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Kombani impresses in his latest offering

Title: Hawkers-Pokers

Author: Kinyanjui Kombani

Publisher: Longhorn

Reviewer: Mbugua Ngunjiri

Kinyanjui Kombani is back, this time with a thriller, whose twists and turns will keep the reader glued to the book’s pages till the very end.

The story is told through the eyes of Rocky Ada (Rada), hawker, who is the eyes (riitho) of fellow hawkers going about their business in the streets of Nairobi. To understand why a riitho is an important person in the hawkers’ universe, one only needs to reflect on the cat and mouse, often street battles between hawkers and City Inspectorate Enforcement Officers (Kanjo askaris), which can and routinely turns fatal.

Now, it is the duty of Rada and two other sentries to be on the lookout and warn fellow hawkers of any impending raid by the deadly Kanjo.

One day, while playing his usual cat and mouse games with Kanjo, Rada rescues a man he finds unconscious in a storm drain. Turns out that this man, Mike Thumbi, son of one the richest men in Nairobi, had a near-fatal encounter with the infamous mchele (drugging) babes.

Out of the goodness of his heart, Rada borrows a mkokoteni and takes the indisposed Mike to his shack in nearby Ngara, a decision he regrets later, but also has the potential of changing his fortunes.

Meanwhile, Mike is reported missing and suspected to have been kidnapped. One thing leads to another and a contingent of crack unit personnel drawn from the country’s elite forces ‘rescues’ Mike, while Rada is taken into police custody.

When it becomes clear the charge of kidnap cannot hold in a court of law, Rada is released on bond. Mike feels remorseful seeing the kind of tribulations, including torture, his rescuer has undergone in the hands of cruel police interrogators. He pays Rada’s bond.

They soon part ways after Rada refuses Mike’s offer for further assistance. However, their fate appears intertwined as they soon find themselves together again, when Rada comes to and finds himself under the care of Mike, in their home.

After proving himself useful to the Thumbi family, a plan is hatched for Rada’s slum-dwelling parents to get introduced to the Thumbi’s. Drama awaits as it is through this meeting that long-forgotten history comes back to haunt the two families, when it emerges that Rada and not Mike is the billionaire’s real son and that the two were swapped at birth.

These revelations come in the form of action-packed flashbacks; explosive revelations that threaten to tear apart, the image Thumbi had carefully cultivated for himself all those years. His multi-billion business empire risks going down the drain, as sordid details of his dark past come back to haunt him.

You only need to read the book to get details for yourself. Here, Kombani, one of Kenya’s most prolific writers has surely outdone himself. This, in our view, is vintage Kombani, who announced himself to the literary landscape with his magnum opus, The Last Villains of Molo. Clearly, he has matured and gotten better with time.

One small issue though; the author failes to tie up a few loose ends in his plot, particularly the bit where Rada is arrested and taken to court. How is it that police interrogators neglected to tell him what he was arrested for? Again, since most of the book is narrated from Rada’s point of view, he conveniently omits the part where he was arrested from his house, where he had rescued/harboured Mike.

It thus gets confusing for the reader, when Rada, in court, claims no knowledge of Mike, in view of his association with him at the storm drain and subsequent housing him at his Ngara shack, from where they were smoked out by police.

This can only be down to authorial oversight, which would have been cured through keen editorial intervention.  

That oversight though doesn’t dampen the fire in Hawkers-Pokers, for it addresses issues that affect our daily lives, like child theft and child swapping in our maternity hospitals. Something about the book’s ending cries for a sequel.     

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How publisher almost ruined dreams of two writers

Kinyanjui Kombani and Stanley Gazemba have a number of things in common. They are both writers who first put pen on paper at the turn of the century. They also landed on a one-man publisher, based in Nairobi, who upon seeing their evident potential, promised them heaven on earth.

Soon, each had a book out. Gazemba’s book The Stone Hills of Maragoli came out and promptly won the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature in 2003. Kombani’s debut novel The Last Villains of Molo, came out around 2004 to rave reviews in the media. This young writer, still a student at Kenyatta University had finally tackled the ogre of ethnic cleansing and election violence in Kenya.

Kinyanjui Kombani

As the two were basking the glow of adulation, they discovered, to their dismay, that copies of the books were not available in the market. Readers went to bookshops but couldn’t find the books. Meanwhile, the publisher was taking them round in circles.

They were almost on the verge of giving up on writing altogether, somehow they persevered and submitted manuscripts to different publishers, who thankfully published their books, mostly children’s stories.

Kwani? came to the rescue of Gazemba and re-issued Stone Hills, but I gather there were still issues. This however did not deter him, who has gone on to blossom with a number of titles to his name.

For Kombani, help came in the form of Betty Karanja, then working as publishing manager at Longhorn Publishers. Longhorn reissued the book and it is doing well in the market. Kombani, who combines writing and banking, has now found new home in Oxford University Press (OUP), where his books have gone on to win literary awards.

Stanley Gazemba

Betty is today the Publishing Manager of OUP East Africa.

“His first novel The Last Villains of Molo, was published by Acacia Stantex Publishers, two years after finishing the manuscript and signing a contract. The author has stated in interviews that he did not earn any royalties from the book for ten years. It was not until Longhorn Publishers released a second imprint in 2012…” reads an entry on Kombani’s Wikipedia page.

Gazemba’s Stone Hills, has since been published in the US as Forbidden Fruit. Other notable books by Gazemba include Dog Meat Samosa, a collection of short stories, Khama, and Callused Hands.

Other books by Kombani include Den of Inequities (Longhorn), Of Pawns and Players (OUP), Finding Columbia (OUP), which won the prestigious Burt Award for African Writing in 2018.

Moral of the story. Publishers can break you; they can also make you.

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Are these the top ten Kenyan books of all time?



Sometime back I compiled a list of what I thought we the top ten Kenyan books of all time. I actually did the project to coincide with Kenya’s Jubilee celebrations. Since this list is mine some of my readers might feel that it is not complete or even subjective, but hey one has to start somewhere. What are your thoughts?


  1. The River Between

the river between

This is the book that introduced Ngugi wa Thiong’o as a writer of note. Following in the tradition of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, The River Between tackled the issue of the clash between African traditions and customs, on the one hand, and the white man’s way of life and religion (Christianity) on the other. This book has been the subject of heated debate among readers as to the real message Ngugi wanted to convey, despite the fact that it has been a school set book more than once. At some point a critic took an extreme view and accused Ngugi of being a Mungiki sympathiser, probably due to his elucidation of Gikuyu culture in this book.


  1. Going Down River Road


Meja Mwangi has been hailed as Kenya’s foremost urban writer. While his more decorated colleague Ngugi wa Thiong’o based his writing in a rural setting, Meja Mwangi scoured the African urban districts for inspiration. Going Down River Road, alongside his other two urban-based books Kill me Quick and Cockroach Dance form some of his most inspired writing to date. With memorable characters like, Ben, Ochola, Baby and Yusuf, Meja Mwangi introduced a certain romance to Nairobi’s River Road. Is any wonder then that critics have compared the squalor and hopelessness in this book to Gorky’s Russia. There are Kenyan readers who swear that Ngugi cannot hold a candle for Meja Mwangi when it comes to writing.




  1. After 4.30


The Kenyan literary menu cannot be complete without David Maillu’s After 4.30 among his other offerings of Kenya’s version of erotica, like My Dear Bottle. Many Kenyans above the age of 40 will confess to secretly – mostly in class – absorbing Maillu’s titillating details from well-thumbed copies of After 4.30, in their hormone-driven teenage years. There were also the holier-than-thou types who loudly castigated After 4.30, and those who read it, in public, but were themselves devouring it in the secrecy of their bedrooms. Those who condemned After 4.30 and Maillu’s other bawdy writings should ask themselves why Fifty Shades of Grey has become such a global hit.

  1. Betrayal in the City


This is the one play that put the late Francis Imbuga on the literary map. Betrayal in the City that recently made its way back as a school set book, was written in the 1970s and the issues it addresses are still as relevant today as they were then; corruption and abuse of power in government and impunity by leaders and their sycophants. To get services in government offices, according to Betrayal in the City, one needs a ‘taller relative’, more like the modern, ‘you should know people’. It is this book that introduced lexicon like ‘green grass in snake’ – a corruption of green snake in grass – and ‘I wonder why you possession that thing between your legs’.


  1. Across the Bridge


“Hail jail! the place for all …” or so goes the beginning of the recently departed Mwangi Gicheru’s Across the Bridge. It tells the story of Chuma who, it today’s lingo, would be called a hustler, who achieves the unprecedented feat of impregnating Caroline the daughter of rich man Kahuthu. The adventure that follows there after that is one that will either leave you in tears or with cracked ribs. Any book lover, of over 35 years, and who hasn’t read this book should bow their heads in shame and never utter a word in the company of serious book lovers. This book was Kenya’s version of James Hadley Chase; it was that good.

  1. My Life in Crime

My life in crime

My Life in Crime by John Kiriamiti is by Kenyan standards a best-seller. Yes this is a book which, despite never having been a school set book continues to fly off the shelves. John Kiriamiti a reformed bank robber wrote this book while serving time at Kamiti Maximum Prison. Ngugi wa Thiong’o is among the people that recommended the manuscript be published. This crime thriller, a fictionalised account of Kiriamiti’s life as a criminal, captured the imaginations of young Kenyans who read it. There had been talk of it being turned into a movie, but the initial excitement has since fizzled down.

  1. The River and the Source


The River and the Source by the late Dr Margaret Ogola burst into the scene when it won the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature, in 1995. It went on to win the prestigious Commonwealth Writer’s Prize, for Africa, that same year. Shortly after it became a school set book. Those who studied the book in high school have nothing but praise for this book that celebrates the place of the woman and the girl child in African societies. The author, a pediatrician, outdid herself in celebrating Luo culture. For its strong women characters, this book has been hailed as Kenyan’s manual for feminists.

  1. The Last Villains of Molo


Kinyanjui Kombani, a banker, to date remains the only Kenyan writer to have comprehensively tackled the subject of Kenya’s tribal/ethnic clashes. Ethnic violence, as we know it, has recurred in Kenya’s Rift Valley every election circle since 1992 – apart from 2002 – and degenerated into the killing fields that greeted the disputed 2007 presidential election. The Last Villains of Molo enters this list for its sheer audacity to confront the demons of ethnic violence at a time when mentioning tribes, in any form of writing, was frowned upon. Kombani goes ahead and prescribes reconciliation as the surest way of ending such hostilities. It is instructive to note that the author grew up and went to school in Molo, which for the longest time, was the epicentre of this politically instigated violence.

  1. From Charcoal to Gold


The late Njenga Karume’s autobiography From Charcoal to Gold is probably the very first of such genre to have captured the psyche of Kenyans. For a long time Kenyans had been fascinated by the former Defence minister’s rags-to-riches story, in spite of the fact that he received little or no formal education. It was therefore quite something when the man himself put his story in writing thereby clearing out some myths and misconceptions. Readers got to know how Njenga shrewdly negotiated his way through the complex world of business from a humble charcoal-seller to becoming one of the richest men in Kenya and who would later become a confidant and much sought-after power-broker in Kenya’s first three governments. The book has also become a must-have motivational book.

10. Peeling back the Mask



If there is a book that shook the foundations of Kenya’s political life, then Miguna Miguna’s book Peeling back the Mask is it. Miguna says the book is his autobiography but many Kenyans will remember it for the unflattering take at former Prime Minister Raila Odinga. Muguna was after all Odinga’s close confidant and political advisor. It was after the two fell out that the former decided to publish the book. For months, this book sparked heated political debate with supporters and detractors of the former Langata MP taking opposite sides. Peeling back the Mask also takes the cake for sheer nuisance value. There are those who hold the view that this book dealt a mortal blow to Odinga’s chances of ascending to the presidency in the March 2013 elections.

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Kinyanjui Kombani and his journey as a writer


Maisha Yetu: Describe your best moment as a writer

Kinyanjui Kombani: The relaunch of The Last Villains of Molo in September 2012 at Daystar University, Valley Road Campus. The story of ‘Villains’ is another novel altogether. It was written in 2002 and I promptly signed the publishing contract. Sadly, I had to wait six years before it was published. Even then, I did not receive any royalties, so I moved over to Longhorn Publishers. The launch in 2012 was a culmination of 10 years of waiting, and it was my best moment.

MY: Describe your worst moment as a writer.

KK: It must be when I discovered that I could not earn much from The Villains See, when the publisher agreed to do it, I knew I had crossed the poverty line – I even went to a car showroom to enquire about the price of my favourite car (Landcruiser VX). So after a year of sales, and not a cent to show for it, I was very let down. It nearly killed my writing dreams. It hit me so hard that I did not finish my second novel until last year.

MY: Where do you find time to write given your busy schedule

KK: A technique I learnt from writer Anthony Gitonga is to split my writing into manageable pieces. If I am writing, say, a 40,000 word novel and I have two months to do it, I know that I have to write about 1,000 words a day. Once I set this target I commit to it. Sometimes I sway, though!

I write mostly in the early mornings, and evenings. Last year I spent the entire Easter hold up in my private office writing some books for the Uganda market. I nearly collapsed, and I vowed not to try such stunts again.

MY: What inspires your writing/ who are your role models

KK: Locally, I have been inspired a lot by the writing of Meja Mwangi (I read Little White Man then I was in primary school and I have never read a more intriguing book. I have read ‘Cockroach Dance’ so many times my copy is dog-eared). I think Meja has the biggest influence in my writing.

Sam Kahiga’s book Paradise Farm has had the biggest impact on me. One of my future plans is to write a modern story along the same theme.

Internationally, I’d say Sidney Sheldon. Sidney’s work have  a way of telling stories of many different characters who seem un connected to each other, until the end of the story when all the pieces come together. You will see that kind of influence in my new novel Den of Iniquities.

MY: “Villains” has put you on the Kenyan literary map; describe your journey with the book – from the beginning – what message you intended to pass. Juxtapose that with activities in the Kenyan social media – the latest tribal battleground.

KK: The journey towards ‘Villains’ is very much like my life. Our actual home is in Njoro, and my grandmother had given refuge to a family that had been displaced during the 1997 clashes. The patriarch of the family – one Mzee Joseph Mbure – used to tell us stories of the 1991/2 Clashes in the Kamwaura area of Molo. In campus, I wanted to write a short story based on the clashes. I did more research and before I knew it, I had a novel.

Initially, I just wanted to tell a story. I have always been intrigued by ‘Rich girl, poor boy’ stories and I wanted to tell that too. So I built the two stories together. When I did more research and interviewed more players in the Molo conflict, I realised that there was a bigger role to play. Negative ethnicity was real, and I could use reconciliation as a message for the youth.

Sadly, the Kenyan Social media scene has become the next battleground. We did not physically fight in 2007, but the fragmentation that was in society was deep set – if the tribal sentiments on social media are anything to go by.

MY: It has been said that you are the hottest young writer in Kenya today…

KK: Wow! I don’t know who said that, and what the context was, and who I was being compared to! So I cannot say anything to that claim! I must say that God has been good to me – the fact that Villains is one of the fastest selling Kenyan novels is a true blessing. Last weekend I was at Text Book Centre Thika Road Mall, and I tweeted that copies of ‘Villains’ have been replenished. I was called by the book centre’s management just a few hours later to have my publisher deliver more copies – they had been sold out. It is a blessing.

MY: In your words, what ails the Kenyan writing scene – are we headed in the right direction?

KK: We have always claimed that Kenyans do not read, and we have made ourselves believe it to be true. I cannot disagree more. If Kenyans do not read, how come writers like Anthony Gitonga are churning out books every half year?

The only issue I see is that a lot of young writers do not know what to do once they have their manuscript ready. A lot of them think that they should look for money to pay publishers to get the book done for them. This situation can be reversed if our universities work on creative writing programmes that do not end just with submission of a finished piece of work, but with tips on getting published.

I think we are headed towards the right direction. ‘Authors Buffet’ a forum where 14 authors and publishers got together  in May to spend time with their readers and the general public, was very well received. (We are doing ‘Authors Buffet 2.0 in September at the Nairobi Book Fair).

After this event, we have laid plans to start a creative writing course, complete with tips on getting published, at Daystar University. I am happy that writers John Sibi-Okumu, Bonnie Kim, Jennifer Karina, Anthony Gitonga, Stephen Kigwa, Mbugua Mumbi, Winnie Thuku, and Nganga Mbugua have accepted to co-facilitate the program.

MY: Describe your upbringing, education and family.

KK: This is another novel altogether! I grew up in Molo in Nakuru and went to Molo Academy from Nursery to Form Four. I was the last born in a family of 5. My upbringing was very humble. Our mother was a single parent, and two accidents literally crippled her. My education from Std 8, when she was completely unable to fend for us, was paid for by a kindly family friend. It was not easy growing up in Molo, especially because Molo Academy was a school for the fairly well-to-do. I remember that we could not afford shoe polish, and to avoid getting into trouble we used the soot from our beaten tin lamp. When asked why our shoes always had a dull coat, my elder brothers taught me to say that the polish came from our cousins in the USA and that is how the polish there looks like!

I worked hard to help my family get out of poverty. Unfortunately, my mother never got to see the fruits of her hard work – she passed on when I was in form 4. I never recovered from this loss and when we moved to Nairobi – Ngando slums, I lost all ambition in life. I used to play ‘pool’ from 8 am to midnight. When I was called to Kenyatta University for a degree in Education – English and Literature, I was reluctant, and I only accepted to go when I discovered that the university had common rooms with dozens of pool tables.

My life changed when I met Mr. David Mulwa who ignited my writing flame. I also enrolled to the Kenyatta University Travelling Theatre. By the time I was leaving in 2004, I had climbed the ranks to be KUTT’s longest serving Executive Director.  A year after graduation, during which I worked as a casual officer at the Culture Week secretariat, I joined an international bank as a clerk. Having performed several roles in the bank, I am now a Segment Trainer taking care of the learning needs of the branch distribution network and contact centre.

I have also received certification as a business mentor with Inoorero University.

I currently live in Nairobi with my wife of 7 years, Alice, our two kids, ‘Malik’ and ‘Nimu’ and Steve, a nephew.

MY: West Africans (Nigerians) and South Africans have been beating us of late. Aren’t we good enough?

KK: Again, I don’t have statistics, so I am not able to comment on it. I think that with initiatives such as Authors Buffet, StoryMoja Litfest, Kwani Hay Festival, Kenyan writing will go to very great heights.

MY: Who is to blame between writers and publishers?

KK: I think writers and publishers need to stop pointing fingers at each other and start selling books! Publishers need to add some marketing budget towards promotion of works of fiction. Writers, on the other hand, need to be at the forefront in promoting their books. It is in their best interests to make sales of the books!

I have a good relationship with Longhorn Publishers, and it is because I have taken the initiative to ensure my books are available and people know about them. I also do the physical sales of the books. Last year, two weeks before Longhorn released my children’s book ‘Lost but found’, I had already sold 600 copies in my workplace alone. The book sold out in two weeks because I took the campaign to Facebook and Twitter.

I also got into a strategic partnership with Tuskys Supermarket for distribution. In addition, I worked with FunkyKids Retro Store at Prestige Plaza to give a gift of the book to select shoppers. What I am saying is that the publisher will release the book, but it is the responsibility of the writer to convert it to sales!

MY: Tell us about your new book and how long it took you to write it.

KK: My new book is tentatively called Den of Iniquities and should be released in September 2013. Unlike Villains it is 100% fictional though loosely based on police extrajudicial killings in Kenya. It gives the story of 3 individuals whose lives are very different, but come intertwined in a chain of unfortunate events. It is a ‘What If’ story inspired by the Philip Alston report on police killings in Kenya.

Den of Iniquities is a story 8 years in the making. I gave my mentor – David Mulwa of Kenyatta University – a short story for my creative writing class and he kept on prodding me to finish it. I had stopped writing following disappointment with my first publisher. The story was cooking in my head all the time, so I wrote it in one month last year.

MY: List all the books you’ve written so far.

KK:   The Last Villains of Molo (Novel)

  • Wangari Maathai: Mother of Trees (children’s biography)
  • We Can Be Friends (children’s educational; theme: HIV/AIDS).
  • We Can Be Friends (Rwanda Edition)
  • Lost But Found (children’s adventure; theme: safety for children)

I also did a play Carcasses that was commissioned by the Born Free Foundation for their bush meat awareness project. The play was later shot to film as Mizoga which has been screened in the US, UK, and 5 African Countries. Last year I wrote a yet-to-be-released series of 12 children’s stories for the Uganda market.

MY: Halafu unipatie majibu za Yes and No, utaona!

KK: He he!

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Clashes author parts ways with publisher

Author Kinyanjui Kombani has parted ways with his publishers Acacia Stantex in regards to his book The Last Villains of Molo.
The move effectively ends a long drawn struggle between author and publisher that has lasted more than five years. The novel has been hailed as a powerful enactment of the 1992 ethnic violence and as a
premonition of the 2008 post election violence. We understand that the
split is the culmination of many months of conflict over unpaid royalties . The author is also said not to be happy
about the publisher’ s marketing and publicity plans .
When contacted, Kinyanjui was non-committal on the reasons for the split, only saying ; “ I have enough respect for Jimmi Makotsi – he made the book what it is and I do not want to malign
his name. But it is time to move on .” He admitted that he is in discussion with
other publishers to reissue the book, although he did not give names. The Last Villains of Molo has enjoyed some level of publicity in the print and electronic media and on social forums . It is currently a study text in Moi, Kenyatta, Daystar and Egerton
Universities and is a subject of several Masters and one PhD theses. Plans are
underway to produce a stage version of the book in an upcoming festival , and a local film producer has expressed interest in shooting the film
based on the novel . The writer has also written two other children’s books and scripted a film. He has finalized work on another novel . Kinyanjui says that, as part of the termination agreement , he purchased
all stock copies of the book from the publisher, and they are currently on sale via his website