Arts Culture Featured Personalities Travel Uncategorized

Adrian, the ‘lion-hearted’ artist

It is long since I last sat down with Adrian Nduma and the Covid restrictions were not helping matters. Being one of the top rated visual artists in Kenya, I have always been amazed by his works; they are so breathtakingly real.

The other day I went for a meeting in Karen and it occurred to me that this would be an ideal opportunity to hook up with Adrian; after all, his studio is situated in nearby Dagoreti Corner. I called him and he told me that he was on his way to Rongai and if I would call him when I was through with my meeting to see where he might be.

After my meeting, I called back and by coincidence, Adrian was in Karen. He asked me to join him at the Talisman Restaurant. When we met up, he put on a horrified face when I told him that it was my first time at the Talisman. “What! Tembea Kenya bana.” I had to defend myself saying that with ‘working from home’ I don’t get out much.

My main reason for meeting with Adrian was basically to touch base, and not necessarily discuss arty things – although you can never avoid that.

Once settled down and with our pots of tea on the table and the initial pleasantries done with, Adrian told me that he had gone to Rongai to supervise a project he is undertaking there. Our talk then drifted to construction, building materials and the rest, but he could not bring himself to discuss exactly what project he was undertaking and I did not press.

Would you, when you are enjoying specially brewed tea and exotic samosas at the Talisman? Me, I decided to enjoy the ambience and the piped music that was filtering through. On the walls, there were some art pieces and Adrian told me that an exhibition was currently ongoing.

The artist, whose works were on exhibition had used mixed media, including pieces of clothing on the canvas. This style reminded me of an artist named Kamicha; I wondered where he is today. He has been missing in action lately. Adrian, too, wasn’t aware of his whereabouts.

The Talisman is also an outlet for Adrian’s works and he has exhibited a number of his works there. Little wonder that he was quite at home there; the staff were passing over to say hi. You could also tell from the personalised service we got there.  He is some sort of a celeb there.

The Talisman has this cool, homely ambience about it. From the entrance, the establishment looks deceptively simple. There is a bright yellow vintage pick-up truck at right at entry, in spic spac condition. Now, this tells you people who patronise this place appreciate the finer things life has to offer.

This immediately manifests itself when you step inside. Well, not many establishments hold active art exhibitions, so that tells you the kind of clientele that frequents there. They are the sophisticated type.

Sophisticated does not necessarily mean wealthy – although you need to be rather well endowed to be able to appreciate FINE art. We have moneyed individuals in this country, whose idea of art is what their kids do with pencils and drawing books in school. I hope this gives you a rough idea of who frequents joints like the Talisman.      

Inevitably, Adrian and I find ourselves talking about his art. He tells me that with the Covid restrictions, he’s mainly been involved with commission works, and which has kept him gainfully occupied.

Since his studio is within his residence, Adrian told me that there are times when inspiration strikes, forcing him to wake up in the dead of the night to work on his paints and brushes, to produce magic on a blank canvas.

“I work best with music playing in the background,” said Adrian, a former banker. And what is his favourite kind of music, I ask. “Well, I like all kinds of music as long it strikes the right chords in me,” he said, adding that he even finds certain genres of vernacular music appealing.

And on that musical note, I seized the opportunity to ask him a question I have always wanted to take up withhim; his uncanny resemblance to Gikuyu Benga artiste Kariuki Kiarutara. He smiled wanly and acknowledged that he has indeed been told of the resemblance a few times. “But looking at Kariuki’s pictures, he doesn’t have a moustache, unlike me,” he protested weakly.

He added that he gets spooked by people who look like him, but he promised to check out Kariuki’s music on Youtube, especially after I told him that his music packs heavy messages and is comparable to the late Joseph Kamaru.

Like all visual artistes worth their salt, Adrian is also an ardent art collector, including his own art. “I collect my art for posterity sake,” he said. “That forms part of my children’s inheritance. Once I feel that a particular piece of art should go into my collection, I simply roll it up and put it aside. It doesn’t get to be viewed.”

And while he has made a name courtesy of his diverse variety of art, the Lion series stands out as perhaps his signature. Before talking about the significance of the lion in his works, Adrian reclines back on his seat, takes a deep breath and with a far-away look, says that he cannot get enough of drawing the lion.

“It is not for nothing that lion is king of the jungle,” he says. “There is a lot of mystery surrounding it. Of all the animals I think it is the lion that comes closest to man, in terms of personality.”    

As our conversation draws to a close, we agree that we should catch up more often.

PS: Did you know that in 2013 Adrian wanted to be the governor of Embu?

Arts Books Culture Personalities publishing Uncategorized

Chakava, the father of African publishing

Henry Chakava, has been referred to as the father of African publishing for good reason.

He would have easily made a career in the academy but he chose publishing instead. In 1972, he joined the then Heinemann Educational Publishers as an editor. In a span of six years, he had risen to the position of managing director.

In the early nineties he bought the company from its UK owners and named it East African Educational Publishers. However, the most enduring part of his story is how he led his company to publish more than 2,000 tiles of culturally relevant books – which include fiction – the largest by a local publishing house.

He managed this by balancing between publishing school publishing – the bread and butter of local publishing – and publishing for leisure/fiction.

Despite the fact that his employers, Heinemann, were the publishers of the successful African Writers Series, he kept receiving manuscripts which he felt would fit into a new genre of adventure, romance and crime.

He floated the idea to his bosses in the UK but they flatly rejected the idea. He would not take no for an answer and went ahead to start the Spear Series, which became so successful, that Heinemann had to start a series of their own called Heartbeat.

Chakava received the manuscript of My Life in Crime from Kamiti Maximum Prison, where the author, John Kiriamiti, had been imprisoned for robbery with violence. To date, My Life in Crime remains Kenya’s best-selling novel.

It should be remembered that Chakava is also Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s publisher. For Chakava, publishing Ngugi was a challenge, a risk and reward.  Challenge in the sense that as a committed writer, he expects the publisher to share his vision. And for that he has given Chakava all the due respect.

Another challenge had to do with distribution of his works following Heinemann’s take over by East African Educational Publishers. Without the network of distributing the works abroad, Chakava had the daunting task of distributing them.

The risk came from the fact that Ngugi, in the 70s, was deemed as anti-government, controversial and a rebel. And that came with a stigma. And isolation. And the reward came because Ngugi’s books were intellectually and commercially rewarding as a recognised name.  

When, in 1980 word spread that Chakava was about to publish Ngugi’s book, Caitani Mutharabaini, (Devil on the Cross) written in detention, he started receiving threatening phone calls. When the aggrieved parties – suspected to be government agents – saw that he was unrelenting, they decided to move their dastardly action to the next level; assassination. Chakava was waylaid as he was about to enter his Lavington home, by thugs armed with all manner of crude weapons. He was only saved by headlights of an oncoming vehicle. The thugs dispersed but not before a machete, aimed at his head, almost severed his small finger.


Fare thee well Ole Kulet

With the death of Henry Ole Kulet, Kenya has lost one of its most consistent and arguably the most decorated author based in Kenya. Ole Kulet is known for his novels that mainly revolve around the Maasai culture.

Older folk will remember him for his books Is it Possible?, To Become a Man,  Moran No More among others. For the younger generation, the book that easily comes to mind is Blossoms of the Savannah, which is currently a literature set book for Form Four students.  

Ole Kulet, a soft-spoken, bespectacled man, was based in Nakuru town where he was engaged in business. Family sources indicate that the renowned writer breathed his last on Tuesday, at around midday, following a short illness. He was 75.

He was in the second generation of Kenyan writers, which included names like Meja Mwangi, Henry Ole Kulet, Mwangi Ruheni, Leonard Kibera and his siblings – Sam Kahiga and Phoebe Munene, among others. The first generation of Kenyan writers include Ngugi wa Thiong’o, the late Grace Ogot among others.

He wrotes chiefly about his Maasai community and their rich culture. “In a very real sense, Kulet’s novels… were narratives of the falling apart of the Maasai culture figured against the unrelenting thrust of modernity in post-colonial Kenya,” writes Goro Kamau, a Literature lecturer and award winning author.

His focus on his community has earned him a number of critics, who accuse him of not diversifying his repertoire. He however has his fair share of defenders, including Prof Egara Kabaji, who has compared Ole Kulet with Chinua Achebe.

“Comparatively, if Chinua Achebe brought the Igbo culture to the world, then ole Kulet did the same to the Maasai culture… His subject is culture and he writes about it with the sensitivity of a surgeon,” wrote Prof Kabaji in a local paper.

He received more praise from the late Prof Chris Wanjala, who wrote this about him: “Since the departure of Euro-Kenyan writers like Karen Blixen, Beryl Markham and Elspeth Huxley, no one has written on the Kenyan flora and fauna in the expressive manner in which H.R. ole Kulet has done.”

In writing about his community, close readers of Ole Kulet’s books will notice that he tackled themes that are close to and those that affect the community like the clash of modernity and age-old traditions. He also addresses themes like vanishing pasture land for their livestock, climate change, human wildlife conflicts, all which are pressing issues among the Maasai community.

Yet in all his writing, there has been one recurrent issue, that he has not shied away from, that of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and its twin early child marriages. This is a running theme is his book Blossoms of the Savannah, which won the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature in 2009.

In the book revolves around the life of Ole Kaelo, who loses his job and relocates to the village try his hand at business. The father of two teenage daughters, Resian and Taiyo, finds himself in a stick situation, where he has to choose between losing his business and losing one of his daughters to a lecherous businessman, who wants her for a wife.

Ole Kaelo opts for the shameful route of giving out his daughter to the businessman for fear that the man will recall his debt which he used set up his business. As per Maasai culture, the poor girl must first undergo FGM in order to be considered a deserving bride.

Luckily she is rescued from the situation before she undergoes the cut. Not so lucky was the sister who underwent FGM, but was also saved from an early marriage. Blossoms of the Savannah has echoes of Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s The River Between, where two sisters are faced with an almost similar dilemma.

Two other books by Ole Kulet also won the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature; they are Vanishing Herds (2013) and Elephant Dance in 2017.

In 2019, President Uhuru Kenyatta recognised his efforts and hnoured him the Elder of the Order of the Burning Spear (EBS) Award.

Unlike State honours in the recent past that have been bestowed on online busybodies and other assorted clowns, it is fair to say that Ole Kulet richly deserved the accolade.

When you consider that writing in Kenya – especially the fiction variety – is a labour of love, the you know that someone who started writing for close to 50 years, Ole Kulet was truly committed to writing.

Born in a pastoralist community, in Narok in 1946, it was the given thing that he would gravitate towards a career in ranch management and animal husbandry and was later employed by the defunct Kenya Farmers Association, where he rose to become a personnel manager.

Though actively employed the writing bug was stirring inside him and in 1972 he released his first book Is it Possible? It was shortly followed by To Become a Man. His other books include The Hunter, Moran No More and Daughter of Maa.

Most recently he has written Bandits of Kibi, Blossoms of the Savannah, Vanishing Herds, and The Elephant Dance.

As his writing career blossomed so did his fame and popularity. This however did go down well with some political actors, who felt that Ole Kulet’s rising profile would translate into him challenging them for political office.

He had to be ‘cut down to size’ and that explains why he prematurely left the civil service in 1988 at the age of 42. Ole Kulet told this writer in a past interview that his tribulations were brought about by a political operative who feared he would challenge his dominance in Narok.

It is every Kenyan writer’s dream that their book be selected as a school set book, mostly for the financial rewards that come with it. Ole Kulet is currently riding high with his book Blossoms of the Savannah, which is a mandatory secondary set book.

The book has also been an ‘A’ Level set book in Uganda, while Is it Possible was once a set book in Tanzania.


Burt Award: How to enter

Following the launch of the Burt Award for African Literature, most would-be participants were asking what the rules and regulations were. Well, here they are.

First of all the length of the manuscript should be between 120 – 150 pages, and should be divided in chapter form. The manuscript to be submitted should be double spaced. You should also use the Times New Roman, font size 12.
Click here to download a PDF of the rules and regulations
Deadline for Submission
All manuscripts, which must be in soft copy, should be submitted to: by Friday 30th
September 2011 at 12.00 noon.
The manuscripts will be assessed by a panel of qualified jurors based on the criteria set herein.
The winners together with the date and venue for the award ceremony will be made known through the media.

News Uncategorized

Marimba Media, here we come

Dear reader,

Marimba Media is a new pan Africa arts journalism website, and yours truly is a contributor. Make sure you log in and sample some of the best arts journalism written by journalists from across Africa. maybe, on a selfish note, you might begin by reading my review of Brian Chikwava’s novel, Harare North, here