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Binyavanga Wainaina on coming out: “This is not going to be very good for my love life”

The fearless Kenyan writer talks about the “lost” coming-out chapter from his memoir and the response in Africa and elsewhere.

Binyavanga Wainaina: “I didn’t want to come out in the New Yorker; it just felt wrong. It needed an African conversation”. (Photo: Phil Moore/Guardian)

The Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina walks into the lecture room at the London School of Economics wearing a fluorescent yellow suit and a turquoise V-neck, eating a toastie from Pret A Manger. He washes it down with a coffee, standing by the lectern as the room fills up with students, journalists and admirers clutching his memoir, One Day I Will Write About This Place, which is on sale by the door.

Without speaking, he has already broken the silence. “He’s so eccentric,” says Vincent, a programme-maker sitting on my right, who wants to interview Wainaina for Kenyan television. “He just doesn’t give a shit.”

On 18 January, his 43rd birthday, Wainaina published a “lost chapter” from his memoir – a short confessional essay entitled “I am a homosexual, Mum”. The piece reimagined the scene at his mother’s deathbed in Nairobi, where the writer whispered a truth about himself known “since I was five” into her ear.

Earlier, on 13 January, President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria had quietly approved a law banning same-sex relationships, criminalising gay rights organisations and mandating 14-year prison sentences for those suspected of “homosexual acts”. On 24 February, Uganda followed suit. In reality, Wainaina didn’t tell his mother anything before she died. Visa troubles kept him stuck in South Africa, where he had been a student. Instead, he has decided to have the conversation now, through his writing – which is to say, in public. “This is not going to be very good for my love life,” says Wainaina, smoothing the thin blade of dyed blue hair on his head. “The small spaces will be relatively constricted for a while.”

Wainaina speaks animatedly on whatever subject springs to mind. He ranges widely and cracks jokes, becoming most serious when talking about tenses, verbs and literary style (he taught creative writing at Bard College in New York for nearly a decade before returning to Nairobi in 2013).

He had decided to make some kind of announcement nine months ago “but couldn’t find the right language for it”, he says. “I knew I didn’t want to come out in the New Yorker; it just felt wrong. It needed an African conversation.”

In the end, the chapter was published on the website Africa Is A Country, an intellectual platform for blogs that are “not about famine, Bono or Barack Obama”, but are often inspired by the satirical mode Wainaina pioneered in his 2005 essay “How to Write About Africa”.The piece went viral.

It was not only the “crazy laws” that provoked him to come out, but also his father’s death following a stroke in 2011 (Wainaina, too, has suffered a series of minor strokes recently that led to a brain angioplasty) and the deaths of two friends, both from Aids.

“One died in a sense just because he was too ashamed to tell anyone. He said he had throat cancer. This guy had worked as an Aids awareness counsellor with sex workers, but shame cannot be accounted for. It’s not an NGO project.”

After a reading from the next “lost” chapter, a woman at the back raises her hand to ask if homosexual persecution is not a contrivance used by men to claim asylum in the west. The crowd inhales sharply, but Wainaina laughs. “You could always do child soldier,” he says. “It’s very successful.”

Brushing the question aside, he is keen to stress that the reaction he has received has been mostly positive.

“My sense, actually, is that there’s some sense of normalisation going on after the Eighties and Nineties. It’s not toxic to say that things are shit any more. I felt that people were ready to have these conversations, and that’s been my experience.”

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 4 years of austerity

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An unmatched font of knowledge

Edinburgh’s global reputation as a knowledge economy is rooted in the performance and international outlook of its four universities.

As sociologist-turned US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan recognised when asked how to create a world-class city, a strong academic offering is pivotal to any forward-looking, ambitious city. “Build a university,” he said, “and wait 200 years.” He recognised the long-term return such an investment can deliver; how a renowned academic institution can help attract the world. However, in today’s increasingly globalised higher education sector, world-class universities no longer rely on the world coming to come to them – their outlook is increasingly international.

Boasting four world-class universities, Edinburgh not only attracts and retains students from around the world, but also increasingly exports its own distinctively Scottish brand of academic excellence. In fact, 53.9% of the city’s working age population is educated to degree level.

In the most recent QS World University Rankings, the University of Edinburgh was named as the 21st best university in the world, reflecting its reputation for research and teaching. It’s a fact reflected in the latest UK Research Exercise Framework (REF), conducted in 2014, which judged 96% of its academic departments to be producing world-leading research.

Innovation engine

Measured across the UK, annual Gross Value Added (GVA) by University of Edinburgh start-ups contributes more than £164m to the UK economy. In fact, of 262 companies to emerge from the university since the 1960s, 81% remain active today, employing more than 2,700 staff globally. That performance places the University of Edinburgh ahead of institutions such as MIT in terms of the number of start-ups it generates; an innovation hothouse that underlines why one in four graduates remain in Edinburgh and why blue chip brands such as Amazon, IBM and Microsoft all have R&D facilities in the city.

One such spin out making its mark is PureLiFi, founded by Professor Harald Haas to commercialise his groundbreaking research on data transmission using the visible light spectrum. With data transfer speeds 10,000 times faster than radio waves, LiFi not only enables bandwidths of 1 Gigabit/sec but is also far more secure.

Edinburgh’s universities play a pivotal role in the local economy. Through its core operations, knowledge transfer activities and world-class research the University generated £4.9bn in GVA and 44,500 jobs globally, when accounting for international alumni.

With £1.4bn earmarked for estate development over the next 10 years, the University of Edinburgh remains the city’s largest property developer. Its extensive programme of investment includes the soon-to-open Higgs Centre for Innovation. A partnership with the UK Astronomy Technology Centre, the new centre will open next year and will supply business incubation support for potential big data and space technology applications, enabling start-ups to realise the commercial potential of applied research in subjects such as particle physics.

It’s a story of innovation that is mirrored across Edinburgh’s academic landscape. Each university has carved its own areas of academic excellence and research expertise, such as the University of Edinburgh’s renowned School of Informatics, ranked among the world’s elite institutions for Computer Science. 

The future of energy

Research conducted into the economic impact of Heriot-Watt University demonstrated that it generates £278m in annual GVA for the Scottish economy and directly supports more than 6,000 jobs.

Set in 380-acres of picturesque parkland, Heriot-Watt University incorporates the Edinburgh Research Park, the first science park of its kind in the UK and now home to more than 40 companies.

Consistently ranked in the top 25% of UK universities, Heriot-Watt University enjoys an increasingly international reputation underpinned by a strong track record in research. 82% of the institution’s research is considered world-class (REF) – a fact reflected in a record breaking year for the university, attracting £40.6m in research funding in 2015. With an expanding campus in Dubai and last year’s opening of a £35m campus in Malaysia, Heriot-Watt is now among the UK’s top five universities in terms of international presence and numbers of international students.

"In 2015, Heriot-Watt University was ranked 34th overall in the QS ‘Top 50 under 50’ world rankings." 

Its established strengths in industry-related research will be further boosted with the imminent opening of the £20m Lyell Centre. It will become the Scottish headquarters of the British Geological Survey, and research will focus on global issues such as energy supply, environmental impact and climate change. As well as providing laboratory facilities, the new centre will feature a 50,000 litre climate change research aquarium, the UK Natural Environment Research Council Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) in Oil and Gas, and the Shell Centre for Exploration Geoscience.

International appeal

An increasingly global outlook, supported by a bold international strategy, is helping to drive Edinburgh Napier University’s growth. The university now has more than 4,500 students studying its overseas programmes, through partnerships with institutions in Hong Kong, Singapore, China, Sri Lanka and India.

Edinburgh Napier has been present in Hong Kong for more than 20 years and its impact grows year-on-year. Already the UK’s largest higher education provider in the territory, more than 1,500 students graduated in 2015 alone.

In terms of world-leading research, Edinburgh Napier continues to make its mark, with the REF judging 54% of its research to be either world-class or internationally excellent in 2014. The assessment singled out particular strengths in Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences, where it was rated the top UK modern university for research impact. Taking into account research, knowledge exchange, as well as student and staff spending, Edinburgh Napier University generates in excess of £201.9m GVA and supports 2,897 jobs in the city economy.

On the south-east side of Edinburgh, Queen Margaret University is Scotland’s first university to have an on-campus Business Gateway, highlighting the emphasis placed on business creation and innovation.

QMU moved up 49 places overall in the 2014 REF, taking it to 80th place in The Times’ rankings for research excellence in the UK. The Framework scored 58% of Queen Margaret’s research as either world-leading or internationally excellent, especially in relation to Speech and Language Sciences, where the University is ranked 2nd in the UK.

In terms of its international appeal, one in five of Queen Margaret’s students now comes from outside the EU, and it is also expanding its overseas programme offer, which already sees courses delivered in Greece, India, Nepal, Saudi Arabia and Singapore.

With 820 years of collective academic excellence to export to the world, Edinburgh enjoys a truly privileged position in the evolving story of academic globalisation and the commercialisation of world-class research and innovation. If he were still around today, Senator Moynihan would no doubt agree – a world-class city indeed.

For further information www.investinedinburgh.com