Thursday, May 31, 2018


A book review by Alexander Nderitu

Winners of the ANASOMA Writing Contest: (L-R, seated) June Mwikali, Christine Odeph, Monica Owoko and (standing) Kenneth Kaigua and Erick Livumbazi (Photo/Courtesy)
On 2nd May 2017, I gave a talk to ANASOMA workshop participants at the behest of Lydia Gaitirira who is best known as the Executive Director of the AMKA, a literary boot camp for upcoming writers and literary critics. As I spoke for about an hour about how (and why) writers weave messages into stories as opposed to stating them outright, I had no idea that one of the attendees would later rival my popularity on a digital reading platform and another would become one my favourite Kenyan fiction writers!

The ANASOMA writing competition was a collaboration between Worldreader, AMKA literary forum, and a few other partners.  According to the organizers, the aim of the competition was ‘to positively influence gender social norms and change stereotypes in Kenya through development of content for women and girls that is diverse, accessible and empowering.’ Also in attendance at the workshop were Muthoni Muhunyo (Publisher and Author Relations Manager at Worldreader, Kenya) and Nancy Brown (Worldreader official, USA) and communications expert Christine Sayo (ANASOMA Project Officer).

Alexander Nderitu at the training workshop
The publication of the final five stories reviewed here was a year-long process that began with a call-out for abstracts/pitches. A total of 357 applications were received from all over the country. The evaluation team comprised of 6 judges and a chief juror who were interested in ‘creativity as well as gender responsiveness in the text’. The chief juror then selected the top 15 from the 30.’  In the words of Lydia Gaitirira, ‘The only proof that a woman is empowered is how it translates into action.’ Of the top 15 pitches, from all over the country, 8 were from female entrants while 7 were from men. The writers behind the 15 selected pitches were then invited to the aforementioned training workshop (at Biblica Guest House in Nairobi city), where they received guidance on how to develop their pitches into manuscripts from a gender expert, a renowned Kenyan author (yours truly!), a publisher (David Waweru, Word Alive) as well as the Anasoma Writing Contest Patron (Lady Laimani Bidali, Alabastron Network Trust).

This being Worldreader’s first such initiative, the project was highlighted at a panel session during the 2017 Worldreader/Publishers Digital Reading Summit at Weston Hotel in Nairobi.

Christine Sayo expounds on the ANASOMA contest during the Digital Reading Summit
The winners - Kenneth Kaigua, Monica Olive Owoko, June Mwikali, Christine Odeph and Erick Livumbazi – were feted at the Southern Sun Mayfair Hotel on December 7th, 2017. ‘An empowered woman is not a threat, she is an investment,’ said Lady Laimani Bidali, contest patron, as she presented the authors with their awards. 'There is nothing like over-empowerment, as much as there is nothing like being over healthy.' According to a article titled ‘Anasoma Awards: Getting Girls To Read On Mobile’, the judges included writer/journalist Faith Oneya, academicians Mshai Mwangola and Tom Odhiambo (who is also an AMKA moderator), award-winning author Elizabeth Maiyani, author/journalist Tony Mochama, and gender expert Clara Momanyi.

Laimani Bidali, 3rd from left, poses with the winners during the award ceremony (Photo/Courtesy)
Now, let’s take a critical look at the five winning stories…

Ghetto Flower by Kenneth Kaigua

The year is 2037 and Ms. Makena Akai, born and bred in Nairobi’s Kibera slums, is the first female President of the Republic of Kenya. But the 40-year-old widowed mother of three is not sitting pretty. To add to the garden variety problems that would face any African leader, a blackmailer has popped up with nude pictures of the First Daughter, and allegations that Makena herself is a marijuana user (or ‘abuser’, if you’re with NACADA). Who could be behind this attempt to tarnish the president’s image? Could it be her political rival, Kazungu Mwachola? ‘Someone is blackmailing me,’ Makena informs her ageing Chief-of-Security. ‘Photos of my daughter, Lisabona. I don’t know how she ended up doing this. If this leaks, it will destroy me and my new government.’

As actor David Niven wrote in his memoirs, ‘It makes no sense to write about the butler when Chairman Mao is sitting at the dinner table’. So, if you’re going to write about a woman in power, why not write about her in the highest office in the land? And yet, despite a few female politicians (Wangari Maathai, Charity Ngilu, Nazlin Umar, inter alia) making a stab at the presidency, there are very few fictional works that postulate a female president. (Apart from Ghetto Flower, I have only heard of one other Kenyan published story featuring a female Head of State). Caine Prize winner Yvonne Owuor (Dust) had a point when she said, at a Kwani Festival, that, ‘Africa’s problem is a failure of the imagination.’ Luckily the author of this post-modern narrative suffers no such ‘failure’. In person, Kenneth cuts a rather mysterious figure. Still in his thirties, he’s all suits and ties, like a banker, accountant or even a private detective. Rather serious demeanor. Having engaged in scriptwriting before, he’s not a novice to the writing game – and it shows.

Since the story is set in the future, the author rightly imagines what that future might look like. For example, President Makena’s car is driverless, a technology currently being tested in the US. However, the author occasionally falls into the infamous trap of ‘telling’ the story as opposed to ‘showing’ it unfold. For example, it is said of one character, ‘Thinking about the country made him very sad.’ Instead of ‘summarizing’, the writer should have described how the character shook his head, sunk into deep thought with one hand on his forehead, cancelled the rest of the days’ appointments, declined to take his afternoon tea etc. Imagine if you were watching a movie and a KDF soldier came home to his young wife after a stint in Somalia. Would you expect the wife to say, ‘I’ve missed you’ or to fly into his arms? Actions speak louder than words.

All things considered, Ghetto Flower a worthwhile read. I would highly recommend it to young ladies, especially in secondary schools.


Revival at Sukkhuta Village by June Mwikali

After breaking up with Carlos, her long-time boyfriend, Sue Zipapa relocates to the rural village of Sukkhata. The move is more mental than physical. She needs a fresh start. A new beginning. A revival of sorts. Not that Carlos is a bad guy. The bloke is magnetically handsome, has a good job, is classy, and was educated in an Ivy League US college, which accounts for his ‘endearing nasal twang’. The problem is that he is ‘married’ to his work and at 35 years of age, ‘Sue was done with the waiting game’. So off to the boondocks she goes to sort out her life and map out her future.

A teacher by profession, Sue lands a job as a headmistress in the remote region of Sukkhata Mountains. The village is one of those tightly-knit communities where everybody knows everybody, which means that everybody gets all up in your business. Sue’s new school is in a pitiable state and her deputy is a notorious drunkard. To whip the institution into shape, she makes radical changes which rattle the status quo. Will she manage to placate the villagers? Will Carlos ever return to her life? Will she find new love?

The protagonist in this romantic drama is nicknamed ‘Madam Sue’. If we add a few more letters to that, it would describe the author herself: ‘Madam Suspense’. You always want to know what will happen next.

I was surprised to discover that in just a few months, this story has garnered almost as many ‘reads’ on the Worldreader platform as my most popular digital work, The Stacy Walker Interview (41,626 to my 41,731). I was surprised because I am the person who is most associated with digital books in the country! It is noteworthy that both Revival at Sukkhuta Village and The Stacy Walker Interview are heavy on romance. As I wrote in a previous blog post, Worldreader stats indicate that African readers love the Romance genre (along with Fantasy and Religious material).  So, is June Mwikali the new Queen of Digital Reading in Kenya? As the recently deceased Kenneth Matiba might have said, ‘Let the people decide!’

When Mountains Meet by Christine Odeph

On the surface, Ayira is living an enviable life in Nairobi City while her housegirl, Benta, represents the ‘sufferers’ who make up the vast majority of the inhabitants of this poorly planned yet highly vibrant metropolis. Her lover, Oduor, is no saint. But despite the fact that he is physically abusive, her love for him will not let her leave this doomed arrangement. Her life hits a new low after Oduor perishes in a grisly road accident, and his well-kept secret comes to light.

This well-told tale has thus far garnered 40,177 reads on Worldreader devices. Excellent cover art, excellent story. The writing is stylish, as evidenced by these excerpts:

‘Inside the morgue, her brain was gathering more ammunition for future insomnia. She tried not to scream…Bodies had been stacked on top of the cold cement slabs with metallic covers like pieces of forgotten wood.’

Christine Odeph, aka ‘Kenyanisa’ on social media, was an attendee at the 2018 Miles Morland Creative writing Workshop held on Bulago Island. Ms Odeph is my new favourite Kenyan scribe, of either gender. I would buy any fiction with her name on it.

Making the Team by Erick Livumbazi

Jess, a high school dropout who can pass for a boy, is the star player of a soccer team known as The Diggers, which is helmed by the no-nonsense Coach ‘Coachez’ Ngunze. Jess’ dream is to make the national team, and since only a few of the players in the all-boys team know that she’s actually a flat-chested girl, she decides to keep that detail dark. The odds are not in her favour, however. It’s as if the universe has conspired to keep her from excelling in life. She lives in a crime-ridden slum and is the breadwinner of her family of two children. They were once well-off but her parents split and her mother moved into a smaller house with the children. Shortly after that, her mother got so sick she was barely productive and they were forced to further downgrade their lifestyle.  One of Jess’ part-time jobs is that of baby-sitting for Ms. Mai Roza who is a captain in the Kenyan army. Another one is scavenging for scraps of metal to be sold by weight. Overcoming her circumstances and keeping her secret are the odds the young midfielder will have beat if she’s going to make the national soccer team.

As I read this story, I kept thinking, ‘This would made a great short film.’ It has strong, distinct characters; a continuous stream of action, builds towards a definite climax, and football is Kenya’s favourite sport (Although the national team doesn’t excel in the international arena. A wag once quipped that when he dies, he wants to be buried by the Harambee Stars because, ‘they’re good at letting people down’!) One drawback to the story, though, is how Anglicized the names of the Easter African slum characters are: Jess, Rossie, Bert, Nick, Rogers, Corrie, Beryl, inter alia. While it is not uncommon to have such first names in this part of the world, emphasizing their ethnic names (which usually have more meaning and nuance) would have made the story more immersive, especially for foreign readers. As it is, a muzungu reader might wonder whether this narrative is set in Mathare, Kenya, or Manchester, England. It’s also not entirely conceivable that a girl can play with teenage boys for a long duration of time without being discovered. Men and women don’t generally move or (re)act the same way. Sooner or later, the lad without a bulge in the front of ‘his’ trousers would have done something that would have given the game away – peeing, showering, blushing, giggling, running effeminately, not pursuing girls etc. However, the writing is impressive, as evidenced by the following excerpt:

‘Next to her, he looked like a canoe besides a spacious yacht in full sail. She was something of a giantess, all of six-feet something, with a well endowed bow and stern but more muscular than curvy.’

Erick Livumbazi Ngoda is no stranger to the Kenyan literary scene. A prolific writer and freelance journalist based in Eldoret, he has been widely published and has garnered some accolades. In 2013, he won a Burt Award for his YA book, A Name for Himself  and in 2017, he was nominated for a Jomo Kenyatta Prize for its sequel, The Wind Under His Wings. And here he is again, as one of the five winners of the ANASOMA writing contest, which comes with a monetary boost of some Kshs 100,000 (USD $1,000). Definitely a writer to watch.

God’s Women by Monica Owoko

Of the five winners, this is the one enjoyed the least. It is, in fact, a set of four different flash-fiction tales based on Biblical women such as Esther, Deborah, Ruth, Naomi and Orpah.

The first mini-story story, The Inheritance, is the weakest and should therefore not have lead the pack, in my opinion. It is set in the Biblical period during which the Israelites were living in the wilderness as they followed Moses from Egypt towards ‘the promised land’. After her father dies, Maylah, the eldest in a family with no sons, seeks to overturn the tradition that women cannot inherit property. There are two major drawbacks to this narrative. The first one is that the conflict is literally solved by divine intervention, which makes some key characters/scenes redundant. Another one is that there is no ‘atmosphere’: the author doesn’t describe environment or the culture. Was the ground caked? Were there sandstorms? Did the people travel on horses, camels or donkeys? What kind of food did they eat? What music instruments did they play? What type of dances did they do? What games did the children play? Could they see the great pyramids from where they were?  If you’re setting a story in an unfamiliar time/place, then you have to paint a picture for the reader. Egypt B.C. is nothing like Egypt today (More and more scholars are even suggesting that today’s Arab-speaking Egyptians are not descendants of the Kemetic pyramid-building ancients, as the land has been severally conquered over the centuries).

In the second mini-story, Nemesis, the author is cooking with gas! In this tale, Deborah – a prophetess and the sole female judge in Israel - guides an army commander at a time of war.

The third mini-story is titled, The Redeemer. Ruth, whose marriage to Elimelech was initially opposed because she was not an Israelite, becomes the cornerstone of her extended family during a time of poor harvests.

The last mini-story in Monika Owoko’s collection is Delivered. In it, Queen Esther must use her formidable guile and charm in order to save her people from imminent danger Will she succeed succeed against the formidable forces arrayed against her or is she overestimating her abilities? This story succeeds in all the areas where the first one doesn’t. The atmosphere, characters, conflict and denouement are superb. An excerpt:

‘The starter was a beautiful pomegranate seed and herb salsa which provided a tart and juicy flavor. This was followed by a tasty lamb and asparagus stew eaten with Adas Polow – a type of rice that is cooked with a crusty, delicious layer of saffron-scented rice mixed with lentils and garnished with fried onions, raisins and chopped dates. The dessert was a pancake called halva that is made from wheat flour and butter and flavoured with rosewater.

Product Details

WONDER WOMAN: ‘If you’re looking for comic-book superheroes, they ain’t here’ (Photo/DC Comics)

The publisher of the ANASOMA stories is Word Alive (Kenya) and the language used is English. The five-story collection is available worldwide via the Worldreader mobile phone app (free) and is also available Amazon (for Kindle and other devices) at USD $2.99. There is no information yet on whether we can expect a print version of the work, but Word Alive being a ‘mainstream’ publisher, that could definitely be on the cards.

If you’re looking for comic-book superheroes, they ain’t here. The lead characters in these tales are human, humane, relatable and lovable.

#WhyWeRead #DigitalReading #Worldreaders #ANASOMA

The author of this story can be reached at:

Monday, May 14, 2018


Lessons From a Veteran Scholar
By Alexander Nderitu

Alexander Nderitu (left) with Prof Austin Bukenya
I wasn’t going to talk to Prof. Austin Bukenya. He had just delivered a riveting talk to aspiring writers at the AMKA literary forum which holds monthly meetings at the Goethe Institut Library in uptown Nairobi. With so many young people, mostly women, clamouring to talk to and be photographed with the distinguished Ugandan-born scholar, I lost hope of a one-on-one conversation with him and resigned myself to catching up with ‘the usual suspects’ – people I knew purely by virtue of attending various literary events around the country. As I was tying up a conversation with Ugandan lawyer/writer Alexander Twinokwesiga, however, I noticed Prof. Bukenya walking slowly from one glass-walled room to another and in the process, a white envelope dropped from his brown jacket to the floor. I dutifully picked it up and caught up with the professor, calling out his name. As he thanked me, I took advantage of the encounter to introduce myself.

I had been very impressed by his earlier assertion that, ‘The future of reading is on the Internet’, and I told him so. Conventional wisdom is that senior citizens are techno-phobes, but Prof. Bukenya is not a man to be easily pigeonholed. He has remained dynamic, travelling widely and mastering several languages including Kiswahili.  I told him that I authored Kenya’s first digital novel in 2001 and was a believer in digital literature. As we exchanged contacts, more disciples invaded our space and our dialogue deteriorated into a photo session with the ‘retiring scholar’ as the centre-piece. 

L-R: Alexander Nderitu, Alexander Twinokwesiga, Prof. Bukenya and Eddah Mbaya
Prof. Austin Bukenya, best known to Kenyans for his Saturday Nation column and the poem I Met a Thief, was born in Masaka, Southern Uganda, in 1944. He attended high schools around Kampala and Entebbe before joining the University of East Africa (Tanzania) in 1968.  He later advanced his education via higher degrees at the hallowed Makerere University (Uganda) as well as Kenyatta University (Kenya). The wearer of many hats – academic, novelist, actor, dramatist, poet, literary critic, inter alia – Prof. Bukenya has taught languages, literature and drama at Makerere and universities in the UK, Tanzania and Kenya. In addition to that, he has also had residences at universities in Rwanda and Germany. A significant potion of his life has been spent in Kenya (which rubs shoulders with his native Uganda) and, amongst other things, has been Director of the Creative and Performing Arts Centre at Kenyatta University in Nairobi. 

Now a distinguished scholar with a strong record of supporting women’s writing (especially with Uganda’s FEMRITE), it was a no-brainer for him to be invited to the AMKA literary forum which chiefly promotes writing skills amongst womenfolk. And he seemed happy to be there, although for some reason he was ‘rocking’ a deep-purple shirt with a brown jacket and tie. I am not Tom Ford or Louis Vuitton’s Virgil Abloh, but I’m pretty sure those colours don’t run together! As usual with AMKA, the audience was primarily composed of young aspiring writers, of both sexes. Also in attendance was AMKA Executive Director Lydia Gaitirira – a champion of women’s writing – who formerly at Kenyatta University. The moderator was Prof. Tom Odhiambo from Nairobi University (UoN).  At some point in his talk, Prof declared, ‘The writer is dead, long live the reader!’ This could have been a reference to ‘The New Criticism’, a popular form of critiquing developed in the US the 1940’s that analyzes a text based purely on its own merits (as opposed to speculating about the author’s background, influences, mental state, age, gender etc). Shakespeare once wrote that, (in drama) ‘the play is the thing’. Under ‘The New Criticism’, the writer may as well be non-existent: the text is the thing.

Prof. Tom Odhiambo talks about AMKA

Much of the discussion, however, revolved around the Swahili language, East Africa’s de facto lingua franca and one of the official ‘working languages’ of the African Union (AU). Some snippets:

‘You write in the language in which inspiration comes to you. And you write in the language that you think your audience will understand...You can write in all languages. I write in English and Kiswahili.’

‘We are self-conscious in Kiswahili in Kenya but I think we need not be...Tusiogope (Let’s not be afraid)...Writing is something in which you can reach perfection…Kitovu cha Kiswahili kiko hapa Kenya, na naona tukienzi...Nawahimiza (wandishi ibuka) mwandike kwa Kiswahili (The centre of Kiswahili is here in Kenya, and we should cherish that..I urge you upcoming scribes to write in Kiswahili).’

‘The best thing that happened in the 8-4-4 (Kenyan) educational system was making Kiswahili a mandatory subject.’

‘What keeps many people off Kiswahili (literature) is the showy language. We should aim for communication, not impressing (others)...We want a show, not a showoff.’

Circa 2003, he said, the Ugandan constitution recognized Swahili as the 2nd official language after English. However, there is a push to make Luganda and official language as well. (Luganda is widely spoken in the capital, Kampala, and its environs):

‘Kiswahili has been the official language of the (Ugandan) military ever since the British Protectorate was set up. The police and army used it...None of the Ugandan languages (eg. Luganda) can compete with Kiswahili as a national language because of local factors (eg. resistance by other language speakers to play second fiddle to another local tongue).’

Poetry was also discussed at length. (Kenya has a high density of poets and numerous poetry-based events are held across the country.)

‘Verse strikes us because of the symmetry...That shape has got to be heard as well as seen...It’s not just what we see but also what we hear...And if you don’t have that (component), you don’t have effect.’

‘Verse requires compactness, economy of words...Poetry has to be palpable.’

‘Tukisema hili ni shairi huru, hatusemi halina umbo, halina ubunifu, na kadhalika...Halijakosa muundo.’ (‘Free verse does not mean “formless verse”. Free Verse is poetry that finds its own form.’)

‘You can’t say that people like Said Ahmed Mohammed and Alamin Mazrui when they write mashairi huru (free verse) – which they have done – that they don’t know what they’re doing.’

And there were tips on writing and literature in general, something the Makererean has often done with his newspaper articles. More words of advice:

‘If you write in your own language, you are giving it an image. Experiment. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid to be ground-breakers...Write in your mother tongue – or father tongue.’

‘The learning of a language, if you are a writer, never ceases.’

‘Every language is storehouse of knowledge. With every language that dies, a culture dies.’

Prof. Bukenya and his teacher, Pio Zirimu, fused the words ‘oral literature’ into the more elegant ‘orature’, a term that is now widely accepted in local literary circles. He expounded on this subject:

‘ “Orature” is a term we coined in the 1970’s to describe and legitimize “oral literature.” “Oracy” is a skill, a counterpart of literacy. People have to be taught to speak. People who can’t talk to each other have problems…We should combine oracy and literacy. They are pillars of the same thing.’

With reference to such words as ‘oracy’ and ‘orature’, PEN-Kenya President, Khainga O’Okwemba, asked about the professor’s knack for coining new words. ‘What informs your decision to create a new word?’ Khainga, a poet and journalist, wanted to know. Bukenya said that – while orthography must be adhered to - the key ingredient was a need for the word. For example, he said, a good salutation for a military dictator (the kind of strongman who comes to power via a coup de etat) would be, ‘Your Gunjesty!’

But, seriously speaking, should terms like ‘oracy’ and ‘orature’ be added to the English dictionary? My take is that if pop singer BeyoncĂ© Knowles could add the adjective ‘bootylicious’ to the Oxford dictionary and American novelist Joseph Heller could give us ‘Catch-22’, then there’s no reason why East African intellectuals cannot also contribute words to the English language!

Photoshoot session, in the Goethe Institut Library, after the talk
After the professor’s talk, a young audience member and ‘performing poet’ called Larry Liza asked to perform I Met a Thief from memory and his request was granted. The professor watched, bemused. When the performance was over and the poet had bowed and shaken the lecturer’s hand, the latter smilingly said, ‘I can’t remember all the words (to the poem) but I don’t think you left anything out. You see – the writer is dead, long live the reader!’

The author of this article can be reached at