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.)
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 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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.’
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.
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?’
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 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