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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.

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A Ngugi Nobel would really do us proud: Chakava

Henry Chakava, the man who almost lost his finger for sticking out his neck for Ngugi wa Thiong’o, purrs with pride at the prospect of his star writer winning the coveted Nobel Prize for Literature. “I feel very proud,” says Chakava the Chairman of East African Educational Publishers (EAEP), who are Ngugi’s Kenyan publishers. “It is not everyday that someone gets to win the Nobel, least of all an African.” If Ngugi wins, Chakava says that it will be a recognition of a long and deserved struggle for Ngugi: “It will be a crowning achievement for a person who has written consistently from the sixties to this moment,” says Chakava who persisted in publishing Ngugi even when it was patently clear that his controversial ideas had made him public enemy number one for the Kenyan government. It is this stubbornness that led to thugs attacking him outside his residence. The message was clear he had to stop publishing Ngugi or else… Chakava alludes to this in his book Publishing in Africa: One Man’s Perspective, in a chapter titled Publishing Ngugi: The Challenge, the Risk and the Reward; “There have been many threats, direct or indirect, that I or my company has suffered because of the association with Ngugi… It is not for me to tell you how Ngugi himself has suffered, but it has obviously been on a much larger scale; and it is that suffering that still keeps him in exile today.” The book was published in 1996. He adds: “In the years 1977 to 1982 – before and after Ngugi’s detention – we spent much time together,” Chakava writes. “The University of Nairobi administration had refused to allow him to resume his teaching duties, so I gave him a desk at my office, where he could do his writing.” He adds: “In spite of the problems I have been through, my association with Ngugi has been very rewarding, both intellectually and commercially. I must admit that my linkage with Ngugi in particular, has played an important part in establishing and enhancing my reputation and that of EAEP as the leading fiction publisher in the region.” Chakava explains that Ngugi is a writer who is not afraid to take risks. He recall one such moment when Ngugi decided to drop his Christian name James to start using Ngugi wa Thiong’o. “Our bosses then at Heinemann UK were alarmed at the decision, they asked if it was possible to use James Ngugi in brackets but Ngugi flatly refused,” says Chakava. He adds that if Ngugi wins the Nobel it would lift the morale of EAEP and help motivate young writers. “We will definitely reissue all his books,” he says. “He will clearly now be an international figure and it will be easier for us to promote him.”

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Ngugi’s new book launched in Nairobi

Kenya’s most celebrated author, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, was in town and there is no way I was going to miss the occasion of launching his newest book, Re-membering Africa. This was yet another opportunity for me to interact with the cream of Kenya’s literary society – who in their right mind would dare miss an event graced by Ngugi?
I am walking to the Alliance Francaise, where the launch is taking place, when Billy Kahora, the Kwani? editor calls me from South Africa. There are some details I wanted clarified on the second edition of Kwani? 5, I am reviewing for the Sunday Nation.
I have particularly strong views on a certain Kwani? writer, which I am including in the review. “I have no problem with what you have to say as long as it is constructive criticism,” Kahora says from the other end of the phone. Hmm…
I am a bit late for the event, as usual, and Henry Chakava, the chairman of East African Educational Publishers (EAEP), Ngugi’s local publishers, is almost halfway into his speech.
My feelings of guilt are banished by the reception I get from Lydia, who is looking particularly hot tonight. Lydia, for those who do not know, is the receptionist at EAEP’s Westlands offices.
As he finishes his speech, Chakava addresses the issue of language in the book being launched. Remember Ngugi had sworn to only write in his Gikuyu language? Is Ngugi backtracking on his vow? “Sometimes it makes sense to tell them (Mzungu) in their own language,” says Chakava as he welcomes Ngugi.
As usual Ngugi welcomes members of his family present. Of particular interest is a young man, in his early twenties, who someone whispers to me, is a product of Ngugi and a Mzungu woman in Sweden. Apparently, the young man must have been conceived in the early years of Ngugi’s exile.
Ngugi then makes a revelation that he is working on his memoirs. The first installment is titled Dreams in a Time of War, which basically talks about his early childhood. Already five publishers around the world have already bought publishing rights of the book! I told you Ngugi was big.
Publishers in the region must envy EAEP. They are automatically assured of rights for Ngugi’s works.
And to appreciate how this relationship came about Ngugi tells of how far he has come with Chakava. At some point Chakava almost had his finger severed for continuing to publish Ngugi at the time when the powers that be wanted nothing to do with him. He is also the man who had to bear with Ngugi’s experimentation in writing in Gikuyu, in spite of repeated warnings from his superiors – then Heineman Educational Publishers in the UK.
Unconfirmed reports say that Ngugi is a major shareholder at EAEP.
Re-membering Africa, is apart of a series of lectures Ngugi gave in 2002, staring with Harvard. In the book he has addressed issues of language. Well aware that his thoughts might spark off heated debates Ngugi said that when people read the book, they will agree, disagree or add onto his ideas. “Most of all, I just wanted to provoke a debate,” he said.
On the issue of language, he said that there is nothing wrong for Africans to learn foreign languages. “However, there is something fundamentally wrong when one identifies with other people’s languages and despises his own language,” he said heatedly, calling that a form of slavery.
He added that to add foreign languages to your own language is to empower oneself. Mnaskia hiyo maneno?
Check this space for a review of this book.
The book was first published early this year by Basic Civitas Books under the title Something Torn and new: An African Renaissance.