Kenyan book lovers, on Saturday October 17, woke up to an excoriating piece of criticism aimed mostly at literary critics of the University of Nairobi. The writer Harry Mulama, in not so many words, dismissed them as a bunch of washed up incompetents.
Pricked to the quick, Prof Chris Wanjala, who was especially heavily targeted, took to his Facebook page to respond. Read his response, verbatim, below.
“What a reading on an October morning before the 20th when we celebrate Mashujaa day? Does the author know the pain of keeping the literary discourse going for all these years. If we had not written would Harry Mulama have had anything to rant about? He is looking for answers outside us,outside Kenya. It is like the proverbial child who thinks that this is not his mother and looks outside for surrogates. Let us see how far Harry Mulama will go.
As a colleague has mentioned this morning,the question we ask is, “Who is behind Harry Mulama ?” His article cites very few cases of the works that have been written by members of the academic staff of the Department of Literature Depth Uon .I know in the article like his, he would not have had enough space for quotations, references and different works and ideas. But at least he needed to contextualize and make comparisons.
And even then, the discipline of literary criticism is growing and multiplying and depending on many people, including Harry Mulama,to move it into new areas. The evidence of this is all over in this country, not just at the University of Nairobi, but at Kenyatta, Moi, Egerton, Maseno, Masinde Muliro, and private universities like Daystar.
We are not doing badly at all and no one is going to create sheep and goats in the discipline.
All the people that Harry Mulama mentions belong together. Why do people who fail to either get a degree from the University of Nairobi and/or get a job there resort to hiding
in the bush and begin throwing stones at the reputable scholars who keep knowledge flowing in Kenya? Look around this country’s universities and tell me how many professors, senior lecturers and lecturers there the Department of Literature at the University of Nairobi has trained, examined and rewarded higher degrees. You just need to look at the list of high degrees the Department of Literature at the University of Nairobi when it gave Dr Eddah W. Gachukia a PhD on “Cultural Conflict in East African Literature,” and she now the founder of Riara University to see our influence and impact. You will come to the winner of the 2015 Burt Award, Christopher Okemwa who now teaches in Kisii University, wrote: “Mushida’s Cooking Pot: A Creative Exploration of Women Issues in Kenya.” for his MA qualification at the UoN, in 2008, and scholars like Dr John G.O. Mugubi, Kamau wa Goro, Dr. Sophie Macharia, Dr Kweya G Kweya, who are teaching in other universities, and Dr Kisa Amateshe of Kenyatta University, to know the expanse of the UoN’s influence.
Even those Harry Mulama is extolling like Professor Simon Gikandi and James Ogude are University of Nairobi products. Professor Evan Maina Mwangi, who operates from
the US, was our MA and PhD student. He wrote a thesis entitled: “Stylistic Reciprocity Betweeen Textual Errancy and Cohesion in David Maillu’s Broken Drum,” for his Master’s in 1997.
Is Harry Mulama’s not the story of the proverbial rabbit who could not get fruits from a tall tree and ended up saying, “After all those fruits are not ripe?” If Harry Mulama has some writers who can write better than us, why does he not get them to come forward and write for the Saturday Nation? If he thinks we are not worthy academics, why, in this free and democratic country, can’t he train his own and have them do the job of literary scholarship?
We may not be the best but we are what you have and we are expressing the fears, hopes and aspirations in the discipline of literature, which even the best can deal with. This shameless attack is a case of infantile radicalism coached in demented cowardice.”

Kenyan writers are still basking in the afterglow of the most important twin events in their calendar year; the literary awards season where they get to be appreciated for their labour love.
The Kenya Publishers Association (KPA) and the National Book Development Council of Kenya (NBDCK) gave out the Text Book Centre Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature and the Burt Award for African Writing respectively. It was truly a harvest season for writers as the overall winner for the Burt Award went home with Sh765,000 while the one for the Jomo Kenyatta Prize got Sh300,000.


One might look at the varying prize money in the two awards and think that the Jomo Kenyatta Award is inferior to the Burt Award – indeed, the top winner in the Jomo Kenyatta Prize gets substantially less than what the second runners-up in the Burt Award got (Sh425,000). The fact of the matter, however, is that the Jomo Kenyatta Prize, small money notwithstanding, is far more prestigious, having been established in 1974. Some of the winners, over the years include heavyweights like Meja Mwangi, David Maillu and the late Wahome Mutahi, among others.
The Burt Award, which is bankrolled by William Burt, a Canadian philanthropist, after whom it is named, was awarded on Friday, September 25, at the Kempinski Hotel, while the Jomo Kenyatta Prize was awarded, a day later, at the Pride Inn Hotel, in Westlands. Text Book Centre was added as a prefix to the Jomo Kenyatta Prize, to recognise the proprietors of Text Book Centre, who have consistently funded the award over the years.
Christopher Okemwa, took the overall prize, in the Burt Award, with his book Sabina and the Mystery of the Ogre, published by Nsemia Publishers, pocketing Sh765,000 in the process – had he been sufficiently philanthropic, he would have donated his prize money to overall winners (in the English and Kiswahili Adult categories in the Jomo Kenyatta Prize) and still retain Sh165,000 as balance.
Okemwa’s book addresses the thorny issues of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and early forced marriage as exemplified by the struggles, and eventual triumph, of a girl called Sabina, who dares to challenge these two cultures in her Abagusii community and comes out triumphant. This win is a major plus for Nsemia Publishers, who have for sometime occupied the margins of publishing in Kenya. Nsemia was the refuge for writers who, rightly or wrongly, felt that mainstream publishers had shut doors in their faces.
Mark Chetambe, published by EAEP, took second prize for his effort Names and Secrets, taking home Sh595,000. This is the first time EAEP was getting a nominee in the Burt Prize, which has previously been dominated by Longhorn, Moran and Phoenix Publishers.
The third prize went to Charles Okoth, whose book A Close Shave is published by Phoenix Publishers. For his effort, he received a check worth Sh425,000.
In the Text Book Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature, Yvonne Adhiambo, via her critically acclaimed book, Dust, published locally by Kwani? took the English Category prize, earning herself Sh300,000. Yvonne Adhiambo won the Caine Prize for African Writing with her story, Weight of Whispers, in 2003, a year after Binyavanga Wainaina, the founder of Kwani? won the same award with autobiographical short story, Discovering Home.
The panel of judges, chaired by Dr Tom Odhiambo of University of Nairobi noted that Dust, written by a writer “who is comfortable with style and language of expression, strongly reminds Kenyans that ignoring the country’s ‘fractured’ history is perilous for our pursuit of national commonness.”
The winner in the Kiswahili adult category was John Habwe, with his book, Pendo la Karaha, published by Moran. In the Youth Category, the winners were Tissue Boy, written by Edward Mwangi (Moran) and Naskia Sauti ya Mama by Ken Walibora (Longhorn).
In the Children’s Category, the winners were A Scare in the Village by award winning author Stanley Gazemba (OUP) and Ushindi wa Nakate by Clara Momanyi (Longhorn). The two winners in the Youth Categories, each took home Sh150,000 while those in the Children’s category got Sh100,000 each.
There have been murmurs in writing circles as to why writing for adults, as opposed to writing for the youth or children, is considered superior if the prize money is anything to go by. Proponents of children’s writing argue that the prize money should be the same, seeing as writing for children is quite technical. No writing should be seen to be inferior to the other, they say.
Now that the prizes have been awarded, it remains to be seen whether publishers and award administrators will make extra efforts in marketing these books. In previous years, apart from the award ceremonies and stories in the media, no extra effort is put to make these award-winning books known to the wider public.

Paa ya Paa Art Gallery is calling on artists who have their artworks stored there to collect their pieces, apparently because they are running out of space. In a Facebook post made on Thursday July 16, the centre invited the artists for chai – probably the delicious grass tea made by the generous host Mzee Elimo Njau – on Saturday July 18, at 10.30 am.


Elimo Njau and his lovely wife Philda

Elimo Njau and his lovely wife Philda

Could this lack of space be the result of the court ordered subdivision of the five-acre plot, Paa ya Paa sits on? Following a court dispute between Elimo and his first wife Rebecca Njau, a Nairobi court ordered that the land be divided into two equal parts, with the other part going to Rebecca. The last time Maisha Yetu checked, the other part, which hosts, the famous Freedom Fighter sculpture, had already been fenced off.

It now remains to be seen whether artists will heed the call and collect the pieces. This might present logistical challenges to some of them, especially those with more than one pieces, more so if they are framed, as most artists lack efficient means of transportation.

Reproduced below is the Facebook post. Note that there was a typo in the date, whereby it reads 2025 instead of 2015.

Paa Ya Paa
Call For Artists –
Saturday, July 18, 2025
10:30 a.m.
We invite the following artists to Paa Ya Paa on Saturday, July 18th at 10:30 a.m. to come for a cup of tea and to pick up your artworks left in storage for many years. In this our 50th year of existence, we no longer have space available. As we work toward our celebration at the end of the year, we will also share with you our calendar of activities as we look forward to the future. If your name is not listed, but you know some of the artists, please inform them just in case they have not seen this notice.
ARTISTS: Adam Massava, Anne Mwiti, Allen Green, Allan Kangetwe, Boyd Oyier, Bevern Otieno, Caroline Mbirua.David Mundia, Dedan Kimani, Daniel Wanjau, Dan Marigi, Esther Mukuhi,Elegwa Wycliffe Swift, Ezra Joab, Evanson Kangethe, Eliud Ngugi, Evans Maina, Elias, Elian Mung’ora, Evans Mwangi, Eric Manya, Florence Ochieng, Frederick Kamau, Fred Shinzu, Henry Odero, Hussein, S.K., Hannah Turuga, Immaculate Juma, Isaac Kamau, Jimmy Matu, John Gitonga, Kibacia Gatu, Kayiira Owentebbe, Ken Artifat, Kamondia, Kayako, Lionel Njuguna, Lazarus Tumbuti, Lawy, Mike Kyalo, Moses Kabiru, Mukwana, Laura Vanessa, Morphat, Makonde, Nuru Bahati, Ngaruiya, Nduta Kariuki, Onyis Martin, Orade, Paul Owino, Paul Kihiko, Peter Murio, Patrick Kariuki, Robinson Omweri, Richard Mudibo, Sinoh, Smoki, Tony, Tabitha wa Thuku, Timothy Bonanza, Uhuru Brown, Victor Nandwa, Watindi, Hezron; Wangatho, B., Yassir Ali .
PAA YA PAA Arts Centre
0733 270 109

Artists have until October 14 to submit their pieces for this year’s Affordable Art Show which is set to be held at the National Museums of Kenya (NMK) between October 23 and 25. This is an event of the Kenya Museum Society (KMS) aimed at raising funds in support of NMK.


The art show is open to paintings, sculpture and mixed media work. Submissions will be juried. An individual artist can submit a maximum of two pieces, which should not be priced at more than Sh99,000. “Each piece should measure 100cm x 100cm (paintings and sculptures) for easy carrying of the art pieces by buyers,” says the communication signed by Lydia Galavu, the art curator at the museum and Patricia Ithau, who chairs the KMS Affordable Art Show.

The artworks to be submitted must have been created in 2015. Artists can also submit a third, A3 piece priced at Sh10,000.  The opening of the art show will take place in the courtyard behind the Louis Leakey Auditorium on Friday evening, October 23, 2015. The show will continue on Saturday and Sunday until October 25.

Artists’ work should be delivered to the former NMK boardroom at the rear of the courtyard on Wednesday, October 14, between 10am and 3pm. Artists from outside Nairobi who send work by public means,  must ensure that their submissions arrive no later than October 12.

Unsold art must be picked up on October 26, between 10am and 3pm. After that date and time, the art will belong to KMS and will be used to raise further funds for NMK.

Barely a month after Culture minister disowned the ‘Kenyan Pavilion’ at the Venice Biennale, it is now emerging that a letter had been written by the ministry requesting participation at the Biennale. This is in spite of repeated denials from the ministry, including CS Hassan Wario, of the same.

Already a letter allegedly written by Wenslas SA Ong’ayo, on behalf of the Principal Secretary, expressing the intention of the Republic of Kenya to participate in the event, is doing rounds in social media circles. The letter, apparently written way back in November 10, 2014, and addressed to Dr Paolo Baratta, the chairman of the Foundazione La Beinnale di Venezia, said that “Maretti Editore srl” “will sponsor the event and that Mrs Paola Poponi has been appointed Commissioner of the Republic of Kenya pavilion,” says the letter.  Onga’ayo is the director of administration at the ministry.


Matters came to a head when it was discovered that, for the second consecutive time, Kenya was being represented by Chinese artists at the prestigious event – the same happened in 2013 – popularly known as the Art Olympics. Local artists and their representatives protested and formed a delegation to seek clarification from Wario.

On April 14, the SC, accompanied by, among others, Ong’ayo, addressed a press conference at the Kenya Cultural Centre, and strenuously denied knowledge of the ministry’s connection to the people manning the Kenyan pavilion.

“Our investigations on this issue show that this happened at least twice before, in 2003 and 2013, through the involvement of Armando Tanzini, who resides in Malindi,” read part of Wario’s statement. “Tanzini and his team have presented themselves, wrongfully and repeatedly, as Kenya’s official representatives.”

During the press conference, a resolution was made to the effect that Kenya’s name and flag would be dropped from the pavilion. A letter to that effect was dispatched to Venice. That action by Wario must have caught Tanzini unawares, for he is the one that released Onga’yo’s letter, to prove that he indeed had the ministry’s backing.

Silvia Gichia, the director Kuona Trust, who was at the forefront in agitating against the Kenyan pavilion, told The Nairobian, that Tanzini called her from Italy, where he is manning the pavilion. “He was very furious and was protesting what he called betrayal by the ministry,” explains Sylvia. “He was saying that the ministry was tarnishing his name, yet they were the ones who issued him with the letter, and that is how he emailed me that letter.”

She says that Tanzini acted surprised when asked why he did not include Kenyan artists in the pavilion. “Which artists?”  he retorted.

Sylvia adds that following the Tanzini’s revelations, she got in touch with Wario, who expressed disbelief at the direction the saga had taken. “He promised that action would be taken at the ministry level,” adds Sylvia.

On her part, Sylvia, who is a member of a committee – consisting of government officials and individual artists – formed to address the Biennale saga, expressed her disgust with the government. “We are disappointed with the government; Wario should be on top of his game. We hold the government responsible for this whole fiasco,” she says adding that there is a need to re-evaluate that committee seeing as their trust with the government has taken a hit.

We wrote a email to Tanzini seeking his side of the story by had not received a response by the of going to press. Calls and a text message to Ong’ayo also went unanswered. Wario’s personal assistant, who promised to get back to us once he came out of hospital.

SolThe first time I listened to Sauti Sol’s latest single, ‘Nerea’, in a matatu, I thought the lyrics were jarring. The conservative voice in me felt that a ‘taboo’ subject was being handled inappropriately. Yes, abortion is such a sensitive subject in our society. Despite the fact that the procurement of abortion is, today, as widespread as the common cold, it is still talked about in whispers. Any woman suspected of having procured an abortion, becomes an outcast in society.

Amos and Josh

However, as the song progressed, my nerves were somehow calmed by the harmonious vocals of the group, which has teamed up with the duo of Amos and Josh, for this project. Despite their controversial nature, the lyrics are quite a revelation. The song is dedicated to Nerea, who could be any girl out there, and who is heavy with the singer’s child. It could be that, for one reason or the other, Nerea wants to terminate the pregnancy. The artist is therefore beseeching Nerea to give the unborn baby a chance in life.

They even introduce a spiritual side to it by invoking God’s name implying that it is Him who provides for every life that is brought into this world. This appears to be a direct challenge to women who justify aborting arguing that they have nothing to feed the child once it is born. The man in the song even offers to bring up the child.

The song is deceptively simple, with only two stanzas; the first one, which is also the chorus, carries the whole message of the song, while the second one enumerates what the future holds for an unborn child. It could be a future president, an actress like Lupita or an environmentalist like Wangari Maathai. However, the potency of the songs lies in its simplicity. Those lines are repeated over and over, throughout the song, to cement the message and to prick at the conscience of any woman contemplating abortion; what if the baby I plan to ‘flush’ becomes the future Obama and lifts me out of the valley of poverty?

Well, in terms of packaging a message, Sauti Sol and Amos and Josh score a strong ‘A’.  It will be recalled when finer details of the present constitution were being thrashed out, the topic of abortion was perhaps the one that elicited the most heated debate with the point of departure being when life begins; during conception or at birth.

During this whole time, it was the lawyer types, civil society activists, religious persons and politicians, who were engaging each other with the finer details of when life starts; while the masses, where the real, erm, abortion takes place, watched on bemusedly, wondering why there was such a fuss.

Now enter Sauti Sol and ‘Nerea’ and the abortion narrative has now been squarely placed where it belongs; among the masses, and especially among the youth – who are most likely to be experimenting with illicit sex, the result being unwanted pregnancies and eventual abortion. The topic of abortion might appear quite abstract, even fancy, when being discussed by the opposing pro-life and pro-choice lobbies. Using art, and good art at that, Sauti Sol/Amos and Josh have brought the message uncomfortably home, and it is causing what the Swahilis call ‘tumbo joto.’

More than ever before, Nerea has quite deftly brought men into the picture. Previously, men were seen as passive participants in the whole abortion matrix; isn’t abortion about women and their bodies? The only time men are roped in, is when they fork out the ‘blood money’ used to procure the abortion, and like Pontius Pilate wash their hands off the whole thing. Otherwise men pretend to be horrified by abortion, despite them being active and sweaty participants in creating the foetus now being aborted.

When they appeared on ‘The Trend Show’ of Friday, April 24, Larry Madowo, the show’s host pointedly asked Sauti Sol, what business they had policing women’s bodies. Bien, sidestepped the question rather brilliantly by referring to the ‘nakuomba’ word they used in the lyrics, indicating that they were merely pleading with Nerea not to abort. The inference here was that the girl was at liberty to do as she wished.

The answer can be classified as false humility; misleading at best. A critical look at their lyrics indicates that they use the words ‘mimba yangu’ – loosely translated to ‘my pregnancy’. The tacit ‘ownership’ of the ‘mimba’, gives men more power while negotiating abortion choices, while also making them more responsible for the welfare of the offspring. The pro-choice lobby, which argues that the body is theirs and can as well do as they wish with it, might not like this sneaky empowerment of men.

As things stand, ‘Nerea’ has thrown a spanner in the works, a cat among pigeons as it were.

A discussion about Nerea is not complete without looking at the technical aspects of the song. The music arrangement of Nerea is what the late Billy Omala of the ‘Chaguo Lako’ fame on KBC radio, would have described as ‘vyombo vimepangwa vikapangika’. The arrangement is just right.

Polycarp opens with his easy lead guitar, the signature tune of Sauti Sol, as the listeners are familiarised with the song’s lyrics. With the two stanzas firmly in place, it is time to move to the next gear and at one minute and 13 seconds, the double bass is slowly eased into the background. This gives cue for Josh to hit the high notes with ‘nitamlea’. The vocal effect continues with Chimano’s deep bass – despite his slight stature – followed by the chorus, which is at climax. At two minutes, the other instruments including the violins take over and the vocals take a back-seat, for an interval of 15 seconds. Here, the beauty of the song shines through. Afterwards the song is on homestretch; time to relax things and bring the song to a close.

Despite their current popularity, Sauti Sol occupies that complicated space between urban mass appeal and high Afro fusion with its complicated audience, but have managed to appeal to both audiences. It is rare, in Kenya today, to find the mass market embracing musical groups that perform with the backing of a full band. They prefer simple, computer generated beats, creating what is eventually known as bubblegum pop.

Things however changed when, in their debut ‘Mwanzo’ album, the did the song ‘Lazizi’, that captured the essence of your urban culture and aspirations’ with a young man seeking to date a girl in Nairobi and taking her to Java, where not many can ordinarily afford to patronise. ‘Lazizi’ earned them a legion of urban youth, and who refused to let go. This effectively marked a turning point with Sauti Sol, who in order to serve their newly acquired fans, found themselves steadily pulling away from the donor/expatriate spaces they had been courting at the beginning. This has been exemplified by the song Gentleman, a collabo they did with urban pop group P Unit.

They have however maintained their sophisticated musical roots, not once abandoning the full band; ‘Sura Yako’ and ‘Nerea’ attests to this. It can be argued that Sauti Sol introduced Nairobi youth to the finer details of music.

Sauti Sol’s crowning moment came when they shared the stage with internationally acclaimed South African Acapella group, Lady Smith Black Mambazo, to perform ‘Diamonds on the Soles of her Feet’, a collabo with Paul Simon. Bien did Paul Simon’s lyrics, much to the applause of the audience and respect from the Joseph Shabalala’s outfit. Finally, Sauti Sol had arrived at the international stage.



It is said that lightning does not strike twice but sadly for Kenyan art, it just did. For the second consecutive season the Kenyan pavilion at the Venice Biennale is being represented Chinese artists. The same thing happened in 2013, a lot of noise was made, the government, through the culture ministry, promised action, but it appears nothing was done.

It is now emerging that the man running the show at the Kenyan pavilion is Armando Tanzini, a hotelier, of Italian origin, who has reportedly lived at the Kenyan coast for 45 years. He also played a big role in the 2013 saga. Questions are now being raised about how a private individual who has no ties with the Kenyan government or the Culture ministry, has the authority to run a pavilion on behalf of Kenya.


Biennale SoiMichael Soi, a visual artist based at The Godown, reads mischief in the whole issue. “For a country to participate at the Biennale, the relevant government arm, in our case the Culture ministry writes to the Mayor of Venice, where the exhibition is taking place, requesting for space,” he explains. “It is after the request has been vetted and accepted that the country is required to show commitment by putting in some money. This is followed by giving out the names of artists who will exhibit at the event.”

Soi and other artists are concerned that someone from the ministry must have written the letter giving the blessings of the ministry for the pavilion to exist. “The word we are getting from the ministry is that they have no idea who did the letter. This is too embarrassing for us as Kenyan artists and the country as a whole,” he explains.

On Friday, March 20, a group of artists, who, among others, included, Soi, author Binyavanga Wainaina, Justus Kyalo, Maggie Otieno, Jimmy Ogonga and James Muriuki, apparently at the invitation of CS Hassan Wario, went to his offices to try and ‘sort out the issue’. “When we got there we were told the CS, being a Muslim, had gone for Friday prayers. We stayed there up to 5 pm but he did not show up,” says Soi.

While there, a ministry official showed them a letter that promised to halt the operations of the Kenyan pavilion and promising to make better preparations for the 2017 edition of the event. However, the letter was not signed. “We could not take it seriously. We were promised that it would be signed and issued on Monday, March 23, which did not materialise,” says Soi.

Wangechi Mutu

The Kenyan pavilion at the Biennale, and whose theme is Creating Identities, has the following listed as the Kenyan representatives. Yvonne Apiyo Braendle-Amolo, Qin Feng, Shi Jinsong, Armando Tanzini, Li Zhanyang, Lan Zheng Hui, Li Gang, Double Fly Art Center. From the name alone Yvonne Apiyo Braendle-Amolo is the only Kenyan in the group of artists.

The curator of the Kenyan pavilion is listed as Sandro Orlandi Stagl. A simple google check on him reveals that anything about him is written in Italian. The only English posts have to do with the present controversy. None of the people, in the local art industry seem to know who Yvonne Apiyo Braendle-Amolo, let alone her credentials as an artist.

Apparently, US-based Kenyan visual artist, Wangechi Mutu, is among the big name artists whose art will be gracing the Venice Biennale. Our enquiries revealed that Wangechi would be exhibiting at the Central Pavilion – unlike the country pavilions – which will be curated by the Biennale itself.

Wangechi, through a comment on Facebook, had this to say about the saga: “…The reason why this hotelier (Tanzini) has gotten away with this for so long is that those who care didn’t seem to know it was happening, and those who were aware that it was happening don’t actually care how Kenya is represented abroad or at home!”

Binyavanga made the following post of Facebook. “…Let me be clear that none of this could have happened without clear collusion: Somebody in our government, every two years has signed off on this. It is possible that Kenya Embassy in Rome knows or is involved with this. In 2013, we were promised this would be dealt with. It has not.”

Meanwhile, Kenyans are signing an online petition, on, addressed to the ministry urging it to do something about the saga.