Saturday, March 9, 2024

Reflections on the late Dr. Henry Chakava

A MÅ«gumo tree has fallen.

Not in Kikuyuland, this time, but in Africa's literary landscape. A written statement from Mr. Kiarie Kamau, Managing Director and CEO of East African Educational Publishers, has this morning confirmed the passing of Dr. Henry Chakava, at the age of 77. 

Dr. Chakava was the founder and chairman of EAEP and also the chairman of the Global Book Alliance. Mr. Kiarie's statement describes the deceased as 'the father of book publishing in Africa'. It goes on to say:

'He is associated with publishing of iconic literary luminaries in Africa such as: Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Grace Ogot, Francis Imbuga, John Kiriamiti, Meja Mwangi, Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye (all from Kenya), Chinua Achebe, Cyprian Ekwensi (Nigeria), Taban Lo Liyong (South Sudan), Okot p'Bitek, John Ruganda (Uganda), David Rubadiri (Malawi), Peter Abrahams (South Africa), among many others.'

I had the honour of meeting Dr. Chakava a few times, all pre-COVID era. If I'm not wrong, the first we met was during a Worldreader-organized publishers' event. He knew who I was (most probably from my literary criticism document, 'Changing the Literary Map of Kenya' which had been widely circulated via email). He gave me his EAEP business card and invited me to visit him in his office some time. Since he gave no agenda or particular date for the meeting, I was left rather perplexed by the publishing giant. I felt I shouldn't visit without a substantial work-in-progress that I could pitch. (After all, this was the guy that published Kenya's most iconic novel, Kiriamiti's 'My Life in Crime')! Meanwhile, I hadn't written a novel manuscript since 2001's 'When the Whirlwind Passes'. Still haven't. I had transitioned into more of criticism as well as poetry, plays and short stories. So our office meeting never happened.

We did meet again over the years, most recently in 2019, at the African Union/ADEA - Association for the Development of Education in Africa ‘High-Level Regional Workshop on National Book and Reading Policies in Africa’. ( We were cordial to each other. He was like our industry dad. Everyone respected him. He was a big guy, physically, and spoke with a quiet authority. Never in a rush. He reminded me of the mysterious and powerful character code-named 'Sunday' in G. K. Chesterton's classic novel 'The Man Who Was Thursday'. The photo below, of Dr. Chakava and I during a brainstorming session, was taken at that summit. 

Dr. Chakava and I always got along. We even agreed on the importance of promoting indigenous languages as they are essential to our culture/heritage. (Speaking at the summit, Mr Kiarie Kamau, had said that EAEP had just published texts in six local languages: Kikuyu, Kamba, Maragoli, Dholuo, Giriama, and Ekegusii.) Dr. Chakava remarked: 'We cannot create a reading culture without bookstores and libraries.' On the challenges facing indigenous publishing, Mr Chakava said that countries such as 'Denmark, Finland and Sweden have small populations but thriving publishing industries. Why not African nations, some of which have tribes larger than the aforementioned national populations?' The issue was how to make vernacular publishing profitable/sustainable. Relying on donors was frowned upon in our brainstorming/discussion sessions. Dr. Chakava opined that the main reason many writing/publishing associations had folded was 'heavy reliance' on (foreign) donor funding. 'Once the funds dry up, so do the organizations,' he said. He also said that some literary association founders were not serious about the promotion of literature/writers, they were merely promoting themselves (What we now call 'clout chasing'.) He mentioned a lady he knew who was 'being invited all over the world' as the founder/CEO of a children's literature association in Nairobi. However, she was the only member of that association, had no programmes/events, and everything related to her NGO could have fitted in a handbag. (He was dead serious when he told as that story, I would have been laughing like a hyena that has spotted a carcass.)

This is not really a tribute. These are just some reflections on my encounters of this great man of letters. I am going through our photos and emails as we speak. Publishers like John Mwazemba will probably have better anecdotes. Veteran journos like Tony Mochama can certainly pen more insightful articles. 

Me, I am just glad I got to meet the man. The man who boldly published Ngugi wa Thiong'o's 'Matigari' and was physically assaulted by state agents for it. The man who agreed to publish Kiriamiti's semi-autobiographical thriller 'My Life in Crime' which was written on tissue paper in Kamiti Maximum Security Prison.

I hope my seniors in the publishing world will honour his legacy in some way. Since I will be launching my own literary awards this year, I cannot commit much in terms of resources to towards this but I can contribute ideas. Since Dr. Chakava was a publisher, how about an annual Henry Chakava Editor-of-the-Year Award? (I have said countless times that editors are the shadow heroes of literature.) Or an annual Henry Chakava Public Lecture hosted/organized by the Literature Department of one of our major universities? How about a Dr. Henry Chakava Cultural Foundation that enables important indigenous-language books to be published/translated? How about a special tribute session during this year's Nairobi International Book Fair, with panelists from across the continent describing the manner in which ustadh Chakava impacted their publishing/literary scene?

Rest in peace, great man. And since you were a cultural icon, I bid you goodbye in the sacred manner of my people:

Thai, Thathaiya Ngai Thai! Thai, Thathaiya Ngai Thai!