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

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