Henry Chakava: Affable, professional giant and level-headed publisher

East African Educational Educational Publishers (EAEP) CEO Kiarie Kamau (from left) author Yolanda Chakava and EAEP Chairman Henry Chakava during the launch of 'Super Lisu' book at Sarit centre,Westalnds, Nairobi. [File,Standard]

I met Henry Chakava, who passed on Friday, in September 1986. I had recently graduated from the University of Nairobi for the second time in three years.

I concurrently worked for the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting as a producer of radio programmes at the Voice of Kenya and as a lecturer at the Kenya Institute of Mass Communications. However, I always felt that something was missing.

I saw what I was looking for when a British multinational company was taken over by Kenyans, in August of that year. They published a newspaper supplement to announce the transformation of Heinemann Educational Books (East Africa) Ltd to Heinemann Kenya.

I could not get over the story of Henry, who had joined Heinemann in 1972, as a temporary editor, moving on to become a trainee editor, and eventually the Managing Director in 1974, aged only 27.

Eventually, I picked up my pen and asked for a job. The reply came a few days later, by way of a telephone call. “Are you available to see Mr Chakava of Heinemann next week?” the voice at the end of the line enquired.

The meeting took place in a modest office along Nairobi’s Kijabe Street. The place looked far too small. The Heinemann name was explosive. Equally big was the name Chakava. Was this all there was to this famous company? But I kept the questions to myself. So, too, did I hold on to my concern that instead of the interviewing panel that I had expected to meet, there was only Mr Chakava.

The interview itself was very easy and friendly. The man spoke with aplomb. He told me about the company and where it was going. I was told that there was no job to be offered to me at the time. But, if I should still be interested a year later, I could give him a call. And I did. Exactly one year later, almost to the day.

The second interview was brief. There was an opening. He wanted to begin publishing for African children. He also wanted course books in English, for both primary and secondary schools. Was I interested? It was the beginning of a relationship that would last just under two decades.

But, even as I picked up my letter of appointment two days later, I still wondered whether I was not making a mistake. Here I was, leaving my secure job in government, for a small company in the godowns of Kijabe Street. My mother was upset and didn’t mince her words. My father said nothing. My wife told me it was all right. I told nobody else about it. 

Looking at it many years later, it was the best decision I ever made. Henry was an affable and level-headed avuncular gentleman. He told me from the very start that there would be a lot of learning to be done. There would be much travelling, both within the country, Africa and beyond. I would learn a lot from my colleagues, he said, and quite a bit from him directly. 

And I learned a lot, not just in publishing, but in life. The firm that I joined had only four other editors. Paul Njoroge was in charge of academic publishing. Jimmi Makotsi was the primary school editor, while Dr Ann Wanjie handled secondary school publishing. Nazi Kivutha (Kibwana) was the Kiswahili editor.

Others came after me, with some employed by me. Andrew Sunkuli, Lilian Dhahabu, Kiarie Kamau, Jeremy Ng’ang’a, Saulo Were, Valerie Mukuna, and Ann Mithamo, among others. 

I discovered that I knew nothing, for all my university learning. I was cast in at the deep end. Once a month, we held editorial and production board meetings. Henry encouraged us to do both editorial and production work. You learned everything there was about developing books, from conceiving the ideas to turning them into manuscripts and from there to producing manuscripts into books.

I went through the first ten months wondering whether I was justified to take home the salary they were giving me, more than twice what the government had been paying me. But Henry was most encouraging. “You are a brilliant young man,” he would say to me, “I saw that the very instant I read your letter. It will be fine.”

He passed on to me manuscripts to read and write reports. He listened patiently as I talked to the scripts, despite having read my written reports. He looked at me patiently, like the graduate supervisor he should have become, had he not elected to get out of the Master’s class at the University of Nairobi. For, he had got a double first-class honours degree in Literature and Philosophy. He had gained a scholarship to bridge the two disciplines, focusing on Immanuel Kant’s notion of universal moral values, truth and rationalism.

In the end, it worked just as I had been assured. He introduced me to Chinua Achebe, and gave me the virtuoso’s children’s manuscripts to publish. We travelled around the country with him and Chinua, launching the books. Then more books began rolling off the printing press, thanks to the patience of the seasoned elder, who knew what he was looking for in a protegee.

I was introduced to more writers and given their work to produce. Under Henry’s tutelage, I published Francis Imbuga’s plays, John Ruganda, Tabaan Lo Liyong, Meja Mwangi and Jared Ang’ira. He introduced me, too, to Grace Ogot, Barbara Kimenye, Cyprian Ekwensi, and Gcina Mhlophe.

There were many others. Katama Mkangi, Macharia Munene, David Rubadiri, David Cook, Paul Robin and  R. A. Hargreaves, E.S. Atieno Odhiambo, William Ochieng, Simiyu Wandibba, V. G. Simiyu, and a whole host of other writers. It was simply marvellous working with these people under the guidance of Henry Chakava.

And sometimes we made mistakes too; costly mistakes. A whole print run of a book was sometimes pulped because of a fatal mistake in the text. Such were very agonizing moments. You went about the place feeling extremely low, because of the  loss you had caused the company. It was especially in such moments that Henry would be as cool as a cucumber.

He would pop in once in a while, with a smile, to enquire how the correction was proceeding. He might then even invite you out to lunch, during which he would discuss everything, except what you were agonizing about. He would only talk about the mistakes when everything had been properly sorted out. Even then, it was only to remark that you had learned your lesson, you now knew what not to do again.

But Henry also straddled the space outside the publishing house. Virtually single-handedly, he established the Kenya Publishers Association, as a platform for addressing publishers’ concerns in the country. He served for a long time as the chairman. During that tour of duty, he would wrestle virtually unaided, with the Ministry of Education’s draconian edicts on school book lists. The lists were rife with scandal, as the Ministry purported to approve the best books to be used in primary and secondary schools in the country.

Funds often changed hands under the table for these approvals. And some officials did not hesitate to ask you why your books should be approved when you were so close-fisted. The book wars would spill into the media, with some of Henry’s colleagues in the industry disowning him, even as my own colleagues from other publishing houses would disown me years later when it would be my turn to serve as chairman of the association. 

Henry will be remembered for founding the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature, jointly with the Shah and Rhughani families of the Text Book Centre. He will also be celebrated for founding the Kenya Book Development Council, and sister councils in Uganda and Tanzania. Together, they formed the East African Book Development Council. The councils brought together all the players in the industry – each with their own association, from writers to publishers, booksellers, librarians, and readers. He established a conversation platform for all these parties through the Nairobi International Book Fair, with KPA in the driver’s seat.

At the continental level, he will be remembered for the founding of the African Publishers Network (APNET), and the African Publishing Institute (API). He also brought in development partners such as the Dag Hammarskjold Foundation, the World Bank, Norwegian Aid, and the Canadian International Development Agency to help grow the book industry. He brought intellectual property owners together under the umbrella of KOPIKEN. And he helped to draft the Copyright Act of Kenya. Remarkably, he rallied together African publishers to set up an African publishers-owned UK-based marketing and sales company for African books, African Books Collective (ABC).

He was a globally respected publishing professional, who introduced those of us who worked with him to international contacts throughout the world. He trusted us, and sent us alone all over the planet, to do official business in Europe, Asia, the Americas, Oceania, everywhere. 

Henry Chakava was a professional giant who towered head and shoulder above other giants. His friends included persons like Walter Bgoya of Tanzania Publishing House and later Mkuki na Nyota Publishers; Aigboje of Heinemann Nigeria; Paul Brickhill of Zimbabwe Publishing House, Chief Joop Berkhout of Safari Books, Nigeria; Victor Nwankwo of Fourth Dimension Publishers, Nigeria, and many more.

He kept the company of ace African writers such as Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Wole Soyinka, Ayi Kwei Armah, Grace Ogot, Chris Wanjala, John Sibi Okumu, Charles Mang’ua, among others. He liberated African publishing from the colonial space and gave it an authentic African character. He gave people like me hope in life.

Henry goes away a true hero, a messiah who was celebrated far away from home. While our universities never honoured him for his contribution to knowledge, he will live forever in a good and tender place in the hearts and memories of those of us who knew him and worked with him. A Lizard of the Iroko Tree has slept. Go well, Henry, we will meet in Heaven. Rest in peace. Amen.

Dr Muluka is a strategic communications adviser

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