‘It began with a question’, says Tom Maliti, Kwani Trust’s Board Chairman .
Are Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Meja Mwangi the only writers Kenyan publishers are interested in? Why aren’t new writers being published in Kenya? Some writers got frustrated with waiting for publishers to just acknowledge they had received a manuscript. One year was frequently mentioned as the waiting period. Others were told no, after waiting a year for some acknowledgement. Many just never heard back. Was textbook publishing so lucrative that general fiction manuscripts were not of interest?
Questions followed answers that threw up more questions. Filmmaker Wanjiru Kinyanjui evolved into moderator of the email that circulated and took one thing for granted: there are interesting new writers out there. But they do not have a space to flourish, to be the next Ngugi wa Thiong’o as it were. Friends added other friends to the email’s cc line. Others just added people they thought would be interested even though they did not know each other well. The conversation grew and continued for months.
This was in the time of dial-ups and internet cafes that kept an 8-5 schedule. No Facebook, no Twitter in the months of 2000-2001 when a mix of Kenyan writers, artists, activists of all kinds, journalists, literature teachers and just lovers of literature vented, raged and pondered the state of Kenya’s literary scene.
It was suggested and agreed by all to take the discussion off-line. Make things happen. Wanjiru Kinyanjui accepted to convene the first meetings to be held at a cafe on the corner of Ronald Ngala Street and Moi Avenue in Nairobi, where Family Bank now has a branch. From the enthusiastic crowd on email only a handful showed up each time a meeting was called. May be the location? May be the timing? Something was holding back those demanding a new writing (that is what the email had become, a demand).
Eventually the meetings drew more than a handful. And the free-flowing character of that email found a home, or two. It was decided, if existing publishing houses do not want to or are reluctant to print new writing, then we would just have to publish it ourselves. But publish what? Entire books or a journal? Again questions led to answers that led to more questions. And the group continued to grow as people who had not been part of the email conversation were invited to contribute.
Ideas flowed thanks to gracious hosts. Sculptor Irene Wanjiru opened her home and fed many as a literary journal was shaped. Her husband, Ali Zaidi, now Deputy Managing Editor of The EastAfrican, presided over proceedings in his inimitable way. And when Irene Wanjiru needed a break from playing host, Daily Nation columnist Rasna Warah opened up the poolside of the apartment block she lived in for more musings.
All this was happening as the annual Caine Prize for African Writing was launched and its first two winners were announced. Binyavanga Wainaina, who was part of the conversation on and off-line, had been shortlisted for the 2002 award. Binyavanga, now the Director of the Chinua Achebe Center for African Writers and Artists, went off to Oxford in July and got the award. What’s more, he became part of a conversation. Ford Foundation had a program called Special Initiatives for Africa and was looking for ways of encouraging what looked like a new generation of African writers. Binyavanga Wainaina said there is a group in Kenya that had been debating and discussing publishing a literary journal aimed at doing something similar. Well, if that is the case, can he send a proposal to Ford? Binyavanga’s award and news was enthusiastically received when he returned to Nairobi.
One thing had not been thrashed out: what to call the journal? In the Wanjiru-Zaidi garden, names were bandied about. Why not have a name in sheng? Quick agreement, but what? Niaje, ama Kwani? suggested Tom Maliti, a correspondent with The Associated Press. Kwani? was thought to best represent the spirit of the soon-to-be new journal.
Parselelo Kantai, now the East Africa editor of The Africa Report, and Binyavanga crafted many months of free-flowing discussions into a proposal. With much more experience in proposal-writing and dealing with funding organizations, Muthoni Wanyeki, now the Executive Director of the Kenya Human Rights Commission, wrote a final draft proposal and helped in discussions with Ford Foundation.
Kwani Trust was formed in January 2003 with Binyavanga as its coordinator. 8 months later Kwani? was born with Binyavanga as its first editor.
In that period, we have had some milestones :