Sunday, July 4, 2021

IS THE CAINE PRIZE OVERRATED?

(And Other Reflections at the NYrobi Book Fest)

by Alexander Nderitu

The inaugural NYrobi Book Fest took place at Alliance Française de Nairobi from 25th to 26th June, 2021. It was a beacon of hope for Kenyan writers and book lovers to finally be able to participate in a physical event after the COVID-19 pandemic killed off some literary events and pushed others online.

One of the stand-out events at the festival was a discussion dubbed ‘Kenyan Literature – From the Past to the Present’. I was one of the exhibitors at the fair (showcasing three of my books; When the Whirlwind Passes, The Moon is Made of Green Cheese and Kiss Commander Promise) but decided that I would go down to the auditorium for the discussion. The discussants were author/journalist Tony Mochama, author/journalist Ciku Kimani-Mwaniki, film/theatre lecturer Dr. Zippy Okoth (Kenyatta University) and literature don Dr. Godwin Siundu (University of Nairobi). The moderator was the host of the long-running KBC radio show Books Café, Khainga O’Okwemba. The talk started more than an hour late, prompting Dr. Tom Odhiambo (a lecturer and literary critic) to excuse himself to take a look at the book stands as we waited for things to kick off. I hadn’t recognized Dr. Zippy at first, and it wasn’t because of her face mask. She had changed her hairstyle, from her trademark blonde short-cropped brush, into a big, black Afro. (One the sidelines Tony remarked that it reminded him of the 1970’s disco era and did a little jig to illustrate!)

Host Khainga O’Okwemba

If this review of the discussion seems a bit unfocused then I will have captured the nature of the discussion accurately! The conversation was all over the place - touching on national history, politics, language, academia, personal histories, and so on. And yet, the colliding ideas from different trajectories of thought and speech did produce some illuminating bursts of light. In the early going, Khainga requested Dr. Godwin to give a brief history of the growth of Kenyan literature over the years. This the university don did mentioning the usual names you’d expect – Ngugi wa Thiong’o et al – and landing on the modern era. He spoke eloquently and intellectually; he was clearly a practiced public speaker. His opening speech was exactly what one would have expected from an academic – well researched, intellectual, inter alia - but not radical or particularly exciting. Towards the end of his presentation, he mentioned the AKO Caine Prize for Literature and its impact on the local scene. 

L - R: Dr. Godwin Siundu and Dr. Zippy Okoth

Turning to Dr. Zippy Okoth, Khainga wondered if it bothered her that there were very few women in the early days of Kenyan literature? Zippy smilingly countered that she was not old enough to offer insights but she nonetheless gave her two cents:

‘I believe patriarchy a big role. Especially when you look at country where even having an ID or opening a bank account or even getting work was hard for a woman. I think it was the same for women at that time, in academia or any other field…Considering the patriarchy system at that time , a lot of women were not coming out to that level…When we had women like Marjorie Oludhe and Grace Ogot, coming out, they had powerful men behind them, who stood by them. Because if you look at the history of their husbands, they were notable men in the society...It was an issue of patriarchy and girls not being given a high level of education.’

The discussion now turned to Zippy’s own work, an autobiographical book titled Oops Zippy! The author explained how it came about:

‘When I started writing, initially I just used to do poems and short stories. But this book was inspired by my personal life. It’s not a novel, it’s a monologue. I am a theatre practitioner and generally a storyteller. So for me to do this book, it was a journey of having it on stage first, and then I decided to turn it into a book…It’s in two parts, but it’s a monologue…I recorded myself speaking to an imaginary audience, then I turned it into a script, which may not be orthodox but it’s the only way I knew then.’

Zippy had initially staged it as a one-woman show. She said that before she went on stage the first time, to perform this deeply personal show, she got some professional counseling. Her hubby, who is mentioned in the piece, was a soldier. Writing and performing play into a book was therapeutic for her, she said. Khainga asked her to read a passage from the book. ‘Do you want romance or violence?’ the author asked the audience. ‘Violent romance!’ one audience member roared. Zippy chose to read about the death of her infant son. She described in graphic detail how she had screamed when she discovered her non-responsive son, attracting nearby construction son. She tried to resuscitate him to no avail. Her then husband was difficult to reach on phone. She took the deceased infant to hospital. Unbelieving, she refused to let go of the cadaver because she was still nursing the hope that it would breathe again. The medics eventually convinced to accept the reality of her loss. Shockingly, some people accused her of carelessness instead of sympathizing with the grieving mother.

There were other readings during the session. A female audience member read a poem from Muthoni Likimani’s book, What Does a Man Want? Tony Mochama read from his book The Road to Eldoret.

Khainga later brought up veteran actor/playwright John Sibi-Okumu’s book, Collected Plays 2004 – 2014, which had been launched in that very auditorium the previous night. ‘Will Kenyatta University theatre teachers now buy and teach John Sibi-Okumu’s book of plays?’ he inquired. ‘We have been teaching the works of Kenyan playwrights like John Sibi-Okumu and Francis Imbuga and we’ll continue to do so,’ Zippy replied.

Tony Mochama

If the people on stage were Idols judges, Zippy would have been ‘the good one’, Tony Mochama ‘the harsh Simon Cowell-type’ and Ciku would have been somewhere between the two. Ciku is outspoken but not radical – except to conservatives. For example, she said that some people considered it edgy for the word ‘penis’ to appear on the first page of her new novel, Cocktail From the Savannah. Tony on the other hand, eats controversy for breakfast. For example, while challenging linear thinking amongst aspiring writers, he used a very earthy metaphor: ‘We can’t continue thinking in the missionary style! Not that I have anything against the missionary position but there are other ways to do things.’ Something else had also caught his attention:

‘Somebody mentioned the Caine Prize. The Caine Prize is overrated! And I’m not speaking from a place of bitterness – we have won many prizes…The Caine Prize is for a short story…Somebody wins and they become happy because they’re being praised by wazungus (Whites). And they go to London and sit with important people. It’s for a short story! There are people who have come through (a local writing program) and won the Caine Prize, and now hawashikiki! (they’re untouchable)…

There was a Sudanese person who won it (Caine) in 2000…And then Binyavanga (Wainaina) came along. And Binyavanga was a force of nature. So Caine Prize does owe Binyavanga a lot. Because he said, “With this money (Caine Prize winnings), I am going to create some literary movement… Binyavanga was big man, with a big mind, a big stomach, a big heart; but mostly, he was a guy with a big voice...” ’

Tony’s rant encapsulated an important thought: Does the Caine Prize make the writers or do the writers make the Caine Prize? Binyavanga himself later became a harsh critic of the Caine Prize. At one time he shockingly Tweeted:

‘It (Caine Prize) just isn’t our institution… what is happening is you people are allowing the Caine Prize to receive funding and build itself as a brand and make money and people’s career there in London.’

Binyavanga’s criticism of the top writing prize in Sub-Saharan Africa itself drew harsh criticism. After all, he had accepted the award, prize money, travel, and prestige that came with the UK-based prize. Perhaps it’s safer to conclude that Caine Prize and Binyavanga made (or ‘used’) other? Binyavanga aka Binya aka The Binj founded Kwani?, a literary journal that evolved into a publishing house, in the early-2000s. He passed away on 21st May 2019. As for Kwani?, once the hottest address for aspiring East African scribes, it still exists but its star has dimmed considerably over the past few years.

Tony Mochama, a Miles Morland Fellow and three-time winner of the Burt Awards for African Young Adult Literature, had launched a new book just days before NYrobi Fest. Titled Political Parties After Political Parties, the non-fiction work was described by writer/activist Kingwa Kamencu as ‘chronicling the dalliance between political parties, the Executive and Kenyans over time, it offers a lot of food for thought.’

Regarding the current political situation in the country, as parties scramble to gain popularity ahead of next year’s polls, Tony had another earthy metaphor for the ruling party, Jubilee: it’s like a badly driven matatu (public bus) where the conductors are throwing out passengers as the vehicle moves! This was a reference to Jubilee’s controversial expulsion of numerous high-profile members, many of whom have now coalesced around a relatively new party, the UDA. 

Ciku Kimani-Mwaniki

Ciku Kimani-Mwaniki, who apart from being a columnist for The Nairobian has now authored three novels, talked about her latest work, themed on love and marriage in the Maasai community. She wondered how it came to be that society accepted polygamy amongst the Maa people but wouldn’t extend the same courtesy to other communities:

‘They’re proud of it. Nobody judges them… When you see a Maasai man with only one wife, you’re like, “Why?” But when you meet a Kikuyu man with two wives, you think, “How dare you!” ’

Ciku said she had no favourite writer (and no particular literary role model) but was an avid reader who read anything ‘except motivational books!’ At some point, an audience member brought in the question of a writer’s ‘style’. His argument was that the Kenyan school system teaches people to right in a certain flat, unoriginal manner and there was a dearth of writers with their own unique styles of writing. Ciku said she had no conscious ‘style’ of her own. Whatever ‘style’ readers recognized in her writing came to her, not the other way round. Academia took a lot of flak during the discussion. One audience member asked Dr. Godwin Siundu point blank whether his literature students are now writers. The literature don he had encountered many of his former students working in various professions and that not all were expected to turn into authors. We can’t have a nation full of authors. Dr. Zippy explained that she teaches ‘performance’ (not literature/creative writing per se.)  Tony described the early pushback the Kwani?’-generation of wordsmiths received from academia:

‘Of course we had nasty fights (with academics). The worse was with (Professor) Egara Kabaji. I did my first book (So What if I am a Literary Gangster?) When I was just trying to ask him for a review, he rushed to the newspaper and wrote that “these are literary gangsters with Binyavanga as their godfather." I didn’t have a title. I though, yeah, so what if I’m a literary gangster? So that’s how the title came about. But we’ve gotten good friends from academia. The first convert we had was Professor Chris Wanjala, the late…We travelled all over the country… '  

An audience member asked, to wit: ‘Do university literary departments produce writers or just other teachers of literature?’ Responding to one question, Dr. Siundu said, ‘I will answer but, Khainga, this (academia bashing) is not what I signed for. (Dr. Godwin was in fact filling in for Dr. Alex Wanjala, another University of Nairobi literature don, so it’s hard to tell what he was expecting.) Responding to a question on the importance of MFAs and creative writing programs, Ciku said that she had considered taking creative writing lessons after her first book, Nairobi Cocktail. She later changed her mind. She didn’t want to be straitjacketed by the training; to be writing in her house and constantly wondering, ‘Does this fit in with what were told about such things?’ Tony said that he had not done an MFA either (he had in fact studied law) but had gained greatly from creative writing programs, in particular some that had been organized in Russia by Mikhail Iossel. The Saint Petersburg-born Mikhail is a professor of English at Concordia University and a Founding Director of the Summer Literary Seminars. An audience member wanted to know what the fate of students of literature and creative writing programs would be, now that journos had found a ‘soft landing’ in the writing profession. Tony agreed that many journos had turned to creative writing but warned that the writing life was no charmed existence. He said that he personally wakes up at 3:00 AM every weekday to write. That’s his regimen. (He’s also a long-time columnist for The East African Standard.)

Tony also spoke at length on ‘the power of language’, after bringing up literary icon Ngugi wa Thiong’o who is well-known as activist for vernacular tongues, despite living in the Diaspora:

 ‘These narratives sell. Like if I say, I’m saving (my native) Kisii. That would be a great narrative. If I say I’m saving Kisii language, not just literature – OK, I can’t really write in Kisii – it’s a great story. It’s like saving the dolphin, or something like that…My own thinking is whatever language we are using, we must learn to convert our Africanism (into it), to tell our stories. People like to say, “in our own language”. If you can do that, fine, but English is eating up everything. It eats up languages, it devours them. So we must tell our stories in this English that we speak and speak very strongly back to those white worlds…Or those Chinese worlds…I love this English language. It’s not beautiful like French…But English in its plainness and its brutality is a language that incorporates a lot of things, including one’s own thoughts.’

 Towards the end of the session, things turned political again. Sitting in the audience Irungu Houghton, whose book new book, Dialogue & Dissent was available at the event, asked what role Kenyan scribes may have played not just in response to political happenings in the country but as agents of those very happenings. In keeping with the randomness of the discussions, host Khainga O’Okwemba remarked that he had been invited to South Africa during the African National Congress’ centenary celebrations. He was to participate in a discussion dubbed ‘The Role of the Writer’ but, as it happens, he never made it to the Rainbow Nation for the fete. This topic was not adequately covered due to time restrictions. In any case, a topic like that would require plenty of time and preparation in order to be satisfyingly tackled. May I suggest that ‘The Role of the Writer in Politics and Governance’ be one of the topics of the next NYrobi Fest? Irungu Houghton, the Chief Strategist at Amnesty International Kenya, can moderate or be a panelist?  

Irungu Houghton and Dr. Zippy Okoth (Photo: Msanii Kimani Wanyoike)


This year’s NYrobi Fest was the first of its kind. The idea stemmed from yet another literary program by the Alliance Française de Nairobi, a monthly interview session dubbed Mbogi ya Mawriters, which aims to promote new writing from Kenya. The key participants this year included the Kenya Writers Guild, Writers Space Africa, Bloggers Association of Kenya, Twaweza Communications, IFRA, Kwani?, Prestige Shop, Nuria Books Stores, Mystery Publishers, John Sibi-Okumu, Msanii Kimani wa Wanjiru, Mutendei Akhaya Nabutete, Salim Busuru, Douglas Logedi, Shi Marima, and yours truly. There were also performances by Wangari the Storyteller and Mufasa the Poet.

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

Alexander Nderitu is a Kenyan writer, poet, playwright, and critic. His latest book is a short story collection titled Kiss, Commander, Promise. Website: www.AlexanderNderitu.com

Saturday, April 10, 2021

THE PRINCE OF THE GUTTER PRESS

By Alexander Nderitu, author of When the Whirlwind Passes

(This work of non-fiction is gleaned from Nderitu's forthcoming biography, Coffee & Newspapers, which is tentatively slated for release in 2023.)


August, 2001 

On the ‘JOBS’ notice board at Odeon Cinema in downtown Nairobi, I spotted the following advert:

 

 WANTED: Journalists, talented freelance writers and contributors. Earn extra cash writing stories, articles, testimonials etc for Christian and leisure magazines.

 We are located at New Rwathia Building, Racecourse Road, Opp. St. Peters Primary School, Mezzanine Flr. Rm. 9.

 

I was intrigued. I had relocated from Nyeri town in Central Province to ‘the big city’ in order to find a job as a techie but more importantly, to pursue my dream of becoming an author. I had studied IT in college but my destiny lay in literature. In 1998, after reading a sensational article about the murder of an Italian fashion baron (orchestrated by his estranged wife), I had written a fictional account of the case, set in Kenya. I had brought the manuscript of the story, which I titled When the Whirlwind Passes, to Nairobi with me.


I stared at the ad again. I wondered about the authenticity of the job. Nairobi was the busiest city in East Africa, with a low employment rate and high crime rate. Numerous ‘employment bureaus’ operating out of tiny offices derogatorily referred to as ‘shoe boxes’ took advantage of rural-urban migration to exploit job seekers. They charged a non-refundable registration fee, usually Kshs 500 to 1,500 (USD$ 5.00 to 15.00) and then they’d alert you to job opportunities (that they usually found in newspapers or other public sources of information). Their alerts rarely matched the qualifications of their clients. For instance, if you had studied Computer Science/Information Technology, they didn’t care whether you were a computer programmer, operator, website designer, systems analyst, engineer, salesperson or repairman. They’d just send you to any job that involved a computer - like a Front Office desk job at a hotel – and claim they had done their bit. Their real business was to collect the irredeemable registration fees.

I had tried the ‘employment bureaus’ when I was virginal in job-seeking matters but, of course, they couldn’t match me with any decent job. It soon dawned on me that they couldn’t have gotten Bill Gates a job in the software business, and I stopped bothering with them. But the ad at Odeon Cinema, at the junction of Latema Rd and Tom Mboya St, got my attention because it was about writing – my dream career. I jotted down the information in the box above and asked the job-seeker standing next to me if he knew where Racecourse Rd was. He pointed up Tom Mboya St and mumbled a Byzantine route in Kiswahili. I thanked him and began making my way up the overcrowded, sun-swept street.

Racecourse Rd was not just further downtown, it was in perhaps the seediest part of the metropolis, not far from the infamous River Road. This part of Nairobi is dominated by congested shops, matatu/bus termini, ugly buildings, chokoras (street children), noise and smog. It is the national headquarters of music/movie piracy, dodgy trade, and cheap 24-hour brothels. 

I weaved my way through the viscous crowds, feeling like a character in Meja Mwangi’s Going Down River Road, and finally located the place I was looking for. There were three people, one man and two women, in the room when I knocked and pushed the door open. The smell of newsprint papers and printing ink immediately assailed my nostrils. It was an unremarkable room with bare furniture. Two of the three people were sitting around a wooden table while the other one, an elderly lady, was sitting apart and clearly not part of the operations. The room was littered with newspapers such as the Daily Nation and the East African Standard, as well as a slew of other cheaper publications that I had never seen before. Stacked up against the wall were freshly-printed greyish-coloured batches of another publication I heard never seen – The Instigator. They were tied up with sisal strings, clearly awaiting delivery. I introduced myself and mentioned the writer ad. The man, Kosgei, said that they were indeed looking for article contributors for their paper, The Instigator. He was tall, with a narrow head and large teeth. They were looking for human interest stories, especially political ones. Something entertaining. They payment was Kshs 300/= (USD$ 3.00) per article, regardless of length. It was a very informal environment. I was glad I hadn’t brought my CV. The younger lady (Jane Chebet) was chewing gum and the geezer was dozing off in her chair. I could hear the matatus in the nearby OTC bus terminus revving and honking. A fourth person (Kariuki Ngugi) walked in. He had been ‘distributing copy’. He and the elderly lady left. (I would later learn from Chebet that Ngugi and the woman were an item, which was odd because she looked old enough to be his mother.) I asked Kosgei if I could get at least Kshs 500 per article. He told me I would have discuss that with a Mr. Kiprop who was currently out of office. He gave me a free copy of The Instigator and I left.

On the matatu to the middle-class South ‘C’ Estate where I was living with my older sister, Caroline, I read my Instigator. It was very slim - about twelve pages, all told. The articles, while entertaining, appeared to have taken liberties with the truth, and some bylines simply read ‘by Instigator Team’. (I would later find out that even where names appeared, they were often fake.) The overall quality of the publication was poor and the photos were horrendous, like a photocopy of an ID that’s too dark to properly make out the person.  

I got home as darkness was falling. I had to let myself in as I was the first of my housemates to arrive. There were four of us in the house – my older sister, a cousin, my sister’s best friend, and myself. The house, a typical two-story Nairobi estate residence, cost Kshs 20,000 (USD$ 200) a month torent. Since there were four of us, all in our twenties, we each paid Kshs 5,000. For privacy, I took the Servants Quarter in the back yard. My girlfriend would sometimes travel from Nyeri (where we met in college) to Nairobi to visit me. A supreme irony about the house in South ‘C’ was that while we seemed to be living admirably, we had virtually no furniture! There was a sofa set in the living room and a computer station in the dining room but that was about it. One evening, a college friend of my sister’s dropped her off and came in for a look-see.  He strode into the house, talking on his bulky mobile phone. He scanned the cavernous living room as he spoke. When he finally rang off, he looked pitifully at me and asked, ‘Were you guys robbed?’ The lack of investment in furniture was occasioned by the temporariness of our living arrangements. Two of the girls were engaged to be married and I was job-hunting so it was just a matter of time before we all went our separate ways.

Alexander Nderitu in the house with ‘virtually no furniture’ (2001)

The next day, I returned to The Instigator office. Kiprop still wasn’t there but Ngugi was. I suggested that since their wages were unacceptably low, could I submit several articles per issue? They were OK with that proposition.

Ngugi took me on an eye-opening tour of the main streets of Nairobi on a devilishly hot day. We studied the nature of magazines and newspapers on sale. Many newspaper racks displayed a large number of soft-porn magazines. Yellow press publications with such banner headlines as, ‘I HAD HOT SEX WITH MY STEPSON!’, ‘MY GIRLFRIEND IS SPERM-CRAZY’ and ’60-YEAR-OLD CATHOLIC PRIEST MADE ME PREGNANT!’ had pride of place amongst slews of local and international publications. Ngugi knew most of the vendors and vice versa, so we had the privilege of perusing the publications and then returning them.

 
I first met Henry Kiprop when I was looking for Ngugi. Kiprop was sitting on the edge of the crummy little office as Jane was preparing to close for the day. The sun was setting and it was darkish in the office. Kiprop was a keen-eyed, outgoing soul of Kalenjin extraction. He had the hardened palms of a farm worker and the inner reaches of his black lips were conspicuously pink. An almost bald head sat squarely on the round shoulders of a muscular frame like that of a light-weight boxer. He introduced himself to me as ‘the man behind those alarming headlines’. He was referring to the eye-catching headlines that were de rigueur in the informal press. (The forerunner to modern-day ‘click-bait’). Some of the headings I had seen on the rags that day included: a senior male politician from Central had impregnated a senior female politician from Ukambani, a Kisii presidential candidate had been caught red-handed with a peer’s wife, a goat in Nakuru town had spoken on President Moi’s succession, and a much-feared Kalenjin politician was building a sprawling underground palace. I asked Kiprop how they verified stories such as the one about the talking goat, seeing as how they had not appeared in the mainstream press. Kiprop shrugged and said it was just entertainment anyway. I told the guys that their outrageous articles would not be believed and that they were giving their publications a bad name. I later found out that the public already had a name for that kind of fake, sensational journalism: the gutter press.

I asked if they would be willing to pay more than Kshs 300 per article. Kiprop offered me Kshs 1,500 to write the whole paper. It was just a few pages anyway, of exaggerated stories. Entertainment. Something for idlers and matatu passengers to pass the time with. The average cost of a publication was just Kshs 10!  Although I was in need of money, I decided to contribute a few articles each week primarily to see my stories in print, and being read by commuters all over the city.

 

September, 2001

Politics in Kenya being a blood sport, I refused to write cheap political articles for the gutter press. Because I wanted my real name to appear on the byline, I wrote actual news articles on topical issues. I would print them out in the house at South ‘C’ and take a hard copy to Kiprop. I even offered to freely add some graphics to the articles. Kiprop would peruse the articles and say, ‘Good. I’ll just twist the heading.’ Twisting headings was his forté. He would playfully threaten his friends with, ‘I will put you in a headline!’

One of the more memorable articles I wrote concerned an overview of the more notorious international intelligence agencies. It was titled Who Needs The Secret Services of The World? When it came out in print, I noticed that Kiprop hadn’t ‘twisted the heading’ or changed a single word. ‘There was nothing to edit,’ he told me later, flattering my ego.

One day, I turned up at the office with my manuscript for When the Whirlwind Passes. I wanted to know if it was possible to publish it using the same printing presses that churned out the low-end magazines and ‘newspapers’. My colleagues laughed out loud. ‘Huyu ametuletea riwaya nzima tuchapishe!’ (‘This one has brought us a whole novel to publish!’), Chebet bellowed in Kiswahili, throwing her head back. It was a common reaction in a country that had no market for books outside of school material. Back in my hometown of Nyeri, I once intimated to a neighbor that I was going to be a novelist and he shook his head as if someone had died. ‘Kenyans don’t buy books,’ he had said. ‘The only things they buy are beer and condoms.’ While Kiprop could not publish When the Whirlwind Passes, he published a whole-page article on me and my literary pursuits. It was titled, ‘KENYA’S YOUNGEST AUTHOR.’

The ‘alternative press’ publications sold like hot cakes but the business was not lucrative. Not only was the retail price too low but the publishers relied on ‘brokers’ to distribute the publications to newsstands all over Nairobi, and beyond. The publications were thus sold to the ‘brokers’ at a discount. Two of the largest ‘brokers’ were located in Mfangano Court Building. One was a brown thirty-something woman, married, who had the smoothest of skins. The other one, also a woman, was a slatternly, middle-aged mountain of flesh whom I would often find gorging on fries in her dapper office, and who reminded me of ‘Sally Spectra’ in TV’s The Bold and The Beautiful.


One evening, as I walked from Sally Spectra’s office back to The Instigator, I noticed that there was some kind of tension in the air. A lot of people were peering into the windows of electronics shops, watching the glowing TV screens, and there seemed to be more chattering amongst strangers than usual. When I reached the office on Racecourse Rd, Chebet and Ngugi were glued to a small battery-powered radio. The radio was a knock-off. It was branded Philibs, instead of Phillips.

    ‘What’s going on?’ I asked. 

    ‘Seems like some planes have crashed in America,’ Chebet said. ‘Kenya Airways has immediately suspended all flights.’

Kiprop wasn’t there to pay me and I had only Kshs 100 in my pocket. I left for South ‘C’, tired and hungry. We didn’t have a TV in the house and the computer wasn’t connected to the Internet. But by the time I hit town the next morning, the news was all over town: two hi-jacked airliners had crashed into the Twin Towers in New York City, another one into the Pentagon in Washington D.C., and another one in a field in Pennsylvania.  The Twin Towers that famously housed the World Trade Centre, had crumbled like the walls of Jericho. It was the worst terrorist attack on US soil in history.

 

November, 2001

The gutter press’ modus operandi bothered me a great deal. The myriad publications that came off the presses had the words ‘Fully registered at the G.P.O as a newspaper’ printed at the back, but everyone knew that wasn’t so. They were so informal that a paper’s name could be changed on a whim. What shocked me most, however, was the fake news.

We were wary of being visited the City Council or even the intelligence agencies. Kiprop, who was liable to sing war songs when drunk, claimed to have an uncle in the national intelligence service.

    ‘He calls me to his office from time to time,’ he once told me. ‘Usually when he sees something alarming in the publications.’

It was natural for the spies to be interested, since the papers majored in politics and the General Elections were not far off. But for the most part, the articles carried in the informal press were products of their authors’ imagination.

While strolling downtown with Kiprop one day, I was introduced to Thumbi, a gentle soul who published a Christian magazine downtown. In subsequent weeks, this giant with bifocals and a trimmed beard tossed me nuggets of wisdom and gave me much encouragement to continue writing. He was middle-aged but he did not address me with the authority that older gentlemen usually talk to youngsters. One time, Kiprop and I were inside his office where the next month’s issue was being typeset. 

        'You know what you guys should do?’ Kiprop ventured. ‘You should put Osama Bin Laden’s face on the cover of the magazine with the headline, “IS OSAMA READY TO GET SAVED?” ‘
        Everyone burst out laughing.
        ‘Don’t bring those gutter press tactics here!’ the lady editor of the faith-based magazine bellowed, wagging a finger.

Following the September 11 attacks in New York, Saudi Arabian-born terrorist Osama Bin Laden’s bearded face had monopolized the covers of Time, Newsweek and many other magazines. The American president, George Bush Jr, had organized revenge attacks against Osama Bin Laden’s supposed strongholds in Afghanistan.  Being his father’s son, Bush had also put Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in his cross-hairs, although the connection between Iraq and 9/11 was as clear as mud.

I was a young man in a hurry. While still contributing articles to The Instigator, I intimated to Ngugi (who run a separate rag of his own) that I wanted to start my own magazine. It was fairly cheap to do what he and Kiprop did, and I was going to write, design and typeset the entire thing myself. However, I didn’t want it to be a dirt-cheap, poor-quality rag that readers would skim and then literally throw away. I wanted it to be coloured and cost Kshs 20 or 30, not 10. Ngugi shook his head. He said there was an existing market for 10-bob rags. I risked missing out on that market. He also warned me that adding colours would increase production costs. Two-colour would be OK, but beyond that I would have to opt for full-colour and the cost would be untenable. I resolved to create a new entertainment-based paper which would be called Sensation. The name would appear in blue while the text would naturally be black.

The release of the maiden issue of Sensation was marred by delays. First, I had a problem with my Epson printer at home, then the printing press in town did their work the way a chameleon walks, and finally the weekend leaped at us (Weekends are low points in street selling, contrary to popular belief). The street debut was postponed for a week. By the time ‘the new magazine with a blue banner’ hit the streets, the news it carried had gone stale. As Ngugi had predicted, the higher cost of the magazine also hurt sales. I eventually ended giving away most copies to friends for free. Sensation sunk in the best tradition of the Titanic.


December 2001

The scandalous publications had also caught the attention of the nation’s leaders. Plans were hatched to pass laws that would silence them for good. However, the proposed laws were so draconian, they would have the effect of muzzling the press in general and making publishing a near-impossible enterprise. Naturally, the media riled against what they saw as a ploy to gag the press ahead of the 2002 General Elections. To lobby against the impending Media Bill, the Kenya Union of Journalists (KUJ) invited MPs to a dinner event at the swish Stanley Hotel in the CBD. At the time, my elder sister, Caroline, was the most famous ‘performance poet’ in the country. The media described her art as ‘dramatized poetry’. (Such performances are now referred to as ‘Spoken Word Poetry’). KUJ invited Caroline to perform at the event. She took me along to help sell her first poetry book, Caroline Verses. I sat at the table just outside the door to the main hall, copies of the book arranged in front of me. The then KUJ Secretary-General, a moustached Ezekiel Mutua, stood across from me, welcoming guests and chit-chatting with the VIPs who were streaming in. At one point, he came over to me and told me that I would sell more books if I engaged the passers-by. Caroline wowed the audience by appearing on stage dressed in an outfit entirely made of newspapers! The keynote speaker was Prof. PLO Lumumba, an orator, legal expert and lecturer. He began his speech by reciting the famous Edmund Burke quote:

'(There are) Three Estates in Parliament; but in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth  Estate more important far than they all.’

I was familiar with the quote, made in 1787, because I had read about it in a Jeffery Archer novel, itself titled The Fourth Estate.

Meanwhile, I had been reading a lot about emerging e-book trends around the world from UK magazines such as The Writer. I knew that getting a novel manuscript accepted by a mainstream publisher was a tall order. One day, I had light-bulb moment: I was going to introduce the e-book trend to Kenya! I was already an IT expert. I converted my manuscript to e-book format and uploaded it to and American online sales platform called EBookMall.com. When the whirlwind Passes thus became the first novel to emerge from ‘cyber space’.

 

June 2002

Members of Parliament did the unthinkable by passing a controversial bill seemingly designed to muzzle the press. Officially termed the Statutory Law (Miscellaneous Amendment) Act, 2002, the law required newspaper publishers to execute a bond of over Kshs 1 million (USD$ 10,000), which meant that small players were automatically excluded from the industry. Vendors selling ‘unbonded’ newspapers faced a 6-year jail sentence. Publishers were also required to deposit at least two copies of every book or newspaper they published to the registrar of books and newspapers. Failure to comply would attract a 3-5 year jail term and a fine of Kshs 1 million.  

Around this time, I parted way with my ‘friends in low places’ after we argued about money – or more accurately, the lack of it. The Millionaires Club we were not.

Let the record show that, contrary to popular belief, the KANU gov’t did not support or sponsor the gutter press. The alternative press was run by a hodgepodge of individuals looking to make a fast buck. KANU figures such as President Moi and his side-kick, Nicholas Biwott (then Minister for Trade and Industry), suffered as much from the libelous content of the cheap publications as anyone.

Let the record also show that although I did submit articles for informal press publication, I did not fudge on news. Mine were accurate ‘features’ that I was only too eager to see in print. The gutter press may not have been the best platform for my journalistic works but I had no other outlet at the time. And where I come from, half a loaf is better than no bread. 

 


November 2002

On leaving the yellow press, I became a Web Designer. I also became a contributor to Kelele.com.

Arguably Kenya’s first entertainment website, Kelele.com was a division of a larger tech empire that had been founded by a Kenyan entrepreneur on returning from the United States. My main role at Kelele, which was based at Norwich Union Towers near the Hilton, was writing film reviews. Reviewers, mostly from the big newspapers, and I would go to Kenya Cinema Plaza on Thursdays and privately watch the box office attractions that would be opening that weekend. It paid only slightly more than the gutter press gig but was much more prestigious and enjoyable.

One day, as I was arriving home, I found my sister tying up a conversation with a journalist from the then newly-fangled Saturday magazine of the Daily Nation. The Daily Nation was the flagship brand of the Nation Media Group (NMG), a media colossus headquartered in Nairobi. I mentioned to the journo that I had authored a digital novel that was almost certainly the first in the country, if not the continent. An avid reader herself, she was interested in reviewing it and organized a meeting at her place of work.

I had the bad fortune to find a rude female attendant when I stepped off the lift at the second floor of the curiously-shaped Nation building. I noticed the man in front of me stop to write his name and other statistics onto an exercise book and, naively assuming that all visitors must sign in, I picked up the attached biro pen after him and bent down to scribble my essentials.

        ‘Whaddya think you’re writing!?’ yelled the female attendant with an intensity that could have caused a Magnitude 6 earthquake.   

        ‘Er…my…’ I was about to say ‘name’, then I realized I was on shaky ground and changed direction.

        ‘I’ve got a letter for the editor,’ I said.    

        ‘These books are for staff members!’ yelled Madame Serpent. ‘The reception is over there.’ 

She pointed behind me and I was glad to turn around and head towards the less rude and infinitely more attractive staff behind the glass screen of the reception.

 Saturday magazine later published a review of When the Whirlwind Passes. The reviewer described it as ‘Beautifully written…If you can access the book, please do. It will be worth the energy.’

  

July 2014

Fast-forward. I had by now authored and self-published two more books: a poetry collection titled The Moon is Made of Green Cheese (2008) and a short story collection titled Kiss, Commander, Promise (2011). My three books were available as e-books and, via a new technology known as Print-On-Demand, as paperbacks as well.

The 20th Commonwealth Games took place in Glasgow, Scotland, between 23rd July and 3rd August. As a ‘cultural accompaniment’ to the Games, a project dubbed Commonwealth Poetry Postcards was mooted in the UK. It involved getting one poem from each participating country/territory and publishing it on postcards for attendees, in addition to broadcasting it on radio. My poem Someone in Africa Loves You (from The Moon is Made of Green Cheese) represented Kenya.

Africa was in the throes of a literary renaissance. A new, exciting generation of scribes was emerging. Literary journals, festivals, salons, conferences and other events came to birth. In Kenya, the revolution was best exemplified by Binyavanga Wainaina and the Kwani? journal he had helped found. As one who had ‘introduced e-novels to Africa’, I was able to attract a healthy amount of publicity and invites to literary events.

The Daily Nation had started another colourful pullout magazine dubbed Zuqka.  It was ostensibly aimed at the youth demographic. The editor of Zuqka was interested in my literary journey. After a brief e-mail exchange, she gave me an appointment at the Nation building. When I got there, she was unavailable but she had arranged for another female journo to interview me. After the Q&A session, the interviewer led me to another room for a photo shoot. I overheard her tell the photographer that it was going to be for the cover. Since I then worked as a techie at an NGO, I was wearing a suit. I could see that the photographer wasn’t pleased with that. After a few clicks, he asked me whether I would be willing to come back the next day in more appropriate attire.

                Zuqka is a pullout from a newspaper,’ he explained. ‘If we put you there in a suit, that page won’t look any different from the rest of the paper.’

                ‘What do you suggest?’ I inquired.

                ‘Something African. The way Ngugi wa Thiong’o dresses. A dashiki or something.’

                I really didn’t want to spend two days at the media house as I had IT work waiting for me at the office, which was on Ngong Rd.

                ‘What if you just take a close-up of my face like you did with Serah Mwihaki?’

                Serah is a scriptwriter who had graced the Zuqka cover before.

                ‘That’s a very good example!’ the camera-wielding dude said. ‘You see, Serah has dreadlocks. She even has colours in her hair. She looks like an artist! You look like a boss.’

                I went home and came back the next day dressed in a more ethnic fashion. The photographer was happy.

 The next Friday, I was woken up early in the morning by my mobile phone ringing. It was a former college buddy calling from Eastern Kenya:

‘Dude, Zuqka magazine is all about you today!’ he said, laughing like a hyena.

Not only was I on the cover, I also occupied two whole pages inside arguably the most widely-distributed entertainment magazine in the country. The calls continued to come in throughout the day. When I entered the office on Ngong Rd, my colleagues erupted in applause.

The Zuqka cover

January 2015

I met up with an acquaintance who had founded an arts-related NGO. At the heart of his arts promotion setup was a sprawling complex outside Nairobi that included rooms, a hotel, a rooftop performance site, and a basketball court. We sat at the Java Restaurant near the Supreme Court buildings, sipping coffee.

‘There’s this idea I’ve been having for some time now,’ he said. ‘It’s for an intensive writer-training camp. A residency. I have a facility in Rift Valley. A secluded place where a groups of artistes can hold workshops and trainings and such. I am especially keen on literature. Initially, I wanted to approach Kwani? I know the administrators. We both go to Ford Foundation for funding. But I’d rather work with you. In any case, right now, you’re bigger than Kwani?’

 

December 2017

My father had died at the age of 73. I had moved back to my hometown of Nyeri. As I took a walk one evening, I received a call from the Business Daily, yet another publication of the mammoth NMG. The caller was some kind of fact-checker. Every year, the Business Daily publishes a prestigious list of the Top 40 Under 40 men and women of that year. I had been nominated and the caller had some follow-up questions. He wasn’t interested in the commercial aspect of my writing as much as the societal impact. What difference had I made in my community that year? I answered his questions as I walked slowly past an unending a parade of evergreen trees.

Towards the end of December, the Business Daily ‘Top 40 Under 40 Men’ issue came out and I was in it. I dedicated the award to my late father.

Alexander Nderitu at the ‘Top 40 Under 40’ award ceremony

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Alexander Nderitu is a writer, poet, playwright and critic. His work has been shortlisted for a Douglas Coupland Short Story Award, Assitej SA Scriptwriting prize and the December 2020 Collins Elesiro Literary Prize. He is a recipient of an apexart New York Fellowship and a Business Daily ‘Top 40 Under 40 Men’ award. His signature thriller, When the Whirlwind Passes is now available in paperback and can be ordered here: www.AlexanderNderitu.com