Report & Essay

Time, Space, Character and the Writer
Samuel Munene

 The Archives: A month after the Kwani? launch, some highlights and thoughts by Samuel Munene

Kenyan writers don’t keep time. Or, maybe, they treat every event as a story writing exercise and arrive late to intentionally build up plot tension. Or how else could one explain that none of the invited guests and writers for the Kwani? launch at Club Afrique had arrived ten minutes to seven. Designated time was quarter past six.

So, the band played on, awaiting the writers to develop their characters. A short pretty lady belted her blues, like an original Esther Phillips circa 1970s , something about Jeremiah 29.11. I downloaded the bible on my phone and confirmed her lyrics. Brave New World. The electronic book is really here. But we were all at the launch to disagree and pay homage to the pretty (and bulky) things to be launched and sold. To be taken home, held in hand, and left for a friend and another generation to enjoy. A wet index finger turning the page is sexier than thumb on e-gadget. Those yet to develop some faith in e-books can only be wished good luck; they will need it if they hope to still be in profitable business ten years to come.

Now, Kwani? which is about ‘contemporary spaces’ is certainly not one of the conservatives, is it? So next year don’t be surprised to see: ‘Kwani? will be launched on mobile phones on 23rd July. Ringtones by Eric Wainaina. Make sure to charge your battery.’

And talking about Jeremiah, The Book and books – who is it that said, ‘I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library’?

David Kaiza was the first writer to arrive, holding a copy of Kwani? 05, Part 2 from which he was to read later in the night. He looked disturbed; clearly his role in building the tension was still a work in progress.
Mixing a cold and warm beer, he lamented how newspapers are reluctant to invest in literary events like the Kwani? launch. Why should they? Is it to promote a reading culture, which will encourage people to buy the papers? Or is it because the writers supplement the as-it-is reporting of the journalists with some insights? But you know these are not the best of days for newspapers; there are shareholders demanding dividends, there is the highcostofliving and the globaleconimicmeltdown; there is the small matter of Internet and Citizen journalism. You sympathize with Newspapers: these are more than enough excuses (they call them reasons) for Newspaper publishers to not put their hard earned shillings in literary events but have the generosity to cover them.

Half past seven and Club Afrique was full of the creative types. Quite a number representing African Radical Chic, dreadlocks, ethnic prints and shoulder-brushing earrings. In a global-village, being black is not enough. The kitenge says you are African.

Doreen Baingana, author of ‘Tropical Fish’ and the Editor of Storymoja Publications was in the house, sharing a table with David Kaiza. Monica Arac De Nyeko with them. . Just a minute, those were three Ugandan writers. Who was representing our Tanzanian comrades? Hard as I could try I couldn’t remember any Tanzanian authors? I recall one ndugu, Shabaan Roberts. Hell, we were launching post election violence (PEV) texts that were only possible because the Tanzanian president had helped broker the peace deal.

The big event got underway some minutes past eight o’clock. Was the love present for music or books ama, just to see the collabo? And wasn’t it odd that Kwani? with all the creatives in its stable could not have come up with a more poetic title to name the evening? Something like ‘Books and Beats’ rather than the drab ‘Book launch followed by a performance by Eric Wainaina’?

The Mathree band was on stage, singing about “El Oh Vee-Eee”. The female lead singer was trying to make the session interactive. ‘Who has ever fallen in love’? she wailed. Nobody raised their hand. Maybe falling in love is wimpish. Would the hands have gone up if she had asked, ‘Who wants a copy of Kwani? 05’? , Or even better: ‘Who wants a beer’?

The readings started with Ngwatilo, formerly known as Neema, reading from The Life and Times of Richard Onyango, one of the titles being launched. Neema has a melodious voice and seductive smile, no denying that. She read like a spoken- word artist would, with the Mathree band providing background instrumentals. It sounded great considering that the story is written in first person and by a man that I couldn’t really create a mental image of. But that was a small inconvenience, easy to brush aside.

Many of the upcountry young men who go to the coast to start careers as Maasai men, cultural ambassadors, or beach boys would have wanted to be in Richard Onyango’s shoes:
“…It was nearly midnight when I saw her. A woman wearing a cream dress and shoes. She had a unique figure 8- because she was very big and strong-and she looked at me….she had very fierce eyes.Wow.I said to myself, who is this. She was smiling at me and admiring me so I added some beats just to make her happy. Then she stood and came towards the stage, and I thought she was going to the toilet- but she stopped at the stage and gave me 100 Kshs.100Kshs!..”

David Kaiza was next. He admitted he was nervous. They must be adding water to beer nowadays if he was still nervous after four bottles. He read from his story, ‘From the land of Anaka’, which appears in Kwani? 05? Part 2. An ‘ethno travel writing piece’, he called it. It’s an interesting look at the migration of the Luo from Sudan to Kenya and Uganda. I suspect the answer to the Migingo dispute lies in those pages.

Wambui Mwangi followed Kaiza on stage. She looked fresh; I overheard that she had jetted into the country less than an hour earlier. The passion for books. She read from ‘Internally Misplaced’, a book she has authored and aptly titled, under the Kwani-ni? Series, also being launched. It is about the mental conflict a character caught in PEV Nairobi goes through. Come to think of it, Kenyan writers are not that lazy after all. It’s less than two years since the PEV and we have all these texts trying to make sense of it.

Neema waltzed back on stage and spoke the Richard Onyango story. White people are so nice; they are rich and give all their love to poor Africans. God bless white people.
Done with the bittersweet struggles of the artist, Richard Onyango, she took on the ‘The Life of Mzee Ondego’ by Enock Ondego, Kenya’s greatest choirmaster and Kenyatta confidante. You remember this song;

‘Ilikuwa Oktoba nchini Kenya watu wote waliskia, Kenyatta ameshikwa
Hakushikwa Kenyatta peke yake lakini walishikwa na mabingwa wa Uhuru,
Woi tunataka Kenyatta aachiliwe’

Enock Ondego composed it. He is very much alive and not dead, contrary to a rumor repeated as far as on national radio. He tells his story in this little book.

Billy Kahora who doubles as Kwani? Editor and author of ‘The True Story Of David Munyakei; Goldenberg Whistleblower ‘, was last to read. He read from the latter after the audience had watched a film clip about Munyakei directed by Judy Kibinge. How many in the audience would have gone the Munyakei heroic way when billions were involved? Personally I couldn’t answer in the negative straight away. Many others were certainly in my position, some definitely going a step further to brand Munyakei as dim; alizubaa.

That aside I couldn’t help but note the glee on Billy’s face as he read. It was not so obvious but it was there. That I-am-reading–from-my-book kind of facial look. How many editors do you know who are armchair critics and do not have book title to their names? Billy is no longer one of them.

And being Editor, of course he had some ranting to do. Those who have read the Kwani? 05, Part 2 editorial would know if he were to cut the chase and get straight to the point. He is simply asking ‘Where is the great Kenya novel of our time’?

You may have missed the good part, but don’t shed all your tears, the best part is between the covers of the books which are available at all leading bookshops.

Bookmark and Share