News Personalities Releases Reviews

Tony Mochama’s book that won him big money

Everyone has a story to tell but it depends on who is telling the story and how that story is told. That is what makes the difference between a well told story and an ordinary, even boring story. Now, Tony Mochama, who also goes by the name Smitta, has a way with words and you can be assured that his pen can give even the mundane an interesting sheen, especially when he is not using his ‘Greek’ lexicon.


Mochama’s new release is a book titled Meet the Omtitas. Keen readers of Mochama’s writing, after reading this book, will tell you that he is writing about his family, though in a fictionalised format. Omtita is a corruption of the name Ontita; the name he uses on Facebook, after Tony Mochama got appropriated by cyber thugs keen on cashing in on big name recognition.

Meet the Omtitas, told through the eyes of Tommy – presumably Tony – though told in the third person, covers a brief period when the young man, the first born in the Omtita’s household, fresh out of high school, is waiting to join university. The book also captures Tommy’s first day as a fresher – did they have to tell us the meaning of this and other words, when there is a glossary at the end of the book? – and the disaster it turned out to be.

Those who follow Mochama’s escapades in his Scene at column in Standard’s Pulse magazine, know the author is always a sentence away from a disaster; but you need to read his rendering in the book, where you do not have to navigate through endless ‘skis’ suffixes to almost every word, to appreciate what a hilarious writer Mochama is.

By far the most interesting character in the book is the head of the Omtita’s household, Mr Omtita himself. He comes home drunk at four in the morning carrying a bunch of bananas and two chickens from Kisii and orders Nandwa, the houseboy who, in his spare time likes reading novels and chasing after neighbourhood house girls, to cook chicken. Mr Omtita is also given to pinching branded towels from the various hotels he has been to so that people know that “the Omtitas have been to places.”

Everyone who finds their way to the Omtita’s household, including Simba, the mongrel Mr Omtita brought home from the local pub, is treated like a member of the family. Thus, when Simba is knocked down by a speeding motorist, the whole family skips church to give the canine a decent send-off – a burial behind the house – and Mr Omtita sheds real tears.

In spite of his quirkiness Mr Omtita has deep respect for his wife, Mrs Omtita, the family matriarch, who despite being consigned on a wheelchair – following an accident – commands loves and respect from the whole family.

The other ‘family member’ who enjoys prominence of place in Mochama’s book is Angel, who is Tommy’s sister’s (Wendy) best friend and who Tommy has the hots for to Wendy’s eternal embarrassment.

As the book is set in 1990 it is hard not to talk about retired President Moi – whom the author refers to as Omojaa, president of a republic called Kenaya, while the ruling party Kanu becomes Paku. In his drinking sessions Mr Omtita says unpleasant things about Omojaa and Paku, a thing that gets his wife worried. To forestall the likelihood of Special Branch officers coming to arrest her ‘anti-government’ husband Mrs Omtita makes sure a portrait of the president hangs prominently in the living room as a ‘show of loyalty’.

Mochama’s sharp, sometimes dark humour makes the book such an enjoyable read.

Meet the Omtitas won the third prize in the Burt Award for African Literature and which came with a sh430,000 cash award.

Issues Personalities

Is Tony Mochama Taban’s literary son?

Good people,

I came across this email, written by Prof Chris Wanjala, and posted in the Pen Kenya google group, and I thought it was interesting. Though Prof Wanjala shies away from comparing Mochama with Zimbabwe’s Dambudzo Marechera, I would be more incline to compared Mochama, aka Smitta with Dambuzo. Read on…

Dear Juba, Taban may be in Juba and getting entangled in administrative chores.But he left a genre of writing which ver few younger authors are exploiting.I dont like Tony Smitta Mochoma’s guts very much,but I secretly admire the way he enjoys an irreverence and iconoclasm which are decidedly Tabanic. You and I hated Taban because of his tendency to draw attention to himself in Meditations in Limbo and The Last Word. I see this streak in young and naughty Smitta.Taban is also good at dropping names: of politicians,the women he has courted and slept with, the coffee bars and entertainment places he has patronized, and media personalities he admires.I dont want to talk about Dambudzo Marechera at this juncture. Taban engulfs himself in controversies and self-deprecation.So does Smitta Mochama .Is Tony Smitta Mochama Taban’s literary son?

Events Issues News Personalities

Jukwaani, that’s where we meet on Thursday

African culture has from time immemorial been transmitted, from one generation to the other, through the spoken word. This goes to show why the fireside stories, often told by grandmothers, occupy such a central place in the African literary setting. The study of African literature is not complete without talking about oral literature. Some of the greatest African novelists trace the roots of their prowess from the stories they were told by their grandmothers when they were growing up. Here, Chinua Achebe of the Things Fall Apart fame comes to mind. Performance literature has, over time, undergone a transformation in tune with modern trends. Still, this form of art is highly cherished in Africa. Perhaps the finest form of performance literature are poetry recitals which come in various forms, ranging from poetry slam to spoken word. In a move to celebrate performance literature, the Kenya Cultural Centre, the Goethe Institut and Alliance Francaise will be holding a one-of-its-kind festival from 17 to 20 September, whose entry will be free.Poster JUKWAANI 2

Dubbed Jukwaani! the festival will feature a blend of the new and old as far as East African performance literature is concerned. The five-day event will also feature European-based African artistes as well as those from Europe. The performances will mostly be in English and Kiswahili. Among the personalities set to perform during the festival is German-based poet and scholar Abdilatif Abdalla. Most young Kenyan’s would not be immediately aware of Abdilatif nor his achievements. In literary circles, he is best known for his protest works. The Kenyatta regime jailed him after he wrote the book Kenya Twendapi? (Kenya; where are we headed?) This book criticised the Kenyatta government for its excesses and neo-colonial stance. He was actually charged with sedition. His other book, Sauti ya Dhiki (Voice of Agony), a collection of poetry was written while he was incarcerated at Kamiti Maximum Prison. It was basically agitating for the opening up of democratic space in Kenya. Sauti ya Dhiki went on to win the inaugural edition of the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature in 1974 for the Kiswahili category. Ukoo Flani Mau Mau, better known for their lyrical prowess, will also be part of Jukwaani! attractions. Ukoo Flani, draw their inspiration and creativity from the day-to-day struggles in Nairobi slums. They are based in slums of Dandora. Best known as underground artistes, these Dandora-based hip-hoppers have chosen to remain true to their impoverished slum existence by shunning the more commercial forms of creativity. Theirs is the hard-hitting poetry that depicts typical life in the slums, their suffering, in the hands on corrupt authorities, as well as triumphs. They also document the negative side of life in the slum, like the effects of crime and drug abuse. Ukoo Flani are a direct contrast to the other form Kenya’s urban hip hop, which appears to celebrate materialism, commonly expressed in the form of flashy lifestyles and bling. Proceeds of their album Kilio cha Haki are going towards the creation of a permanent studio in Eastlands. This, they argue, will help to give young Kenyans a voice and demonstrates how hip hop and music can be an alternative to drugs and crime; a source of income; a means of voicing social and political protest. Truth be said Ukoo Flani boasts some of the finest urban poets in Kenya today, and it is their lyrical prowess that will be showcased at the festival. Tony Mochama, also known as the Literary Gangster, for his unconventional and often abrasive poetry, will also be performing at Jukwaani! The moniker Literary Gangster was inspired by the title of his book, What if I am a Literary Gangster, a collection of poetry. Other featured performers include Dalibor Markovic, Sheikh Ahmed Nabhany, Talking Drums of Africa, and Zamaleo, among others. While the example of Abdilatiff Abdalla goes to show that performance literature has been in existence for a long time, particularly among the Swahili people, the idea of performance poetry has caught up among urban youth in the last four years. Perhaps the best known is Open Mic poetry sessions organised on a monthly basis by Kwani Trust. The idea of Open Mic is borrowed from the American inspired Poetry Slam. Here a number of poets take to the stage to perform their poems and are awarded points from either a panel of judges or the audience. Spoken word is the other form of performance poetry, which is often accompanied with a musical background. Compared with Southern African countries, East Africans lag behind when it comes to performance poetry. Zimbabwe for example, has a well-established poetry movement, which has been at the forefront in the agitation for opening up of democratic space in the country. Jukwaani! as the name suggests, will mainly centre on what is on show on the podium. Jukwaani is Kiswahili for on the stage or podium. Jukwaani! hopes that the boundaries separating the performer from the audience will be shattered leading to a situation where the audience is fully involved.


Gangster poetry: Otieno Amisi’s verdict

Tony Mochama’s book What If I am a Literary Gangster has kicked up such a literary storm it appears that people cannot stop talking about it. Journalist Otieno Amisi insisted that Maisha Yetu must publish his review on the book. And who are we to say no to a good literary argument. Here you go:

Gangsters invade literary scene

Writing is suddenly becoming an attractive pastime in Kenya. Politicians, religious leaders and journalists are writing poems and biographies. A few are even venturing into the craft of poetry. With dire costs.

Last year, there was Kiraitu Murungi’s Song of My Beloved (Oakland Books, 2007). Then Raila Odinga followed with An Enigma in Kenyan Politics. And Kalembe Ndile has recently come with My Squatters, My Struggles, My Dream. Now journalist Tony Mochama has joined the fray.

But Mochama is a different sort of literary gangster. A journalist with something of a reputation for experimentation, Mochama is synonymous with what has become known as teen journalism, a medium obsessed with a footloose urban lingo called sheng and local heroes or ‘celebs’ as these one line, on line musicians are called. Last month, he launched his collection of poems under the title, What if I am a Literary Gangster? at the Goethe Institute, Nairobi.

The effect of Mochama’s book has been to divide critics down in the middle. There are those who think this kind of new, underground writing should be encouraged, especially considering that publishing even a line of poetry is so difficult in our part of the world.

Then there are those who argue that the book is not serious enough that its lighthearted broaching on what should be serious international issues like global trade imbalances and freedom is intolerable.

Sympathetic reviewers like Joseph Ngunjiri have been at pains to defend Mochama. Ngunjiri identifies what he calls “the soft side of the gangster. “ But old school critics like Egara Kabaji argue that his verses are “decidedly defiant,’ and are “neither poetic nor artistic.”

These are not the conventional neatly trimmed lines, as in rich in meaning and social concern as Okot p’Bitek or Jared Angira. Because Mochama the journalist is always on the run, his scribblings and musings are no more than snippets from his fleeting encounters with the world, with a world on the run.

According to the sympathizers, Mochama’s brand of poetry is ‘from another planet.’
Lumping his apparent ‘success’ in journalism of the gossip and rumour type, they see Mochama as a rising star in Kenya’s literary scene. But pulse journalism and poetry are worlds apart.

Ngunjiri argues that Mochama’s poems are ‘refreshingly real, and could only come from someone who has been through so much.’ He goes ahead to identify what he calls the ‘softer side’ of the poet, which he claims comes out especially in a piece titled, ‘Whispers’ and which is dedicated to the late word juggler Wahome Mutahi. The poem goes:

Laughter and your stories, lingers,
Like a silver cobweb clings
On a broken wall
lit by silver moonlight

But the ‘gangster’ leaves the reader breathless not for its lack of style or bland creativity, but for the sheer absence of beautiful language. The persona rushes, in one breath, between airports and seaports and rhythms and rhymes that are at once alarmist and drunken, then rushes back again to a gasp of short lived reality.

According to the author, the title was provoked by one Egara Kabaji, a former don at Kenyatta University lecturer at Masinde Muliro University who once dismissed Mochama as a “Literary Gangster, whose godfather is Binyavanga Wainaina.” In revenge, Mochama deliberately misspells the don’s name, calling him “Egaji Kabira, a lecturer at some minor college in Western Kenya.”

Kabaji, like many grammar school graduates, has few kind words for Mochama’s writing, which is mere wordplay. Mochama simply splatters words on a page, without a major theme or driving force. He is more of a roving juggler with words than a serious poet. But perhaps he had no intentions to be a serious poet—and like his newspaper celebs, just wants to ride big on fame, with a miniature substance.
His scribblings are about nothing in particular and about everything all at once; snippets of his love life, his nightlife, his love for vodka and his travels to far away cities. His attempt to rhyme at all costs sometimes ends up like an echo of those ‘hip hop’ musicians who strangle meaning in their strings of rhyme, or poor imitations of Wole Soyinka. Who said poetry must rhyme?
Mochama’s poems are also full of strange references to Siberia, Russia, St. Petersburg, Stalin and other travel experiences. But who said poetry must be about distant journeys and privileged encounters?
Yet his skill with words sometimes emerges strongly. Sample this:
When I run out of poetic tricks
I shall commit syntax
Ferry my body in a verse
And bury me, in the symmetry
Mochama the wordsmith has a pulse that comes with a wicked, sometimes explosive, sometimes mischievous sense of humour, and, — let’s give it to him — a whiff of fresh air into the drab poetic scene.
Here’s another clip from Black Mischief a word play on Sissina, the victim of Naivasha farmer Chomondley’s gun wielding racism:

Sisina’s sin, it seems
Is that he had no idea
Where Naivasha ends,
And England begins.

Right from the cover, which shows a shattered glass window, complete with holes on the words of the title itself, what is contained between the covers of the book is quite unlike your ordinary, conventional book of poetry. It is unthinkable that such a book should find its way into the classroom; the good old chaps at the Kenya Institute of Education are unlikely to take a second look at it; but not everything must be written for the Orange book.

In ‘Trading Places’, the poet takes a mischievous shot at the social, political and economic differences between Africa and the West. He addresses the double standards employed by the West when dealing with Africa, and in typical poetic license, puts Africa at the top of the world.

When he is not tackling universal themes like freedom and love he takes a philosophical musing on life and death. But his tone is typically, even annoyingly, happy-go-lucky, full of mischief and appears fired off from a cannon loaded with irony.

Like Kabaji, Otieno Otieno, a journalist with the Nation Media group, is furious. He writes, “It is not so often that literary clowns like Mochama enjoy such unflattering reviews. But the intellectual freedom of the blogosphere propels this rebel from obscurity into a somewhat comfortable abode in the mainstream.

Another reviewer, Munene wa Mumbi, calls it ‘exhibitionist verse, which fits under the category of travelogue’ and relegates this writing to a Russian Tourism Board Newsletter, ‘if it is there.’ Mochama is merely fascinated with gangsterism. He is awestruck by overseas travel,’ Munene barks. “Clipping the lines of a short story does not render it a poem.”

By and large, the book remains a one man show, lacking the editorial edge that could have come with a bigger, local and more careful publisher.
Amisi rans a blog called Creative Ventures