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For the love of the game

Title: Benji’s Big Win
Author: Nducu wa Ngugi
Publisher: East African Educational Publishers
Availability: Leading Bookstores
Reviewer: Mbugua Ngunjiri

Though he enjoys his life in school, there are a number of things bothering Benji.
Top of them is his father’s apparent disinterest in his budding football career. He is not only the top striker in Kamden Boys School, he is also the team captain. Not once has his father, Musa come to watch any of his games; which is rather baffling considering that the father used to be a star footballer in his youthful days.
Karis is the other major source of Benji’s worry. A big bodied boy, Karis has been tormenting Benji through incessant bullying, to a point of him getting recurring nightmares. While his mother is sympathetic about the situation, the father comes down hard on the lad, wondering aloud why the son can’t stand up to the bully.
Then there are loggers, who with the apparent backing of government, have invaded Loki forest, cutting down trees. Keepers, the local environmental lobby group, led by Benji’s mother, appears to have hit a brick wall in terms of stopping the destruction of the forest. Benji and his friends are worried about the adverse environmental consequences that will befall their community as a result of the ongoing forest destruction.
Benji is the lead character in Nducu wa Ngugi’s book Benji’s Big Win, which won the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature, in the youth category, this year. Nducu is one Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s offsprings, trying to follow their famous father’s footsteps in making a name for themselves in the world of writing. This is Nducu’s second book after City Murders, published by East African Educational Publishers, which also happens to be his father’s Kenyan publisher.
In the book, the reader follows Benji’s escapades and close calls, waiting to see how his troubles are going to get resolved.
Soon, we get an inkling of why Musa appears to be dead set against his son’s football career. He has health issues arising from an injury he sustained as a footballer for Umoja Stars, the national team, while playing against the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon. This injury almost rendered him immobile, he is constantly on medication and undergoing therapy.
As a result, Benji’s father is stays at home, jobless, and has to rely on his wife to provide on the family. Though it is not spelt out in black and white, in the book, Musa must be anxious and worried that his son might suffer similar fate and be faced with an uncertain future. That is why he insists that Benji instead focuses on his studies, as that is what guarantees his future.
Using Musa’s example, the author brings out the sad state of footballers and other athletes, in Kenya, who lack support structures from the government and  end up leading pathetic lifestyles. Perhaps this explains why our football remains stunted as the players are constantly on the lookout for alternative sources of earning a livelihood; local football cannot guarantee that.
On the family front, we see the tension in Musa’s household, where his wife is the sole bread winner as the husband is incapacitated. Though she doesn’t show it, she must be feeling the strain of providing for her family alone. Already, there are signs of latent friction with Benji’s parents, when Musa gives his son an order and his wife reverses it.
Many families are undergoing almost similar troubles, particularly post-Covid, when many bread winners were rendered jobless and have had to rely on their spouses. Some families completely fell apart. Though the book does not give Musa’s perspective, no doubt he must feel his authority, as the man of the house, undermined; sickly and jobless, now seeing his wife and child disobey his orders. Thank God the family is still intact, but for how long?
Not as lucky though is Abele’s family. Abele is a beautiful girl, Benji has eyes for. She hails from Balaza Estate, in Nairobi, but stays in Loki with her uncle due to the fact that her own father is unable to sufficiently provide for his family. Abele is thus one mouth less to feed.
Meanwhile, the matter of Loki forest’s destruction sticks out like a sore thumb among residents of the community. Well, this is not a new phenomenon in Kenya. We have seen politically connected individuals being allowed to visit destruction on the environment by settling in protected forests like in the case of Mau. Before that, there was the protracted struggle to save Karura Forest; a struggle that won the late Wangari Maathai, the Nobel Prize.
On the bullying front, Karis is unrelenting. There are several episodes where Benji comes off worse for wear.
Karis’ bullying gets worse and is expelled from Kamden to Mawingu, a neighbouring school.
Still, a final showdown looms between the two protagonists when they come face to face in the local ‘derby’; a grudge match between Kamden and Mawingu.
The prize is too tantalizing for Benji. For one, winning the game will win him local bragging rights and the affections of Abele, who is also being courted by his nemesis, Karis.
During the game, Karis goes personal on Benji, a fight almost breaking out between the two. Despite huge odds, Benji scores the winning goal for his school. Icing on the cake is when, at the end of the game, Benji realises that his father was among the spectators, cheering him on.
Upon losing the game, Karis mellows down and seeks Benji’s forgiveness.
Though Benji wins the affections of Abele, he loses her as she is forced to go back to Nairobi, since his uncle is now unable to take care of her.
The book ends without the issue of Loki Forest being resolved. Could this be a signal that a sequel to the book is in the works. This is not far-fetched for, towards the end of the book, Benji and his pal, Jasper are plotting to visit Abele in Balaza.
Benji’s Big Win makes for interesting reading but the author needs to work on a few issues to improve on his craft. First, his writing needs to be grounded on some reality. How is it that Benji learns, at the last minute, that Karis is playing for Mawingu? Even prior to his expulsion, there was no mention of Karis’ involvement in football. Just like with Benji’s example, football requires commitment and regular training. One just doesn’t wake up and find themselves lining up for a major tournament.
The author’s stay abroad shows in his usage of US phrases and words. While these do not hurt, some words like cleats, for football boots, as it is understood locally, might end up confusing the young readers.
All in all, Benji’s Big Win is a major score for Nducu and the fact that it won an award is testament to his writing potential.

Arts Books Events Issues

Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s tribulations in colonial Kenya

When Ngugi wa Thiong’o left his Kamirithu village, in Limuru, to join Alliance High School, the State of Emergency had already been declared, by colonial authorities in Kenya. This mainly affected members of the Gikuyu, Embu and Meru communities, that formed the bulk of the Mau Mau rebellion.

Members of these three communities could not move from one district to another without the passbook. Young Ngugi did not have this document, when he went to board the train from Limuru to Kikuyu. It took the intervention of a railways official, who hid him in a luggage compartment, for the train ride to Kikuyu, otherwise, he would have missed the trip altogether.

When he closed school for the April holidays, Ngugi went home to find that his village deserted. The whole village had been moved to the Kamirithu Concentration Camp. He was in time to join constructing the mud house where they had to live for the rest of the emergency period.  

These anecdotes are contained in Ngugi’s memoir Dreams in a Time of War, published in 2010. In the book, he recounts an incident where his half-brother was shot dead by colonial officials.

“A few days later, we learned that some people had been killed, one of the casualties being Gitogo, my half-brother,” writes Ngugi about a military operation that took place in Limuru town, during the Emergency period.

“Gitogo worked in a butchery in Limuru. He had started running, following the example of others. Being deaf, he did not hear the white officer shout simama! They shot him in the back.”

In the other incident, Ngugi’s elder brother, Wallace Mwangi, who was in the supply wing of the Mau Mau insurgency, and his uncle, had just bought bullets, from a source, who, unknown to them, was a colonial informer. It was a set-up. Immediately, colonial forces arrived at the scene and arrested the two.

Somehow, Wallace managed to drop his share of bullets in his mother’s shamba nearby. While being arrested, Wallace told his mother, who was in the garden ‘thikirira mbembe icio wega’. On the surface, Wallace told his mother – Mukoma’s grandmother – to cover the roots of her maize with soil and mulch.

However, the truth of the matter is that Mukoma’s uncle told his mother to cover the bullets – mbembe was the Mau Mau code for bullets – with soil that thy are not discovered by the colonial authorities.

Shortly thereafter, Wallace, jumped from the moving police vehicle and ran, under a hail of bullets, to become a Mau Mau fighter in the forest. Wallace’s wife would later be arrested and jailed at the Kamiti Prison.

After he cleared his studies at Alliance, two white police officers arrested Ngugi on trumped up charges of failing to pay taxes and was remanded at the Kiambu Police Station for three weeks.

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.

Events Issues News Personalities

Amherst College to host Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s 80th birthday

Prof Ngugi wa Thiong’o makes a homecoming, of sorts, when he returns to Amherst College—where he was based in the early stages of exile—in a three-day fest celebrating his 80th birthday.

He will be one of the star attractions at the Amherst Lit Festival, hosted by the top liberal arts college, and whose prominent Kenyan alumni include President Uhuru Kenyatta.

Ngugi taught at Amherst College in 1991, serving as a distinguished visiting professor of English and African Literature. His birthday celebrations will be between March 1-3.

The Kenyan journalist and author, Dr Peter Kimani, who is coordinating Ngugi’s event, is presently the Visiting Writer at the college. Kimani expects Ngugi’s celebration to springboard an assessment of his artistic legacy.

Ngugi Poster
Poster for the three-day event

Kimani, whom many in the literary world consider to be Ngugi’s literary son, explained that the theme of the celebration, ‘This Time Tomorrow,’ draws from an old Ngugi play that contemplates the future of a widowed woman, who is rendered homeless after her slum home is overrun by city authorities.

“It’s opportune time for Kenyans and Africans to ponder: Where do we go from here? Where do we take Ngugi’s artistic legacy, ‘this time tomorrow’”? Kimani said, adding that Ngugi’s engagements as a socially committed writer and activist provide useful lessons for African writers.

Prof Ngugi (left) and his protege Dr Peter Kimani

“Ngugi’s decision to return to his roots, by championing African languages in late 1970s, was at the peak of his writing career. That meant his work suffered less immediate circulation, though not necessarily, less impact.

“But he received less external recognition, as Europe wasn’t going to reward someone seeking to end their cultural hegemony. He put his people and continent first, and that’s a useful lesson for us to postulate.”

The Amherst celebration will feature readings and discussions surrounding Ngugi’s life in writing. Most activities will be held at Amherst College, though Smith College, which is part of the Five Colleges incorporating Amherst, Hampshire, Mt Holyoke and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, will host some events.

This includes Ngugi’s public lecture: “Birth of a Dream Weaver: The Pleasures and Perils of Writing,” reflecting on Ngugi’s evolution as a writer, a career that took off while still an undergraduate at Makerere University in Uganda in 1962 with the play, The Black Hermit. This will be on March 1.

That evening, Amherst College will host a staged reading of the play, This Time Tomorrow, directed by Kim Euell, an award-winning African-American dramaturg based at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

On March 2, Amherst College will also host a screening of a film, Ngugi wa Thiong’o: The River Between African and European Languages, directed by the Kenyan academic, Prof Ndirangu Wachanga, who is based at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.


Wachanga’s work looks at the intersect of memory and the construction of national history. Over the past decade, he has documented the lives and times of leading Kenyan academics, including Ali Mazrui.

Ngugi will deliver the final reading the Amherst Lit Festival, followed by his birthday celebration, on March 3.

The month of March will prove busy for Kimani. He has a scheduled tour of London between March 10 and 17, to promote the British edition of his historical novel, Dance of the Jakaranda.

The book was released in New York last February, to great critical acclaim, including a New York Times Notable Book of the Year selection.

Kimani will give public readings and discuss his work at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, London School of Economics, and Cambridge University.

Other book events will be Daunts, the oldest independent bookstore in London, and Waterstones, the largest bookstore chain in Europe, where he will be in conversation with Fiammetta Rocco, the Books and Arts editor at The Economist.

Kimani will wrap up his mid-year book tour at the Calabash festival in Jamaica, hailed by critics as the best literary event in the world. Hosted at Treasure beach, south of Jamaica, the biennial festival is held on a beachfront. It’s free and open to the public.

At any given point in the weeklong fest, some 2,500 people sit in the audience, waiting to soak up a reading or performance!

Issues News Personalities Reviews

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.

Issues News Reviews

Blame it on Sheng…er, at your own risk

Whenever explanations are sought on poor performances, in English or Kiswahili, in national exams, Sheng is always on the surface waiting to be summoned, on short notice, and vilified for being such a diabolical influence on these two ‘pure’ languages.

Ever since it came into existence, Sheng has always been considered the bastard child in the family of Kenya’s languages. All ‘nice and proper’ Kenyan languages, including mother tongues, have a thing or two against Sheng.

That bile notwithstanding, today, Sheng has become the unofficial language of the masses. So popular has Sheng become almost every Kenyan wants to be identified with the language.

The popularity of Sheng has to do with its accommodative nature. It borrows generously from Kiswahili, English, and local Kenyan languages, thus there is something for every person who uses it. What is more, unlike other languages we know, Sheng does not discriminate according to class.

Maybe the scholars who are accusing Sheng of various ills should explain why a language not taught in schools is giving established languages like English, and Kiswahili, which are taught up to university level, sleepless nights.

Sheng came into existence sometime in the sixties and was invented, out of necessity, by young people who needed to understand each other and lock out patronizing adults from their conversations. It can be argued that Sheng is a product of early urbanization by Africans during the colonial period.

When the white man embarked on the colonial adventure he knew that in order to make the natives answerable to him he had to severe the cords that held together African communities. One way of doing this was by monetizing the economy and introducing mandatory taxation for every African adult. Africans were thus forced to seek employment in order to raise money with which to pay taxes.

And since Nairobi was the seat of government, Africans from different communities settled there in search of employment. Meanwhile these immigrants got children who in order relate with each other had to come up with a mode of communication that was acceptable to them. That is how they borrowed from English, Kiswahili and their native tongues, thereby giving birth to Sheng. Thus, at that time, Sheng served two major roles; one was a metaphorical meeting place between young people drawn from the various communities, and two as an avenue where they could discuss their own issues without having to worry about nosy adults.

Today, with the urbanization of other towns around the country, Sheng has been decentralized to a level where every urban centre has its version of the language. Now back to our question; why is a language picked up informally in the streets threatening languages that are taught in schools? Or to put it in another way, should languages teachers borrow a leaf from Sheng and make teaching of English and Sheng more interesting? One of the key attractions of Sheng is that apart from being quite expressive it is fun to use.

However, top of all, and what really freaks out educationists, is the fact that there are no rigid rules governing the usage of Sheng unlike in English and Kiswahili. I, for one, do not buy the argument that Sheng can affect performance in other languages. Recently, when Prof Ngugi wa Thiong’o was in the country for the Kwani Litfest, he said that in order to be proficient in any language one has to be patient and take time to study that it. Ngugi was responding to claims by some Kenyans that their local languages are ‘difficult’ to read.

“Even European children were not born with automatic knowledge of their language,” said Ngugi. “They have to go to school and learn their languages.” It is the same with Kiswahili and English. Students need to take keener interest in their studies in order to be proficient in those subjects.

Blaming Sheng is therefore a lazy man’s way of explaining things. It all boils down to discipline; knowing when to use what language; just like you can’t wear pajamas to work, or a suit to the shower.

And if Sheng is the evil that is made out to be, why are all companies falling over themselves to use it in their advertising slogans? Picture a copy writer, who grew up being told that Sheng is a language to be avoided at all costs, who now finds a bosses ordering them to come up with “appropriate phrases in Sheng!” Woe unto you if you followed the advice and avoided Sheng like the plague.

It is ironical that the scholars and educationists turning blue in the face badmouthing Sheng had no problem teaching Chinua Achebe’s Man of the People, a novel written almost entirely in Nigerian pidgin. Did you know that scholars in Europe and the US are so fascinated in the phenomenon that is Sheng that they are studying it at PhD level? You heard it right, PhD level! Don’t be surprised the next time you visit a prestigious university in the West and encounter a white Sheng expert, and they are many. And these so-called experts travel all the way to Kenya to do their research.

So, instead of giving Sheng a bad name, we should instead embrace it and milk it for all its worth. We could start by establishing research centres, where all those foreigners can pay to get information. Finally, and at the risk of being lynched by policy makers, I would suggest that some courses, like IT, be offered in Sheng. You would be surprised by how well it might be received. C’mon people, can’t we try something different for a change? It is President Obama who keeps mocking people who keep on doing the same things yet expecting different results.

Events Issues News Personalities

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.”

Events Issues News Personalities Releases

Ngugi wa Thiong’o on Kenyan writing, Kwani? and other stories

When Ngugi wa Thiong’o was in the country for the launch of his latest book Dreams in a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir, yours truly had a chance to talk with him, and the interview touched on a number of issues. Among other issues he urged young writers not to shy away from self-publishing their works. For a long time the self-publishing route was taken as a last resort, after publishers shut their doors on a writer.

Ngugi (centre) with his wife Njeeri (Right) and PLO Lumumba (left) during the book launch at the National Museums of Kenya

While self publishing is fraught with risks, I think it is time writers gave it a shot. Why am I saying this? Well, as far as Kenyan publishers are concerned, creative works are nothing more than engaging Corporate Social Responsibility. Let me explain: after they have made tonnes of money from publishing textbooks, their conscience pricks them and they decide to do one or two consumer books, as a way of giving back to the society.

The tragedy is that they do not give these books too much thought and therefore do not really market these books. It is therefore not unusual to find good books lying in their warehouses, and they are not being taken to bookshops. Thus don’t be surprised if you walked into a bookstore to request for a Kenyan book only to be told that it is not available. Believe you me, I have been published and I know how it feels for a person to tell you they cannot find your book in a bookstore, including the main ones in Nairobi.

Even when the books are in bookstores, publishers do not bother to make noise about them. Tell me publishers, how do you expect readers – do not give me crap about Kenyans not reading – to know about a book you have published if you do not make them aware of its existence in the market? Is it too much to buy space in the media to shout about your new book?

You see the problem is such that you have become so reliant on the school market to move your textbooks, without breaking a sweat, that you have become complacent.

I recently had a talk with a motivational author who told me that he has moved more copies of a book he self published, than one that was done by a publisher, and in a relatively shorter time. Go figure.

During the interview I asked Ngugi for his opinion on why we are not seeing new novels – not short stories – from young Kenyan writers. Being the good person that he is, Ngugi told me that he did not want to pass “negative judgment” on young Kenyan writers. He urged patience saying that writing is a long process, and that we would eventually be shocked by what these young writers, particularly Kwani? might unleash on us in the future.

I don’t know what Ngugi told the Kwani? crew about our interview, when he later met them, because later that evening at the launch of his book, at the National Museums I was cornered by Billy Kahora, the Kwani? editor, who demanded to know why I had been asking Ngugi “leading questions.” It so happened that Binyanvanga Wainaina, Kwani’s founder, with dyed hair on his head, was nearby and he joined in on the ‘grilling’ . “I just laughed,” Binya sniggered. He was referring to his reaction to whatever Ngugi had told them.

With all due respect, I would love for someone to point out a novel – again not short story – that has been written by the Kwani? franternity, or better still, take a look at this year’s Wahome Mutahi Literary Prize nominees, here and show me a book written by a Kwani? person, and I will show you who is splitting hairs.

You can read the rest of the Ngugi story here.

Personalities Releases Reviews

Dreams in a time of war

As a little boy growing up in Limuru, writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o was, one night, woken up by his mother to meet some ‘visitors’. Young Ngugi was pleasantly surprised to find that one of the visitors was his elder brother Wallace Mwangi, also known as good Wallace.
Years back, Good Wallace had escaped to the forest, under a hail of bullets, to become a Mau Mau freedom fighter. Now Ngugi was about to sit his toughest exam yet, the Kenya African Preliminary Exams (KAPE), and his brother had risked capture, even possible execution, in the hands of colonial soldiers or their local home guard collaborators, to come and wish him success in the exams.

The risk was pronounced by the fact that Kabae, one of Ngugi’s many step-brothers, was now working for the colonial forces as an intelligence officer. A few days after Good Wallace’s visit Kabae also visited to wish Ngugi success, or had he gotten wind of Good Wallace’s visit?
Young as he was Ngugi had to learn to live with the conflicting emotions and contradiction in their large family. After all, this was in 1954, two years after a state of emergency was declared in Central Kenya, thereby marking the darkest period in colonial Kenya.
Ngugi, Kenya’s foremost literary personality, captures these experiences in Dreams in a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir. In this book, Ngugi once again asserts his reputation as a sublime story-teller.
With his creative power, Ngugi transports the reader into the mind of a young boy and lets them see things through the lenses of a child. Here, a child’s innocence and naiveté forms part of the narrative.
Only rarely does the grown-up and intellectually sophisticated Ngugi show his hand, in the narrative, often laced with subtle humour. Just as this is Ngugi-the-child’s show the author, as much as possible, lets Ngugi the child do the narration.
Just as a child’s universe is impressionable and full of imagination, so is this book.
Ngugi’s formative years coincided with the rise of African nationalism, which was informed by the participation of Africans the First and Second World Wars. This is where Africans realised that the white man, just like them, was mortal after all. This, in effect triggered the struggle for equal rights by demobilised African soldiers, who felt cheated after not getting land, like their white counterparts.
Then, Ngugi, in his childish imaginations, pictured the early nationalists in larger-than-life dimensions. To him, people like Harry Thuku, and later Jomo Kenyatta, and Mbiyu Koinange, were mythical, even magical characters.
He for example imagined the Germans, who at the defeat of the Second World War, surrendered to his step-brother Kabae, who had gone to fight, on the side of Britain in far off Burma, among other exotic sounding places.
As for Kenyatta, the author’s adoration for the mythical figure was to turn sour, when the man, as Kenya’s first president, consigned Ngugi to detention without trial, in 1977.
Much has been made about how Ngugi, in this book, has shed off some of his controversial views and opinions, but when you put into consideration that at that age Ngugi had not yet formed those opinions, then critics making those observations are jumping the gun.
By the time this book comes to an end, Ngugi has just stepped into Alliance High School for his secondary education, so you do not expect a person at that stage to know, let alone appreciate, ideologies like Marxism and other controversial ideas that make Ngugi what he is today.
Maybe critics, who have made careers attacking Ngugi’s every move, should practice some restraint and wait for that point when he tells how he came to embrace those controversial ideas, and why, only then can they take him on.
Apart from growing up under the horrors emergency rule, the author had other things to worry about. He for example had to go out in search of jobs in other people’s farms to supplement the little income his mother earned.
This was in addition to the fact that at a tender age Ngugi and his younger brother, Njinju, had to endure the ignominy of being chased away from home by their father to go and join their mother who had earlier escaped her matrimonial home to escape her husband’s beatings.
Maybe as a way of escaping from those difficulties young Ngugi sought refuge in books, and especially the Old Testament, which had the effect of transporting him to an enchanting world away from the reality of his suffering. Thus a long-life bond between him and the written word was formed.
And all this was as a result of a pact he made with his mother to go to school and do his best. “Was that the best you could do?” was the constant refrain from his mother whenever he brought home a result or the other from school. It also served to inspire him to work even harder.
By deciding to write his memoirs in instalments, Ngugi took the risk of turning off readers who might argue that there is nothing spectacular about a book dealing exclusively with one’s childhood.
His life was not much different from other children growing up at around the same time and under the same circumstances. But then, it takes a special writer to turn otherwise mundane details of growing up into a highly readable and entertaining book.
Most readers have a rough idea about Ngugi’s life story. They also know that the more interesting and controversial aspects of his life lie ahead of Dreams, which means that future instalments of his memoirs will be highly anticipated.
Maybe for future instalments, Ngugi’s Local publishers EAEP should consider releasing their local edition at around the same time as the American and British editions. That way, EAEP would take advantage of the international hype created on the book to move more copies.

Events Issues News Personalities Releases

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.