leather jacket I had to stop wearing because it stuck to my sweaty back when I was out running these office errands.
We had a cleaning lady from Kibera who came in thrice a week. In her mind’s eyes, we were peers. Before everyone else reported for work, we gossiped in the kitchen over a morning cup of tea. Our ‘peership’ was forged when we were called in as extras for that local production Project Daddy. Remember it, it starred Nini Wacera? Yeah. It was being shot in the bungalow right next to our office block. We appeared as the crowd in a restaurant scene toward the end of the movie.
My salary, sorry minimum wage, was paid out of petty cash. But that didn’t matter. When you are 19, straight out of high school and you make your own money to buy yourself Levis and lip gloss and Smirnoff Ice without alerting your folks for pocket money, you imagine you are doing better than your pals who are taking IAT classes and sitting CPA exams.
My private architect’s firm was run by two partners. College chums who shared the lusty dream of seeing Kigali’s virgin skyline dominated by buildings their youthful brilliance had designed. I admired their ambition with a quiet fond.
I gave the partners both pet names. Because I’m the kind of girl who expresses her fond so, through pet names.
One partner was Venus. I called him Venus because whenever he walked past, the scent from his Venus hair oil would suffocate you in its wake.
Venus rode his motorbike to work on Friday’s, and over the weekends. I thought he was mighty cool because, on some Saturdays, his biker club would meet at the parking space outside Sippers bar in Hurlingham then take a road trip out of town. Sons of Anarchy style.
The other partner was Bean Head. His head was shaped like a bean seed and he liked to eat beans for lunch. Sometimes the cotyledons got stuck in between his teeth. And because, I don’t know, because he’s the kind of guy who does such things, he’d fold a piece of paper and dislodge the little bastards using the pointed edge of the paper.
Last October, I caught his name in a story in the back page of the Daily Nation – he’s now a hotshot in some construction parastatal. When he’s not tweeting in his free time, he’s appearing on Caroline Mutoko’s morning talk show or Instagramming pictures he’s taken with Uhuru. That bean head, my God.
I learnt plenty from Bean Head in that year. I learnt that toothpicks are far more important than we give them credit for. I learnt that you are what you eat.
I learnt that you need a partner in life. Like what he had in Venus, with Venus – Bean Head travelled to Kigali and sourced for tenders from its French-speaking government. The Kiswahili Bibles I bought were bait for his tenders, a stamp for his thoughtfulness and savoir faire. A slice of our culture. He presented them as gifts to his Kigali clients. Who can say no to a man wielding a Bible? Who can say no to God?
Venus was up to his eyeballs in our little office putting together the building plans for these tenders. They conquered the city of Kigali, Bean Head and Venus did, when the ambition of youth and the thirst for domination ran steely in their veins.
I learnt – and this is the most important – that ambition asks for sacrifice. Bean Head had long traded his architectural skill to sharpen his businessman’s shrewd. He sacrificed his book knowledge to be street smart. Bean Head signed the cheques and sniffed around the industry for proposals and tenders. He sent the emails, he made the calls. I never saw him open archiCAD or put together a decent plan for a building. The closest he came to building plans was enveloping blueprints for dispatch after I had collected them from the print room.
Bean Head had traded-in his architect’s degree for a lifestyle.
When Binyavanga Wainana, writer and founding editor of Kwani, came out of the closet late last month, three things readily came to mind.
First, that he has ruined kitengee jackets for everybody. With the snap of a finger, just like that, he has created a false association to a fabric that has hang of the backs of urbane Nairobi since more than half a decade ago. Bang. No warning. No sign. Are you even allowed to do that, to ruin things for everybody so? Doesn’t fashion have a code, some sort of manual to protect the interest of an industry’s innocent fabrics; fabrics that fall victim to an individual’s unrelated circumstance? Doesn’t it have a handbook? Hell, what does Nancie Mwai’s Fashion Notebook have to say about this?
Second, I was defeated. I sighed. I sat back in my seat. I rested my hands at the back of my head. I exhaled. You realize what this means, yes? It means that I have to comb through his memoir yet again. I have to look for the cracks in-between his sentences and paragraphs for when he might have let us in on his closet secret but we were too blown away, too blinded by the mastery of his prose and his short sentences that we failed to catch the hint.
Say, before he moved to South Africa for his undergrad, he was in a bar with a pal. Was he actually on a date? Was this a hook up from his house-help Wambui? He hang with some loose chaps while in SA and never got to finish his degree: was he looking for love then? Was Cape Town and New York his search for identity beyond being a writer? Maybe.
The girl back in Nakuru, it explains why he wasn’t interested in her nipples pushed against her thinly-cottoned tee. He was more interested in this new ‘language’ she spoke. A language he had never heard before called sheng. Jeez.
His closet secret answered plenty. It answered all the questions I left unanswered when I reviewed his memoir. Now, it makes sense why it had the sexual appeal of a high school set book.
Third – and this is the most important – I felt bad for Binyanvanga. Not because of all the vitriol he sparked on social media. Please. The world doesn’t matter. I felt bad for Binyavanga because he has made a sacrifice. Binyavanga is no longer a writer, or an artist. He’s that guy. That gay guy. That gay public figure from Kwani. He is, as the Economist put it, one gay man [who] fights back against discrimination.
And as I read and reread his coming-out essay – the lost chapter of his memoir. Anything with the word ‘lost’ in its title is such a class act, aye?: the lost chapter, the lost tapes, the lost ark, the lost feminine, the Lost Boys – I realized that this was his last performance. His last public act. This was his swan song.
Binyavanga will never write again.
But that’s only half the tragedy.
The greater tragedy is that Binyavanga has traded-in his pen for a lifestyle.