The Binyavangas- A Lifetime Ago

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[This article belongs to Once Cardimore and first appeared in his weblog here. He has granted Urban Perspective bookclub permission to repost it on our website. Enjoy this beautiful piece!]

It was quite a year for Binyavanga – the year he came back to find his father a dead man. Not the Binyavanga you know. Not Wainaina. Not even the other Binyavanga you think you saw in some tabloid. But Binyavanga Argwings. A man of few words. Perhaps no words. He was always quiet. A man of the people – he thought of himself. Some say his father died of cancer. Others say he might have been poisoned by a political assassin. We will never know. The two had always kept touch through a phone call at 10.00 PM East African time.

Binyavanga lived in a quiet neighbourhood at Hardy. You didn’t expect Binyavanga to live elsewhere now, did you? Let’s say the not so far off Rongai. He wouldn’t. Binyavanga was not the type to live in a matatu for 3 good hours before getting to his destination. Let’s just say he wasn’t the type to board a matatu anyway. He had a bike – a good bike for that matter. It was a KTM 1290 Super Duke GT – the only one roaming the streets of Nairobi at that time. Not really – Binyavanga never roamed the streets. This was the one thing that brought irony to his style by how loud it was. He polished it every morning with some sort of ointment – at his front lawn in the only ungated house in Serene Gardens, address 201. Binyavanga would also not live in Westlands or Lavington or Thika. He hated people who made small talk, people who felt rich and people who spoke of Thika like it was a certain garden of Eden. He, however, thought of one day owning a small house in Ol Tepesi. There, he would probably start a small whisky bar for the benefit of the public.

Of course, he had made a special request to the proprietor of the estate he lived in, Mr Eliud Manda, for his house to remain ungated. As quiet as he was, Binyavanga always thought of himself as this welcoming figure who’d one day win a Nobel Peace Prize for being a gentleman. He never invited anyone to his house, for he didn’t have any friends. But again, the irony of his style – an ungated house and the thoughts of an open-minded person. Manda had sat on a few Boards with Binyavanga’s father, the late Binyavanga Rawlings. The two had started quite a number of joint ventures and were even the first ones to import avocados to East Africa at a time when people thought they only grew on trees. So, when Binyavanga came to him with the request, he never had a problem obliging. On the day he made the request, they had met at the Nairobi Club, where Binyavanga had insisted that he pays the bill – only for Manda to inform him that he needed a membership card to do that. Now, Binyavanga could not belong to a private member’s club.

The embarrassment aside and, in fact, Manda always reminded Binyavanga that he had an open cheque on his tab. He made it very clear to him that whenever he had a problem, he could always approach him. Binyavanga never had any other such problems that would require Manda’s attention – at least none that had come to his attention. He, however, had no doubt that he had another father in him, Mr Manda – as he called him. So, with all the money and estate’s left to him in inheritance, Binyavanga could only live in Hardy – the lonely estate it had always been. He shredded paper to pass time – and in fact, drew excitement from shredding paper. How whole pieces went in and how small pieces came out. How vulnerable paper could get, he thought. Yet paper, in a world of formalities and all matters of an essence, was the mother of all transactions – he always laughed, time and time again. It gave him the true impression of power. He knew that if he could sit and watch every piece of paper come down to worthless pieces, then he could sit back and watch anyone come down to pieces – even Mr Manda.

He loved whisky and it gave him a certain broken yet consolidate voice. A voice he rarely used lest he was cajoling Talisa, his dog; a bitch that also drunk whisky. The two drunk to everything, almost daily. They drunk to shredding paper and they also drunk the day Talisa murdered a cat from the neighbourhood. Yes, she did. ‘Well done’ Binyavanga had said. Talisa looked up and replied, ‘I’d do it again, Vanga’. Only Binyavanga heard what Talisa had said, for it was only the two of them in the room. Two layers of wood were flaming at the fireplace in the living room. Two souls connected by another rather mysterious flame sat next to the window. Binyavanga, Talisa – a story of today and tomorrow as told by the owner of the cat.

Occasionally, Binyavanga and Talisa visited News Café – Hardy. It was not so far from where they lived. They did not ride whenever they travelled within Hardy. In fact, they walked and admired nature. Sometimes, they went past Kilimani Junior at the bend and past the Kenya School of Law just before the masts of what used to be VOK. There, they would get tired and go back home – admiring nature. What the two did not like – and would normally discourage them from walking all the way – were the somewhat rowdy students at the School of Law. They were rowdy in their every action; the way the stood to wait for public transport; the way they conversed in low tones as if gossiping about Talisa and the way they walked away as if they’d become these masters of the New World Order – the all-knowing jurists that would one day seal someone’s fate. So on such evenings, for the students would only crowd around in chattering groups on evenings, Binyavanga and Talisa would remain restrained at the News Café. At the News Café, they would observe people – Binyavanga sipping on whisky, Talisa waiting on him. Sometimes they’d do notes – secretly consulting each other.

Binyavanga had just finished his study in arts – at some university in the states. He had a diploma and with it, he could do anything he wanted. He found it odd, however, when all his relatives seemed to prevail upon him to take charge of his father’s estates yet he knew nothing about managing anything. He was given an office at the Priory. Every morning, he would sign cheques and read the newspaper. At times, he would meet a few Executives who would brief him on the happenings in the company. Other serious matters would be dealt with at the board level with guys who intricately understood business like Mr Manga. Every mid-morning, he would leave the office to take tea at the Methodist Resort; where I finally came to meet with him sometime in future. The Resort was quiet and secluding – which made him like it. In the afternoon, every afternoon for that matter, he went to the MacMillan Library or the Kenya National Archives or the Kenya National Theatres or the National Museum or a 3D Movie theatre to read or interrogate a new art form. Then at the end of his busy schedule, he went back home to reunite with Talisa. All the time, riding his bike and thinking of whisky. Binyavanga, besides members of his family most of who now lived on a ranch in Kajiado, was only known to the secretary at his office, Mr. Manga, the guy who served him tea at the Resort – and it was only one, Talisa, and some barista who Binyavanga only called ‘barista’ at the News Café. This was Binyavanga’s life.

When, on the morning of August 6th 2016, I received a call informing me of his sudden demise, I didn’t know quite how to react. He and I had not been good friends – and I was not a relative. He and I had not met for any tots at the News Café or his house. He and I had not been roommates. I had never worked for any of the entities that fell under his father’s estates and I had never known him to be a big fan of what I do – just like most people who will end up reading this story. I know you now understand our relationship. But we had met. Once or twice. I, a thespian with a travelling theatre group. Him, just a random guy in the audience – apparently. I assume he had walked in at around 6.15 PM – for the doors had been opened at 6.10 PM and the play was to start at 6.20 PM. From the picture I’ve seen of him, at the local police station and in his living room, he must have worn a greenish Agbada and a maroon Aso Oke. He looked the same in all the pictures; which were nicely framed in some form of camphor. We were performing a script written by Mseja Kassula directed by the great Victor Sichale. It was titled, ‘A Pyromaniac’s Love Story.’ Just the kind of stuff that excited Binyavanga – I assume. Binyavanga thought that was all me – that he wrote about me in tremendous acclaim in his diary – he kept one.

It was quite early; the sun was not out yet. I woke up with the ringing of my mobile phone. ‘This is Kibwana calling from – I forget the exact name – police post. Is this Cardimore?’. ‘Yes, this is Cardimore, how can I help you Bwana … Kibwana?’ I was quite confident – and enthusiastic about this call from the police at such an hour to be quite honest – until the man mentioned that I might be of help in their investigations. ‘So Kibwana, what investigations are these we’re looking at, again? ’Binyavanga is dead!’ Kibwana replied as if to cut me short. ‘Okay…’ I said then stopped to think of who Binyanvanga was. ‘Binyavanga is dead!’ Kibwana said for the second time. ‘Okay, may God rest his soul in eternal peace. Who is he?’ Kibwana stopped. I could feel from his sudden gasp that he was as confused as I was – or probably he was just playing police on me. ‘Is this Mr Cardimore I’m talking to?’ .’Yes, without a doubt, but who is this Binyavanga you’re talking about?’. He laughed, rather mockingly, then said, ‘Stay on the line.’

As it would come to be, I had been a major part of Binyavanga’s life without knowing. I couldn’t remember he had sponsored the soft launch of my writing platform at the resort and we’d in fact taken a picture together – for he never spoke a word to me but only asked that we pose for a photo. In my recollection, he had sat on the front row – next to where Jai, my partner in these things, had sat. The only impressions I had of him were that of a keen listener, non-smoker and down to earth person – probably a preacher with the Lutheran Church. Of course, some preachers take whisky. Then a dog sat next to him, licking his feet and never menacing; the same dog that would also be taken into custody to aid with investigations. That bitch; Talisa. He also had quite a collection of my work, including work I never thought I’d shared with anyone.

He left a suicide note that simply said; ‘A life well lived, it’s time to go. Maybe, reunite with the man I never knew.’ He had, in fact, killed himself on August 5th at around 10.00PM East African time according to the public coroner’s estimates. On the same day a year back, his father had passed on peacefully in his sleep. In the death of the son, everything seemed perfectly choreographed. The arrangement meticulously designed to send him to heaven. The only mistake he did, was to write his note on a piece of paper with one of my scripts – next to the paper shredder, directly underneath his noose.

Why he killed himself, we still don’t know. This year, we shall be marking the second anniversary since his death. Some say, he probably didn’t kill himself. Yet for most of us, it feels like a lifetime ago – well forgotten.


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