Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina (1971–2019) was among the greatest of his generation. A winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing, in the final decade of his life he had become as well a celebrated speaker, and was even named to TIME’s list of “Most Influential People in the World.”
Knowing him was not unlike reading him: he could be dazzling, compelling, and exhausting all at once. The unusual velocity of his most famous essays, especially “How to Write About Africa” (2005) and “I Am a Homosexual, Mum” (2014), means that many readers think of his writing as characterized by polemic and raw confession. But his work could also be gentle, loving, and playful, and nowhere are these qualities more evident than in his fiction.
“Binguni!” (1996) was Binyavanga’s first published work of fiction. In 2017, after battling multiple strokes and a range of physical problems that left him dispirited, Binyavanga wrote to me to ask for help in recovering it.
It was set in a heaven that African Ancestors went to die. I am desperate to find it. I remember the lead character was called Jango. There was a sentence in it about his mind being like a “helium balloon.” It was published on a website . . . called purification.com. Is there no way of recovering it?
After a futile week of searching through a range of water purification projects on the African continent, thanks to his hazy memory and his lifelong disregard for spelling things accurately, I almost gave up. Then I turned to the shining jewel that is the Internet Archive, and miraculously stumbled upon purefiction.com, which I quickly realized had been a vibrant hub for new writing in the early 1990s.
Reading “Binguni!” in 2017 was magical for Binyavanga—and for me. To anyone who followed his coming out in 2014, Binyavanga’s broadsides against the Pentecostal church are well known. Less known is that, toward the end of his life, he became deeply interested in African precolonial spirituality. His coming out had been followed by a series of devastating health setbacks. Perhaps this spiritual quest fit into a larger quest—a liberation from the past and a connection to a new future.
But it was also surprising. Binyavanga was, for most of his life, the least spiritual person I knew. To rediscover “Binguni!” with him was a revelation, then: not merely for the beauty of the prose, but for what it taught me about its author. Every single thing he spent his last years on Earth being consumed by—spirituality, sexuality, discovery, and death—is in this story, his very first.
Binyavanga was notoriously careless about his archive. And yet it puzzled me that he would have let something as fresh and wonderful as this stay hidden for so long. Now I realize it might have been deliberate. A lone strategy for survival in a life marked by the absence of any. Perhaps he thought better of revealing so much about his interior self until he was absolutely ready—until his own helium-ballooned mind made its final ascent, knocking at the edge of the stratosphere with nowhere left to go.
Two goldfish were arguing in their bowl, “If there is no God, who changes our water every week?”
Allotropy (ə-‘lä-trə-pē) n. the property of certain elements to exist in two or more distinct forms
Dawn, December 27, 1999
Jango had often pictured his imagination as a helium-filled balloon, rather than one containing air. As he rose above the wreckage of the car, a whole-body feeling came over him. His life had ended, the string was cut, and his imagination was free to merge with reality. He felt immensely liberated—like he was flexing muscles that had not been used in a long time.
Oh, to stretch! His body felt loose-limbed and weightless and his mind poised to soar. How could he have stayed in cramped earthliness for so long? How could he have forgotten this feeling? Had he not once danced with stars and had dalliances with gods?
Was he dreaming? Or was this part of some spectral past life? He felt no trauma of the type normally associated with violent death. Right now, he was rather piqued that he had missed out on the nonstop partying that was taking place all over the world. He hugged himself and found that his body seemed intact. He found it odd that he did not seem to feel the trepidation he would have expected if there was a possibility that he was destined for Pastor Vimba’s “LAKE OF FIYYRRE!” that starred a leering Red Devil and promised “EEETERNALL DAMNATIONNN!” He giggled at the thought. “Tsk, tsk, Jango,” he said to himself. “You’re getting above yourself!”
Oddly enough, right now the thought of going to “Heaven” and spending eternity dressed in white robes, blissfully ensconced behind Pearly Gates while drinking nectar or listening to harps was depressing. After spending most of his life in Johannesburg, and especially after the hedonism of the past few days, the “fires of hell” acquired a certain appeal.
There was another possible destination though. His father’s mania. To become an esteemed ancestor, as Zulu tradition dictated. Yet he could not visualize himself tolerating eternity as an “Outraged Ancestor,” imposing droughts and plagues on disobedient descendants and anybody else who happened to be in the vicinity. Ancestor worship was a religion his father had tried to drum (quite often literally) into his head, and it was one he had discarded with relief. The concept of ancestors scrutinizing and guiding peoples’ lives had always inspired images of power-mad old voyeurs playing African roulette (giggle, giggle . . . whom shall we play with next—Rwanda?).
What if one descended from a long line of arseholes?
He thought to himself that if he had a choice, he would not mind being dispatched to some sort of Spectral Cyberspace, if such a fanciful place could exist. Hmm, yes. Maybe he was on his way to a place where nobody would dictate to him how to live his life.
Pah! Banish the thought. There were probably harp-playing Censors lovingly denying souls/spirits/whatever their daily fix of Ambrosia if they did not conform.
As he floated with a sort of predetermined aimlessness, he delighted in his new rubber-bandy self, vaguely wondering why he seemed to have carried his body with him. Surely his real body was still getting intimate with the mangled metal of his car?
He looked down at the surrealistic African visage below him. It was as if, as the Earth relinquished its pull on him, he relinquished all the trauma that he expected to have felt after the accident; relinquished all the weighty emotions and burdensome responsibilities that did not endear themselves to his new weightless self.
Or maybe he was still stoned from the party.
Around and below him, the Earth had decided to stake its claim. A sudden gust of wind whipped itself up into a frenzy of anger and lightning seared the ground. Thunder roared as if backing up the sky’s claim on him. Massive, engorged clouds lay low, and gave birth to reluctant raindrops.
This drama had no physical effect on him. It seemed that he was in a dimension beyond Earth now. He could not remain unmoved by her mourning though. As the wind wailed in fury, he mimicked it, roaring his farewell to her.
Meanwhile, fast asleep at her home in Diepkloof, Soweto, Mama Jango moaned as the cloud of unformed premonition that floated past her house darkened her pedestrian dreams. A shadow of loss chilled her briefly. Later she would wonder, and trusty Pastor Vimba would come up with a satisfactory supernatural explanation.
Meanwhile, exultation welled in Jango as he looked below him and saw the grand panorama of the storm-enlivened city below him. A powerful love for what had been his adopted home for twenty-seven years overwhelmed him. Wordsworth’s famous sonnet, a personal favorite, came to mind and he laughed, stretching his arms wide and bellowing in exultation:
Earth has not anything to show more fair:Dull would he be of soul who could pass byA sight so FUCKING touching in its majesty:This City now doth, like a garment, wear . . .
Suddenly a force lifted the flat veldt and highways below him as if they were merely a tablecloth and swallowed them. In no time everything earthly below him—the mine dumps, squatter camps, towers, domes, theaters, and temples of Johannesburg—disappeared the same way. Evaporated by something that seemed to have no substance or form.
Jango found himself surrounded by nothingness.
And all that mighty heart is lying still.
Silence so absolute, it screamed louder than anything he had ever experienced.
The sensation was terrifying. Utter nothingness surrounded him. There was no light, no darkness, nothing to feel or touch. Unearthly cold imprisoned his body. He began to shake and shudder, but soon even his shudders became sluggish and eventually ceased. He was immobile.
In the absolute silence, he could not tell whether he was still floating. An excruciating numbness began to spread all over his body. Soon his body lost all feeling. He lowered his eyes to see what was happening, and to his horror saw that something was eliminating it with a devastating silence.
As if it had never been there.
Finally, only the feeling that his mind was present remained, and it screamed into the nothingness to make itself heard. It tried all manner of activities to convince itself that it would be all right, but waves and waves of self-doubt assaulted it as it found nothing to compare or process. Nothing to perceive.
Not even an echo.
Shutdown began in some areas of his mind, and the rest reacted by exaggerating their most recent functions. Oh shit! This is it! He thought frantically to himself, This is how it ends. Huge, terribly distorted images thrust themselves to the forefront of his consciousness as it tried to resist the terrible finality of its surroundings. Now all that remained were the screams of tortured metal, flashing lights, his crazed screams, and the smell of feces and smoke. His mind accepted these gratefully as evidence that there was existence, that he did exist. These scenes played themselves over and over as the shutdown continued undeterred, becoming more and more scrambled and indecipherable as more functions shut down.
Then there was just nothing.
Something enveloped him luxuriously. Light, or a beginning of awareness?
Starting with his toes he tingled with it and it spread until every part of him glowed with its warmth. It was the strangest feeling, as if he had been recreated as light; his shape a memory of his earthly body. Nothingness still surrounded him, but he was now a spiritual glowworm, cocooned in what he could only think of as a life-fire. Every part of him took flame, as his body memory emphatically affirmed and embraced his being. Tiny raptures exploded all over his mind; life thrills and memories concentrated into tiny capsules of pure feeling.
Again, his recent trauma seemed to have had no major effect on him. He did not want to try to understand it. He felt so good.
Children dressed in all manner of cultural pajamas floated past him, playing in their dreamscapes as if this place was home. Again, that feeling of acquaintance with this place struck him. This time he was sure that, at some early part of his life, he had straddled this place and Earth without conflict. Oh, to bathe in this light again!
He felt a fleeting sadness that these children would be soon tethered to life on Earth as its chains embraced them with ever-increasing possessiveness. Don’t wake me up, mummy!
“Enjoy it while you can, kids,” he thought.
He looked above him and saw his naked body mirrored and magnified in a huge translucent gelatinous mass that covered the sky. Saw the long black limbs, the chunky muscle. The hated feet were stretched taut. Saw the face, a rictus of anticipation. Then his eyes trampolined the soft large lips and clambered up the jutting mountains that were his cheekbones, scratching themselves against his toothbrush stubble on their way up.
Looking down from the summit, two large eye-pools below hypnotized them. Irresistibly drawn to their twins, they dived off the cliff into themselves and his soul swallowed them.
Light! Oozing out of the mirrored eyes. Light stained brown with their color lit the cloud, dazzling Jango with its brilliance. Oh, the ecstasy! It was his light! His essence! He could feel it coming alive in his body, burning its way up from his feet to neck, roller-coastering through the pathways of his mind, setting them alight with its force, then blazing out of his eyes to meet its reflection. They made contact and the universe around him exploded.
He was somewhere else.
His eyes took time to adjust to the light. He was in a world that seemed comprised of nothing but living color. Dancing light was all around him. Heavenly shadows? Directly in front of him, a small tornado of light twisted itself and took on the shape of a person. Then it began to fade and assumed more human features.
An old man had materialized before him. An extremely sour-faced old man. His hair was waist long and in dreadlocks. He wore a three-piece suit, complete with bowler hat. Instead of a tie, there was what looked like a desiccated human ear at the end of a leather thong around his neck. The old man was squatting, African-fashion, and hovered three feet in the air fiddling with the ear as though it was some kind of talisman.
It was around this time that it occurred to Jango that this was no Heavenly Emissary. His helium balloon began to lose altitude.
Bleak, bitter eyes turned to face him.
“Ah, you’re the newcomer,” he began. “I presume my accent is comprehensible to you. I learned it in anticipation of your arrival. Let me see. . . . Black, English-speaking, Dekaff, I believe you would call it . . . er . . . with a slight urban Zulu accent . . . car accident on the Johannesburg-Pretoria highway. Pity about the BMW. . . .”
Jango did not find this dour-peeping Thabo amusing. Was that really a human ear? A white man’s ear? Did they not have a Public Relations department here? This man was more bitter than malaria medication. Yup, no chance this was Heaven. Oh shit! This was either Hell or Rwandan Rouletteville.
“Hima Tata!” he burst out. “Where is this place and who the—er—heaven are you? Is this some sort of celestial prank?”
Malaria Face adopted an even sourer expression—if that were possible. “I have often thought so. I am Kariuki, and you are now in what we call African Binguni, part of the Otherworld. Souls here have complete freedom to explore just how mad they can be. You would not believe what perversions prowl in this place. I left Binguni in disgust. Nothing is sacred to these immoral Immortals. I am waiting to be transferred to African Presbyteria, you’ll do well to do the same. Their harp band is famous all over the heavens!”
Jango shuddered. Any place this anally overburdened body-part collector did not like was probably his kind of Heaven. This African Binguni place sounded like fun.
A thin smile distorted the old man’s features. “I understand you are one of the highlights at the Millennial Celebrations, they have chosen you for their insane new experiment. I do not envy you. Now enough chitchat, I will summon Mshale on the Supernet, and he will take you to the millennial festivities.”
“Wait a second, who is Mshale and what experiment?”
The Churl harrumphed: “He is one of your ancestors, a disreputable pervert even by the standards here. Now shut up, they will explain all to you. My work in this hellhole is finished.”
One of the floating cloud-like things turned into a large screen. With considerable surprise, Jango recognized what looked like a poached version of the Netscape Navigator on the screen. The only real difference was that “Binguniscape” was what was written in the left-hand corner. Jango dazedly wondered what they did about copyright as he watched Kariuki reach out a hand and scribble on the screen: HTTP://AFTERLIFE
And a website appeared on the screen:
WELCOME TO THE HEAVENLY WEB! THIS MESSAGE IS SPONSORED BY THE SUPPLIERS OF COMPUTER SOUL-STUFF TO BINGUNI
Kariuki mumbled, “Can’t be bothered to learn drumsong compuspeak,” and wrote “AA.JangotoMshale@AncestralFair” on the screen. Jango was unable to express his astonishment as he suddenly found himself surrounded by darkness.
First to appear was a blue light that slowly formed itself into a banner reading: “WELCOME TO THE MILLENNIAL ANCESTRAL FAIR”
Then the ground began to unravel itself: an unrolling carpet of hard, unrelenting African earth, briefly tinted blue by the now fading light of the banner. Grassland, acacia trees, and scrub covered the ground. In the distance, Jango could see feeding herds of wildebeest and zebra. A minuscule shaft of light appeared on the horizon, growing rapidly and becoming the sun. Its bright white light drowned the banner, then it turned red and sunset burned the ground and trees with its color. On the horizon, the light shadows danced, numinous mirages of humanity. From a distance Jango heard drums beating, and they grew louder—seeming to be coming from closer and closer. He stood still in fascination as this supernatural Cyberdrama unfolded.
As he dazedly wondered who designed this Supernatural Website, an enormous bellow interrupted the download and it was followed by a string of curses in a combination of Zulu, English, and languages Jango didn’t even know existed. Somewhere in the background he could hear music.
“HAYIBO! THAT FUCKING KARIUKI’S DONE IT TO ME AGAIN!”
The voice sounded much closer now and a body had begun to materialize next to Jango. The huge sweating figure that appeared in front of him could only have been the Notorious Mshale, his great-grandfather. Dressed like a cross between Elvis and a Hollywood version of “What an African Warrior Should Look Like,” he wore a leopard-skin loincloth that had ridden up his thigh, leaving the head of a huge dangling penis clearly visible below the hem. A leather waistcoat studded with rhinestones barely covered his heavily muscled torso. His hair was dreadlocked, pomaded, and piled on his head—sort of an Elvis-becomes-a-Rastafari hairdo.
The man even wore blue suede shoes.
Mumbling to himself in Zulu, he tugged the hem of the loincloth down and rearranged his organ. “Damned Internet!” he boomed. “It really does pick its moments. One day soon I’ll get revenge on that prig of a Gatekeeper!”
“Hello, Tat’omkulu, I am Jango.”
Mshale laughed. “Do I look like a grandfather to you! Call me Mshale. I don’t stand on ceremony. Sorry about my outfit—I was performing a striptease for some maidens from Arabian Binguni. I understand that you’re another one who doesn’t speak Zulu, eh? You don’t know what you’re missing, bhuti, it is the sexiest language in Binguni. Yo! You should hear me doing Elvis in Zulu, the man himself has come to Binguni to see me perform!”
Jango, the free-thinking, “anything goes” liberal was beginning to feel a tad conservative and old-fashioned. What would his “the Ancestors are governing your morals” father have to say about this rock-and-roll-in-the-hay ancestor?
“How did you die by the way?”
“I had attended a druggy New Age bash, one of those ‘I love the whole world’ millennial parties, and on the way home my car somewhat overeagerly decided to hug a lamppost—at a hundred and fifty kilometers an hour. . . .”
“And the rest is Ancestral, eh! Hayibo! You’re lucky to have such a glamorous death! Would you believe the blasted flu killed me! Me! The great Induna, lover of all women! Come on, we don’t have much time. I have a roomful of maidens baying for my presence. Let’s get to the party!”
Jango’s hand was grabbed by a huge, horny paw. Mshale mumbled something in Zulu and their surroundings disappeared.
Before any scenes appeared before Jango, the smell assaulted him, pungent and tropical, the smell of a marketplace or a marriage feast. Frenzy, sweat, musk, and sensual heat—the smell of abandon.
The noise followed. It was loud and disorganized. He could hear laughter, conversation, and song, in a bewildering assortment of languages. It did not sound like anything Jango had ever encountered. It was as if he could hear every individual’s input and everybody’s drone all at once. The sheer intensity of it was unnerving and his mind struggled to unscramble the confusion. Soon, amid the gibberish, he could hear snatches of sounds that his consciousness could make sense of.
“SALE! SALE! ENHANCE YOUR GLOW, SURF MY NEW SOULSITE FOR THE BARGAIN PRICE OF ONLY TWO HUMANITIES OF PAIN!”
“SPECTRAL SEX . . . CHECK OUT WHAT MY GENEMEMORY HAS COME UP WITH!”
Even a jingle?
“SOUL-SYTE DESIGNS . . . FOR A TRULY SPIRITUAL SITE—SOOUUL SYTE!!”
“SIGN UP FOR A COURSE IN THE NIGGAHS NEW DRUMSONG COMPUSPEAK . . . KEYBOARDS ARE PASSÉ!”
“MAMA SQUEEZA’S SOUL BREW . . . AN UNEARTHLY HIGH!”
Going off to the soul clinic, I haven’t been feeling ecstatic lately.
“THE ‘PHECAL MATYRS’ IN CONCERT! TAKE A TRIP ON THE DARK SIDE!”
“PUTTY & THE BLOWFISH: BODY MEMORY REPAIRS”
“JOIN THE CYBER-BER QUICKENING! ACHIEVE NIRVANA!”
“EXPERIENCE PURE AGONY . . . RECENT ARRIVALS FROM RWANDA!”
“TIRED OF JOY? TAKE PACKAGE TOUR TO BINGUNI DARK. ECSTATIC AGONY!”
“DUMP SOME PAIN ON A DICTATOR HERE”
Before he had time to get his bearings, they were plunged into a maelstrom of humanity. What seemed to be a crossroad of souls, rushing in all directions, each hindering the other. Faces thrust themselves in his sight as he dumbly followed Mshale. Huge grins as if from convex and concave mirrors surrounded him, laughing, chanting, singing, arguing.
They were illuminated by revelation, faces overcome with amazement, eyes shining with enthusiasm, pupils dilated with joy, love, passion, and intensity. There seemed to be no logic to their appearance. Bodies danced with scant regard for anatomy or physics. A few passed right through him, leaving varied and intimate flavors of themselves in him. With every step, a swarm of locusts went wild in his insides.
The people who passed through his body seemed to infect it with their exuberance, and he found it hard to contain himself. A flood of hysterical laughter rose, threatening to engulf his control. He clenched his teeth and swallowed it down. It was promptly replaced by nausea. He much preferred that.
“Are you all right, bhuti?” Jango nodded. “Keep yourself together, we’re nearly there. The Welcome is usually more restrained, but we’re celebrating, and we have been waiting long for you.”
Finally, with Jango feeling rather like he had overdosed on something illegal, they arrived at the Millennial Fair, or maybe it had found them. Jango was not sure what was where, or if anything was anywhere. “This is a dream,” he thought. “I have smoked too much pot and I am tripping.”
He did not need to pinch himself for Mshale’s sledgehammer of a hand walloped his back and brought him to a stinging awareness of his surroundings.
“Welcome!” boomed Mshale. “What do you think of this madhouse, eh?”
What a madhouse it was. Unearthly chaos. And its sensory impact was devastating. He felt as if the world he was in was in constant motion, there was no foundation. His senses were being overwhelmed from every direction.
There was no time to absorb or digest the impact, and even if there had been he did not think that he would have made any logic of what was going on around him. It was as if people here expressed themselves with all senses through a multitude of media and dimensions. He could feel communication bypass his conscious mind and flow into his subconscious. Buttons rusty with disuse were pushed and doors opened to raw, virgin sections of his mind.
What was most terrifying was that, for the first time he could recall, the thin crust that was logic, civilization, reason, and manners was not in control, it had gone off to a far place and was helplessly observing the body it had served so loyally for twenty-seven years being taken over by pure primal sensation.
He laughed wildly, thinking, “Shit, now this is Multimedia!” The laugh turned into a growl, then exploded into an animal screech. His mind was wide open with all the filters gone, and its unprotected core was being singed by uncontrolled input.
From far away he heard Mshale’s voice saying harshly, “Sorry, bhuti, hold on for a bit and I will seal you off from this.” Amid the pandemonium that surrounded him, he glimpsed a flash of dreadlocks and he felt Mshale’s huge arms around his body. Then something that felt like cool water entered his overheated consciousness and covered it. Relief! His mind attempted a brief resistance against this foreign invader, but a deep gravelly voice crooned it to acquiescence. Finally, he felt himself completely surrounded by a pungent maleness. There was an almost sexual intimacy in the feeling that was disturbing. All his five senses could perceive Mshale completely. Coarse facial hair thrusting through skin and a shock of testosterone.
He remained quiescent as his mind calmed down. Mshale’s grip on it was solid and nothing penetrated. After a while, Mshale’s grip relaxed, and his consciousness began to communicate softly with Jango’s.
“This is my fault, bhuti, we were so excited by your arrival, we forgot that you have not been formatted to face us all together.”
He chuckled, and Jango shuddered at the soothing vibration of it.
“You should feel complimented, it is not so often I soul-merge with a man.”
He could feel that the sinews of Mshale’s body intertwined with his as they gripped his body powerfully, calming the violent shudders. He could hear vibrations and it seemed that somebody was communicating with Mshale, a deeper, more resonant sentience, not as gravelly or harsh.
“Jango,” throbbed Mshale. “I have spoken to Senkou. He is an old soul, the one who chose you for this mission. He will replace me as your mind’s environment, he’s better at this than I am.”
That elicited a brief flutter of panic. “Relax,” a murmur throbbed. “It will be seamless.”
He could feel Mshale’s essence seep out of him as another replaced him. Initially, it was difficult to discern the flavor of this person as it mingled with Mshale’s pungency. Gradually, he had the sense of a deep, almost bottomless personality: it resonated antiquity and calmness. In contrast to Mshale, he could feel little of this person’s physical presence. Another difference was the bizarre sensation that certain essences of himself occurred in this person. This part of the foreign consciousness instantly entered Jango’s consciousness and merged with its twin, giving him a feeling of peculiar comfort.
“I wish you peace and many raptures.”
What a voice. Ripples as a pebble sank in deep waters.