Onduko bw’Atebe: Writing is a labour of love

Despite the challenges facing the local writing industry, writer Onduko bw’Atebe prefers to see it as a half full glass rather than half empty. “The Kenyan writing scene is changing for the better,” he says. “More people are getting into the scene which is a good thing.”

onduko051014

Atebe’s book Verdict of Death, published EAEP, won the inaugural Wahome Mutahi Literary Prize in 2006. The prize is awarded by the Kenya Publishers Association (KPA) every two years in honour of the late humourist Wahome Mutahi of the Whispers fame. It alternates with the more established Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature, also ran by KPA.

Towards the end of September 2014 KPA announced Yusuf Dawood as the fifth winner of the Wahome Mutahi Literary Award with his book The Last Word, which is a collection of past episodes of his Surgeon’s Diary column. He beat off competition from Nation editor Ng’ang’a Mbugua, who had submitted This Land is our Land (Big Books), a collection of poetry, and A Gift from A stranger (KLB), a play written by University of Nairobi lecturer Waigwa Wachira.

It is worth noting that Yusuf Dawood pocketed sh50,000, the same amount Atebe won eight years ago. In the intervening period the cost of living has shot up, inflation has given Kenyans a hiding and still writers get the same amount of money for an effort that took them the better part of four years. It is any wonder Kenyan writers do not have enough motivation to write?

Atebe took time off his busy schedule to talk about the award and Kenyan writing in general. While acknowledging that things could be better he nevertheless feels that positive strides have been made in the writing scene. “Some of our Kenyan authors have made their presence known on the international scene,” he offers. “Billy Kahora of Kwani? has been nominated twice for the Caine Prize for African Writing. Vyonne Owuor’s blockbuster Dust is currently scorching the literary world. Compared to eight years ago Binyavanga has firmly established himself in the international literary scene.”

“Let us also not forget Okwiri Oduor who won the Caine Prize this year with her short story My Father’s Head. You see, good things are happening on the local writing scene. With such shining examples our children have something worthwhile to aspire to,” says Atebe.

verdict-of-death-by-onduko-bw-atebe

In spite of the progress he has enumerated Atebe is however convinced that a lot needs to be done to improve the welfare of local writers; those who do not have international connections like the ones he has mentioned above. “The uncomfortable truth is that it can be difficult for someone to make ends meet through writing alone in Kenya,” he explains. “You see after my book won the prize I thought I would live off writing. I even took an initiative to market it in schools across the country but at the end I realised that my expenses far outstripped what I was making.”

Faced with the stark reality of a shrivelled bank account Atebe decided to cast his net wider and veered off into business. “Here in Kenya you need a firm financial background only then can you embark on writing,” says Atebe who today is a contractor in the rural electrification sector.

His business endeavours however have left him with little time to put pen on paper. “My work eats up most of my time,” he says. “I am forever on the road; come evening I am exhausted and sleepy.” Verdict of Death remains his only book. “I had a completed manuscript but it was destroyed when a virus wreaked havoc on my computer. I spent a lot of time grieving over the lost manuscript.”

He assures his readers that if all goes well they will be reading another of his books in the ‘near future’. “I have two incomplete manuscripts I am working on. The good thing is that I am not new in the field of writing,” he explains. “A number of publishers have approached me asking me to write for them, so I am not short of options.”

Atebe asks Kenyan publishers to pull up their socks as far as marketing creative works is concerned. “They don’t do much marketing which explains why readers are not aware of what is available by local authors,” he says. He disputes the notion that Kenyans do not read. “Visit any local bookshop today and you will see stacks and stacks of novels, only that they are by Western authors. You can’t buy something you are not aware of” he adds.

He faults his publisher EAEP for not doing enough to market his book after it won the Wahome Mutahi Prize. “The least they would have done it to ensure that subsequent editions have a stamp indicating that it won a prize. That would have helped boost the sales,” he explains.

He is happy that Yusuf Dawood won the Wahome Mutahi Prize. “I really enjoy reading what the good surgeon writes,” says Atebe.

Book piracy and the Chinese connection

A few months ago visual artist Michael Soi, based at the Godown Arts Centre in Nairobi, found himself on the receiving end Chinese visit who felt that he was giving their country a bad name in spite of the ‘good things’ China was doing for Africa. The visitors had been in the delegation of the Chinese Prime Minister, who had been a guest of President Uhuru Kenyatta.

The bone of contention had to do with China Loves Africa, a series of satirical paintings poking fun at the duplicitous nature of China’s relations with Africa. Far from silencing Soi, the visit must have served as an incentive to spur him on. In his latest piece, China Loves Africa 27, done on September 30, Soi depicts a group of well-suited Chinese ‘gentlemen’ ogling the bikini-clad body of an African pole dancer.

Michael Soi's China Loves Africa #27

Michael Soi’s China Loves Africa #27

The message of Soi’s art is that China is only interested in the ‘fundamentals’ of the African continent depicted as the body of a well-endowed African woman, and that the trade is merely the excuse for raping the continent’s resources. Africa is depicted in the unflattering light of a woman of easy virtue, hawking her ‘products’ to the highest bidder.

Conservationists have for some time now been complaining that China’s gigantic appetite for animal trophies is responsible for the dwindling population of wildlife in the country, especially elephants and rhinos. Publishers have now entered the fray and without mincing words are accusing the Asian giant of abetting Intellectual Property (IP) crimes by allowing pirates to print their books in China without carrying out due diligence.

Publishers under their umbrella body the Kenya Publishers Association (KPA) say that if the government does not check the activities of book pirates, the publishing industry, as we know it will be brought to its knees. Piracy is slowly but surely proving to be a publisher’s worst nightmare. Pirates target the fast moving books, print them illegally and flood them in the market at throw away prices, thus undercutting the original publishers.

Today, pirates are not only targeting the fast selling books but are also picking on any book that is guaranteed even modest sales and having them printed offshore, with China and India being the most preferred locations.

Publishers have for the longest time been howling in the wind with no one to listen to them. However things were different on Saturday September 27, when none other than the Attorney General graced the Wahome Mutahi Prize gala night, which is organised by KPA.

Seizing the occasion, Lawrence Njagi, the chair of KPA told Prof Githu Muigai how book pirates are threatening to wipe out the gains Kenyan publishers have made over the years. “If pirates are not stopped in their tracks in future we might not be able to congregate here to celebrate the efforts of writers,” he said.

Njagi urged the AG to oversee the crafting of stiffer penalties aimed at deterring Pirates once and for all. He called for the empowerment of the Kenya Copyright Board (KECOBO) such that it is mandated to clear all educational materials, including book, being imported into the country. “That way it will be easier to know who is bringing in what into the country,” he explained. “Pirates will think twice before shipping their containers of pirated books.”

Kakai Karani, who heads the anti-piracy committee at KPA, urged the AG to ensure that IP Crimes are elevated to the more serious economic crimes. “The current sh800,000 slapped on pirates is small potatoes to the big pirates who might have shipped in books worthy more than sh5 million,” noted Karani.

And the AG, flanked KPA chair Lawrence Njagi (Left) and Musyoki Muli of Longhorn did a small jig...

And the AG, flanked KPA chair Lawrence Njagi (Left) and Musyoki Muli of Longhorn did a little jig…

They must have been preaching to the converted for the AG promised to “fight the pirates living off your sweat.” He touched of the small matter of rebasing the economy – which had by then not been formally implemented – and explained that the intellectual property sector which previously not been factored in economic projections was now one of the pillars of the economy that catapulted Kenya to middle income status.

“I know, only too well, the heartbreak of having to stare at a blank screen for hours,” said the AG as he revealed that he has been attempting to write a fictional short story for the last ten or so years without success.

The import of his statement was that matters that affect the IP sector, like piracy, will be dealt with with the seriousness they deserve. No one wants Kenya slipping back to the low income strata.

 

 

 

 

 

Uhuru Kenyatta’s art gift for George Bush

While President Uhuru Kenyatta was visiting the US, greater focus was, understandably, on the details of the trade talks as well as the fact that Kenya was trying to mend fences with Barrack Obama’s (Cousin Barry to some Kenyans) country, seeing as America’s ‘Choices have Consequences’ edict, in reference to Uhuru’s ICC case,  had pulled the two countries apart.

Focus was to later dramatically shift to President Kagame’s daughter (you know how that one went). Much later Uhuru was pictured in a Stetson – here in Kenya we call the godfather or godpapa – holding somewhat oversized American cowboy boots – gifts he was given by Texas cowboys, who also made him an honorary citizen. Although he eventually did visit George Bush Jnr – he of ‘you are either with us or the enemy’ – not much was said about a piece of ‘cloth’ the two were pictured holding.

President Uhuru Kenyatta and George Bush holding the painting.

President Uhuru Kenyatta and George Bush holding the painting.

 

Well, that piece of cloth was a painting Uhuru donated the former US president – don’t ask how they came to know each other, I don’t know either. Turns out the Uhuru appreciates art – Kenyan art to be specific – that he considered it important enough to give it to a former US president as a gift.

Patrick Kinuthia's painting  Si Hoja.

Patrick Kinuthia’s painting Si Hoja.

I did a little digging and realised that the painting is titled Ni hoja, lakini sio hoja (It is an issue but not an issue) – confusing huh? Well that is what artists do sometimes; confuse people – done by Patrick Kinuthia.

 

The painting, an acrylic on canvas, measuring 100 by 150 cm, features a couple standing before a group of women in an open air market. From the picture, it would appear like the man is trying to tell the woman, with baby strapped on her back something. The woman is either ignoring the man or is pretending not to hear.

From the picture is not clear whether the man and woman are a couple or not. Curiously though the man is clutching a package with the letters VCT clearly written on it. Could it be that the couple have just from a VCT centre? Who between, the man and the woman is saying the words ni hoja, lakini sio hoja? More importantly, why would they chose to have such a conversation in a public place.

Banana Hill-based artist Patrick Kinuthia.

Banana Hill-based artist Patrick Kinuthia.

Still, could the man be a health worker trying to convince the women in a market place to go and have their HIV statuses checked? Questions, questions and more questions. Incidentally, that is what a good artist is supposed to do; provoke your mind into thinking. And as they say, you take what you see in a piece of art. Hopefully, George Bush will have his own interpretation if he hangs the painting in his office.

William Ndwiga, the director of The Little Art Gallery says he received a call from the Kenyan ambassador to the US, asking for a ‘high value painting that can be displayed in a museum in the USA, for posterity’. He disclosed that the piece of art was bought for sh350,000 (approx 4,000 usd). “I see The Little Art Gallery running Art exhibitions by Kenyans in Kenyan embassies, around the world, to showcase what Kenya has to offer to the world. I have already started this process,” explains Ndwiga.

William Ndwiga, projects coordinator, The Little Art Gallery.

William Ndwiga, projects coordinator, The Little Art Gallery.

Kinuthia’s bio says his paintings ‘reflect both a freestyle approach as well as a disciplined observer of human and animal form behaviour’. Born in 1967, Kinuthia worked for Citizens Cinema Cooperation as a poster artist for its cinema halls, making scenery and portraits under the tutelage of Pakistani artist Mohammed Rafiq. Kinuthia is based in Banana Hill.

 

Mbugua, Dawood to battle it out for Wahome Mutahi Literary Prize

This year’s Wahome Mutahi Literary prize is shaping up to be another epic battle between surgeon Yusuf Dawood and journalist Ng’ang’a Mbugua. They both have been nominated in the Adult English category of the award set to be delivered at the end of September.

My Land

Dawood’s book The Last Word, published by Longhorn a collection of essays that have been published in the Surgeon’s Diary column in Sunday Nation, has been nominated alongside Mbugua’s book This land is our Land, (Big Books) a collection of poetry. The other nominee is a book titled A Gift from a Stranger (KLB) authored by Waigwa Wachira.

The first contest between the two took place in 2011 when Dawood’s novel Eye of the Storm was nominated alongside Mbugua’s Terrorists of the Aberdare. Eye of the Storm took the ultimate prize with Terrorists of the Aberdare coming in at second. Literary observers agree that it was a close contest.

Dawood

In 2012 the two writers were at it again. Dawood’s book Eye of the Storm was again in contention, this time for the Wahome Mutahi Prize against Mbugua’s Different Colours. This time Mbugua took home the prize. Mbugua is a veteran of the Wahome Mutahi Prize as Terrorists of the Aberdare had won the prize in 2010.

Ng'ang'a Mbugua (Left), is all smiles as he receives his winner's certificate from Prof Egara Kabaji, who was the chief guest at the ceremony

Ng’ang’a Mbugua (Left), receiving his winner’s certificate at a previous awards ceremony

The Wahome Mutahi Literary Prize is held every two years in honour of the late humourist and novelist Wahome Mutahi of the Whispers column fame. It is organised by the Kenya Publishers Association and held at the end of the annual Nairobi International Book Fair.

There are four different categories to be awarded in the Wahome Mutahi Prize, namely English Adult, Kiswahili Adult, English Children and Kiswahili Children categories. The two children’s categories were introduced for this year’s Award.

Nominees in the Kiswahili Adult category are Juma Namlola’s Kula kwa Mheshimiwa (JKF), Tom Olali’s Watu wa Gehenna (JKF) and Jeff Mandila’s Upepo wa Mvua (JKF). In the Children English category, the nominees are Charles Gecaga’s Kuti makes a Difference (KLB), Naomi the Detective by Joseph Muleka (KLB) and A Note for Alice by Mureithi Maina (Moran).

In the Kiswahili Children category the nominees are John Kobia’s Maskini Punda (KLB), Kiswahili Gani by Lilian Wairimu (KLB) and Bitugi Matundura’s Adhabu ya Joka (Longhorn). Winners in each category will take home a cash prize of sh50,000.

A win for Ng’ang’a will be a major boost for Kenyan poets at it will be the first time a collection of poetry will be winning a major literary prize in the country. Literary prizes in Kenya are seen to only recognise prose writers. The Wahome Mutahi Literary Prize however has demonstrated its flexibility when the prize was awarded to activist Okoiti Omtata’s play Voice of the People in 2008.

Check out our review of Mbugua’s poetry book.

The judging panel consists of Dr Tom Odhiambo, as chair, of University of Nairobi, Prof Wangari Mwai of Kenyatta University and Rose Mavisi of Catholic University.

Sheng has a bright future; haters will hate

Many bad things have been written and said about Sheng particularly on the ‘harmful’ effects it has on examinable subjects like English and Kiswahili. It has severally been claimed, especially by educationists, that poor performances in these two languages can be traced to the malign effect of Sheng.

Prof Kang'ethe

Prof Kang’ethe

However, Prof Frederick Kang’ethe, who teaches French at USIU and who has done extensive research in Sheng, holds a different view. “That is an intellectually lazy way of looking at things,” he says. “How is it that a language that has never been taught in school is now threating established languages that are taught up to university level? No language is responsible for the problems of another language.”

“Maybe we need to interrogate our teaching methods and establish how effective they are as well as the motivation for teaching these languages,” explains Prof Kang’ethe adding that those currently criticising Sheng are engaging in a futile exercise as Sheng is here to stay; besides, it has a very bright future. He wonders why an overwhelming majority of advertisements on Kenyan TV are done in Sheng if the language is as useless as we are made to believe.

He gives the evolvement of the French language as an example of why the blanket dismissal of Sheng is misinformed. “Before French came to be accepted as the international language of diplomacy Latin was the recogised as the formal mode of communication,” he explains. “French, at the time, was derisively referred to as vulgar Latin, since it was the simplified version of Latin.”

However, with time, French became more popular among the people and the result is that it became a fully-fledged language while the mother language (Latin) died. Similarly, according to Prof Kang’ethe, Kiswahili runs the risk of being consigned to the dustbin by Sheng. “Sheng should be viewed as colloquial Kiswahili and just like we have colloquial English co-existing alongside formal English, Kiswahili should learn to co-exist with Sheng,” he explains.

Prof Kang’ethe, who has also published on Sheng, dismisses the notion that Sheng keeps changing and therefore cannot be described as a standard language. “Contrary to popular belief, Sheng has quite an enduring vocabulary,” he explains. “Look at the words Chapaa or Fathee for example; these words are as old as sheng itself but are now back in use. Just like in other languages, words that do not hold are discarded.”

He even insists that there are some aspects where Sheng is more advanced than Kiswahili. He gives the example of classification of humans and animals. “It is generally accepted that humans should not be classified with animals and that it why English use ‘it’ to describe animals, unlike Kiswahili which gives animals human qualities,” explains Prof. Kang’ethe. “Kiswahili will say Mbwa amelala just like it will say Kamau amelala. Sheng on the other hand will say Dogie imelala, thereby giving it a distinction from humans.” This, he adds, is more in line with human logic.

And that is precisely why he will stick out his neck and say that Sheng has grammar. “Dogie imelala is correct grammar while Dogie amelala is bad grammar. I know sheng detractors will hate me for this but it just has to be said.”

 

Fare thee well George Tyson

The Tanzanian movie industry is mourning the death George Tyson the man credited with revolutionisng that industry. He made his name with the 2002 movie Girlfriend which featured heavyweight Bongo Flava artists like TID, Crazy GK and AY. Coincidentally that is the movie that catapulted the Tanzanian movie scene from a hobby into a money minting venture.

Tysoo

It is ironical that Tyson, a Kenyan, is credited with opening up and developing the Tanzanian movie industry, yet his mother country, still in the movie wilderness, did not have time for him. Now he is dead.

Tyson, whose real names are George Okumu Otieno met his death on the evening of Friday May 30. He was in a group of eight people – The Mboni Show crew – who were travelling from Dodoma back to dare salaam. He was the producer/director of The Mboni Show, a talk show that airs on Tanzanian’s East Africa TV. They had gone to donate desks to a school in Dodoma as part of marking the show’s third year anniversary.

Reports indicate that upon reaching Gairo near Morogoro, at around 6.45pm their car, a Toyota Grania, experienced a tire burst which made it lose control and roll several times. It is said that Tyson was thrown out of the rolling car, where he later succumbed to his injuries. Susan Lewis, also an actress, and who is the mother of Tyson’s former wife Monalisa, told Tanzania’s Global TV that just before he died Tyson wondered aloud who would take care of his children now ‘that he was dying’.

George Tyson

Tyson is survived by Sonia Akinyi, 14, and another adopted child. He is the only who died among those who were traveling in the same car with him; the rest sustained injuries.

After the release of Girlfriend Tyson got married to Monalisa (Yvonne Cherry) who starred in the movie, and together they got Sonia. The couple later separated but were still close to each other. At the time of his death Tyson was living in Mbezi area of Dare salaam. His body was airlifted was to JKIA, from Dar, and woud be buried in his ancestral home of Siaya.

Tyson studied TV production at the Kenya Institute of Mass Communication. In 1991, he landed a scholarship to study Film-making and Drama and the Durban Institute of Film-making. He briefly worked with the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation before returning to Kenya to join state broadcaster KBC, where he directed short dramas for radio and TV and the short-lived Play of the Week.

He also tried his hand on stage directing where he directed a number of productions at the Kenya National Theatre including The Concubine, Romeo and Juliet and Kisima cha Giningi. After some time a colleague told him of a job opening in Dar with ITV which was looking for drama producers. He worked with ITV up to 2001 before leaving to start freelance work.

He got the nickname Tyson as a result of his exploits in the boxing ring. “I took up boxing by chance after my sister came home crying following a beating from a boy in our neighbourhood,” he told this writer in 2004. When he went to defend the honour of his sister the boy turned the tables on him and gave him a thorough beating instead. “I henceforth vowed to train as a boxer as well as doing some weightlifting,” he added.

He joined Posta Club where he trained with the likes of the late Robert Wangila Napunyi – the 1988 Olympic gold medalist – but never got to participate in major tournament. “During training sessions I used to knock out opponents in quick succession, hence the name Tyson,” he added.

Apart from Girlfriend Tyson’s other major movie was Dilemma, which also featured big name stars. “The whole idea is to work with people who influence public opinion as a way of attracting viewership.”

At its peak Girlfriend sold over 100,000 copies.

These are Kenya’s most pirated books

The Kenya Publishers Association (KPA) is sounding out alarm bells; book piracy is threatening to erase all the gains made by the industry over the years. KPA chairman Lawrence Njagi says that book pirates are becoming more daring and with the availability of new technology they are now pirating, not just school set books, but any title that is capable of moving more than 300 copies.

caucasiun

For many years set books, for schools in Kenya, have been ripe targets for pirates as they are fast moving – a compulsory recommended set book can sell upwards of about 400,000 copies in a year – and the profit margins are equally high. While set books remain the most pirated in terms of sheer volumes, other titles regarded to be modest sellers are now being targeted for piracy.

kidagaa

“Book piracy is complicated by the fact that pirates use modern printing technology to produce their books. Piracy is no longer a poor man’s pastime. When pirates have the capacity of produce up to 50,000 copies, we are talking of people with huge financial muscle,” explains Njagi.

sun goes down

Njagi is referring to a case, in January last year a well-known commercial printer was found with over 50,000 pirated copies of Mstahiki Meya, a Kiswahili play, which is currently a set book. Had this printer not have been apprehended, these pirated books would have found their way into bookshops and street vendors, selling alongside genuine copies of the same.

Damu Nyeusi

Apart from Mstahiki Meya, the other heavily pirated set books are Kidagaa Kimemwozea: A Kiswahili novel by Ken Walibora, published by Spotlight. Damu Nyeusi na Hadithi Nyingine: A collection of Kiswahili short stories published by Moran. The River and the Source: An English novel by the late Margaret Ogola, published by Focus. When the Sun goes down and other stories: A collection of English short stories published by Longhorn. Caucasian Chalk Circle: An English play by Bertolt Brecht published locally by Spotlight. Mstahiki Meya: is written by Timothy Arege and published by Vide Muwa

mstahiki-meya

Mr Simon Sossion, who is the KPA vice chairman suspects that foreigners are now involved in book piracy and that they are the ones engaging in offshore printing. To curb this offshore printing Sossion says that KPA members are in consultations with the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) with a view to the tax body demanding a letter from the Kenya Copyright Board before they clear any consignment of books. “This way we shall have dealt a big blow to the offshore printers,” says Sossion

Previously it used to be a case pirated books being of inferior quality as they were being printed by backstreet printers.

Bookshops are naturally the places where people go to buy books and which explains why pirates take their wares there. Njagi explains that to make booksellers play ball they are enticed with generous discounts of up to 60 per cent. “Ordinarily publishers give booksellers a maximum of 35 per cent discount,” he says. “A greedy bookseller will get tempted by the huge discounts given by pirates. A pirate does not incur certain crucial production costs.”

To get an idea why these books are such magnets to pirates you have to understand that at any one time there are roughly 450,000 Form Four candidates each year, in Kenya and who are required to have all these books. Each book is studied over a cycle of four years meaning that by the time the four years are over a publisher will have sold, on average, half a million copies.

RiverSourceOgola

The average price of these books is sh450 so we are talking of sh225 million, per book, changing hands. This money is enough to get a would-be pirate salivating. Kakai Karani, who chairs the Anti-Piracy Committee at KPA says modern technology has made it possible for pirates to increase their efficiency. “We have pirates who are producing books that are almost similar to the originals, a thing that makes it quite difficult for the common mwananchi to tell the difference,” he explains.

KPA defines book piracy as the reproduction, by unauthorised persons, of books and other learning materials for sale to the public through bookshops, street vendors and in institutions of learning in contravention of the Copyright Act 2001.

Lawrence Njagi

Lawrence Njagi

To cover-up their tracks, the bookseller with pirated books will order a few genuine books from the publisher, and which will then be prominently displayed on the counters, but whenever an unsuspecting buyer comes asking for the book, they are given the pirated book, which is often hidden out of sight.

Karani blames weak enforcement of the law and lack of awareness on what piracy entails as the reason why the piracy menace is yet to be contained. “We need stricter enforcement of the anti-piracy and anti-counterfeit laws as well as stiffer penalties when these people are apprehended,” he says. He gives the example of the anti-piracy law that provides for a fine of between sh400,000 and sh800,000. “What happens when an offender is caught with books worth sh50 million, as has happened before?” he asks. “That is a mere slap on the wrist.”

Simon Sossion

Simon Sossion

The anti-counterfeit law on the other hand provides for a penalty of three times what a person has been arrested with. “In the case of a bookseller caught with 10 pirated books, they will be fined the cost of 30 books, which is not much either,” says Karani. “That is why we need for book piracy to be elevated to the level of economic crimes, which carries stiffer penalties.”

“There is also the issue of law enforcement agencies that are now aware of what piracy entails and therefore would not know what they are dealing with when they encounter pirated books, which are no different from original books,” he says adding the Kenya Copyright Board has been training police officers attached it. The training, he adds, needs to be expanded to all parts of the country.

Michael Soi’s art draws wrath of Chinese

The other day visual artist Michael Soi took to his Facebook page to protest an incident where he got ‘visitors’ at his studio based at the Godown Arts Centre. ‘My latest piece ‘Santa is coming to town’ has finally drawn the wrath of the Chinese,” wrote Soi. “Four gentlemen and a lady from China walked into my studio and one of them went off about how ungrateful I was to all China is doing for Kenya…”

Sex2

Initially one man got into his studio and after scanning some of his artworks burst off laughing. “He later went and came with the other guys,” he explains. “These people could not wrap their heads around the fact that I am not grateful for all the ‘good things’ China is doing to Kenya. I told them that I am an artist and therefore I cannot engage them in a political discussion.”

Incidentally, the visit from the Chinese ‘Delegation’ coincided with the much-talked about visit by the Chinese Prime Minister who came to the country with a bag of goodies, which included money to kick start the controversial Standard Gauge Railway

china loves africa 7

As an artist, Soi says that he has the license to question things. “We are not supposed to accept everything just because those in authority tell us they are good; that is how corruption scandals are hatched,” he adds. To be honest Soi says that he views the newly-found found friendship between Kenya and China with a lot of suspicion.

“The IMF and World Bank attach a lot of conditionalities before they give out their aid,” he says. “But the Chinese are giving their money without any conditions. This is one way of abetting impunity among our leaders; that no matter how many people are killed or imprisoned China will still pour in money, money that most likely ends up in people’s pockets and which will be paid by our children in years to come.”

The piece that so much angered the Chinese forms part of the popular China Loves Africa, a series of paintings that takes a mischievous and satirical look at the relation between China and Africa. In his pieces Soi takes the view that China is not necessarily genuine in her relations with Africa. In one piece titled China Loves Africa 7, the Chinese are portrayed holding elephant tusks and rhino’s horn. This is in reference to the allegations that it is the Chinese that are fueling the runaway poaching of these products. Interestingly when the Chinese Premier was in town, together with his host Uhuru Kenyatta, made a symbolic visit to the Nairobi National Park. He even gave out money meant to go towards fighting poaching.

Soi has landed an invite to do an exhibition in South Korea, where the China Loves Africa series will be a major attraction.

china loves africa 8

Apart Sino-Africa affairs the burly artist has developed an interesting character called Omari. He uses the character to highlight the ills that take place in the society. The typical Omari character is possibly a coastal native who sees the only way of earning an income is by hooking up with white women. “My intention is to ask whether these relationships are genuine,” explains Soi. “Most of these boys drop out of school at an early age to go after these women. I have spoken with some of these boys and they tell me they are in it for the money. They believe that a Mzungu will help them cross the poverty border.”

Omari-and-his-Women

“In most cases the African boys have wives at home. One might think that it is Omari who is lying to the Mzungu but the woman is also doing her fair share of lying; some these women come to Africa with the knowledge that the relationship will last for as long they are here,” explains Soi who adds that Kenyan tourism, especially at the coast, is fuelled by sex.

Seduction ritual

Soi says that he likes to make his art simple. “What you see is what you get,” he says. “I paint what I see; I am not in the business of judging people.” This is especially so in his pieces where he shows men in strip joints. “I have been accused of portraying society in negative light but then it is a fact that men, even ‘decent’ church going types visit these joints where women are skimpily dressed.” In any case, he adds that strip joints are not cheap places to visit. “They are frequented by people with deep pockets; not your everyday ‘pervets’; I do not create these things.” he adds.

Soi's bag

Soi who mostly works with acrylics on canvas has series of portraits that he sews on to women’s handbags. “These are what pay bills,” he says. “They have become so popular with women I can barely meet the demand.” Each bag goes for sh3,000.

 

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

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

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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

betrayal

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

Across

“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

RiverSourceOgola

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

Villains

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

Charcoal

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

 

peeling

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.

The sorry state of creative writing in Kenya

Towards the end of September book lovers will get to know the winners of the Wahome Mutahi Literary Prize. This will be the fifth time the Kenya Publishers Association (KPA) will be handing out the award named in honour of Kenya’s foremost humourist and satirist, the late Wahome Mutahi.

IMG 1Ng’ang’a Mbugua (left) receives a certificate from Prof Egara Kabaji for winning a literary award at a previous ceremony

While it is a good thing that Kenyan publishers decided to honour the man whose giant shoes are yet to be filled to date – the attempts at humour in local paper is nowhere close to what Wahome offered with his whispers column – the award remains woefully underfunded. This year’s winners will be taking home a humble sh50,000, similar to what Onduko bw’ Atebe pocketed when his book The Verdict of Death won the inaugural prize way back in 2006.

One would expect that the prize money would have at least obeyed the rules of inflation and be revised upwards but sadly it remains stagnant eight years down the line. In a way the story of literary awards is a sad narrative of creative writing in the country; going nowhere fast. With a prize money of sh50,000 it is not a surprise that would-be writers are unwilling to ‘waste’ three years – the average time one takes to finish a modest novel – of their time writing.

It is instructive to note that The Verdict of Death remains Atebe’s only book to date. The dreams he had harboured of striking it rich through writing scattered when the first royalty cheque arrived. He told this writer that the money he gets once a year in the form of royalty is barely enough to meet his living expenses. That explains why he veered off into business where he is doing well as a private electrical contractor.

Part of the reason creative works in the country are doing poorly has a lot to do with marketing. It is an open secret that Kenyan publishers place too much emphasis on textbooks at the expense of creative works. Even with textbooks there isn’t so much marketing; publishers fight to have their books in the Orange Book as they are assured of being bought by schools using the free primary and secondary funds.

The only time a creative writer is assured a financial windfall is when their book is picked by the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD), formerly KIE to be a school set book. That way the writer is assured of earning at least sh80 million in a span of four years. It is little wonder that publishers do creative works with an eye to the set book market. If your book is not a set book the most you can hope to sell in a year is an average of 5,000 copies as supplementary texts in schools.

This goes to further cement the fact that publishers have not yet developed tools for marketing their books outside the school market. If your book is not selling in the school system then you can rest assured that it will be gathering dust on bookshop shelves.

One would expect that publishers would capitalise on the hype and publicity generated when a book wins a literary prize to push those books to the general public but sadly nothing of the sort happens. Once the award ceremony is over it is back to business and the production of more textbooks. And in spite of the fact that most major publishers have subsidiaries in other countries, in the region, those markets only exist to absorb more textbooks, which incidentally are the bread and butter of local publishers.

Research however shows that creative works have the potential of earning publishers more money than textbooks if only they invested in more aggressive marketing and competent editing – most creative works are horrendously edited if at all. It is estimated that publishers have used up to 70 per cent potential of the textbook market while that of creative works stands at a lowly 30 per cent. There is still a 70 per cent potential yet to be exploited; a goldmine in publishing terms.

The question therefore remains are publishers willing to roll up their sleeves and mine the 70 per cent potential? Until such a time writers will continue to take home measly prize monies and creative writing will remain a labour of love in the foreseeable future.