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Henry Chakava: Whence comes another like him?

 The late Henry Chakava

Towards the end of 2022, Maisha Yetu honoured Dr Henry Chakava with a Lifetime Achievement Award for his contribution to the book industry and general publishing, not only in Kenya but also in Africa.

In the early nineties he bought the company from UK publishers and named it East African Educational Publishers. However, the most enduring part of his story is how he led his company to publish more than 2000 tiles of culturally relevant books – which include fiction – the largest by a local publishing house.

He managed this by balancing between publishing school publishing – the bread and butter of local publishing – and publishing for leisure/fiction publishing.

Even though his employers, Heinemann were the publishers of the successful African Writers Series, he kept receiving manuscripts that he felt would fit into a new genre of adventure, romance and crime.

He floated the idea to his bosses in the UK but they flatly rejected the idea. He would not take no for an answer and went ahead to start the Spear Series, which became so successful, that Heinemann had to start a series of their own called Heartbeat.

Chakava received the manuscript of My Life in Crime from Kamiti Maximum Prison, where the author, John Kiriamiti, had been imprisoned for robbery with violence. To date, My Life in Crime remains Kenya’s best-selling novel.

It should be remembered that Chakava is also Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s publisher.

When, in 1980 word spread that Chakava was about to publish Ngugi’s book, Caitani Mutharabaini (Devil on the Cross), written in detention, he started receiving threatening phone calls. When the aggrieved parties - suspected to be government agents - saw that he was unrelenting, they decided to move their dastardly action to the next level. Chakava was waylaid as he was about to enter his Lavington home, by thugs armed with all manner of crude weapons. He was only saved by headlights of an oncoming vehicle. The thugs dispersed but not before a machete, aimed at his head, almost severed his small finger.”

The above citation cannot even begin to give justice to the immense accomplishments of this man who came to be known as the Father of African Publishing. This is not an idle boast when you consider that Kenyan publishing sits at the top of the pile in the African continent. Consider too, that EAEP, the firm Chakava wrested from the UK was the market leader in Kenyan publishing for the longest time.

Chakava, after he finished his studies at the University of Nairobi, had the option of pursuing a career in the academy – his grades allowed him – but he chose publishing instead. In 1972, he joined the then-Heinemann Educational Publishers as an editor. In six years, he had risen to the position of managing director.

Then, the Kenyan publishing scene was dominated by foreign publishers – Heinemann, Oxford University Press, Longman etc – and government-owned ones.

When Chakava took over as MD in the then Heinemann East Africa, the company mainly relied on selling imported books from the mother company in the UK. After some time, Chakava realised that he needed to develop some books for the local company.

In 1980, Chakava was to again go against company policy when he decided to enter the Primary school market. The result was the hugely successful Masomo ya Msingi Kiswahili series.

The first time he went against his bosses was when he started the Spear series which included books like My Life in Crime.

The move to start the Masomo ya Msingi series was boosted by the fact that two years later, the Kenyan government officially made Kiswahili a national language.

By 1984, the company’s publishing portfolio stood at 90 per cent local as opposed to 10 per cent foreign. “That is when I realised that I was making money for a foreign company,” Chakava told me in a 2010 interview. “I then started agitating for local shareholding in the company.”

He pushed for a controlling 60 per cent local shareholding. This came to pass in 1986 and Heinemann East Africa became a local majority-owned company. “It was the best feeling in the world,” he added.

In 1992, the ownership of Heinemann UK changed hands and soon Chakava found himself in the horns of a dilemma. The new owners gave him two stark options: Either he buys out the 40 per cent stake, owned by the Britons or they buy out the entire Kenyan outfit.

“This proved to be messy. I had to raise money locally by issuing several rights issues, as well as roping in new shareholders,” explained Chakava.

This was followed shortly by the demand that he stops using the Heinemann name in all their books. This meant that he had to do new catalogues with the name of the new company East African Educational Publishers (EAEP). “1992 was our lowest year,” he says.

Meanwhile, local staff in foreign-owned publishers were taking notes. Before long, Longman Publishers was soon transformed into Longhorn, a wholly Kenyan-owned outfit. David Muita, who was managing director of Macmillan Publishers too bought off the UK investors and transformed the outfit into Moran Publishers.

With the indigenisation of foreign multinationals almost complete – barring Oxford – Chakava set his eyes on the next battlefront; getting a share of educational publishing. Before this, the lucrative sector of educational publishing was being undertaken by government-owned publishers, namely Kenya Literature Bureau (KLB) and Jomo Kenyatta Foundation (JKF).

The efforts bore fruit when the Mwai Kibaki-led Narc took over power, in 2003 and introduced Free Primary Education. Then, Chakava was the chairman of Kenya Publishers Association (KPA), a position he held for a record of ten years.

It was during his tenure as KPA chair in 1992 that Chakava led the revival of the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature, which had died off after just one year, in 1974. That year, the first prize was shared between Wahome Mutahi’s Three Days on the Cross and David Maillu’s Broken Drum.

Had Chakava been a faint-hearted person, he would have succumbed to political pressure and abandoned publishing Ngugi wa Thiong’o, an exile and a dissident in Moi’s government.

In his book, Publishing in Africa: One Man’s Perspective, Chakava has dedicated a whole chapter – Publishing Ngugi: The Challenge, The Risk and the Reward – on Ngugi. Chakava writes: “There have been many threats, direct or indirect, that I or my company has suffered because of the association with Ngugi.” This includes the aforementioned attack by government-sponsored goons when he published Matigari.

Chakava’s passing is a big blow to the publishing industry in Kenya and in Africa. However, due to his many achievements, we can only celebrate his life.

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