Award Winning Kenyan Author, Journalist and Activist Binyavanga Wainaina has passed on.
Wainaina was a celebrated author who made significant contributions in the field of Literature through works such as; Discovering Home , which won the 2002 Caine Prize for African Literature and Kwani, one of East Africa’s first literary magazines.
In 2003, he was recognised by the Kenya Publishers Association for his contribution to Kenyan Literature while, In 2008 he served as a Bard Fellow and Director for the Chinua Achebe Centre for African Literature & Languages at Bard College.
In 2014 TIME Magazine named him one of the “Most Influential People In The World”.
Thanks! Of course, I am very excited. While I have won several awards (e.g. Top 40 Under 40, Kenyatta University Outstanding Young Alumni), I have never won one directly for writing. So this is a special one for me. The Burt Award is one of the most prestigious in Africa. The book ‘Finding Columbia’ will be ready for the market in the next few weeks.
Your career in Banking is quite impressive and it spans almost 12 years, yet you studied Education in English and English Literature at University. What made you shift and pursue a career in Banking?
It was a twist of fate that made me join banking. I was sitting at the Kenyatta University Creative Arts Centre with the chairman of the department, Prof. Emmanuel Mbogo, and my late friend Shibi. We were working on the KU Culture Week and were waiting for budget approvals from the university administration. Without the approvals, our hands were tied, so I borrowed the day’s newspaper. There was an advert for Graduate Clerk jobs. Prof. Mbogo urged both of us to apply. He reasoned that since banks (then) normally closed at 3 pm, it would be possible for us to go to the bank job, close at 4 pm and be back in KU for rehearsals by 5 pm. That is how I got the bank job! Neither of us knew then that when the bank doors close at 3 pm, is when the work starts!
You got your start in Print Journalism as a trainee reporter at the Standard Newspaper in the early 1960s. What made you want to pursue a career in Journalism and was it difficult for you to get into the field?
My interest in writing started early in primary school. I would read stories in newspapers and magazines and rewrite them from memory using my own words. My father Francis Khamisi was an avid reader of newspapers and magazines. He was also a writer and often contributed articles to the Mombasa Times and other publications. He was the first African Editor at the East African Standard in 1939. After spending time in politics, he was called back by the Standard to be the Chief Editor of Baraza, its weekly newspaper in 1961. It was while there that I got a breakthrough into Journalism. I applied and was employed as a proof-reader at the Standard newspaper. After about 6 months, I became an intern at Baraza dealing mostly with Letters to the Editor. I eventually moved across to the white-dominated newsroom of the Standard as a cub reporter. The rest, as they say, is history.
In your memoir, Dash Before Dusk: A Slave Descendants Journey In Freedom you talk about experiencing racism in the newsroom as a trainee Journalist and earning your first byline by sheer luck because there was no white reporter available to cover a press conference that particular day. What was it like cutting your teeth in that environment and has what you learnt in those early days, had an impact on your writing style today?
Initially, my job as a junior reporter at the Standard was to receive by phone, stories sent in by reporters and correspondents from the field. Most of the time I had difficulty understanding the spoken English of the white reporters. After all, I was a Form 2 (high school) drop-out. However, there is a saying that you fake it until you make it. One day, a big story broke out and the more experienced reporters were all out on assignment, so I was dispatched to cover it. At the end of the day, it was not a perfect piece of writing but it helped get my feet in the door. From thereon I was assigned to the courts to report on minor criminal cases. Working alongside those experienced journalists gave me an opportunity to learn the basics of turning out a clean written copy. It was certainly a stepping stone that got me to where I am today.
How and when did you get your start in Journalism?
When I was 19 some guy broke my heart. I wrote a poem about it; as I tend to do with most major events in my life. I sent that poem to the editor at True Love. They edited and published it. Does that count?
Where did you study and did you find a job immediately after school?
I was at USIU. I studied Journalism and graduated cum laude. Yes, I have to keep reminding my parents about this when they complain about my solitary degree. I started working, kind of, as an intern at Storymoja, which is a local publisher. It was my dream at the time. All writers want to publish books – or at least, the ones I know do, and working at a publishing house was pretty much the ultimate dream. I did that for a bit, started a blog and kept bothering people with the URL until Dorothy Ghettuba, the founder of Spielworks Media read a link I sent her and hired me as a scriptwriter. So yes, less than 6 months after graduation, I had a job.