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David Maillu: At home with an African literary icon

Arts and Culture
 David Maillu 

At his home in Nairobi’s Langata Estate, Nairobi, David Maillu holds a copy of Prince Harry’s memoir, 'Spare'.

It is one of the hundreds of books on the shelves within the living room that he shares with African sculptures, family photos, a vase with fresh flowers from his garden, and dozens of manuscripts including one on witchcraft.

We would then spend the first 20 minutes of our interview discussing the intrigues within the monarchy that forced Harry to go into ‘exile’, the semblance between his (Maillu’s) late wife and the late Queen Elizabeth II, and King Charles’ visit to Kenya.

“I wanted to find out if the death of Princess Diana was planned. Was the suspicion correct?”

The 409 pages of 'Spare' did not provide him with an answer.

“Anyway, there is no creativity in his writing. He is just telling his own story.”

When Maillu goes down the writing and publishing route, it is a difficult task reeling him in once again to the main topic of discussion.

“So, what did you want to discuss with me?” he asks as we sip some African tea. That question, coming 30 minutes after his ‘introductory’ remarks created a momentary, blank stare between us. Locking eyes with the author with perhaps the longest list of published books in Africa is bound to throw anyone off course.

“Let’s discuss books. Family. Everything.”

“Everything?” he moves to a seat closer to where I am seated. “But you media people are afraid to write everything.”

He takes no prisoners. He suffers no fools. No subject is beyond him.

Few local authors have been as controversial as Maillu who is accused of putting heavy sexual overtones in his writings. A number of his books have created literacy storms, notably; 'After 4.30' and 'My Dear Bottle'. The never-ending perception about his works still surprises him.

“That book (After 4.30) did very well in readership numbers, maybe not in sales,” he says.

“You would have three copies in the same house. It would be read by the husband, the wife, and the son or daughter, but each of them had no clue the other family members had a copy. In school, a teacher would angrily confiscate the book from the pupils only for him to go read it in the staffroom.”

The book, he says, was meant to warn rural girls streaming into the city to be wary of those who would take advantage of them. “Others saw vulgarity,” he says.

Then there is 'My Dear Bottle', a book he published in 1973 as a sort of lamentation by a man who takes to the bottle to vent his frustrations with the government.

Maillu writes about the ravages of the bottle, the very opposite of his personality since Maillu has never taken a sip of alcohol.

Authorities were not amused by the tirades and suppressed his publishing house, Comb Books in 1978. “But I never ran away like others,’ he says.

“Who are the others,” I ask.

“You know them. Some are dying in Western countries while others are seriously sick. If they ran away due to political intrigues, why can’t they come back now. Why are they perpetuating the same imperialism they so opposed at home?”

His criticism is partly directed at Ngugi wa Thiong’o, another prolific writer, but who Maillu says hardly credited him (Maillu) for encouraging him to write in vernacular.

In the late 1960s, Maillu used to read Kikamba poems on radio and remembers Ngugi asking him how people reacted to the poems read in vernacular.

“I asked him, ‘you keep on writing in English, when will your mother read what you write’?  By 1972 I had already published part of my poetry in Kikamba, 'Ki Kyambonie', meaning, what happened to me?”

“Then Ngugi began writing 'Ngaahika Ndeenda', but wouldn’t tell me what he was working on. He would only say ‘I am working on something’. He was trying to follow what I was doing. He is not the first one to write in vernacular,” says Maillu.

Those who have never met Maillu might conceive the picture of a man with rough edges looking for controversy at every corner. However, the 84-year-old has had his vulnerable moments too.

He has had personal losses, the biggest being the death of his wife of 50 years, Hannelore, in 2020.

Hannelore, a German, came to Kenya in 1967 after she was posted here by a Christian organization. Maillu was then working for the national broadcaster, Voice of Kenya, now KBC.

Not one to beat about the bush, Maillu walked up to the lady and told her he would like to marry her—at a time the nationalistic fervor was at fever pitch and when such mixed relationships were frowned upon.

Powers beyond him, he says, were behind his marriage to the white woman, with the self-proclaimed ‘diviner’ adding he had what he called a prophetic dream about the union.

In 1957, as a barefoot-walking Class Seven pupil in Ukambani, Maillu says he had a dream where he was married to a white woman. He told the dream to his family members who got very frantic because a white person was viewed as a god in the locality.

“I had another dream and another. In one dream I was with Queen Elizabeth, her husband and daughter, Princess Anne. I told the Queen ‘Can I take your daughter for a walk’? She told me to go ahead, and I took her home. Of course, I woke up in Ukambani with no princess,” he says.

His dream of marrying a white woman came true in 1970, not the Queen’s daughter though, “but one who actually resembled Queen Elizabeth herself”. We move to a collage on his wall where mugshots of the Queen and Maillu’s wife are interspersed.

“This is the Queen Elizabeth, and this is my wife,” he points. “And here too. I look at a face here and I don’t know if I am looking at my wife or the Queen. By the way, my mother-in-law is called Elizabeth. Some will say it is a coincidence. Is life predestined or what do you call that?”

They have a daughter, Kavuli, from that union.

Maillu forges lasting unions and has kept the same nanny for 49 years, a lady who came to babysit their daughter almost 50 years ago and who now lives in Kibra with her grandchildren.

And even with close to 140 unpublished manuscripts, Maillu is not about to ditch the pen. He is working on a novel, 'The Pointman at Dukahola', a play on words looking at how religion is manipulated to create societal havoc after the Shakahola debacle.

While he has an aversion for modern religion, he was once a saved boy and a member of the Salvation Army Church in Kola, Machakos.

“I was about 12 and feared going to hell. For the first name I chose the Biblical character David because he was a poet. I am a poet. He was a musician. I am a musician. He was a king. I haven’t got that one yet,” he says, alluding to his entry into politics in 1997, 2002, and 2007.

Now in his twilight years, his mind is still sharp and with the physical agility of a teen. It is obvious we are yet to hear the last from this African literacy icon. 

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