“Aha! Or you can get an afro wig and cover your hair up during the day,” Binyavanga said, smoke trailing from the cigarette he had in his left hand. We were having a discussion about natural hair care and it had been going on for a while. Ali, the third person at the table was moving to colder climes in a few months and worried about caring for her hair. “My mother had a salon and I used to go there,” Binya added, explaining how he had so much advice to give. The fourth person at the table, another writer, was only interested in his beer.
We were sitting at the bar of Lekki Waterside Hotel. I had a view of the Lekki-Ikoyi Link Bridge and if I sat up, I’d see the heads of fishermen passing by in their boats but I wasn’t interested in scenery at that moment. Not while having a conversation with Binyavanga Wainaina. He had spent three days with us at the Farafina Writing Workshop, talking about romance and sex and heart strings and other strings.
I first met Binyavanga in 2013 at the Port Harcourt Book Festival. He had short dreadlocks, dyed green and had been the facilitator of the non-fiction class. At the time I had chided myself for not applying for that class. Binyavanga was such a character, I wanted to observe him up close. At his book signing later that evening, he complimented my dress, a short orange gown, and consented to having my picture taken with him. It held pride of place as my Twitter display picture for months.
In 2014, I was introduced to him at the Farafina Literary Evening by Eghosa Imaseun. I didn’t expect him to recognize me. He didn’t. But he shook my hand and said ‘nice to meet you.’
The next time I would see him again would be in a class with 24 other writers. His introduction to us was in the form of an e-mail containing the assignments we would be working through in his classes. It was a lot of writing, we were all not very happy.
One Day I will Write About This Place remains one of the most challenging books I have ever read. By the time I figured out that to enjoy the book I had to forget everything I knew about how books were ‘supposed’ to be, I was almost through with it. I promised myself I would read it again with my new insight. It lies gathering dust on my bookshelf.
“Binya can be long winded,” a friend had said to me before I left for the workshop. “He takes time to make his point and you might get lost if you try to follow.” My love for brevity is known among my writer friends. Too much talk and I get hungry.
The days with Binyavanga were my best days of the workshop. Oh, he talked, a lot, with his lips and his hands and his entire body and I hung on to every word. His talk fed me. His mind astounded me. How does he start with one topic and branch out to so many others and still find his way back to where he set out from? I wasn’t lost. I was fascinated. Every time he opened his mouth it was like a journey and I wanted to see if he would find his way back after meandering for so long. And he did, every time.
I still have to reread some of his tweets at least three times before I grasp what he’s saying. One should not have to work so hard for 140 characters. Anyone else and I’d have unfollowed years ago. But for Binyavanga, whether he’s being sarcastic, funny, sharing his journeys, talking about writing, challenging ideas or playing – it is something special to me.
The last day I spent any amount of time in his company was during a class visit to Studio of Modé in Ikoyi. There was a conversation going on about children and their antics. As he talked about his own experiences with his mother, body leaning forward, forehead furrowed, eyes shining with some remembered mischief, I watched him. There was so much life pouring out of him. He listened intently, like nothing else mattered. Like what you had to say was the most important thing.
One of my favourite films of all times is A Beautiful Mind, not just for the story itself, but for the title. Beautiful Mind. Binyavanga Wainana.
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Photo Credit: Eloghosa Osunde