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The sorry state of creative writing in Kenya

Towards the end of September book lovers will get to know the winners of the Wahome Mutahi Literary Prize. This will be the fifth time the Kenya Publishers Association (KPA) will be handing out the award named in honour of Kenya’s foremost humourist and satirist, the late Wahome Mutahi.

IMG 1Ng’ang’a Mbugua (left) receives a certificate from Prof Egara Kabaji for winning a literary award at a previous ceremony

While it is a good thing that Kenyan publishers decided to honour the man whose giant shoes are yet to be filled to date – the attempts at humour in local paper is nowhere close to what Wahome offered with his whispers column – the award remains woefully underfunded. This year’s winners will be taking home a humble sh50,000, similar to what Onduko bw’ Atebe pocketed when his book The Verdict of Death won the inaugural prize way back in 2006.

One would expect that the prize money would have at least obeyed the rules of inflation and be revised upwards but sadly it remains stagnant eight years down the line. In a way the story of literary awards is a sad narrative of creative writing in the country; going nowhere fast. With a prize money of sh50,000 it is not a surprise that would-be writers are unwilling to ‘waste’ three years – the average time one takes to finish a modest novel – of their time writing.

It is instructive to note that The Verdict of Death remains Atebe’s only book to date. The dreams he had harboured of striking it rich through writing scattered when the first royalty cheque arrived. He told this writer that the money he gets once a year in the form of royalty is barely enough to meet his living expenses. That explains why he veered off into business where he is doing well as a private electrical contractor.

Part of the reason creative works in the country are doing poorly has a lot to do with marketing. It is an open secret that Kenyan publishers place too much emphasis on textbooks at the expense of creative works. Even with textbooks there isn’t so much marketing; publishers fight to have their books in the Orange Book as they are assured of being bought by schools using the free primary and secondary funds.

The only time a creative writer is assured a financial windfall is when their book is picked by the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD), formerly KIE to be a school set book. That way the writer is assured of earning at least sh80 million in a span of four years. It is little wonder that publishers do creative works with an eye to the set book market. If your book is not a set book the most you can hope to sell in a year is an average of 5,000 copies as supplementary texts in schools.

This goes to further cement the fact that publishers have not yet developed tools for marketing their books outside the school market. If your book is not selling in the school system then you can rest assured that it will be gathering dust on bookshop shelves.

One would expect that publishers would capitalise on the hype and publicity generated when a book wins a literary prize to push those books to the general public but sadly nothing of the sort happens. Once the award ceremony is over it is back to business and the production of more textbooks. And in spite of the fact that most major publishers have subsidiaries in other countries, in the region, those markets only exist to absorb more textbooks, which incidentally are the bread and butter of local publishers.

Research however shows that creative works have the potential of earning publishers more money than textbooks if only they invested in more aggressive marketing and competent editing – most creative works are horrendously edited if at all. It is estimated that publishers have used up to 70 per cent potential of the textbook market while that of creative works stands at a lowly 30 per cent. There is still a 70 per cent potential yet to be exploited; a goldmine in publishing terms.

The question therefore remains are publishers willing to roll up their sleeves and mine the 70 per cent potential? Until such a time writers will continue to take home measly prize monies and creative writing will remain a labour of love in the foreseeable future.

Events Issues News

Does more prize money = more creativity?

Creative writers in Kenya will be in for a major treat at the annual Nairobi International Book Fair (NIBF) set to be held towards the end of September. For the first time, the winner of the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature will take home a substantial amount of prize money.
The Kenya Publishers Association (KPA) who are the organisers of NIBF told maisha yetu that winners in the two adult fiction categories – English and Kiswahili – will each get Sh150,000 in prize money.
This is a major improvement from the miserly Sh40,000, previous winners used to receive, for the bi-annual award, the most prestigious in the country.
Other categories in the award, namely the youth and children’s writing will each get Sh75,000.
The increase in the prize money was made possible when the Prize’s main sponsors, Text Book Centre (TBC) presented the KPA Council with a cheque worth Sh800,000 to go towards the fund.
TBC has had a long history with the award. The award ran into financial trouble soon after its first edition in 1974, where Meja Mwangi’s book Kill Me Quick and Abdulatif Abdalla’s Sauti ya Dhiki, won the English and Kiswahili categories respectively.
After a long hiatus, members of the KPA council approached the management of TBC, in 1990, with a view of helping revive the award, which had been formed to encourage and reward creativity in Kenya.
TBC agreed to sponsor the award and donated Sh200,000 for the Prize Mr. C.D. Shah, a director of Text Book Centre, says that their decision to support the award stems from the fact that they had cordial working relations with publishers. “Being the biggest booksellers at that time, we were also their biggest customers,” he says. Text Book Centre has been in the business of selling books since 1950s, thereby making them the oldest booksellers.
TBC has handed over Sh200,000 on a bi-annual basis ever since.
In 1992, the prize was revived and Wahome Mutahi’s book Three Days on the Cross shared the first prize with David Maillu’s The Broken Drum. In 1995, the first prize went to Margaret Ogola, for her book, The River and the Source, Margaret Ogola’s book went ahead to win the Commonwealth Writers prize the same year.
In 1997, the first prize went to Ngumi Kibera’s book Grapevine Stories, with the Kiswahili prize going to Emmanuel Mbogo’s Vipuli vya Figo.
In a move that was deemed controversial, in 1999, judges decided that the books that had been submitted lacked creativity and therefore did not award any prize.
In 2001, Meja Mwangi again won with his book The Last Plague. Kyalo Wamitila’s Nguvu ya Sala took the Kiswahili prize. In 2003, Stanley Gazemba won the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature with his book The Stone Hills of Maragoli.
In 2005, judges failed to award the first prize in the English category, arguing that the titles submitted were not strong enough. They however awarded the second prize, which went to Muroki Ndung’us A Friend of the Court.
In the Kiswahili adult category, the first prize went to Kyalo Wamitila’s Musaleo.
In 2007, Marjorie Oldudhe’s book A Farm Called Kishinev won the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature under controversial circumstances. There was disagreements among judges as to which book, between Marjorie’s and Margaret Ogola’s Place of Destiny, deserved to win the prize.
The controversy led Pauline’s Publications, Ogola’s publishers, to boycott the NIBF since.
Apart from the River and the Source, which went on to win the Commonwealth Writers Prize, other winners of the award have little to show for it.
Critics have accused KPA of making little or no effort at all in marketing or publicising the award. The situation is such that these writers are barely known outside of the publishing and writing fraternity.
Perhaps the saddest story is that of Stanley Gazemba, whose book, The Stone Hills of Maragoli, published by Acacia, and which won the prize in 2003, has been out of print for a number of years now. The author has been engaged with the publisher in a long-running tussle, to make the book available.
The author says that only 500 copies of the book were published. Gazemba is however elated that the efforts of authors are finally being recognised. “They should have increased the prize money a long time ago,” he says. “What they used to give previously was a joke.”
The same fate is suffered by winners of the Wahome Mutahi Literary Prize, formed to honour the late humourist. Although Oduko bw’ Atebe’s book, which won the inaugural prize in 2006, is readily available in the market, the author laments that it should have sold better, had KPA invested in a more aggressive campaign.
Blame here should also fall on the individual publishers, who should also take advantage of the win, to aggressively push the book in the market. But in a publishing market that overwhelmingly feeds on the government funded textbook market, it might be too much to ask of them to invest substantially in marketing a non-textbook.
Mrs Nancy Karimi, who is the chairperson of KPA promised that with the windfall from TBC, the publishers’ body should make a difference in the whole marketing of their prizes.
“The increase in prize money should now trigger more creativity from our writers, as their efforts are now better rewarded,” added Mrs Karimi, who is also the managing director of Jomo Kenyatta Foundation.
Mr Rajiv Chowdhry, the managing Director of TBC explained that their decision to increase the fund came as a result of the fact inflationary forces experienced in the country over the years have seriously eroded the value of the earlier award of Sh40,000.
TBC has promised to donate an additional Sh1.6 million to cover the 2011 and 2013 editions of the prize.
During the handing over ceremony, done at the refurbished TBC offices on Kijabe Street, both the management of TBC and the KPA Council hinted at the inclusion of more categories, in future, subject of availability of funds.