Saturday, November 6, 2021

DOES TV DISTORT REALITY? A CASE STUDY.

The TV mini-series Shaka Zulu was internationally popular (not least because of the tantalizing amounts of naked flesh displayed) but did it give an accurate account of historical events, or a sympathetic portrayal of traditional South African cultures? History scholar and veteran researcher on African culture, Dr. John Henrik Clarke, in a lecture titled “History of the Zulus”: 

“One other item I hoped to take up…was the series, Shaka Zulu. Because so many people have written me or called me wanting to know, ‘What is the book?’ (on Shaka). There is no ‘the book’. I read 30 books on Zulu culture before I was clear about what it was. The (TV) series was an absolute disgrace. It demeaned one of the greatest people we produced in Africa, one of the finest people we produced in Africa. It was the Zulus that kept the Whites from the hinterlands…Shaka, in his day, did not fight Whites, or did not have to fight Whites. He was fighting to consolidate Blacks in order to preserve the country for African people... 

Now, the role of that picture (TV’s Shaka Zulu), was to show a grappling tyrant…Had you read any books on it (Zulu culture), you would have known how disgraceful it was. Shaka’s mother (Queen Nandi), one of the great women of Zulu history, was made to look like a Western slut…The lowest class of African woman has more class than that.  Why didn’t we (Africans or African-Americans) make the film? We’re not going to get the true story until we make the film. We own the camera, we do the script, we do everything; finance it and distribute it.” 

---
From ‘Changing the Literary Map of Africa’ (PDF) by Alexander Nderitu. To purchase the full document for USD$ 10.00, contact the author here:  www.alexandernderitu.com 

Friday, November 5, 2021

"MAINTENANT 15" HITS THE RIGHT ARTISTIC NOTES

by Alexander Nderitu,
Very happy to receive my copy of "MAINTENTANT 15" which includes my poem, "Paradise is Lost". Enriched by a long list of contributors and very artistically designed (including graphics and photos), this big book of avant garde writing is of much higher quality than I imagined. I haven't been this excited to be in an anthology since two of my poems appeared in the "World Poetry Almanac" pre-Covid-19.

"MAINTENANT 15" was published by Three Rooms Press. The 2021 edition of the premiere journal of contemporary dada writing and art considers humankind past and present with a collection of contemporary dada art and writing driven by the theme “HUMANITY: THE REBOOT.” More than 242 creators from 31 countries establish that social protest can be creatively achieved via risk-taking art. The premier journal gathering the work of internationally-renowned contemporary Dada artists and writers, MAINTENANT 15 offers compelling proof that Dada continue to serve as a catalyst to creators more than a century later.

Early reviews:

“A compilation of leading Dada-influenced artists from around the world." ―TRIBE LA Magazine

“Excellent examples of collage and montage techniques . . . Interesting visual poems.” ―Portland Book Review

"Contemporary art and writing ranging from collages and acrylics to new digital art motifs and using computers to create art . . . As always it brings an interesting perspective.” ―Manhattan Book Review

“Though people expect Dada to be silly, and sometimes it is here, it is also often political and usually poignant. . . It’s quite a smorgasbord for those who are sick and tired of it.” ―Seattle Book Review

Saturday, October 30, 2021

CULTURE IS RUTAN: TURKANA TEACHER PENS BIOGRAPHY OF THE ATEKER PEOPLE

 

Culture is Rutan is the title of a book by Sudanese griot Taban Lo Liyong. ‘Rutan’ means important or even essential. However, few Africans understand the importance of culture and are therefore quick to abandon their heritage for Western and, increasingly, Eastern ways of life and communication. Even the very documentation and recording of vanishing African cultures has largely been the preserve of foreigners. In the case of Turkana, however, one school teacher has taken it upon himself to buck the trend. Over the last seven or so years, Lokorikeju T. Ekiru has researched, documented and now published a book on his community and their culture. Titled The Turkana People (2021), the book delves into the origins, migrations, legends and culture of the Turkana people who are found in Northern Kenya as well as a few neighbouring countries. The book also presents detailed account of Nayece, the community’s heroine, who is largely unknown outside of the larger Ateker community. Also explained in great detail and accompanied by relevant illustrations are the thirty-something different ‘brands’ (or ‘clans’) that make up the over one-million-strong Turkana community. Of equal importance is the explanation and historical background of the Turkana moieties, or alternations, namely the ‘Leopards’ (Ng’irisae) and ‘Mountains’ (Ng’imoru). Despite being packed with research information and numerous photographs, the 358-page book is not short of entertainment value. Superstitious beliefs surrounding adultery and the breaking of taboos are downright hilarious. 

In the Introduction, the author has this to say about his work:

‘It is my expectation that descriptions of Turkana customs, norms and rituals contained in this book will further help readers understand and appreciate the Turkana way of life. I appreciate the efforts of earlier writers on aspects of Turkana culture while noting some gaps and areas that required further information. In view of the above, I took it upon myself to further document about Turkana with intent to narrow information gaps. To achieve this, I undertook both primary and secondary information mining, data collection and collation for a period spanning over seven years. In particular, I traversed parts of Iteso and Turkana-lands in Kenya, as well as other Ateker (Turkana relatives) communities in Uganda and Southern Sudan.’

 After launching the book in Lodwar, capital of Turkana County, Governor Josphat Nanok tweeted:

 ‘Was pleased to grace the launch of @LokorikejuEkiru’s new book, The Turkana People, an exhaustive account of the history, rich culture and complete way of life of the Turkana people. I commend the author…for this well researched work…I hope this book will inspire more authors to carry out further research to give accurate accounts of the Turkana people to the rest of the world.’

Governor Josphat Nanok at the book launch (Photo: Courtesy)

Dr. Harald Karl Mueller-Dempf who lives in Berlin, Germany, is one of the world’s foremost experts on Turkana culture and anthropology. In the book’s Foreword, he writes:

‘The Turkana themselves have always loved their country and their identity. When our translator Lucy once went to Kitale she liked it but she still insisted that ‘there is nothing like Turkana’. People were always proud of their land and their culture and they defended it against all odds. Today one can even witness some degree of a cultural revival. Men in the countryside wear their hair again as mud caps, women’s bead collars grow in size, and on festive occasions people show up in traditional attire, sometimes a bit modified, but fashion has always changed even the most traditional outfit. It fits into this cultural revival that a Turkana writes a book about ‘The Turkana’ – history, culture, brands, and artefacts. The only monograph of the Turkana and their traditional way of life was written by P. H. Gulliver in 1951. Since then, much has been published on the Turkana, but never in such a comprehensive way as Gulliver has done it. Thus, it is about time that a Turkana writes about his own people and puts on record matters that otherwise may vanish into oblivion.’

The author, Lokorikeju T. Ekiru, is a celebrated teacher of Art, particularly so in the area of adaptation and arrangement of African folk tunes. Born in Loima Constituency, Turkana County, he started schooling in mid-1980’s in his home county, before joining Kericho Teachers’ Training College (KTTC) for his tertiary education. After teaching for over ten years, Lokorikeju joined Turkana County Government as a Sub County Administrator. He has been researching on Turkana migration history, material culture, brands and artefacts for over a decade.

The author in traditional garb. (Photo: T. Ekiru)

The Turkana People is available at the Lodwar Bookshop, within St. Augustine’s Cathedral, Turkana County. (Or contact us for details).

Price: Kshs 3,500 (USD$ 35.00)

 

Below are some images from the book launch, courtesy of Governor Nanok's administration:





 

Saturday, August 14, 2021

KISS, COMMANDER, PROMISE - Short Stories

 

Is life a sexually transmitted disease?

Can human beings manipulate the weather?

Which country controls the river Nile?

Can AIDS be cured?

What the hell went wrong in Rwanda in 1994?

Is North Korea an immediate threat to world peace?

Can human beings be cloned?

Are we really special creations or just Storytelling Apes?

Believe it or not, all these questions are answered in a single collection of short stories: 'KISS, COMMANDER, PROMISE'. (And we haven't even talked about the humour and love pursuits yet!) Order your autographed copy today.

Title: 'Kiss, Commander, Promise'
Author: Alexander Nderitu
Format: Paperback
Category: Fiction/Short stories
Price: USD$ 10 (KSHS 1000)
Payment methods: Cash, MPESA or PayPal
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"A seriously thrilling collection of short stories. From espionage to crimes of passion to tragic love stories. Alexander Nderitu's heavily researched anthology is proof that Kenyan writers have come of age, ready to compete with international big guns." - Ciki Kimani-Mwaniki, author of the Cocktail book series

"Alexander Nderitu's writing flows effortlessly from genre to genre." - Mwikali Lati, Business Daily

ALEXANDER NDERITU PAPERBACKS

1. WHEN THE WHIRLWIND PASSES
Genre: Fiction/Crime
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-9914-707-79-3
Language: English
Summary: A ghetto princess' encounter with a rich young heir leads to a suspenseful murder mystery.
Price: Kshs 1,000

 

2. THE MOON IS MADE OF GREEN CHEESE
Genre: Poetry
Format: Paperback
Language: English
ISBN: 978-9914-40-144-8
Summary: Assorted poems themed on Love, Nature, Life, Poets, Philosophy and Inspiration.
Price: Kshs 700
 
 

 
3. KISS, COMMANDER, PROMISE
Genre: Short stories
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-9914-40-232-2
Language: English
Summary: 10 short stories themed on love and crime.
Price: Kshs 1,000
 
 
AUTHOR BIO:
Alexander Nderitu is a Kenyan writer, poet, playwright and critic. He is the Deputy Secretary-General of PEN Kenya Centre and a Regional Managing Editor for the global news portal TheTheatreTimes.com. His 2001 e-novel, When the Whirlwind Passes, was Africa’s first purely digital novel. He has since published three more books: The Moon is Made of Green Cheese (poetry); Kiss, Commander, Promise (short stories); and Africa on my Mind (YA novel). In 2017, Business Daily newspaper named him one of Kenya’s ‘Top 40 Under 40 Men’. In 2020, he was a finalist for the Collins Elesiro Literature Prize.
 

 

WANGARI MAATHAI STAGE PLAY TURNED INTO BOOK

 

THE TALKING OF TREES is a stage play about the life, death and legacy of Prof. Wangari Maathai. It was written by Alexander Nderitu between 2017 and 2020. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, plans for staging the play were shelved indefinitely. However, the playwright has decided to release the script as paperback book. 
 
Details:
Title: THE TALKING OF TREES
Author: Alexander Nderitu
Pages: 150
Year of publication: 2021
ISBN: 978-9914-40-420-3
PRE-ORDER the book for a discounted price of Kshs 800 (RRP is Kshs 1,000). Distribution starts at the end of August 2021. For more information, call +254 764192563, e-mail admin@alexandernderitu.com 
 
To give you a glimpse of what's in the book, below is a sample scene:
----------------------------------------------------------
ACT IV
Scene 2
 
SETTING: 1989. An unidentified location. It’s not an office or house. It appears to be some kind of secret location, deliberately nondescript.
 
AT RISE: BWANA MAPESA aka MR. MONEY BAGS is standing CS, dressed in an expensive black business suit, white shirt, red tie, expensive gold watch, shiny black shoes and black shades. He looks like the archetypal ‘shadowy businessman’. In one of his hands is a large, rolled-up document, like a calendar. He looks at his wrist watch and then at SR - he’s clearly expecting someone.
After a few beats, BWANA FISI enters from SR. He’s dressed in a dark suit but blue tie. BWANA MAPESA lights up on seeing him.
 
BWANA FISI
(opening his arms as he approaches)
 Bwana Mapesa! Sorry to keep you waiting, my friend!
 
BWANA MAPESA
 No problem, my brother! Good to see you!
 
(They hug like old friends. They are clearly as thick as thieves - mainly because they ARE thieves, gobbling up public resources for personal gain!)
 
BWANA FISI 
Do you have the updated blueprint?
 
BWANA MAPESA
(rolls open the large document)
 I have it right here. Everything according to your instructions. Say good-bye to Uhuru Park!
 
(BWANA FISI holds one edge of the blueprint while BWANA MAPESA holds the other as they pore over the design.)
 
This is where the main building will be (points somewhere on
the document). Sixty-two storeys high. Tallest building in Africa.
 
BWANA FISI
A fitting tribute to His Excellency. 
 
BWANA MAPESA
Exactly. This here will be the entry point (indicates) and this will be the exit (indicates). Parking space for two thousand vehicles. Outside the tower, here (indicates), there will be a statue of President Moi, four storeys high.
 
BWANA FISI
Even bigger than Kenyatta’s!
 
BWANA MAPESA
Much, much bigger! Inside the tower will be the headquartersof ruling Party, KANU; the Kenya Times newspaper; officesfor rent; a trading center; shopping malls; an auditorium and galleries. 
 
BWANA FISI
Marvelous. Looks like it’s going to be a fine and magnificent work of architecture. His Excellency will love it!
 
BWANA MAPESA
Now, let’s get right to the nitty gritties. Can the gov’t raise the roughly Kshs 4 billion it will take to turn this dream (indicates the blueprint) into a reality?
 
BWANA FISI
Have no fear, my brother! We can get financing very easily from the West. With the Cold War getting more and more competitive, Western gov’ts are falling over themselves trying to forge political, cultural, and economic ties with African states so that we will not go over to the Communist side. Why do you think the West didn’t make a fuss when Pio Gama Pinto was assassinated? What do they care about a Socialist muhindi? They like democrats with a capitalistic bent. Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere would have a tough timetrying to raise this kind of money from Western gov’ts or financial institutions. What was he thinking when he went for Socialism? By the way, did you know he once referred to Kenya as a man-eat-man society? 
 
BWANA MAPESA
(rolling up the blueprint and holding it like a relay buton)
Flattery will get him nowhere.
 
BWANA FISI
Luckily, we are not Communists or Socialists. In fact, we have the best democracy money can buy. The West needs Kenya. We are so strategically located in terms of geo-politics that they will do almost anything to keep us on their side of the Iron Curtain. Just bide your time. When the money arrives, I’ll let you know. We will be breaking ground very soon! 
 
BWANA MAPESA
And what about this Wangari woman? Who the hell is she?
 
BWANA FISI
Just some tree hugger. She wrote a letter to the MD of Kenya Times inquiring about the planned tower and protesting the commercialization of the park, saying that it’s the only green part of the city. Everyone ignored her, of course. The problem is that she started writing protest letters to everyone from the Environment Minister to the Attorney General to the United Nations and the UK Embassy. Now, that really pissed us off. Parliamentarians castigated her immediately. How dare she write to foreign powers? Are we under colonialism? MPs have already condemned her right inside the National Assembly. They could not see why some divorced woman and her band of rural womenfolk were criticizing national development projects. They really had fun laughing at her until the Speaker called the House to order. 
 
BWANA MAPESA
Ridiculous! If people want to see trees and lakes then let them go back to the boondocks. The city is for money-makers and politicians. That is why it is called the ‘capital city’. Capitalism. You capitalize on it...If some people are not interested in making money, then they can stay in the reserves and grow potatoes. Who cares if Kenya becomes a country of ten millionaires and ten million beggars, as J. M. Kariuki once said? We can’t all be rich. The Rich need the Middle Class to do most of the work and pay most ofthe taxes. And we need The Poor in order keep the Middle Class in check.
 
BWANA FISI
Brilliant analysis. I don’t even know what J. M. was complaining about. He was a rich man himself! A landowner!
 
BWANA MAPESA
How did this Wangari woman find out about our plans anyway?Is she in gov’t?
 
BWANA FISI
No, she’s a conservationist. Obviously some saboteur leaked the information to her. Maybe she’s using activism to launch a political career. But in that case, she’s playing second fiddle - didn’t the president himself burn millions of shillings worth of poached ivory in front of the world’s eyes? He proved that he is the top conservationist in the continent!
 
BWANA MAPESA
Actually, I wasn’t too happy about that. There’s no need to murder money. Since the tusks cannot be returned into the dead elephants, it would have been better to just sell them and then invest the money in development projects.
 
BWANA FISI
Point taken. And don’t worry about the mad conservationist. If she keeps running her mouth, she will find out what Uganda’s admirable president, General Idi Amin, meant when he said that ‘There is freedom of speech but we can’t guarantee freedom after speech’!
 
BWANA MAPESA
(impressed)
You and I are a mutual admiration society.
 
BWANA FISI
I concur. And, talking of women, tell me something about that hot, light-skinned secretary of yours.
 
BWANA MAPESA
Oh, she’s very good!
(gives a knowing wink)
British-educated. Speaks several languages but prefers the language of money. Hobbies include swimming, travelling and long, romantic walks to the bank...But don’t worry about the money angle - continue pushing gov’t contracts my way and I’ll make sure you also become super rich. You will be picking up real estate like monopoly pieces. You will be able to use companies like contraceptives. You will play with vehicles the way you played with toy cars as a child. And, of course, you will be able to support as many wives and mistresses as your heart desires!
 
BWANA FISI
(excited)
Bwana Mapesa, it’s a pleasure doing business with you!
 
(extends his hand)
 
BWANA MAPESA
(shaking BWANA FISI’s hand)
Bwana Fisi, the pleasure is all mine!
 
(After the handshake, BWANA MAPESA exits SL while BWANA FISI exits SR)
 
(BLACKOUT)
 
(END OF SCENE)

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.

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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