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Nairobi’s writers take on a life of their own

31 May 2012

Kwani Trust is at the forefront of a literary renaissance in Kenya, writes Clar Ni Chonghaile


Kwami Trust’s Billy Kahora.

Kwami Trust’s Billy Kahora.

AT THE Insomnia Club, upstairs in Nairobi’s T-Mall, Cindy Ogana scribbles on loose sheets of paper as she sips a Tusker beer and sways to the music filling the cavernous black-walled room. The Hot 96 FM presenter is writing a poem – about being friends with exes – to perform in front of the small but growing crowd of young men and women sipping drinks in the shadows and trying to pluck up the courage to take part in this session for wannabe poets, musicians and storytellers.

Nairobi’s monthly Open Mic is just one of the many branches of the literary tree that is Kenya’s Kwani Trust. Kwani (which means “So?” in Kiswahili, and often carries a question mark) describes itself as a literary network, publishing books and the Kwani? anthologies of fiction and non-fiction, organising literary festivals and offering training.

“You picked a bad day,” Ogana says. “Usually, we get around 150 people.” Open Mic’s usual inner-city venue is being renovated. But it turns out not to be a bad day at all; instead, it’s an inspiring, laughter-laced night that opens a window into a boundary-breaking literary scene that’s redefining the city’s creative process – just as the bulldozers are redefining the face of Nairobi and had turned my journey to the Open Mic’s temporary venue into a ninety-minute bump-fest on potholed back roads.

Later than usual (again, that traffic), Ogana, a slight woman in skinny jeans and a turquoise sweater, goes to the microphone and uses apparently irrepressible energy to fire up the brave souls who have journeyed here.

Then it’s time for the first performer: a tiny woman in a black abaya and veil who hesitantly reads a poem about immersing oneself in life. The audience is appreciative as, one by one, young men and women walk self-consciously to the microphone and unfold little pieces of paper or – in one of Africa’s most tech-friendly cities – read their work from their phones.

Kwani Trust’s managing editor Billy Kahora – a writer and editor with a passionate, questioning personality – had explained the point of the Open Mic sessions to me a few days earlier, as we sat in the garden outside the trust’s pale-orange, two-storey headquarters in the Riverside neighbourhood. It was hot, and the garden rang with birdsong and the sound of workers sawing and hacking nearby.

“You have all these literary people who don’t necessarily write but do perform,” says Kahora. “What has happened with Open Mic is that it has taken on a life of its own. You always get new talent coming in and coming out. And it really helps our brand because it tells us how people are thinking and operating.”

Kwani Trust was set up in 2003 by a group of frustrated writers, including Binyavanga Wainaina, perhaps Kenya’s best-known contemporary writer. Wainaina won the 2002 Caine Prize for African Writing for his story “Discovering Home” and wrote the seminal (and satirical) Granta essay, “How to Write about Africa.” His acclaimed memoir, One Day I Will Write about This Place, was published late last year.

As director of the Chinua Achebe Centre at New York’s Bard College – one of Kwani Trust’s partners – Wainaina has been dividing his time between Kenya and the United States. While he’s no longer involved in the day-to-day running of Kwani, he is still on the board and actively involved in deciding editorial direction.

Among the other people who brought the project to life are Parselelo Kantai, a Kenyan writer and investigative journalist, film-maker Wanjiru Kinyanjui, and Tom Maliti, a journalist and the chair of Kwani Trust’s board. As Maliti wrote on Kwani’s website, “It began with a question: Are Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Meja Mwangi” – Kenya’s best-known older novelists – “the only writers Kenyan publishers are interested in? Why aren’t new writers being published in Kenya?”

Since its birth in 2003, Kwani has published thirty new writers, including Caine Prize winners like Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor and runners-up like Kahora, whose short story “Treadmill Love” was highly commended by the judges in 2007. It also publishes the Kwanini series of pocket-sized books of fiction.

Kahora is thoughtful and precise as he explains how, after the effervescence of the postcolonial period with writers like Ngugi, there was a feeling that literary creativity had dried up somewhat in the 1980s and 1990s. Kwani sought to “reinstitutionalise” the creative process and legitimise it, he says. But in some ways, the very existence of Kwani is its ultimate strength in a country where traditional publishing houses tend to focus on textbooks, and in a world where the literary canon has long been dominated by the West.

Kahora, who moves constantly during the interview, stretching his legs, leaning forward to make a point, rummaging for a banana in a brown paper bag, describes his own need for role models when he was growing up in Nairobi. “When I was in my teens, in the nineties, it just helped to have Ngugi there, but for someone starting out now, seeing material that’s contemporary really helps. I remember my own hunger for literature… that came from my place.”

He was especially eager for urban tales that would reflect his own experience in Nairobi, where he went to the same high school as Wainaina, who was a few years ahead of him. He started reading early, and apart from Heinemann’s famous African Writers Series, with its distinctive orange covers, most of his recreational reading was from the West: Enid Blyton, the Hardy Boys, the Three Investigators, and later James Hadley Chase. In his early teens, he wanted works that resonated with his life. He turned to Ngugi, who had attracted an international readership, and Meja Mwangi, a prolific popular writer from the 1970s.

“People talk about A Grain of Wheat as Ngugi’s greatest work, but for me it was Petals of Blood (when I was younger), simply because it had scenes in Nairobi where I had grown up, like Jeevanjee Gardens… Urban Africa was a big, big thing, where you are looking for things that you immediately recognise.”

The Kwani? anthologies give these themes a home, and offer new writers a chance to add to the canon. Kahora goes through the stack of Kwani? books on the wooden table. The first two volumes were just about providing a space for new writers. Kwani? 3 tackled Sheng, the increasingly popular Swahili–English lingua franca of young Kenyans. The next issue dealt with issues of ethnicity and, in particular, informal sentiments about the perceived ruling tribe, the Kikuyu, which has long dominated politics in Kenya. And then came the 2007 election.

“We wanted a very personalised, character-driven account of the elections and then the violence happened. We said we are going to publish all the stuff that we don’t think will come out. And we weren’t interested in any agendas or unifying the place. We just wanted all the diverse voices, all these people saying different things,” Kahora says. The anthology that resulted, Kwani? 5, gathered a powerful collection of testimonies about the violence.

The latest – based around the theme “The Kenya I Live In” – includes the winning entries from a short story competition for writers born after 1978, and grew almost organically out of Kwani? 5. After it was published, says Kahora, the editors realised that the people featured were all from their generation (he is in his late thirties). Kwani Trust wanted to hear from younger Kenyans, and issued an invitation that was taken up energetically.

“What was interesting was what people sent. People don’t care that you have all these rules… People sent rants, people sent letters, which in itself said something about that demographic.”

Does he think people just needed someone to listen? “Yes. That kind of covers what Kwani is trying to do, open up a space… using narrative as an expression.”

Next, Kwani will launch a continent-wide competition for novel-length manuscripts. Another project involves digitising all its existing content. “We already have the offline hierarchies and structures and we’ve been building them over time. How do we transfer them?” If somebody else gets in first, says Kahora, it could fatally undercut Kwani’s audience.

Meanwhile, the very material at the base of the creative process is also evolving, in Nairobi as elsewhere, with traditional literary output diffusing into other media, like music, spoken word and animation.

Kahora says it is hard to evaluate the strength of the Kenyan literary scene now, and perhaps even the description is a misnomer, as the Open Mic session showed. In today’s Kenya, it is about so much more than the traditional published word. Creativity seemed to disappear in the eighties and nineties, but it was always ready to bubble up again.

“I always say that the creativity didn’t end. The question is, where did it end up?” Kahora says, describing a move by writers to comics, newspapers and then to smaller publishers in the eighties and nineties – what he calls a “deconstruction.” He says the nineties also saw the emergence of a generation that uses new, non-literary outlets and forms of expression, like FM radio stations, music and Sheng.

KEVIN Man-Njoro exemplifies this new generation. His real name is Kevin Waithaka and by day he is a mechanic. As well as being a spoken word artist outside work hours, he is also a musician: his music is what MC Ogana is swaying to as she writes her poem.

Man-Njoro is the night’s featured act. “You are the fruit of the season because we think you are dope,” Cindy Ogana concludes, and as the crowd claps the lanky man in the white T-shirt and jeans walks casually up to the microphone. His voice is low, at first. In fact, he will display multiple personalities during his act, first rapping spontaneously with his friend Checkmate Mido, a bespectacled twenty-two-year-old accountant and actor with corn-rowed hair.

“I want you to close your eyes. I want you to go to a Nairobi street. Are you with me? Let’s go,” Man-Njoro says, as Checkmate begins to deliver a beat over which the twenty-three-year-old raps about street life in Nairobi. The two men are slick — they used to do this on Nairobi street corners. “People loved us; they forgot to go home,” Checkmate says.

Man-Njoro credits Kwani for giving artists a space. Kwani and other similar platforms “improve art,” he says. “Sometimes you come to see not just what to do, but what not to do.” Weslie Onsando, who also performed a poem, agrees that Kwani has filled a gap. “Most Kenyan publishing houses publish textbooks and educational books. The fact that there is a publisher that will publish a literary book can show people that such work exists in Kenya,” she says.

But the Open Mic evening isn’t all about love, breaking up or street life. Several performers addressed the political–tribal violence that exploded in 2007–08. It’s a hot topic again with a national election likely to be held at the end of this year or early in 2013.

Kahora, who edited a book of shocking photographs of the post-election violence, Kenya Burning, says these issues need to be discussed openly. Successive administrations have exploited tribal divisions to gain power, and the tensions came to a head in 2007. “Kwani is specifically interested in mapping out these conversations and differences in the public space called literature and narrative.”

A rejection of the status quo is gaining traction among young Kenyans disgusted with years of corrupt rule by politicians of advanced years. A giant mural, which appeared one February morning in the heart of Nairobi’s business district, put public frustration into sharp focus. It shows an MP as a vulture, sitting on a chair, his feet grinding into a woman’s head. “MPs screwing Kenyans since 1963,” reads the tagline, and on one side of the main picture the major corruption scandals of the last four decades are listed. It’s a long list.

The mural is a gutsy way of reaching out. Kahora says that one of the challenges for Kenyan creatives is finding an original voice; in a way, this is what Man-Njoro and Checkmate are doing with their rapping and spoken word characters. “A lot of writers are still rebooting because they have all this literary baggage in their heads from the West.”

Kahora, who is writing a novel about a Kenyan family’s collapse during the socioeconomic upheaval of the nineties, says there is a penchant for realism, because there is an absence of literary history that references Kenyan writers’ experiences. “It’s not part of the narrative. So you start from that. But now you find that the younger writers, like some of the stuff in Kwani? 6… have elements of fantasy and hyperrealism.”

Kwani? 7 will deal with the diaspora, a theme close to Kahora’s heart. Like Wainaina, he has lived for an extended period in South Africa — in his case, for seven years, partly studying at Rhodes University in Grahamstown. “There is no way I would have been who I am or where I am,” he says, “if I didn’t go to South Africa and see how society actually decides to become serious about what I’m talking about: organic, creative and cultural expression.”

“The critical mass and the creative core of the Kwani original writers have had defining diaspora moments. I lived in the diaspora, Binyavanga lived in the diaspora, so it was long overdue.”

Whatever the literary ambitions of Kwani, the prosaic reality is that it needs to sell books. Although it hasn’t been doing too badly, Kahora knows a lot more needs to be done — in both marketing and distribution. They have built a collection of titles. The next step is to extend the market, but in a country with a limited distribution network, there are no easy answers.

Kahora says that what they publish sells quickly. Although Kenya Burning sells for 1500 shillings (A$17) — a princely sum for the majority of Nairobi’s residents — it has sold over 3000 copies. “For this market, that’s good,” Kahora says. “We are growing but we could do much better. We want to be doing 5000 to 10,000 and it’s doable, but we need to become much stronger in our marketing.”

Kevin Man-Njoro is no Ivory Tower artist either. He wants his work out there — in all its forms. He is thrilled that his spoken word performances have won play for his music on Hot 96 FM. He dreams of making a living from his art — he wants to build a studio — but in acquisitive Nairobi, this is not just about money. “My dream is not to make money from my art. I make money now for my art,” he says. •

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Precise details and deliberate observances: Silent Souls (above).

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