Saturday, March 9, 2024

Reflections on the late Dr. Henry Chakava

A Mūgumo tree has fallen.

Not in Kikuyuland, this time, but in Africa's literary landscape. A written statement from Mr. Kiarie Kamau, Managing Director and CEO of East African Educational Publishers, has this morning confirmed the passing of Dr. Henry Chakava, at the age of 77. 

Dr. Chakava was the founder and chairman of EAEP and also the chairman of the Global Book Alliance. Mr. Kiarie's statement describes the deceased as 'the father of book publishing in Africa'. It goes on to say:

'He is associated with publishing of iconic literary luminaries in Africa such as: Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Grace Ogot, Francis Imbuga, John Kiriamiti, Meja Mwangi, Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye (all from Kenya), Chinua Achebe, Cyprian Ekwensi (Nigeria), Taban Lo Liyong (South Sudan), Okot p'Bitek, John Ruganda (Uganda), David Rubadiri (Malawi), Peter Abrahams (South Africa), among many others.'

I had the honour of meeting Dr. Chakava a few times, all pre-COVID era. If I'm not wrong, the first we met was during a Worldreader-organized publishers' event. He knew who I was (most probably from my literary criticism document, 'Changing the Literary Map of Kenya' which had been widely circulated via email). He gave me his EAEP business card and invited me to visit him in his office some time. Since he gave no agenda or particular date for the meeting, I was left rather perplexed by the publishing giant. I felt I shouldn't visit without a substantial work-in-progress that I could pitch. (After all, this was the guy that published Kenya's most iconic novel, Kiriamiti's 'My Life in Crime')! Meanwhile, I hadn't written a novel manuscript since 2001's 'When the Whirlwind Passes'. Still haven't. I had transitioned into more of criticism as well as poetry, plays and short stories. So our office meeting never happened.

We did meet again over the years, most recently in 2019, at the African Union/ADEA - Association for the Development of Education in Africa ‘High-Level Regional Workshop on National Book and Reading Policies in Africa’. ( We were cordial to each other. He was like our industry dad. Everyone respected him. He was a big guy, physically, and spoke with a quiet authority. Never in a rush. He reminded me of the mysterious and powerful character code-named 'Sunday' in G. K. Chesterton's classic novel 'The Man Who Was Thursday'. The photo below, of Dr. Chakava and I during a brainstorming session, was taken at that summit. 

Dr. Chakava and I always got along. We even agreed on the importance of promoting indigenous languages as they are essential to our culture/heritage. (Speaking at the summit, Mr Kiarie Kamau, had said that EAEP had just published texts in six local languages: Kikuyu, Kamba, Maragoli, Dholuo, Giriama, and Ekegusii.) Dr. Chakava remarked: 'We cannot create a reading culture without bookstores and libraries.' On the challenges facing indigenous publishing, Mr Chakava said that countries such as 'Denmark, Finland and Sweden have small populations but thriving publishing industries. Why not African nations, some of which have tribes larger than the aforementioned national populations?' The issue was how to make vernacular publishing profitable/sustainable. Relying on donors was frowned upon in our brainstorming/discussion sessions. Dr. Chakava opined that the main reason many writing/publishing associations had folded was 'heavy reliance' on (foreign) donor funding. 'Once the funds dry up, so do the organizations,' he said. He also said that some literary association founders were not serious about the promotion of literature/writers, they were merely promoting themselves (What we now call 'clout chasing'.) He mentioned a lady he knew who was 'being invited all over the world' as the founder/CEO of a children's literature association in Nairobi. However, she was the only member of that association, had no programmes/events, and everything related to her NGO could have fitted in a handbag. (He was dead serious when he told as that story, I would have been laughing like a hyena that has spotted a carcass.)

This is not really a tribute. These are just some reflections on my encounters of this great man of letters. I am going through our photos and emails as we speak. Publishers like John Mwazemba will probably have better anecdotes. Veteran journos like Tony Mochama can certainly pen more insightful articles. 

Me, I am just glad I got to meet the man. The man who boldly published Ngugi wa Thiong'o's 'Matigari' and was physically assaulted by state agents for it. The man who agreed to publish Kiriamiti's semi-autobiographical thriller 'My Life in Crime' which was written on tissue paper in Kamiti Maximum Security Prison.

I hope my seniors in the publishing world will honour his legacy in some way. Since I will be launching my own literary awards this year, I cannot commit much in terms of resources to towards this but I can contribute ideas. Since Dr. Chakava was a publisher, how about an annual Henry Chakava Editor-of-the-Year Award? (I have said countless times that editors are the shadow heroes of literature.) Or an annual Henry Chakava Public Lecture hosted/organized by the Literature Department of one of our major universities? How about a Dr. Henry Chakava Cultural Foundation that enables important indigenous-language books to be published/translated? How about a special tribute session during this year's Nairobi International Book Fair, with panelists from across the continent describing the manner in which ustadh Chakava impacted their publishing/literary scene?

Rest in peace, great man. And since you were a cultural icon, I bid you goodbye in the sacred manner of my people:

Thai, Thathaiya Ngai Thai! Thai, Thathaiya Ngai Thai!

Monday, February 5, 2024


Alexander Nderitu during a studio interview

Author Alexander Nderitu was the only African writer on last year’s Sahitto International Awards of Literature list of winners. The annual literary awards are organized by Tareq Samin; a writer, social entrepreneur and human rights activist from Bangladesh. The 2023 winners are:


 ‘Grand Jury Award’ Category:

  • Agron Shele (Albania/Belgium)        
  • Vesna Mundishevska-Veljanovska (North Macedonia)


‘Excellence in Literature’ Category:

  • Shurouk Hammoud (Syria/Sweden)
  • Mariela Cordero (Venezuela)
  • Daniela Andonovoska (North Macedonia)
  • Ali Al Hasmi (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia)


 ‘Jury Award’ Category:

  •  Alexander Nderitu (Kenya)
  • Rania Angelakoudi (Sweden)
  • Fernando Carbrera (Dominican Republic)
  • Surya Keerthy (India)
  • Sushant Thapa (Nepal)
  • Taghrid Bou Merhi (Lebanon)
  • Yang Jijun (China)
  • Anna Maria Dall’Olio (Italy)
  • Armenuhi Sisyan (Armenia)


‘Special Jury Recolonization Award’

  •  Anna Yovka (Ukraine)
  • Liang Ling (China)
  • Pedro Licona (Colombia)


Alexander Nderitu, who lost his mother to cancer in October 2023, is a poet, novelist, playwright, and critic. His first book, When the Whirlwind Passes, was Africa’s pioneering digital novel. In 2017, Business Daily newspaper named him one of Kenya’s ‘Top 40 Under 40 Men’. In 2022, he took third place in the Share Africa Climate Fiction Awards. In 2023, he was shortlisted for an E. E. Sule/SEVHAGE Books African Criticism Award



Tuesday, June 20, 2023


I feel rather bad for my graphic designer. He used to charge me about Kshs 10k - 12k (USD$ 71.00 - 85.00) for the central image of a book's cover art, and take about a week - two if there were revisions. I now use Artificial Intelligence. It costs me Kshs 0.00 and just a couple of minutes (to key in the "prompts" ie. instructions.)

For now, there's no cause for writers to panic. AI is unlikely to take away THEIR jobs anytime soon. This year, the US film/and TV industry was brought to its knees - yet again - by a strike organized by Writers' Guild of America. Virtually all late-night talk shows temporarily ceased production. The 76th Tony Awards could not be televised. AI can't write original shows, or jokes. It can't actually write literature, either, but it can re-write stuff and imitate styles with remarkable speed and accuracy. It has no soul; no emotions, sense of humour, no storytelling gift.

It can't really replace visual artists entirely, especially for extended projects like comic books or story boards. But for one-off pieces like portraits, posters, book/album covers, 'photos', 'paintings', illustrations etc, it's magical. It can take your breath away!

Frankfurter Buchmesse and Gould Finch carried out research on the nexus between publishing and AI and e-published the results in a paper titled “The Future Impact of Artificial Intelligence on The Publishing Industry” ( The key findings were as follows:

"Artificial Intelligence is not going to replace writers, but it is able to strengthen core-business. While there is technology available to mimic tone and craft plausible 
prose, the narrative arc and a best-seller’s make-up have yet to be reduced to an algorithm. The technology available offers publishers access to an array of new mediums and processes to strengthen areas such marketing and analytics, as well as production and administration.

Investing in Artificial Intelligence doesn’t mean fewer jobs for humans. On the contrary, businesses currently implementing AI, including The Washington Post and Axel Springer as well as smaller publishing houses, have witnessed positive effects on readership statistics and sales, but also better job stability for journalists and writers.

Minimal investments can still bring in monetary benefits."

The conclusion of the research is that:

"AI and its future development offer promising opportunities for the publishing industry. Publishing is a people’s business and our study shows that the technology will not replace human interactions within the industry but offer various improvements in the value chain. Writers will discover new tools with which to expresstheir creativity, marketing creatives will discover new tools to craft personalized campaigns for a wider audience, and customers will be thrilled by new experiences."

I think my AI-aided book covers (an addiction I am now spreading to my writer friends like a common cold) is adequate proof the the above-mentioned paper's conclusion.

Above: Book covers designed with the help of Artificial Intelligence.

Thursday, April 27, 2023


As announced on World Book & Copyright Day 2023, the newest star in the galaxy of literary awards is the Alexander Nderitu Prize For World Literature.

The Prize will be awarded once per year for a single work of literary merit in the genres that the Founder writes in, ie:

- Novels
- Short stories
- Poetry
- Stage Plays

Entries may come from any part of the world and may have originally been published in any language. It is the Prize’s mission ‘to launch new literary stars’. For this reason, the Prize will include a one-year promotional package for the winner.

The Longlists, Shortlists and eventual Winners will be decided by a panel of Judges chaired by the Founder. The Judges may be of any nationality. The entries will be judged equally, regardless of the nominees' nationality, age, race, gender, religion, or other non-literary factors.

Alexander Nderitu is an award-winning writer and critic. Some of his works have been translated into Arabic, Japanese, Chinese, Kiswahili, French, Swedish, Dholuo, Gikũyũ, and Czech.
The Prize will begin handing out awards in 2024. In the meantime, the Prize welcomes partners from all over the globe. Areas of partnership may include sponsorship, cross-promotion, judging, publishing, media, and technology. Partners may be individuals, companies, NGOs, academic institutions, government departments, lit mags, or organizers of literary events such as book fairs and literary festivals.


For more information, email: admin(at)


Thursday, February 23, 2023

An Office-based Stage Play by Alexander Nderitu


PRICE: USD$ 12.00 (PRINT), USD$ 8.00 (KINDLE)
In the world of finance and investments, Chris – a thirtyish Kenyan businessman - is ‘a giant among insects’. But when it comes to matters of the heart, he’s a dunderhead. The surprise engagement of two of his employees precipitates an encounter with his ‘divalicious’ ex-wife, Yolanda, and sets the stage for scenes that are by turns comic and tender!
Written by a guy who was born on William Shakespeare’s birthday, the smart money is on this play becoming a hit!
'Popularly known as Kenya's Shakespeare, Alexander is arguably Kenya's most prolific e-poet, playwright and novelist. Surprisingly, he shares the April 23rd birthday - also World Book and Copyright Day - with the legendary English writer William Shakespeare.' - Business Daily, 'Top 40 Under 40 Men' edition (2017)
Publisher ‏ : ‎ Alex N. Nderitu; 1st edition (February 2, 2023)
Publication date ‏ : ‎ February 2, 2023
Language ‏ : ‎ English
Print length ‏ : ‎ 120 pages

Alexander Nderitu's New Comic Play

BOOK 2/10 FOR 2023
PRICE: USD$ 10.00 (PRINT), USD$ 9.99 (KINDLE)

Meet Jack Lloyd, a British-born film director teetering on the brink of a personal crisis. His flashy wife is dating a younger man, his teenage daughter has puberty issues, and his latter films are as unpopular as second-hand underwear. At all events, Lloyd’s life is ‘flying apart at the seams’.
But this is a comedy and we're in Tinseltown so put on your happy face and prepare to meet Lloyd’s wild bunch of workmates as well: philandering French film producer Jean-Pierre Paquito, heart-throb Ronnie Hunk, weepy Production Assistant Anne, and a cast of cranky actors.
Written in the best tradition of humourist S. J. Perelman, 'What’s Wrong With This Picture?' shows why there is no business like show business.
ASIN ‏ : ‎ B0BW384MCB
Publisher ‏ : ‎ Independently published (February 21, 2023)
Language ‏ : ‎ English
Paperback ‏ : ‎ 140 pages
ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 979-8378246953

Tuesday, November 15, 2022


John Sibi-Okumu (left) received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the inaugural Kenya Theatre Awards (Photo: KTA media)

Collected Plays (2004-2014) is a compilation of six original plays (or ‘books’, as they’re known in the West) by veteran actor/director/playwright John Sibi-Okumu. There’s a foreword by novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o, an introduction by theatre reviewer Margaretta Wa Gacheru, and an afterword by constitutional affairs expert Prof. Yash Pal Ghai. Scripted over a decade and covering a wide range of themes, the works ‘stand alone’ and can be read in any order. I personally started with Kaggia, because it’s the best-known one. I approached the work in a two-pronged manner: from a literary point of view, and from a stage performance point of view (imagining how the pieces would play out on a stage). The plays are not in the Standard Stage Play format but are quite ‘readable’.



 As Shakespeare once wrote, ‘The play is the thing’. So let’s get right to the heart of the matter…



This is a biographical story of one of Kenya’s national heroes – Bildad Kaggia. He was one of the notorious ‘Kapenguria Six’ British colonial-era prisoners, which included future Kenyan president Jomo Kenyatta. Kaggia’s story is unique in that he appeared to shun the limelight and died unsung and, some might say, destitute. In this piece, the playwright attempts to give the audience a closer look at Kaggia, the man, so that we may better understand his sacrifices and life choices. He does this, rather shrewdly, by introducing two characters – Stacey and Xan – who are making a movie about the leftist political leader. Through their conversations and planning, we get to learn the highlights of Kaggia’s life - from circa 1921 to his death in 2005 - and legacy. Early in the story, filmmaker Stacy says:

‘At one point I did see us shooting “scenes of breathtaking natural beauty” by bringing in Kaggia’s childhood in 1920s Kenya. But if we then take him to Egypt, as a soldier then to the Holy Land and then to post-war England, before he starts his political career, we’d have a mega production…I am particularly interested in Kaggia’s relationship with his wife. It’s clearly a love story but not in the standard, Hollywood style: that’s what I see as the pillar of our story.’

THINGS FALL APART: Characters ‘Bildad Kaggia’ and ‘Jomo Kenyatta’ have a heated ideological argument in ‘Kaggia’ which was staged at the Phoenix Theatre.


‘Minister, Karibu’

This is the only comedy in the bunch. Like virtually everything else in the book, it was inspired by actual events. It is set during a fervent electioneering period. With the General Elections just a few months away, a host of big-name politicos converge in a hotel to hammer out a coalition deal. Meanwhile, two con men - ‘Chief’ and his friend ‘Macho’ - hatch a plan that sets the stage for a Government Inspector-like farce. Chief reckons he resembles a powerful ex-minister called W. C. Matumbato while Macho could pass for a youth leader called Hippo Dudi. The two decide to use their similarities with the public figures to rip off unsuspecting business people and politicians in the heat of the campaigns. ‘This is what I call an F.F.P,’ Chief proclaims. ‘A foolproof plan! What can possibly go wrong?’

It’s not hard to see why this play was a success. The wit is as sharp as serpent’s tooth. Minister, Karibu! was performed in English in 2012 and in Gikuyu in 2018. The English version was staged at the now-defunct Phoenix Theatre and directed by George Mungai. The Gikuyu version was performed at the Ukumbi Mdogo hall, Kenya National Theatre, and directed by Tash Mitambo. The plot could use some further tightening. For example, why would crooks bother to attempt a mobile airtime con while at the same engineering an armed robbery for a large amount of cash (that would be much more valuable and easier to utilize)?


‘Dinner at Her Excellency’s’

Unlike the others, Dinner at Her Excellency’s was written for radio, not the stage.  In it, the Ambassador of an unnamed European country invites several professionals to dinner at her official residence. The objective is to pick their brains on the mood in Kenya, as the country hurtles towards a referendum on constitutional change. Like the food described in it, Dinner at Her Excellency’s is tantalizing. However, as pointed out by Prof. Ghai in the Afterword, it could have dug deeper into the issues it addresses. It also needs more SFX (sound effects) and Stage Directions as we cannot see the players at all.



Meetings is clearly warning against Post-Elect Violence (PEV), as witnessed in Kenya in 2007/2008. In it, several groups of people hold series of enlightening discussions in the run-up to a wedding between ‘Zeke’ and ‘Faoulata’. On the surface, it looks like the young lovebirds’ engagement would be a natural fit, but their families’ history and ‘baggage’ cannot be ignored.

This inter-generational play returns us to ancient oral traditions without being a ‘period piece’. It’s a brilliant way to teach history without being pedantic. Covering 43 pages, it’s the longest arrow in the quiver, and arguably the most complex and sombre. Unfortunately, it suffers the same loose copy-editing and over-punctuation as the others. Take a line like:

FAOULATA (Pause.): Zeke, do you think I’m a gold digger?

 Why do you need the full stop after the word ‘Pause’? It’s not even a sentence. On Pg 97, we find the line, ‘Your father and his friends were caught and to Nyayo House, which is the yellowish building across the road.’ Perhaps that should have been ‘…caught and whisked/taken to Nyayo House’? I can visualize an actor reading that line and furrowing his brow. What’s interesting is that this book had two text editors. Perhaps for his next collection of plays, the author should hire three editors!

THE PHOENIX THEATRE CAST OF ‘MEETINGS’: (Standing L – R) Jackline Njoroge, Bruce Makau and Sam Psenjen. (Seated L- R) Jane Waithiegeni, Martin Githinji and Harry Ebale.

‘Role Play’

 Here, we get different views of contemporary Kenya, from the perspectives of diverse characters: an ageing man, a poetically-inclined house help, a young Black lady, a Kenyan-Indian, a White expatriate (or Kenyan Cowboys/Cowgirls, are they are colloquially referred to), and so on. Historical Kenyan events (such as the 1982 coup attempt) and race dynamics are expertly brought to the fore. It’s as if the author is subtly inviting dialogue on those matters, as opposed to stereotypes, conspiracies and occasional violence. I expected this to be the weakest piece in the book (because it’s the oldest one) but it turned out to be probably the most skillfully written and thought-provoking.

Role Play was first staged at The Courtyard Theatre on 3rd June 2004. It featured a multi-racial cast. Most actors played more than one role in the show, as the title suggests. In 2005, the show was reprised at the Alliance Francaise de Nairobi. Looking at the black-and-white photos of the past performances (contained in the book) will bring a tinge of nostalgia and emotion to many who are familiar with the local theatre scene. Two beautiful and talented actors therein are no longer with us. Janet Kanini (who was Black) played the roles of ‘Dudu Smith’ (an expatriate) and ‘Trupti Shah’ (a South Asian) in the original production. Lorna Irungu played those roles in the reprise. May both their souls rest in eternal peace.

THE ORIGINAL CAST OF ‘ROLE PLAY’: (L – R) Kimberley Leonard, Janet Kanini, Collin Simpson, Mohini Balal and Lucy Gitonga.



 Originally written and performed in French, this is an engaging monologue spiced up by impressions of various world accents. The protagonist, a 50-year-old female writer, has a diverse cultural heritage which makes her ethnicity difficult for people to pin down when she’s travelling around the world. It’s a relatively short piece in which the solo performer gives us an insight into her inner and outer worlds. I wouldn’t call it ‘short and sweet’ because it’s not sweet. It’s realistic – and reality is not ‘sweet’. Behind glamorous facades and admirable families, we see, are a litany of secrets and heartbreaks.  

I am not sure about the relevance of the title, although it probably makes more sense in the original French. It has the same editing issues as the rest of the book eg. ‘gradmother’ instead of ‘grandmother’ (Pg. 161). All told, Elements is a shattering drama.

ONE-HANDER: Actress Nathalie Vairac as ‘Dana’ in the ‘Elements’.


John Sibi-Okumu (better known as JSO) has appeared in over 40 stage productions since the 1970s. He has played such challenging lead roles as Sophocles’ King Oedipus; Shakespeare’s Romeo, Oberon and Shylock; Samuel Beckett’s Krappand Vladimir; Creon in Anouilh’s Antigone; Percy in Mtwa/Ngema/Simon’s Woza, Albert! Robert Mugabe in Fraser Grace’s Breakfast with Mugabe; and Serge in the French version of Yasmina Reza’s Art. He directed Kenyan Afro-fusion artiste Eric Wainaina’s Mo Faya! musical in the USA as part of the New York Festival of Musical Theatre in 2009. He re-united collaboration with Wainaina in 2016 when he played ‘Lion’ in the child-friendly animal-themed musical Tinga Tinga Tales.

Collin Simpson (left) and John Sibi-Okumu (‘Vladimir’) in the Beckett classic ‘Waiting for Godot’ (2005)

Over the decades, JSO has scooped awards for best play, best director and best playwright. He has also received several lifetime achievement awards, most recently during the inaugural Kenya Theatre Awards (2022). He is well-known for having been a teacher of the French language. This lead to him being ‘knighted’ a Chevalier des Palmes Académiques, for services to French culture.

Collected Plays (2004-2014) has well-drawn characters, colloquial dialogue, and relatable themes. What we have here is a major playwright at work, probably our generation’s August Wilson. In the Foreword, Ngugi wa Thiong’o describes the author as ‘a many sided intellectual’ and remarks that ‘it is on stage that Sibi-Okumu’s various gifts have shone the most brightly.’



 This collection of plays was published in 2021 by Jahazi Press (Nairobi). It was officially launched at the Alliance Française de Nairobi during the inaugural NYrobi Fest. Textual editing was done by Andrew Maina and Stanley Kiio. The cover illustration is by famed cartoonist ‘Gado’ (Godfrey Mwampembwa). The book has a matte cover and an interior consisting of 186 pages of art paper. The book is enriched by precious black-and-white photos of the actual works on stage (save for Dinner at Her Excellency’s). The photos are made more poignant by the fact that some of the actors are no longer among the quick.


The editing could have been tighter. What was the rush? Some sentences go on for three or four lines, broken only by commas. That can’t be good for speech. (A TV anchor might throw a fit if they had to read such run-on sentences on live television.) Typos exist, eg. ‘…inferno is egulfling’, instead of ‘engulfing’ (Pg. 75). Luckily, for the author/publisher, if the plays are staged in future, the audience won’t see the typos!


Front cover of the book.

Reading this bibliography of relatable plays makes one wonder why some theatre troupes still insist on (illegally) adapting foreign fare, especially farces. As the late Prof. Chris Wanjala would have said, we already have a plentiful ‘harvest of plays’ right here in our own country. And they cover a wide range of themes. Let us not be like the villainous/gullible ‘baddies’ in this collection. JSO has held up a mirror to our society. Do we fancy the reflection? To borrow the late politician Kenneth Matiba’s catchphrase: ‘Let the people decide!’

 Collected Plays (2004-2014) is available at Prestige Bookshop for Kshs 1,500 (USD$ 15).

* Black-and-white photo credits: Hervé Braneyre, Joel Magu, Richard Onyinge, Tash Mitambo, Khamis Ramadhan and Sanaa Post.