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

430

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.

Mwangi Gicheru: an obituary

gicheru

The Kenyan literary scene is the poorer following the death of Mwangi Gicheru, the man that brought you the novel Across the Bridge. Gicheru, who was running a restaurant business in Mombasa’s Mtwapa, died in his sleep on the eve of Sunday May 4.

Across

According to family members His body was discovered on the morning of Sunday, March 4, after he failed to wake up. Workers reported the matter to the local police who gave the go-ahead for the house to be broken into. The body was taken to the Pandya Memorial Hospital Mortuary. Post mortem results determined the cause of death to be heart attack.

Gicheru will be fondly remembered by hordes of book lovers who devoured his book Across the Bridge in the late 70s, 80s and 90s. Across the Bridge, though not his first title, became many a readers’ favourite and catapulted Gacheru to the peak popular literature, alongside the likes of Charles Mangua (Son of a Woman), Mwangi Ruheni (The Minister’s Daughter) and Daivid Maillu.

Across the Bridge tells the story of an impossible love between a poor young man (Chuma) and Caroline the daughter of rich man Kahuthu. Chuma was a houseboy at the Kahuthus household.

One thing leads to the other and Chuma gets Caroline in the family way, a thing that makes Kahuthu livid. Chuma feels the only way of getting acceptance by the Kahuthus, and perhaps getting Caroline’s hand in marriage is through making money of his own. The path he chooses to riches lands him in trouble with authorities and into jail, hence the book’s famous opening: Hail jail the place for all; the only house where a government minister and a pickpocket dine together, work, discuss matters on equal terms.

Gicheru is a man whose life is mirrored in his art. His other book Two in One is based on his experience after his eight-month old daughter was stolen by a house girl, in 1979. The baby was never found. The book tells the story of barren women who steal other people’s children. “… over the years, living without my daughter has taught me that biological parents are but just instruments of bringing a baby to the world,” he told The Standard – then East African Standard – in a 2001 interview.

Perhaps it the experience of losing a daughter to theft that influenced his decision to adopt two girls.

His other books included The Ivory Merchant, The Double and The Mixer. Later in life he wrote a children’s book The Ring in the Bush published by Longhorn. He had, in mid last year, announced that he was in the process of turning Across the Bridge into a movie.

In 2009 Gicheru wrote A Handful of Terere, a post humous biography of Samuel Mbugua Githere. In an interview he told this writer that the family of the late Githere asked him to research, compile and write the story of Githere, a prominent Nairobi businessman who had died of a stroke related illness in 1997. Githere had been a contemporary of the late business magnate Njenga Karume and it is him who introduced Njenga into the world of business.

During the launch of the book, at Njenga’s Jacaranda Hotel, Njenga told the gathered audience that he had wanted to continue with his education with a view to becoming a lawyer but Githere prevailed upon him to drop his studies and make money instead. “Githere told me that if we made a lot of money we would hire as many lawyers as we wanted,” said Njenga. That ‘prophecy’ turned true.

Gicheru said that writing Terere – published by Longhorn – was his most challenging assignment as writer but also one that he found immensely satisfying.

At the time of his death Gicheru was the proprietor of Animo Resort in Mtwapa. The joint also hosted Gikuyu and Kiswahili plays some of which he wrote himself. The late Wahome Mutahi used to bring his Gukuyu cultural plays at Gicheru’s establishment.

Gicheru was born in 1947 in Kiamwangi near Karatina, in Nyeri County. He attended Kiamwangi Primary Up to Standard Eight before joining St Mary’s High School also in Nyeri. He briefly worked as a clerk with the Ministry of Lands before joining the then East African Airways. He later left paid employment to start his own business. He spent most of his business life in Mombasa.

He married Nancy Wamuyu 1972. The couple had three biological daughters – including the stolen one – and two adopted daughters. He had two grandchildren. He was buried in his Gakawa Farm in Nanyuki on Tuesday, May 13, 2014.

When a talented poet seduces your mind

A poet, like a spider, works tirelessly spinning silver yarns. He struggles, endures until finally, a pattern is made: a web of beauty; a trap for the reader.

Those are not my words; I have just paraphrased Ng’ang’a Mbugua’s poem A Poet for it beautifully captures what good poetry does to a reader. It rejuvenates the soul, runs away with your imagination and makes you want to create some poetry of your own. At least that is what it does to me.

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The above quoted poem is contained in an anthology titled This Land is our Land by Mbugua. In his seminal book Things Fall Apart, the late Chinua Achebe quotes an Igbo proverb that goes something like: “When the moon is shining the cripple becomes hungry for a walk”. For purposes of describing this book, I would have replaced walk with dance, for dancing is more poetic. After reading this collection even the most hopeless of writers would wish to create some poetry.

The vivid imagery in Mbugua’s poems seduces the reader’s imagination and drags you along to that secret world where only talented poets can take you. Take for example that short poem titled The Voice. The poet relives the relief of old Abraham and his son Isaac, when they laid their eyes on that ram, horns entangled in that thicket; specifically delivered to save the young man from the harsh knife wielded by his father.

From the introduction the reader mentally prepares themselves for a sermon on the all-enveloping love of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, until the poet takes an unexpected if not cheeky detour:

                                       Abraham lifted high his knife

                                       And was about to strike

                                       When out rang a voice

“What do you think you are doing?”

It was the voice

Of the owner of the lamb.

Aside from improbable Bible stories This Land or Land also captures the modern day realities and renders them in a way both entertains the reader and still retains the sting that admonishes our follies without being too preachy. A case in hand is the poem titled You should know people. Here, the poet brilliantly highlights the ever-widening rift between the haves and the have-nots.

‘You should know people’ therefore becomes the metaphor of what the poor should do in order to be ushered into the rarefied world of privilege. Sample this:

                          In a land where the many and the hungry are one and the same…

                          It pays to know people

                          If you are to be spared the pangs of want.

From the title This Land is our Land, one might think that this book is a patriotic ode to the Nation that celebrated 50 years of self-rule. The truth about the poem, however, is that it is a cynical appraisal of the nation our country has morphed into.

The poem is actually a deep-seated cry for peace, while also alive to the fact in the country we find ourselves in ‘real peace’ can never be attained. Or rather, some quarters would not allow for such peace to prevail; and that is why the poet is crying out for ‘just any peace’.

While the meaning in This Land is our Land might be somehow obscured Let’s Create Misery is an open bare-knuckled rebuke of wielders of power and who derive moronic pleasure from the suffering of the masses. Here, the ‘creators of misery’ revel in their ability to make people die; for they will create jobs in morgues, and more jobs ‘for coffin carriers and grave diggers’

And if all the workers die

                                             We’ll have bigger farms

                                             To grow coffee, tea, cotton

                                             No more food crops…

Oh, and there are also some love poems in the anthology as well including a tragic love story of Andrew and Jane who were ostracised by the church brethren, whose tongues began to wag, Casting the little couple in shady light/Preaching that they were far from right.

And who told you African names can’t rhyme? What about The merry old man from Ndumberi, who loved strawberry, and whose love was Njeri. Thus goes the tale of Wanderi.

Mbugua should be commended for investing his hard-earned funds to bring this publication to reality, at a time when mainstream publishers are giving poetry a wide berth and Kenyans think poetry is hard.

This book is selling at sh 350. You can order it through sales@bigbooks.co.ke or through the author at mbugua@bigbooks.co.ke

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.

Omtita

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.

A Taste of Fame: A review

Fake it till you make it. This is a common refrain in the make believe worldof showbiz and pop culture. Here, outward appearances – manner of dressing, speech and accessories – matter most.

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Since the late 90s, when the crop of new generation artistes stormed into the music scene a ‘celeb’ and ‘bling’ culture has taken root. And since the target audience are the impressionable youth in their teens, the more you dazzle – never mind that it could be on borrowed money – the more fans you get, hence the more popular you become.

What the youngsters who idolise these ‘stars’ fail to realise is behind the glitter and glamour, lies miserable and troubled lives (ask Michael Jackson).It is this vain culture that ArgwingsOtieno addresses in his novella A Taste of Fame. The book speaks to the youth especially the naïve ones who get carried away by the fickle nature of local showbiz.

Rando is one such youngster who is awestruck by an artiste going by the stage name Dee Zasta – note the word play on disaster. He so much wants to be like his idol – who wears studs – that he gets his friend in school to pierce his earlobe with a thorn!

He finally gets to meet his idol through a music competition where he performs Dee Zasta’s hit song. Impressed by Rando’s performance Dee Zastahe asks him to do a ‘collabo’ with him for the next round of competition, this time for adults.

Dee Zasta’s seal of approval, and the little time they spend together rehearsing,fires the young man’s imagination; he pictures himself being a celeb. He even flirts with the idea of quitting school to concentrate on music.He is totally bought into Dee Zasta’s hype.

The visage of flashy lifestyle,however, starts to crack as Rando interacts with his hero. Dee Zasta descends to the level of recalling the money he had deposited in a hospital,for his mother’s treatment, so he could hire a chopper to drop him at the performance venue (Prezzo anyone?) withdisastrous results.

As the book’s title suggests, Rando has had his taste of fame and he discovers, rather painfully, that all that glitters is not gold.

Well written works of fiction by Kenyan writers are few and far between, and Otieno’s book is among the select few.  I read this book in one sitting – it is a small book anyway – and at the end of it wished the author could do a sequel.

Such is the author’s simple witty, engaging style that makes reading it a pleasurable experience. The twists and turns in the narrative ensure that the reader gets pleasantly surprised with every turn of the page. The editing is thorough and devoid of cumbersome typos. Little wonder then that the book won the top prize in the Burt Award for African Literature, becoming the second recipient of this award. For his troubles he went home sh800,000 richer.

Speaking of the Burt Award, Otieno’s book is by far much better than Anthony Mugo’sNever say Never, who storyline was rather weak. Mugo’s book won the inaugural award last year.

Otienowho teaches English language at Pwani University graduated from Moi University with a degree in Education and proceeded to Kenyatta University for a Masters in Education. He did his PhD in Language Education from Moi University in 2010. He has also taught in secondary schools and mid-level colleges. Otieno has written other children’s books. They include The Head without a Body, Looking for a new King, Alone in a Storm among others.