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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.

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Winner of the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature, 2009

Henry ole Kulet’s book won the 2009 Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature. Yours truly had reviewed the book way back in May. I hereby share the review with you:

blossoms friday 3

After a long absence from the literary scene Henry ole Kulet is back, this time with Blossoms of the Savannah. This novel mainly dwells with the touchy issue of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
Now, FGM or female circumcision, remains a very sensitive topic particularly considering that there are powerful lobbies committed to ensuring that this practice is brought to an end. The issue is complicated by the fact that it involves a people’s culture, a culture that has been practiced since time immemorial. Despite the best of efforts from these lobbies and the government, getting to end the practice has largely remained elusive. Well, you do not just wake up one morning and decide that you are going to away with a particular aspect of culture and hope to succeed.
However, as much as culture defines a people’s identity, some cultural aspects have proved more harmful than beneficial. Still modern realities do not support such practices. For example, the probability of contracting diseases like HIV/Aids, arising from the sharing of blades, does not bode well for FGM.
Cases have also been documented where young girls have lost their lives following complications arising from the procedure.
In his book, Ole Kulet treats the issue of FGM in a sober and balanced manner.
He does not approach FGM in the needlessly confrontational style, often associated with the lobbies. He instead delves into the Maa traditions and demonstrates how important they are to the community.
The story revolves around the family of Ole Kaelo, who finds himself retrenched from his job and opts to relocate his family from Nakuru to Nasila, his ancestral home.
Just like any other retrenched person, he sees his survival, and that of his family, coming from venturing into business.
His two teenage daughters, Taiyo and Resian however do not share his enthusiasm. Their sudden removal from the urban setting in Nakuru to village life does not sit well with them.
They are also not certain of their prospects of furthering their education at the university.
Having been brought up in a modern lifestyle, they are mainly pre-occupied with their education, which they feel would assure them of a better life in future.
They are however in for a rude awakening. No sooner have they landed in the village than word goes round to the effect that they are yet to undergo the ‘cut’. At 18 and 20 the two sisters are already late for the cut, according to the Maa culture.
In spite of their physical maturity, they are contemptuously referred to as intoiye nemengalana, derogatory for girls who have not undergone the rite.
Their problems are far from over. Their worst nightmare yet comes in the form of Oloisudori, an evil businessman who now has their fate in his hands, thanks to a foolish deal their father entered with him.
Unknown to his family, Ole Kaelo had borrowed money from Oloisudori, which he used to establish his business. It so happens that on a visit to Ole Kaelo’s home, Oloisudori sets his eyes on Resian the younger of the sisters. He lusts for her and an idea hits his brain that he could take her for a wife.
Seeing as he might encounter difficulties in convincing the father to give out his daughter to him, he resorts to blackmailing the poor man. Either Ole Kaelo give him his youngest daughter or he recalls his debt, which includes the house he constructed.
Ole Kaelo opts for what he sees as the easier way out and agrees to pawn his daughter to save his business.
Just like other men in Nasila, Oloisudori would not marry a girl who has not undergone initiation, so he arranges for her to get cut first.
Luckily for Resian, Olarinkoi, a man who had been hanging out in their house, is at hand to ‘rescue’ her. He promises to take her to Emakererei, a woman who gives refuge to girls being threatened with the harmful practice.
Resian falls for his story and accompanies him to her ‘savior’. More shock awaits her as the man has his own evil designs on her. Like Oloisudori, Olarinkoi also wants to forcibly circumcise her and marry her.
Eventually, Resian escapes and finds her way to Emakererei, where her dream of going to university is assured. Her elder sister Taiyo is not as lucky. She is tricked and is forced to undergo the cut. Apparently, after losing Resian, Oloisudori decides to take Taiyo instead. In spite of Taiyo’s tragedy, both girls end up in the safe hands of Emakererei.
Blossoms of the Savannah has echoes of Ngugi wa Thiong’os The River Between, where two sisters are faced with an almost similar dilemma.
Muthoni opts to get circumcised but dies in the process. Muthoni’s death is interpreted as Ngugi’s way of saying that female circumcision is outdated.
Ole Kulet’s narrative is enriched with the description of the various aspects of the Maa culture. In the book, Ole Kaelo comes out as a pretty confused character. His wife does not help matters either. Instead of standing out for her daughters, she just runs along with her husband, content with protecting family property.
In spite of its obvious harmful effects, FGM refuses to die, as the lobbyists would expects it to. Could it be that their approach to the whole issue is wrong?

You can order the book online on


Kingwa Kamencu, Kenya’s rising star

The author holds a copy of her book
The author holds a copy of her book

As a first year Literature student at the University of Nairobi Kingwa Kamencu took up the challenge by the National Book Development Council of Kenya (NBDCK), to come up with a manuscript for a novella, and won the second prize and Ksh35,000.
That was in 2003. The same novella, now in the form of a book – To Grasp at a Star – won the youth category of the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature, Kenya’s most prestigious literary prize.
An elated Kingwa says winning the prize is enough testimony that her writing can actually compete with the best in the country. Looking back at the manuscript she wrote as a student, she says at the time she not quite sure it would be among the winners. “I nevertheless submitted the manuscript and hoped for the best,” she recalls.
“At that time in campus I decided to write so as to overcome the disappointment of losing in student leadership elections,” she says.
During the awards ceremony, she got to interact with many personalities in the literary world, some of whom she had only read about in her Literature class. However, one individual was to make all the difference.
In the gathering was Barrack Muluka, who was then the managing director of East Educational Publishers (EAEP). “I talked to him and he asked me to submit the manuscript for consideration at the company,” says Kingwa her face lighting up at the recollection.
She wasted no time. The event was held on a Friday evening and by Monday morning an excited Kingwa was knocking at EAEP’s offices in Westlands.
Then the good news came. She was informed that her manuscript had passed the publication test only that they wanted another novella of the same length. Luckily, for her she had written one.
Her dream of being a published author was finally realised when she was in third year. To Grasp at a Star was finally born. She says that after the book was published, there was so much excitement both from her family members and university colleagues.
“My university lecturers were very proud of me. They held a launch for me at the university and even adopted the book for use in children’s literature,” says the only girl in a family of boys.
That was just the beginning for what was to be exciting times ahead for the book. When the Kenya Publishers Association announced that they were introducing the Wahome Mutahi Literary Prize, in 2006, in honour of the late humourist, EAEP entered Kingwa’s book for the competition.
She was pleasantly surprised when her book took third position behind Stephen Mugambi’s book Wait for me Angela (Kenya Literature Bureau). Onduko bw’ Atebe’s book The Verdict of Death, also by EAEP took the overall prize.
During this year’s Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature Awards, To Grasp at a Star won the overall prize in the youth category, beating Ken Walibora’s book Innocence Long Lost (Sasa Sema) to second position. Meja Mwangi’s book Boy Gift came in third.
The judging panel led by Prof Emilia Illieva of Egerton University was full of praises of the book.
“Kingwa Kamencu tells immensely interesting stories of young female adults who, under the impact of illusive ideas of success and glamour, get caught up in dangerous situations that nearly jeopardise the bright future they so much deserve by virtue of their outstanding qualities,” said Emillia.
Kingwa, who now works as a writer at the Media Institute, finished her undergraduate studies in August last year, where she graduated with First Class Honours. She is currently pursuing a Masters degree in Literature, a scholarship she got from the university.
She has attended various courses on writing including British Councils’ Crossing Borders programme. She has also volunteered during the Kwani Trust organised Litfest held in December last year.
She however thinks that more needs to be done to improve the literary situation in the country. “Writers need to be more serious in their writing and publishers need to market their products more,” she says. “Otherwise we will keep moaning about a poor reading culture forever.”