“Ken Okoth did more for Kibra than any other M.P. We are losing young people who care, while old people who robbed this country, and continue to do so are living long lives.”
This was an impassioned tweet from Rasna Warah, a seasoned writer and social commentator upon the demise of Ken Okoth, M.P for Kibra who had been battling colorectal cancer. Rasna spoke my thoughts and that of many people who saw his death coming but continued to live in denial.
Her lament, reminded me of a sigiiya – dirge I had heard in Luo land many years ago. It went thus: “Jo”mabeyo tho rumo, jo richo ema odong…jo richo ema dong’” (While the good and noble people die and heading to extinction, the evil ones remain and live long).
The lamenters since Ken Okoth passed away, have mourned the untimeliness of his passing. This is not only because he died prematurely, it is clear that there was a sense that the youthful MP’s work was not yet done. Ken was doing and saying all the right things and demonstrating what real leadership is and can do. Prior to his elevation to the seat of MP for Kibra, Ken Okoth was not a household name. All he was publicly known for, was his service as a legislator and representative par excellence to the people of Kibra and Kenya. It is my feeling that the gravity of the loss to the Kenyan nation, is yet to be comprehended.
Ken Okoth was several great people rolled into one: he was an eloquent pacifist in a midst of a volatile place like Kibra much like Martin Luther King. He was a compassionate and dedicated humanist with a caring heart for the poor much like J.M. Kariuki. He was a revolutionary feminist in the midst of a patriarchal and at time misogynistic polity that has refused to implement the 1/3 gender rule in parliament, like Thomas Sankara. He was an intelligent, inspirational visionary servant leader like Tom Mboya. The irony, and indeed the thrust of Rasna’s cry of anguish, and which resonates with the Luo dirge, is that all these luminaries died young. Sankara at 38, Martin Luther King and T.J.Mboya at 39, J.M.Kariuki at 46 and Ken Okoth at 41 years.
Odhiambo Okoth: From the pits of Kibra to the streets of excellence.
Ken’s rise from abject poverty has been told and re-told many times. He himself lost no opportunity to speak about it. He was a child of Kibra, born and bred in the slum, he endured a childhood of extreme want, hunger, vulnerability and humiliation. Admission to secondary school, afforded him his first-ever bed and the experience of a three square meal life. He underwent the trauma of seeing the family house built precariously beside the Kenya Uganda railway line in Kibra flattened by bulldozers and his family rendered homeless and destitute, as a child. He attended Olympic Primary school in bum-bare tattered clothes, and it is only his brilliance in school where he scored 613 out of a possible 700 that secured him a place at Starehe Boys Centre and technically out of the ghetto. Even then, Save the Children Fund had to intervene with a full four-year scholarship to enable Ken join high school. He went on to excel and qualify for a Law degree at the University of Nairobi, but poverty came knocking again. He missed that opportunity, because he could not raise the requisite monies to top up what Higher Education Loans Board (HELB) offered students in education loans.
The system had failed Ken Odhiambo Okoth once again. Undeterred, Okoth went to the Nation newspapers where he had once volunteered and got a gig selling newspapers to survive. He also did a two-year stint as a security guard, or plainly put, a watchman at the Goethe Institute where he had been gifted German lessons. Through providence, Ken managed to meet a benefactor as he delivered The East African Newspaper who supported his application to study in the US. Ken continued to excel academically; completed his undergraduate and post-graduate degrees and with these accomplishments, his uniqueness emerged. While in the US, Ken formed an NGO called ‘Children of Kibera Foundation’ (Watoto wa Kibera) in 2006 and began mobilizing resources to support the education of the children he had left back home in Kibra. Through his fundraising and networking efforts, he supported the education of the underprivileged, orphaned children in Kibra. By 2008 his charity had funded the setting up of a computer lab at a local slum school. Since 2006, 10 top needy students from Kibra have benefitted from annual bursary scholarships. Before he was elected M.P, he was already impacting the lives of the children in Kibra.
Ken owns the story of his poverty-stricken background, not as a way to earn sympathy, or to justify entitlement. He does not use his deprived background to justify aggrandisement and the amassing of wealth. Ken has avoided the fetishization or romanticization of poverty throughout his public service. He describes poverty and want as ugly things. What Ken learnt from his experience was not to flee from poverty and the poor, but that instead made it his mission as the one who got out to pull up those stuck in that abyss. He once said, “Being poor is just a circumstance where you start in life. It is not your destiny and it can change.” Ken has been a change agent. He offers himself as an example, a challenge and an inspiration to the poor youth. He is evidence that one can transcend poverty and embark onto the road towards leadership while reaching out to rescue others. In the run-up to the 2017 elections he said,
‘We want to encourage more young people, stand up and be counted. You don’t have to be rich to participate. You know I was a young boy born and raised in Kibra, I serve in the National Assembly as a recognised leader in this country with a title. I want that, to be an encouragement to other young people. Stand and be counted. Fight for your country, serve for your country.’
Ken, never did glorify poverty, he questioned its entrenchment and the fact that the governance system did not seem to be able to do anything about it. During one function in Kibra graced by the First Lady, Margaret Kenyatta, he condemned the poverty porn that drives tourists to Kibra.
“Kibra is not a zoo” he said.
Ken disliked the way that the governing elite gave the poor short shrift and in an act of defiance, broke ranks with his ODM (Orange Democratic Movement) party to vote against the 16% VAT bill that he deemed anti-poor.
“My conscience could not allow me to subject the poor to more hardships via my vote. Granted that the price of unga, milk and other select stuff are spared the weight of the bill, other basics like textiles that hide our nudity, shoes, fuel and even mobile phones that are increasingly becoming a necessity will move further from the reach of the majority poor. I feel it as I remember my days at Olympic Primary School in worn out sandak shoes and patched uniform.”
Ken Okoth empathised with the downtrodden, for it was a life that he had experienced. Echoing J,M.Kariuki’s famous “we do not want a Kenya of ten millionaires and ten million beggars” he decried the dichotomization of the Kenyan society into economic class based ghettos. He said,
‘We must make sure that Kenya is not a country of two tribes: the rich who live in exclusion and really, really have it, and the poor who are suffering in indignity. That is a recipe for chaos.”
Champion for Education; Girls emancipation.
Ken Okoth believed that education had enabled him to alter the course of his life. He was passionate about ensuring access to education for the poor in general, but more so in his Kibra backyard. He once challenged the logic of imposing VAT on books, and questioned how any nation with the future of its youth in mind, would deny them, especially youth living in poverty, access to books via taxation? He recognised that education had transformed his life by opening opportunities for him, and this is what he desired to provide his constituents. As soon as he was elected to the National Assembly in 2013, he drew a strategic plan with education emerging as the priority issue, hence the ‘Elimu Kwanza’ – Education First mantra. His strategy revolved around increasing access to secondary education for those average children who scored low marks in primary school because he knew these children were underperforming because of challenges brought about by poverty.
His plans included building three secondary school: Shadrack Kimalel, Mbagathi and Kibera High school. He philosophically stated the empowering impact of education,
“If you give a person a house, you have given them just that house and the dignity that comes from just that house. If you give someone an education, you have given them a skill-set and tools, the freedom and dignity of coming to choose where else they could live. What other career they could pursue.”
He finalised construction of a magnificent school through Constituency Development Funds ( CDF) with a record low budget. This is the loudest testimony of his integrity, and conversely, the depths of misappropriation and mismanagement by other CDF holders. He was particularly passionate about the education of the girls. He declared in an interview, ‘I am a feminist. I support women, and I think that girls and our mothers and our sisters need equal opportunities to get into political leadership.’ Ken Okoth’s vision was consistent with that of a fellow revolutionary and avowed feminist, Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso who said,
“In the ministries responsible for education, we should take special care to assure that women’s access to education is a reality, for this reality constitutes a qualitative step towards emancipation. It is an obvious fact that wherever women have had access to education, their march to equality has been accelerated.”
He argued for increased access for women in positions of leadership and governance and was very concerned about opening up the political space so that women could play a bigger and more equitable role.
Courageous, non-conformist and independent-minded to a fault.
Ken Okoth was not one to shy away from controversial issues that other politicians avoided. Indeed, there have been loud murmurs that the big wigs of his sponsoring party were not always happy with his non-partisan approach to politics. Ken Okoth believed in ideology, but not sycophancy. From the onset, he stated that he was influenced politically by Raila Odinga, whom he referred to as his idol, and that he subscribed to the tenets of Social Democracy. However, he was not comfortable with the personality cults entrenched in Kenyan politics and political parties. During his first campaign, he raised the issue of land rights for the Nubian community in Kibra, an explosive issue that even Nubian politicians avoided. He believed that the Nubian community had a human and constitutional right to titles over the land that they occupied in Kibra. He argued that it was only fair that they were issued titles.
The issue of land and injustice and National cohesion and ethnic cohesion, who gets what jobs, what training and things like that. Let’s demystify these things, let’s give people title because land is a very special thing and our history of governance has always been that the governments of Kenya have always been cartels of land grabbers.
Ken was not oblivious of the fears of those who had occupied houses in Kibra of the wrath of new Nubian landlords but he felt that the social and human right outweighed that fear, and that the market could adequately regulate any such practice. ‘The Nubian landlords will need tenants” he retorted.
This notion of social justice was evident in the kind of legislation that he supported in the National Assembly. The Prevention of Torture Bill and the National Coroner’s Service Bill are among those that he eloquently seconded. In both these bills, the interest of the marginalised and poor was top of his mind. He argued that the prevention of torture was an essential safe-guard for human rights that Kenya was a signatory to, but there had been too many instances of breach. He must have had in mind the numerous unexplained cases of individuals who died in police custody. He also brought attention to the Northern parts of the country, where the Kenyan security apparatus was accused of gross human rights abuses during pacification missions. The Coroners Bill was of specific interest to Ken because of the rights to access autopsies by the poor who meet death in unclear circumstances. His concern also extended to the Muslims, whose religious rights are impacted by the manner that mandatory autopsies are carried out.
Ken Okoth also controversially advocated for the legalization of the medicinal use of Cannabis Sativa, a cause for which he was totally misunderstood. The very mention of, marijuana, blinded and deafened all moralists who read mischief in his draft legislation, an attempt at allowing bohemian excesses, or imitation of global movements for the de-criminalization of marijuana. A closer examination of Ken’s proposal reveals that not only was he addressing its therapeutic merits but its economic viability as well. Some later assumed that he was fighting for this legalization for personal reasons as a cancer patient. Ken’s vision was to make medicinal marijuana whose benefits have been clinically proven, accessible as a cheaper alternative for health care. It would be great, if this legislation found a new champion.
In public forums, Ken Okoth was not shy to admit where his sponsoring party, ODM was guilty of draconian tendencies. It is speculated that his open-mindedness did not earn him many friends in the party hierarchy, and that there had been clandestine efforts to replace him as he sought a second term as MP. Despite all these challenges, even the parties’ detractors esteemed Ken Okoth as a model MP and his openness with his Cancer ailment had endeared him across the political divide. Ken repeatedly called for increased internal democracy within ODM. At the height of the infamous ODM elections where the ‘Men in Black’ disrupted the elections leading to the Ababu Namwamba defection, he counselled that ODM needed to be more accommodating, inclusive and tolerant and less of a closed club of entitled hand-picked minions. He also spoke to the need for the party stalwarts to create room for incorporation of the ideals of the younger generation of leaders. When he appeared in discussions on television forums, he was not reluctant to acknowledge the achievements of the ruling Jubilee Coalition, but was equally adept at pointing out and criticizing their failures.
Ken’s biggest sour point with the Jubilee Coalition was the administration’s molly-coddling of corruption and dearth of pro-poor policies. Ken was very optimistic about the potential of Kenya as a nation and its people. He articulated this hope several times bemoaning the fact that economic inclusivity was still a pipe dream. He said,
I really think Kenya is set to go. We have to keep our eyes on the ball. Where do we want to be in 2030? What type of country do we want to be, will we have realised the goals of clean water, access to fair and quality education for all our people, health care and things like that? How do we grow our economy so that everybody benefits?”
If Ken Okoth’s demise offers an opportunity to change the narrative about health care coverage in Kenya, his death will not have been in vain. Ken, has narrated the story of misdiagnosis running for a year and a half before the diagnosis of colorectal cancer was arrived at. By this time the disease had reached stage four and was basically incurable. The case of misdiagnosis also affected Safaricom CEO, Bob Collymore who died of Acute Myeloid Leukaemia a fortnight before Ken. In both cases, the delayed diagnosis – a factor of quality healthcare, is to blame. The current discourse around health, and more so prompted by the increasing visibility of cancer, is calling for the passage of legislation that will ensure every Kenyan has a medical cover.
Ken Okoth has been more pointed and asked that the state needs to remove taxes on cancer drugs as well as cancer diagnostic equipment such as computed tomography scans (CT Scans) and MRI machines so that the services are within reach of the poor. Ken’s concern has always been that cancer diagnosis and treatment cost is prohibitive to the poor. He noted that in his case he was lucky that he could access treatment abroad, but in typical Okoth fashion, he shone the torch back on the poor and questioned the fate facing poor Kenyans? Fundamentally, Ken was advocating for the revolutionary price rationalization of quality health care beginning with diagnosis and drugs.
When Okoth was in Paris undergoing treatment a follower on Twitter asked how he was doing and his reply was poignant, ‘Napambana na hali yangu kabisa’ (I am dealing with my situation).
Ken took ownership of his health and situation in a dignified manner. In his absence, he allowed Tim Wanyonyi the MP of Westlands Constituency to hold brief for him. When he returned to Kibera in what was a goodbye event he said how grateful he was for the partnership in the running of Kibra affairs such that even in his absence things continued to run smoothly.
Ken Okoth, was a visionary and inspirational leader. He had faith and hope in Kenya, and especially its youth. In a speech he made as closing remarks during a television discussion, he summarizes his dream and vision for Kenya, her future and her youth. Okoth’s words will undoubtedly continue to ring throughout this country.
I am proud to be a Kenyan, and I am proud of the accomplishments that we have achieved together as a nation, and even despite the challenges we have, I give great thanks to the leaders who fought for the independence of this country, who paid the sacrifices to give us multi-party democracy and our new constitution. And I pledge, and I know many leaders of my generation, I serve [with] in the national assembly, so many of us are there for the first time, we have accomplished something, based on the trust and faith in our people, in [a] peaceful manner to bring a new revolutionary class or leaders that countries like Egypt have not achieved, like Tunisia have not achieved, countries like Libya. So, let no Kenyan think that the way to solve this country’s problems is to go through violence. Let us debate, let us compete on issues, let us trust our people to vote for the right leadership and let that leadership serve, not for their own personal greed, but for improving this nation. Real patriotism without corruption, without tribalism without nepotism; Kenya can take off. We have smartest people; we have the most committed people.
Ken Okoth will be a hard act to follow. Now, just as he has dealt with his situation – we who survive him must, pambana na hali yetu.
Ken Okoth: Born 1978 – Died 2019.
Rest in Peace.
14 min read. A story of an unlikely friendship, a chronicle of the final years of the late Kenyan writer Binyavanga’s life, from the perspective of a former student activist discovered on the brink of despair and mentored into a writer.
‘‘I want to go and drink in River Road, where you guys used to drink,’’ Binyavanga told me, wanting to experience Nairobi’s underbelly, where broke University of Nairobi students and those staying in cheap downtown hostels engaged in debauchery. It had all started a month or so earlier. I had shared with him bits and pieces of a memoir on student activism that I had been working on. That story seemed to make Binyavanga want to talk for hours on end, as if wanting to discover a part of Kenya he wasn’t familiar with, including drinking in Nairobi’s dingy backstreet bars.
I had instigated our chance meeting weeks earlier through a random Facebook message. After a year of seeking and being granted asylum in Uganda following an untidy spillover of my student activism, I had returned to Kenya in early 2010, broke and broken. Sitting in a Kenya National Commission on Human Rights safe house in Nairobi’s Kilimani neighbourhood, I started writing a memoir, later deciding to share a section of it with someone I considered a literary authority, wanting to know whether it was all just trash. I settled on Binyavanga, at the time Director of the Chinua Achebe Center for African Writers and Artists at Bard College in New York. I wrote him one of those possibly irritating I-know-nothing-about-publishing-but-I-think-I’m-onto-something messages, suspecting he received tens of those at a time. Luckily, Binyavanga responded in under ten minutes, saying he was busy but wouldn’t mind having a look. He shared his email address, and asked me to send him a chapter. He emailed back in less than 30 minutes.
‘‘Where are you?’’ Binyavanga wrote, ‘‘Are you safe?’’
Under a month later, upon his return to Nairobi—with loads of emails in-between about his intention to grant me one of the early Achebe Center writing fellowships—Binyavanga and I met for the first time at Divino, a restaurant on Nairobi’s Argwings Kodhek Road, and spoke for ten hours. Towards the end of the evening, Binyavanga told me he had a friend who lived nearby, on Kirichwa Road, whom he thought I should meet. That friend was his contemporary, the writer and journalist Parselelo Kantai, who joined us at Divino. The next weekend, staying true to the spirit of our new friendship, Binyavanga invited me to one of his epic parties at his house in Karen, introducing me to his high-flying literati friends as a promising writer in his usual exuberant way. That day, at that party in Binyavanga’s house, I became a writer.
Eager to learn more about my bleak University of Nairobi days, his curiosity sparked by the writing I had shared with him, Binyavanga decided to immerse himself into the downtown Nairobi scene, which was foreign to him. And so, one Saturday evening, I joined Binyavanga and his stocky, talkative cab driver, Njuki, who took us to the less glamourous part of the city. We drove around downtown Nairobi, to those places with their infamous little pubs with names like Emirates, where music blares out of faulty speakers and the streets are populated with staggering, drunken patrons.
Binyavanga didn’t seem impressed, much as he wanted to be in the depth of it all. Then Njuki took a turn off River Road, landing us at the junction of Keekorok Road and Jaisala Road, next to the better-known Kirinyaga Road. There stood an imposing, modernish building, AJS Plaza, which seemed out of place in the midst of structures that had seen better days, possibly dating back to colonial days. At the rear of the building, on the lower ground floor, was what looked like a kiosk, selling alcohol. There were seats placed in front of a small window from where drinks emerged.
‘‘I think I like this place,’’ Binyavanga said. ‘‘Let’s sit here.’’
Jaisala Road, which is where the watering hole was located, was quiet and deserted. Sitting on the plastic chairs, we faced a tiny dark alley, which served as the urinal for the little kiosk. Every time Binyavanga stood up, delicately balanced his imposing frame and crossed the street, positioning himself at the edge of the dark corridor to relieve himself, I wondered what I had done, bringing him to these sorts of places.
Before I could explore that thought further, Binyavanga would return, relieved and reenergised, downing his bottle of Guinness, engaging gear-five as Parselelo Kantai would later cheekily christen that moment when an idea hits Binyavanga’s mind and he is shouting and drinking and making his point loudly and urgently. A lot of gear-fives happened at Kantai’s Kirichwa Road backyard at four in the morning as our host asked us to keep it down for the sake of his neighbours.
‘‘Don’t be afraid,’’ Binyavanga told me about writing, sensing my half-heartedness. ‘‘Don’t wait for permission. If you see space, occupy it. Don’t close your mind to any possibilities.’’
Later that night, the only activity on Jaisala Road, other than that originating from our corner of the street, was the steady stream of Congolese nationals, mostly musicians, returning from live performances in places across the city—places like Simmers, that popular city center nightspot—to their rooms at Jaisala Hotel in the building across the road. Or to the cheap lodgings in the upper floors of the buildings on the street.
An idea came to Binyavanga.
‘‘I want to buy a building here,’’ he said, ‘‘one located on a corner, and transform this place.’’
Binyavanga revisited this conversation over the years, his idea of owning a building in that part of Nairobi, where he wanted to establish an arts and culture center, house the Kwani? office, and in so doing collapse the Nairobi art scene’s class divide. To his thinking, those from upper class Nairobi would—in the usual way that gentrification works—be interested in being part of this downtown experience, while those from the less privileged parts of the city would only need to board one matatu and access the venue bila hustle. As our first joint project, that night, Binyavanga gave me a much needed $100—I was dead broke—to scout for a suitable building for such a project.
‘‘Don’t be afraid,’’ Binyavanga told me about writing, sensing my half-heartedness. ‘‘Don’t wait for permission. If you see space, occupy it. Don’t close your mind to any possibilities.’’
‘‘Here’s some money,’’ Binyavanga said. ‘‘I don’t want you to get stuck.’’
At around that time, the literary journal Kwani?, of which Binyavanga was the looming founding editor, was working on its seventh edition, the majuu issue. African writers who lived or had lived in the Diaspora were being asked to tell their tales of life abroad. Having briefly read my Kampala asylum seeking escapades, which I doubt fitted neatly into Kwani?’s Diaspora template, Binyavanga reached out to Kwani’s managing editor, Billy Kahora, introducing yet another of his discoveries, another promising Kenyan writer.
‘‘You have to publish this guy,’’ Binyavanga pushed Billy on the phone, over and over again.
Billy, possibly half curious and partly seeking to get Binyavanga off his back, asked me to send him 10,000 words of my Kampala story. That is how Waiting for America in Kampala, my first piece of published writing, came to be. I told of sneaking out of Nairobi into Kampala with the material and other support of the then American Ambassador to Kenya, thereafter spending months navigating Uganda’s Directorate of Refugee Affairs and UNHCR processes.
Binyavanga went back to New York, staying in touch with me the whole time. He was back in under three months, and would call every other day, asking to meet up for lunch and talk through the evening and into the night. A lover of fine dining, he would ask me to join him at either Le Rustique on General Mathenge Drive, Talisman in Karen or Mediterraneo at The Junction. Whenever I went to meet him, I always found Binyavanga punching away at his MacBook, which almost always had bits of cigarette ash on the keyboard. He would light a Dunhill Switch cigarette in mid-conversation, and when making an important point, lift his cigarette-holding arm up in the air, put the cigarette in his other hand, take a long puff and blow the smoke upwards. He would then engage gear-five, sipping a Guinness, a cappuccino or sparkling water.
‘‘I want to protect you,’’ Binyavanga would say, feeling obligated to give me some form of cover from whoever he imagined had been after me. ‘‘If they think of coming after you, I want them to see me, and know that we can make a lot of noise if anything happens to you.’’
That is how Waiting for America in Kampala, my first piece of published writing, came to be. I detailed my sneaking out of Nairobi into Kampala with the material and other support of the then American Ambassador to Kenya.
One late afternoon, after a visa renewal appointment at the American embassy in Nairobi, Binyavanga called and asked me to join him at the Java Coffee House in Gigiri, where I found him later that evening. The moment I settled in, I noticed something strange was happening to him. He was punching on his MacBook keyboard relentlessly, his level of concentration higher than what I was accustomed to. He seemed somber and quieter, yet peaceful, and smiled whenever he looked up from whatever he was writing. Then he spoke.
‘‘I am resigning from the Achebe Center,’’ he said, without giving the reason why he was walking away. ‘‘I will send the letter before boarding my flight to New York later tonight.’’
When he returned from New York a fortnight later, Binyavanga made me a proposition. He was now talking about spending more time in Africa, as if overcome by a new sense of agency. He had originally wanted to grant me an Achebe Center fellowship that would give me time and space to write. Now that he was no longer at the Center, he had an alternative.
‘‘Can you live in Nakuru?’’ he asked me one afternoon. ‘‘There is a house. My father’s house.’’
I had never lived in Nakuru, and didn’t know what life was like there. But seeing how keen Binyavanga was to have me find a space to clear my mind and get on with the writing, I immediately said yes. We had gotten to a place where I felt he knew exactly what was good for me, because why else would he keep at it when he had other important things he could spend his time on? He wrote a brief email introducing me to his siblings—Jimmy, Ciru and Chiqy—telling them that I would house-sit their home for three months. I was soon off to Nakuru.
I arrived in Nakuru’s Milimani neighbourhood to find a five-bedroom mansion, a small detail Binyavanga had omitted to mention. The plan was that I would receive a stipend for groceries and Binyavanga would make trips down to Nakuru to check on me. Whenever he came around, we spent hours talking politics, writing, Africa, and in the evenings we would make our way to downtown Nakuru, where he would take me on a tour of old pubs with history. He would stay for up to a week.
My routine was simple. Wake up, bask with Tony the dog, get some writing done, make lunch with Vincent the gardener, write some more, take a long evening walk, have lunch leftovers for dinner, write again, then sleep. When the loneliness got too much or the writing wasn’t working, I would go to the backyard and have the occasional smoke, promising myself not to make a habit of it. On Fridays and Saturdays, I went to Rafikis, the happening nightspot in Nakuru at the time. I stood alone at a spot near the entrance, and drank till morning, speaking to no one. Frequenting Rafikis was my way of seeing other humans other than my two constant companions, Vincent, who was always busy pruning the hedges, and Tony the dog. Before I knew it, I had lived in Nakuru for a year and it was time to move back to Nairobi.
‘‘Come to Karen,’’ Binyavanga told me as I left Nakuru. ‘‘I’ve got an extra bedroom.’’
I got to Binyavanga’s Karen home after nightfall. I knew the place from my visit a year earlier when he had invited me over for the party at which he had introduced me to his writer friends. The living room was packed with young writers working with him, compiling the Africa39 longlist—39 African writers aged under 40 touted as the force that would shape African literature in the coming decades. Books, and what I imagined were printed copies of submissions from across Africa, littered the place. I sat quietly in a corner and watched them work. Later that night, Binyavanga showed me to the extra bedroom which I would occupy for the next two years.
Barely a month after my arrival in Karen, on the night of 17 January 2014, we were sitting in the cold living room, working as we always did, everyone facing the page. On the stroke of midnight, I looked up, uttering the first words spoken for the better part of that night.
‘‘Happy birthday, Binya,’’ I said.
‘‘Thank you,’’ he replied, barely looking up.
‘‘I am coming out tomorrow morning,’’ he said, ‘‘through a piece published on an African platform.’’ The following morning the world and I woke up to I am a homosexual, Mum.
Binyavanga’s cell phone was ringing off the hook. Al Jazeera, BBC, CNN, The Guardian, among a myriad other international news outlets, all wanted an interview. We were riding in a taxi, as we always did, going I can’t remember where, when Binyavanga, seated in the front passenger seat, holding a cigarette out the window, turned and looked at me.
The living room was packed with young writers working with him, compiling the Africa39 longlist—39 African writers aged under 40 touted as the force that would shape African literature in the coming decades.
‘‘Man, I need your help,’’ he said. ‘‘Can you help me handle these media inquiries? There’ll be chums.’’ And just like that, I started working as Binyavanga’s occasional assistant, before it became a full-time firefighting gig not without its dramatic moments, like being pulled out of writing workshops to make calls to embassy officials to sort out incomplete visa applications.
From dealing with his literary agents in London and New York, to maintaining his calendar, booking flights and planning airport drop-offs and pick-ups in Nairobi, to replying to requests for interviews and such, finding a place for them in his crowded diary, this gig-on-steroids also involved buying groceries, dealing with the landlord, making visa applications, and tracking bill payments. It was a full-on engagement, all the while trying to maintain a friendship and a social life. I became Binyavanga’s friend, assistant, housemate, confidant, and bodyguard even, all rolled into one.
The distress call came on a Friday night—the 24th of October 2015—catching me midway through dinner. I was attending the farewell party for the African Writers Trust editorial workshop somewhere in Bugolobi, Kampala, keen on partying away the remainder of the night. The caller was Binyavanga’s closest high school friend, whom I knew well but not in an I-can-call-you-on-a-Friday-night-just-to-say-hello way. I left the loud banquet room and went outside.
‘‘Isaac, are you in Nairobi?” he asked.
‘‘No. I am not,’’ I replied. ‘‘I am in Kampala, but will be back by tomorrow midday.’’
The news was that Binyavanga had suffered a stroke and had been rushed to hospital. The friend, who was making his way to the hospital, was checking to see if I was in Nairobi, if I had any details to share. Disoriented, I ended up drinking a little too much—to the point of almost missing my early morning ride to the airport—keeping the news to myself. I landed in Nairobi, dropped off my bags at the house in Karen and made my way to Karen Hospital.
‘‘I am coming out tomorrow morning,’’ he said, ‘‘through a piece published on an African platform.’’ The following morning, the world and I woke up to I am a homosexual, Mum.
I found Binyavanga in the ICU, looking healthy and awake, but having difficulty with his speech. It seemed temporary, as if he would undergo a procedure or two and then everything would go back to normal. Before the stroke, Binyavanga had embarked on a crazy European run—Toronto, London then Paris, or something like that—attending a series of events before jumping on a plane and flying off to the next city. Seeing how tight his schedule had been and how much he had had to do, I thought this was all short-term, a product of the fatigue. Once out of ICU, Binyavanga would call me every morning, asking me to go and be with him at the hospital. I would tell him I was already on my way anyway, that he didn’t need to call for me to go to him.
‘‘Call so and so,’’ he would mumble from his hospital bed. ‘‘Tell them I’ve had a stroke.’’
It was as if we had moved his living room to his hospital room; he refused to slow down. We worked every morning, replying to emails, making phone calls, cancelling speaking and other engagements. Binyavanga was nothing if not painfully stubborn, never surrendering, insisting on acting as if everything was normal, refusing to take no for an answer from anyone. From Karen Hospital, it was Nairobi Hospital after a very brief break, before a group of friends and his family worked out a plan to get him to India, where his writer friend Achal Prabhala had recommended a solid post-stroke recovery programme. The idea of leaving the country appealed to Binyavanga.
On the day Binyavanga was leaving for India, I was returning from a Commonwealth Writers event in Malta, which I had attended as an East Africa stringer. As I was coming out of arrivals, I spotted a Nairobi Hospital ambulance parked outside the international departures gate and, recognising some of our mutual friends standing next to its open door, I walked over and saw Binyavanga lying on a stretcher, waiting to be wheeled onto the runway to board his flight. We exchanged pleasantries before I wished him good luck and said goodbye. A few weeks later, Binyavanga started sending emails to me and to the group of friends, asking that I travel to India. He became persistent, and soon, I was off to India.
I travelled to India on my birthday in December 2015, arriving in Bangalore, where Binyavanga was recuperating, at four in the morning. I made my way to the three-bedroom serviced apartment on Ulsoor Lake, where Binyavanga was staying with his sister Ciru, and a friend of theirs, Tango, who showed me to my room. At about eight in the morning, Binyavanga knocked on my door. I opened, we hugged, and he welcomed me to India. And that is how my eventful one-month stay in India began.
The news was that Binyavanga had suffered a stroke and had been rushed to hospital. The friend, who was making his way to the hospital, was checking to see if I was in Nairobi, if I had any details to share.
It was back to routine. We would wake up and have breakfast in the restaurant situated within the apartment building, by which time the taxi driver was already waiting in the basement parking. I would accompany Binyavanga to hospital for his sessions—speech therapy, physiotherapy, the works—after which we would go for lunch together and then spend the better part of the afternoon at a high-end gym. (I sat outside the building, people watching.) Then we would go back to the apartment, from where we all went out for dinner or something like that, and the next morning we would start all over again.
From Bangalore, and having regained much of his physical strength, Binyavanga was briefly back in Kenya, before leaving for Berlin to take up a DAAD fellowship for a year. Berlin was difficult. He encountered racism, and found himself having online scuffles with all kinds of people, including Kwani?. Thereafter, he briefly moved to South Africa, before returning to Kenya in 2017. I made a point of visiting him at least once a week. We spoke about anything and everything, just like in the old days, the only difference being that he couldn’t speak with the same vigour, ease and speed as before. The dreams grew even bigger, and every time I visited there was either an improvement on a concept, or a totally different idea he wanted to pursue. On the weeks when I couldn’t make it to see him, he would call asking why I hadn’t visited. At other times, he called and said he was lonely.
‘‘I want you to take me to Kigali,’’ Binyavanga told me in September 2018, ‘‘to go bury my uncle.’’
I wasn’t sure I wanted to accompany Binyavanga to Kigali. I couldn’t ascertain whether he was fit to travel, and wondered why none of those around him wanted to make the trip with him. I kept avoiding him, sometimes not taking his calls, feeling that I was in a Catch 22 situation—wanting to be there for him, but worrying about his health. However, on the eve of the trip, Binyavanga did what Binyavanga did best: put me in a situation where I couldn’t say no.
‘‘I’ve bought two tickets, mine and yours,’’ he said on phone, ‘‘We’re going to Kigali kesho.’’
The first sign that Binyavanga wasn’t his best self was at the security screening at the airport in Nairobi; I had to step in to assist him with every step of the process. Inside the aircraft, the passenger seated next to him, noticing that he might need assistance during the flight, offered me his seat so that I could be with Binyavanga. We arrived in Kigali and got in touch with his cousin Brenda, who directed us to a hotel across the street from the Rwandan Parliament. We booked adjacent deluxe rooms on the fifth floor, each the size of an apartment. It was typical Binyavanga, always going over the top, be it with fashion or restaurants.
Binyavanga would wake up every morning and knock at my door, asking me to help him get ready for the day. On the day of the funeral I took him to his uncle’s home, where he paid his last respects and reconnected with his maternal cousins. We attended the requiem mass at a Catholic cathedral in central Kigali, sitting at the back of the church. I was born a Catholic and as I participated in the rituals, Binyavanga kept giving me a sideways look that seemed to say, “I thought I knew you”. We attended the burial at a cemetery in the outskirts of Kigali, before taking our flight back to Nairobi the following day.
‘‘I want you to take me to Kigali,’’ Binyavanga told me in September 2018, ‘‘to go bury my uncle.’’
It was during that Kigali trip, his last trip outside Kenya, that I last saw Binyavanga walking unaided. A few weeks later, he was back in hospital, staying for a couple of weeks, having suffered another stroke. He was discharged and underwent a lot of physiotherapy, regaining much of his physical strength. I visited him two to three times a week, and mostly found him lying on the couch, watching Netflix on his MacBook. He would sit up, trying to have a conversation, before asking me to recommend shows or movies on Netflix. I would mention a show or a movie, read him the synopsis, after which he would say yes or no. We would speak, yet again, about his desire to do a PhD in Literature at Princeton, with him asking that the writer Andia Kisia and I work on his application. He would repeat his wish to study the work of Kojo Laing, since to Binyavanga’s mind, no one wrote better than Laing.
Just weeks later, Binyavanga was back in hospital, never to make it out alive. I visited him in the ICU one afternoon. Standing there, alone, watching him through a glass barrier—no one was allowed any closer—I felt my knees giving way, almost collapsing to the floor. We looked at each other. I felt that he wanted to speak, to ask me to do something for him, or to pass a message to someone, as it had always been with us. He couldn’t utter the words. After the longest, the frailest, eye contact, he slowly closed his eyes and slept. It felt like goodbye.
Finding Lagos: A Jazz Tribute to an African City
11 min read. Award-winning American jazz singer/song-writer of East African ancestry, Somi, was in Lagos to work on her seventh studio album which will be released in the summer of 2020. Nigerian doctor, poet and music critic, Dami Ajayi caught up with Somi for Sunday brunch.
Somi is running late.
It is the Sunday morning after the February 2019 presidential elections that saw President Muhammadu Buhari returned to office and Lagos has endured a wet weekend. The roads have become flooded with rainwater escaping out of blocked drains, carrying with it styrofoam, plastic, non-recyclable waste and reusable debris. Traffic is what results. Traffic of short tempers and selfish driving, traffic of potholes and murky water, traffic that validates Fela’s claim in his tune Go Slow, traffic that traps Somi in an Uber taxi from where she sends a text message, “I am running late.”
I find her courtesy rather unusual. My experience of artistes in Nigeria is that being late for appointments is typical and not showing up is the rule. Somi apologises effusively when she finally arrives, hurriedly walking in, looking gorgeous in her flowing blue Adire gown.
“You just walk around and everyone is in their best and they just seem to try and find courage to face the next week. I introduce my song, with words about a woman who dared to dream, despite having a difficult life”, Somi says in a restaurant full of people in their Sunday best.
We are at the Cactus Restaurant on Victoria Island, an upscale diner popular for its Sunday brunch. The clientele is mostly elaborately dressed Christians just from church; middle-aged, bespectacled, brocade-wearing men sporting Yoruba caps and holding teenage daughters by the hand, mothers in George or Velvet or Ankara and elaborately styled headgear, strutting with the kind of confidence associated with ownership, bespectacled teenage sons, gangly and pimply, walking in their wake.
Somi lives in New York. She is visiting Lagos for pre-production meetings for her seventh album, recording rough demos and workshopping ideas with Cobhams Asuquo, the producer with whom she made her iconic fourth album.
Her seventh album is yet to be titled, but she says it is in conversation with her stage play, Dreaming Zenzile, which is about the life, the times and the music of the late South African singer and activist, Miriam Makeba.
“My new album is in conversation with my play,” Somi says as she flips the menu, considering breakfast options. She makes her order and asks for extra avocados on the side.
Somi is no stranger to Cactus. She is also no stranger to Lagos. She had first been invited to Lagos in 2010 by the organisers of the Lagos Jazz Festival, but they were tentative about their dates—their major obstacle being the upcoming 50th anniversary of Nigeria’s Independence celebrations.
By sheer happenstance, Somi was visiting friends in Lagos when the organisers of the Lagos Jazz Festival finally settled on dates, but the timing was still off. Lagos would be deprived of the magic of Somi and her five-man band but, providentially, Somi would comb the city on her own terms, flitting between working class and upscale areas, the Mainland and the Island, and falling in love with Yaba, an iconic part of the megacity.
Another opportunity to visit Lagos came soon enough; a seven-week International Art Residency at Kwara State University in Ilorin, in collaboration with New York University. Somi had been recommended by Professor Awam Amkpa of the Tisch School of the Arts, New York University, who had remembered how fond she was of Lagos.
“I came back to teach in Ilorin for seven weeks since that was all the time I had available. I remember looking up Ilorin and it was like a million, two million people . . . I love the idea of going to an African city that is not really like the centre,” Somi reminisces. She planned on spending three days a week in Ilorin and four in Lagos. To her dismay, her teaching at Ilorin was sabotaged by incessant union strikes.
“They kept going on strike and I taught once a week and I was to teach there for seven weeks. So I felt like I didn‘t get to spend time with the students as we all anticipated but it was still lovely. And you know at some point after much thinking, I decided to stay.”
Somi stayed in Nigeria for 18 months. She wrote, workshopped and recorded the songs that would become her fourth album, The Lagos Music Salon.
I experienced Somi’s The Lagos Music Salon (TLMS) on Ethiopian Airlines’ inflight entertainment in 2015. Cruising many miles above sea level from Lagos to Addis Ababa, I happened upon this album named after the city I call home, Lagos.
Lagos is a conundrum of a city. Lagos is where the dreams of most Nigerians berth, optimistic that they shall come to pass. But like most cities, Lagos also engenders disappointment in the long run. Dreams may take their time to fruition, and so the citizens of Lagos are best classified thus: those who have made it and those who are in the process of making it.
The cover art on the TLMS album is of an elegant black woman wearing an Ankara dress leaning against shabby wooden panelling. The art already speaks to the Lagos characteristic of yoking style to squalor; and so I listened.
Cruising many miles above sea level from Lagos to Addis Ababa, I happened upon this album named after the city I call home, Lagos
Every song on TLMS keys into the Lagos experience. Eighteen songs lasting a bit beyond an hour. The impression is an eternal one. One is in awe of the possibilities of powerful vocal cords and intricately curated music exploring the boundless complexity of a city that over twenty million people call home.
TLMS is a contemporary album in conversation about the city, but within the ethos of the city’s past as well as her musical traditions. Following a brisk introduction, the album pays homage to juju music—the soundtrack of the city through the 70s—with the vibrant up-tempo love song Love Juju #1 teasingly conflating the existing misconception about the nomenclature of that variant of palm-wine music. Juju here could mean the music whose name is possibly derived from the onomatopoeic Yoruba verb “to throw”, or an intense romantic affection that could be the consequence of hypnosis. Somi plays both sides with talking drums and the steel pedal guitar.
Every song on the album leans into jazz, but this is jazz music out of its comfort zone, in constant collision with newer interpretations and African languages. Somi is so fascinated by the way life happens in Lagos and her panoramic gaze eschews class, sex, gender and occupation; she is inexhaustibly preoccupied with what it means to be every kind of human in Lagos.
The art already speaks to the Lagos characteristic of yoking style to squalor; and so I listened
Listen to Somi’s Brown Round Things and you are thrown into the devastating beauty of Lagos nights. Accompanied by Ambrose Akinmusire’s piquant trumpet notes, the song knifes through the night and beautifies the nocturnal mundanity of the sex work that animates certain aspects of the city. Admiralty Way, Lekki. Sanusi Fafunwa, Victoria Island. And Allen Avenue, the Mecca of the Lagos Red Light District.
The album’s interludes and skits are byte-sized aural delights of certain sounds characteristic of Lagos. Yet, the most accomplished of these songlets is Somi’s visitation of Nelly Uchendu’s Love Nwantintin which enjoys the gospel feel of the acapella group In His Image—a sultry tribute to Lagos by way of the River Niger.
The victory of Somi’s album lies in how it curates Lagos’ sounds and kinetics in a manner that is both recognisable and satisfactory. Four years since its release, this album is still the most extensive jazz album detailing the Lagos experience and the most original interpretation of the city since Fela Anikulapo-Kuti.
Google Somi and you are likely to fall upon another Somi, a Korean-Canadian singer and songwriter who broke out through Produce 101, an M-Net survival reality show.
This Somi’s full name is Laura Kabasomi Kakoma whom Wikipedia describes as an “American singer, songwriter and actor of Rwandan and Ugandan heritage”.
Every song on the album leans into jazz, but this is jazz music out of its comfort zone, in constant collision with newer interpretations and African languages
Somi was born in Illinois to a Rwandan academic father and a Ugandan mother. Her family would relocate to Zambia when she was aged three. In the late 80s, her father took up a professorship at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where she spent the rest of her childhood. Somi studied Anthropology and African Studies at the University of Illinois and has a postgraduate degree in Performance Studies from the Tisch School of the Arts, New York University.
“Writing was always a private art for me as a child and I‘ve always been a writer of some sort, but it is private, more like catharsis”, Somi says, adding that, “Singing too was a private thing. Like a lot of people, I used to sing as a child and then when my family and I moved to the States, I experienced culture shock and racism. I had an experience with a teacher who was so hostile to me and she shut me up when I was to present a piece I had won an award for and that kind of affected me . . . She was like ‘are you reading or not, just know no one even cares’ . . . I couldn’t sing publicly. Which for me is another reason I decided to play the cello, as I just needed an outlet that didn‘t involve me singing.”
In 2003, Somi released her first album in New York called Eternal Motive, an 11-track album with a monochrome portrait of Somi on the cover. The internet has all but forgotten these first steps but a review of a later work describes it as “electric soul jazz”, a nod at Somi’s love for genre-blending and bending.
Four years later, she independently released Red Soil in My Eyes. Jeff Tamarkin of the All Music Review glowingly remarks, Red Soil in My Eyes is all elegance and awe, and attempting to reduce Somi’s pan-globalism and command of her artistic environment to a single genre or purpose would be a fruitless endeavour. She skates easily between worlds, touching on both smooth and raucous neo-soul, nuanced jazz expression and more than a dollop of East African tradition until something else altogether emerges.”
Ingele, a Swahili song that was a finalist in the world music category of the John Lennon Songwriting Contest, is a moving delight that touches the core of anyone who knows that music is indeed the undertow of the soul. But Somi did not set out to become a Jazz singer: “I wasn‘t setting out to be a jazz singer. I just wanted to be a songwriter and poet. I’ll say I am very inspired by jazz regardless”. Perhaps Somi meant that she had a crush on Jazz and once the inspiration came, it was impossible to resist.
After the release of Red Soil in My Eyes, Somi’s father fell ill and was diagnosed with cancer.
“For me, it put my work on hold and I had to travel to my parent‘s home in Illinois to have time off. It was really a hard time for me at that point and writing the album.”
The songs she wrote through this dark period would become If The Rain Comes First, her third studio album released by Obliqsound at about the time her father passed away.
“It‘s actually an album about how we perceive the challenges in our lives, and in the West, the rain is seen as a negative thing. Where we are from, my mother always talked about how the rain was a blessing.”
The eponymous song achieves an auditory equivalent of petrichor, the sweet smell that comes with the rainfall that Somi sings about. And beyond the varying perceptions of what rain seems to signify, If The Rain Comes First feels like a rite of passage, a washing away, if you will, of pain and grief. This quality spreads throughout the meditative album which also features South African jazz vocalist, trumpeter and flugelhorn player, Hugh Masekela—fondly called Uncle Hugh by Somi—on the hypnotic Enganjyani, which means “most beloved” in Rutooro, Somi’s mother’s language.
All About Jazz qualifies the achievement of her third album thus: “With If the Rains Come First, Somi’s songwriting has taken on a new sophistication and depth. Surrounded by a cast of virtuosic collaborators who understand precisely where she’s going and how to get there, Somi burrows deeply into her words and ultimately something transcendent emerges.”
Somi returned to teach at Kwara State University, Nigeria, before the release of her fourth album, a live album titled Somi Live at Jazz Standard. A 10-track compilation of her songs plus covers of Abbey Lincoln’s Should’ve Been and Bob Marley’s Waiting in Vain, Somi’s live album was recorded over two days at New York City’s Jazz Standard.
“Raw at Jazz Standard might have been a better title, since the hour-long performance so vibrantly captures the unfiltered, unvarnished Somi freed from studio wizardry,” writes Christopher Loudon. Eight years after its release, that experience of being transposed into the past, into the presence of that emotive music stirred by pitch-perfect instrumentation and the majesty of Somi’s vocals and East African languages still happens.
“I actually didn‘t come to Lagos to write a new album, I was actually trying to work on another album”, says Somi. Trust Lagos to wrestle any competition out of your mind. Lagos returned Somi to a place of poetry and not just the final visual poem, Shine Your Eye, that closes The Lagos Music Salon album; a good number of the songs that made the album began their journeys as poems.
On the evening of Sunday June 3, 2012, Flight 992, a McDonnell Douglas MD-83 aircraft belonging to Dana Air and carrying 153 souls from Abuja to Lagos, crashed into buildings in Lagos while attempting an emergency landing. All the passengers and crew on the aircraft and six people on the ground perished.
Somi wrote a poem that became Last Song, for a woman she had fleetingly encountered at a jazz festival a week before the plane crash.
“I met this young lady, we became friends, and I got to know she also just moved back, as a single woman in Lagos . . . I kept thinking about her and sadly we didn‘t exchange numbers . . . So on that Sunday, I was hanging out with some friends when one of them got news that she was among the people that died in the plane crash.”
Last Song is Somi’s tribute to an acquaintance she wished she had known better. It is a poignant re-imagination of how fleeting moments could pass innocuously into the void, how existence is a transient thing, how goodbyes could be ephemeral or eternal.
Somi’s vision often imagines a singular person as opposed to a herd of people. But once she has achieved that emotional resonance with one person, the bigger picture becomes easier to populate.
“After I lost my dad and I didn’t feel understood by the people around me, I decided to take a break and I chose Lagos . . . I had a lot of friends in Lagos from Nigerian friends abroad.”
From around 2010 a lot of Nigerians in the diaspora had returned on account of the prospects of the booming economy. While in Lagos, Somi went around with a digital recorder documenting everything—conversations, traffic sounds, protests and even her own laughter.
Lagos returned Somi to a place of poetry and not just the final visual poem, Shine Your Eye, that closes The Lagos Music Salon album; a good number of the songs that made the album began their journeys as poems
When she realised that a body of work was in the offing, she began to workshop the new material. Azu Nwagbogu, the founder of African Artists Foundation, then located at Raymond Njoku, Ikoyi, graciously provided the space where Somi began to do a monthly series, showcasing songs with a band strung together by Cobhams Asuquo. A good number of those songs found their way into The Lagos Music Salon.
Somi’s sixth album, Petite Afrique, is to Harlem, New York, what The Lagos Music Salon is to Lagos.
Harlem, a historic place, populated by Africans and African-Americans alike, becomes a field for a sonic survey. Somi, the vocalist, anthropologist and virtuoso performer hits closer to home this time, even if the scope of her theme has grown wider.
Petite Afrique means “Little Africa” and it is a tribute to a cohort of African immigrants, mostly from Senegal, who reside on New York’s 116th Street. Much as it is about migrants, it is also about the implicit and explicit tension between Africans and African-Americans as is manifest in the kind of conversations they have with each other. The myriad of issues that populate these discussions include xenophobia, islamophobia as well as gentrification—but Somi’s powers shine through in how her message melds seamlessly into the music.
Speaking about how the album came about, Somi says, “It started in Harlem, I think, after The Lagos Music Salon. I lived in Harlem for about ten years . . . Then there was this friction between Africans and African-Americans, and the whole idea of gentrification and the need for unity between these two. So naturally for me, I felt a need to connect with the people of Harlem, having stayed there for a while, so Petite Afrique was my own way of giving back to Harlem . . .”
What Somi achieves in fifty-two minutes and fourteen songs is a triumphant exploration of the black experience. Little wonder then that Petite Afrique received the Outstanding Jazz Album award at the 49th National Association for Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Image Awards.
Somi’s career has gone way past her brief stay in Lagos but the city will remain a critical reference point in her career. The Lagos Music Salon changed her career and Lagos will always remain home to her.
As she says, “I love New York, but the thing in Lagos is, if you can make it in Lagos, you can make it anywhere, the city is hard, but when you show up for the city, the city shows up for you.”
African Publishing Minefields and the Woes of the African Writer
11 min read. The best efforts to find a successor to the hugely successful African Writers Series have so far failed to bear fruit while the indigenisation of the book trade has seen the neglect of the African writer of fiction, with local publishers preferring the financial safety of educational publishing. The only alternative for a writer wishing to see their work in print is to seek to publish abroad, a road fraught with a myriad challenges where talent alone does not guarantee success.
One of the most memorable events on the calendar of creative writing on the continent was the founding of the landmark Heinemann African Writers Series (AWS), which brought African writing to the attention of the world and to all Africans who could read English. Sadly, the pioneer writers unveiled by this series are ageing and in need of successors.
Publishing is a fairly old trade on the African continent. By the seventeenth century publications in Arabic were already in circulation in western Sudan’s trading centres. Nigeria and South Africa were among the first countries in sub-Saharan Africa where the first mission-run printing presses were set up in the mid-eighteenth century, giving them a head start in literacy on the continent.
Oxford University Press Nigeria (now University Press plc) opened in Ibadan in 1949, paving the way for Onibonoje Press which started operations in 1959. Longman and Macmillan came to Nigeria later, in 1962 and 1965 respectively. These multinationals also expanded into Southern Africa in the 1960s, where Jan Carl Juta had already blazed the trail, establishing a commercial press in Cape Town way back in 1853.
Fiction did not form part of the catalogue put out by these early presses, whose main concern was to translate the Bible into indigenous languages for the natives, and thus help spread the religion and the Christianising mission into the hinterland, in the process softening up the native for colonisation. Any other literature was meant to support the technical and industrial training the missionaries offered at their mission centres, and it was designed to prepare the converts to fit into the clerical and technical positions in the white-run economy when the colonial machine came into full swing.
The East African Literature Bureau is the earliest known publishing house in the East Africa region, having been established in 1947 as an offshoot of the missionary-owned Ndia Kuu Press. It had offices in Dar es Salaam, Nairobi and Kampala. The first truly indigenous publishing house, the East African Publishing House would emerge much later in 1965.
Fiction did not form part of the catalogue put out by these early presses, whose main concern was to translate the Bible into indigenous languages that could be understood by the natives, and thus help spread the religion and the Christianising mission into the hinterland, in the process softening up the native for colonisation.
The 1970s saw the establishment of university presses in Nigeria such as the University of Nigeria Press and the University of Lagos Press that paved the way for Africans to take control of indigenous publishing. In Kenya this happened in the 1980s, with the establishment of major independent African publishers such as the East African Educational Publishers (EAEP) and Longhorn. Baobab Press started operations in Zimbabwe in 1988, alongside other publishers who came into business in Southern Africa around this time.
One of the reasons why AWS was successful was because Heinemann had a foot in all the leading capitals throughout the Commonwealth, a physical network through which its writers could move across international borders. It also had the financial muscle. When Heinemann (East Africa) was bought out by independent African business people in the mid-1980s, there was a sense of pride in the fact that finally Africans would be running their own affairs, and getting to keep the money circulating amongst themselves. But after the dust settled, it soon became apparent that this crop of entrepreneurs were concerned only with clawing out and ring-fencing tiny turfs of their own; they had no intention of creating the cross-turf and cross-border networks that are so crucial in publishing. Moreover, they focused on educational publishing, which—though lucrative and safe—unlike fiction, says nothing about a region’s culture.
The few African writers who wanted to be published beyond their home cities and villages now either had to seek publishers abroad, or forget fiction all together. As for those who opted to play it safe within the system, they had to submit to the yoke of the censor, tailoring their books to the whims of the gatekeepers at the Ministry of Education. This is the reason why some of the best-known contemporary writers on the continent are all published abroad. By prostrating before the god of profit the publishers lost sight of what publishing is supposed to be, particularly in such a grossly misunderstood and misrepresented region of the world as Africa. According to UNESCO, Africa accounts for only 1.2 per cent of the world’s total book production.
The biggest indigenous publishing house in the region, East African Educational Publishers, started operations in 1986, having bought out Heinemann Educational Books (East Africa). Other multinationals like Longman and Evans would similarly evolve into locally-owned entities as the once vibrant East African Community disintegrated. It is this indigenisation that is at the heart of the problems currently bedeviling writers from the region and from other parts of Africa.
Walter Bgoya of Mkuki na Nyota Publishers of Tanzania asserts that indigenous publishers have a crucial role to play that can never be fulfilled by transnational publishers. “Autonomous publishing is the response to the crisis in the cultural life of a nation in the realm of education, literature and art,” he is quoted in the book Publishing and Book Trade in Kenya compiled by Ruth Makotsi and Lily Nyariki. “It is for this reason that no matter how well the transnational publishing house may perform and how appropriate it considers its books, it cannot be an acceptable alternative to autonomous publishing firms.”
Bgoya goes on to recognise the responsibilities vested in publishers and the important role that publishing plays in the development of regional cultures. However, in Hans Zell’s The Production and Marketing of African Books, Bgoya admits that the quality of the books that have been published since the exit of the multinationals, though improving, is still not satisfactory in terms of design, editing, proof-reading, indexing and paper quality. His contemporary, veteran Kenyan publisher Henry Chakava of East African Educational Publishers, avers, taking issue with the binding, printing and paper quality of the textbooks flooding the regional market.
“It is for this reason that no matter how well the transnational publishing house may perform and how appropriate it considers its books, it cannot be an acceptable alternative to autonomous publishing firms.”
Still, the blame for their lackluster performance cannot be put solely on publishers. Others have played a role. In order for books from Africa to compete with those from India and the West, they must compare well in terms of paper quality, the quality of the ink used, the binding technique, the printing technology employed, and so on. Strangely, while Africa is still very much what Zell refers to as a “bookless society”, African governments still insist on imposing heavy taxes on paper, printing ink and other raw materials that go into the production of books. This forces publishers to resort to the cheapest options available in order to stay in business.
But the business environment notwithstanding, the business practices of some of these indigenous publishers are also to blame for the dearth of new published work. Although they know very well that they do not have the capacity nor the understanding of cross-territory trade even within the region, almost all these publishers insist on new authors granting them world rights for their work, which makes them more of speculators than publishers.
These skewed contracts have ended up frustrating the careers of emerging authors, who have opted to either self-publish or look for publishers abroad. Yet if you speak to any of these publishers they will quickly blame their failures in publishing fiction on the prevailing business environment. They will tell you that fiction doesn’t sell. Which begs the question: how come Heinemann succeeded with the African Writers Series? What about the Onitsha Market pamphleteers of post-World War II Nigeria, still going strong seventy years on?
Publishing abroad has its challenges however. When Chinua Achebe finished writing his novel Things Fall Apart in 1957, he sent the only hand-written copy of the manuscript along with a postal order for £32—a princely sum at the time—to a London secretarial agency to have it typeset. That would probably have been the last time he saw the manuscript because, after receiving the money, the typesetter set it aside and forgot about the matter. Had Achebe not made a follow-up through a friend, who discovered the manuscript gathering dust in the typesetter’s office, it would probably have been lost.
Although they know very well that they do not have the capacity and understanding of cross-territory trade even within the region, almost all these publishers insist on new authors granting them world rights for their work, which makes them more of speculators than publishers.
Many African writers seeking to publish abroad have since faced similar challenges of access and have had to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles in order to see their works in print. After her French publisher Fernand Nathan merged with Larousse in 1989, the series in which Ivorian writer Véronique Tadjo had published her first novel, A vol d’oiseau (As the Crow Flies), was discontinued, and she not only suddenly found herself without a publisher for her well-publicised book, but she and a number of other writers had to team up to fight to have their terminal royalties paid. Thereafter she had to decide whether to take the novel to an Ivorian publisher or go shopping for one in France, where she had been born. In Charles Larson’s book The Ordeal of the African Writer, she says:
“My choice (of France) was due to the fact that Ivorian publishing was in a bad state after the financial collapse of the two main government-owned local publishers. The situation was more or less the same elsewhere on the continent. To publish in Africa would have meant to be confined within the borders of the country from where the publisher in question operated. It also meant the risk of having an editing job that wasn’t satisfying.”
And her misgivings proved founded, because shortly thereafter, when her author’s proof of a manuscript of poetry she had submitted to Ivorian publisher Les Nouvelles Éditions du Sénégal arrived in the mail, they had done such a shoddy job of the editing and layout that she refused to sign the contract.
Such stories abound and could make for a whole book if all the contemporary African writers published in the West agreed to share their experiences. But the truth is that, short of winning a major prize like the Commonwealth, Caine, Noma or Orange, the chances of an African writer attracting the attention of a good agent or mainstream trade publisher in Europe or the United States are very slim indeed. And even were they to survive and get published, they would still have to grapple with the complicated task of computing royalties. After the statutory government deductions of thirty per cent tax and the agent’s ten per cent, the cheque eventually banked by the author will have diminished alarmingly.
The African Publishers Network (APNET) was formed In 1992 to bring together publishers from 45 countries across Africa. Although a welcome initiative in the consolidation of the publishing initiatives by the emergent players on the continent, going by the catalogues put out by its active members, APNET’s main mandate was still educational publishing. In its 27 years of existence, APNET has largely failed to live up to the expectations of the region’s fiction writers.
In 1998, the African Writers-Publishers Seminar was held in Arusha, Tanzania to try to find a solution to the existing acrimony between authors and publishers. After heated deliberations, both parties resolved to work to make things better. Twenty years later, the situation remains the same, with most authors still in the dark about the status of books submitted to the publishers, and still having to fight to have their meager royalties paid.
A notable exception in this morass is Baobab Books of Zimbabwe, which gave us names like Chenjerai Hove, David Mungoshi, Dambudzo Marechera, Shimmer Chinodya and Yvonne Vera during the ten years in which the publisher was active before being put up for sale in 1998. Although criticised for the “density” of its publications, Baobab is an exception because of the attention its editor, Irene Staunton, paid to the editing process and the design and quality of her books.
But Baobab didn’t happen by accident. One of the reasons why its writers gained international recognition was the Zimbabwe International Book Fair, which has over the years gained international repute and the support of active sponsors based in Europe, leveraging the old established European networks that enabled the AWS to flourish in the past, and opening them to contemporary Zimbabwean writers.
Weaver Press, co-founded by Irene Staunton in 1998 after her stint at Baobab Books, is another notable Zimbabwean publisher of prize-winning fiction and specialising in books on political and social history, short-story anthologies and fiction by women writers. Zimbabwe and southern Africa have done considerably well compared to East Africa, thanks to active promotion by dedicated online portals like the Zimbabwe Reads website.
Around the turn of the millennium there was a measure of excitement when new players like Kwani? in Kenya and Chimurenga in Zimbabwe came onto the scene, driven by a youthful crop of writers who wanted to do something to fill the vacuum left by the departure of the AWS, and who were disillusioned by the way indigenous publishers were handling fiction. Most of these writers had travelled or studied abroad and experienced the vibrancy of the literary scene there.
Chimurenga,—which identifies as a pan-African platform of writing, art and politics—was founded in 2002 by Ntone Edjabe as a vehicle to give voice to Africans both at home and in the diaspora. It runs Chimurenga Magazine, a magazine of the arts, culture and politics, together with a quarterly broadsheet called The Chronic. It also runs the Chimurenga Library, an online portal where pan-African periodicals and books can be accessed.
Kwani? in Kenya and Chimurenga in Zimbabwe came on the scene driven by a youthful crop of writers who wanted to do something to fill the vacuum left by the departure of AWS, and who were largely disillusioned by the way the indigenous publishers were handling fiction.
As for Kwani?, it was started in 2002, the brainchild of its founding editor Binyavanga Wainaina, who put out its first literary journal the following year. In addition to the annual journal, Kwani? would later branch out into publishing book-length fiction and pocket-size booklets under its Kwanini? series in the same spirit as the Mini Modern Classics that Penguin put out on its fiftieth anniversary in 2011.
Over in Nigeria, writers have also played their part to fill the vacuum. One of the publishing firms that emerged on the scene was Parrésia Publishers, founded by writers Azafi Ogosi and Richard Ali in 2012, and which runs a number of imprints Including Cordite which is co-owned and edited by Helon Habila, winner of the 2001 Caine Prize. But Parrésia has had to contend with the harsh realities of the market, which allows it to put out only five fiction titles a year through the traditional publishing model. The rest of the catalogue is put out under a subsidy arrangement with the authors, who fund the production of their own books.
Although these new players have attempted to fill the vacuum left by the departure of Heinemann’s AWS, they are lagging behind in the creation of a pan-African catalogue of fiction comparable to the AWS series. One explanation could be the marketplace, which is riddled with cartels, compounded by the rampant piracy facilitated by modern technology that makes it easy to access and share book files online for free. Cheap printing technologies and lack of policies and laws to safeguard legitimate publishing eat further into the profits of legitimate businesses.
All the same, attempts have been made to find a replacement with a pan-African offering similar to the AWS but they have yet to bear fruit. Sometime in 2012 Kwani? put out a call for entries for the Kwani? Manuscript Prize, an Africa-wide project that was to be judged anonymously by an international panel. The initiative generated considerable excitement among African writers but in the end Kwani? failed to publish all the shortlisted titles.
The unique thing about African publishing is that the success of publishing houses is attributed to the tenacity of individuals rather than to an institutional framework and culture. The AWS owes its success to its editor Alan Hill and to Chinua Achebe, who selected the first 100 writers in the AWS catalogue. For Kwani? it was Binyavanga Wainaina; Irene Staunton for Baobab. In 2014 Binyavanga was charged with coming up with what many thought would be that long-sought-after successor to the AWS. He compiled a list of 39 authors from all over Africa who were then aged 39 years and below. As we converged on Ken Saro-Wiwa’s hometown, Port Harcourt, we thought that it was finally going to happen, that the publisher of the ‘Africa ’39’ project, Bloomsbury, was going to rise to the occasion and ask for our best manuscripts for a book series. It did not go as we had anticipated.
But perhaps the biggest threat of fragmentation is that, with every player pulling in their own direction depending on what best suits their business model, it makes it impossible to have a central reference point, especially to an outsider looking in trying to discover new writing from Africa. This makes it difficult to establish and maintain standards in the business, and makes it even more difficult for new experimental writing to break through, further stifling innovation and leaving the doors wide open to duplicity and mediocrity.
These are hurdles that have already been overcome in Western markets, which naturally appeals to those African writers who want to rise above the mediocrity in their own backyard and make something of their craft.
That said, much as publishing in the West offers the African writer the much needed exposure and commercial success, and accords them the peace of mind to embark on their next project, in the long run it is not the panacea to all their problems, as Yvonne Vera found out when she decided to abandon her thriving and promising literary career in Canada in the late 90s and return to her native Bulawayo. “I did not want to be interpreted but to be heard,” she told Ish Mafundikwa in an interview for Skyhost. “I find that immediacy very vital.”
After the awards are bagged and fortunes made, there’s always that nagging question of who a writer truly writes for. This is because the novelist occupies a totally different perch from that of the Hollywood stars. Writing is very much about identity, about the politics of who we are individually and collectively, and what space we occupy in the global order. As we say here in Africa, everyone’s umbilical cord is buried somewhere, even that of the much-fêted African writer abroad. That is what was tagging at Vera’s heartstrings, forcing her to trade in her “global citizenship”. For Véronique Tadjo, the solution to straddling these two worlds was two-pronged: a joint publication where one edition is produced and priced for the Western market, and another for the African market.
And so, sadly for African writers, talent is not enough; unlike other writers elsewhere, the African writer must go the extra mile to get their work on the market. But despite the hellish conditions under which they work, these writers still bedazzle us with a literary gem every now and then.
Stanley Gazemba’s latest book, Dog Meat Samosa, is published by Regal House Publishing in the US.
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