Ken Walibora: Of great achievements and unfulfilled Plans
By Kinyanjui Kombani
| April 23rd 2020
“This is the power of creative writing – that it gives you the power to imagine beyond the ordinary. You could be writing about Nairobi, but re-imagine it; it even could be a Nairobi that is hanging in the clouds!”
Ken Walibora was responding to a question on how much writers should stick to facts when creating works of fiction.
The year was 2014 and we were at Daystar University’s Valley Road Campus for the opening ceremony of the Creatives Academy, a 13-week creative writing course that Wandia Njoya and I had conceptualised.
That was an eye-opening moment for me, and for many budding writers in the house. Prof Walibora is one of the giants on whose shoulders I have stood, and his words then, and many others that he would share with me over the next few years, would help to mould me into the writer and person that I have become.
I was first introduced to Walibora through his work, first as a writer, and then as a Kiswahili newscaster when he would pause between sentences, lending gravitas to his every pronouncement.
The first time that I met him ‘live, live’ was at the Acacia Publishers offices around 2003 where I was interning as an editorial assistant. I was poring through a manuscript and, suddenly, there he was, walking towards me in an immaculate shiny grey suit. He smiled and nodded but I was frozen in the moment, unable to acknowledge his greeting. Still, being in the presence of the man did wonders for my morale, and my resolve to be a successful writer – if only that I could afford such a magnificent suit.
It took 10 years for us to meet again. In between, we exchanged emails – mostly from me ‘shooting my shot’ by pitching my novel The Last Villains of Molo. He was extremely measured in his comments. For instance, I once asked him, in response to his critique of KW Wamitila’s book, whether African writing was apolitical and he responded:
“My conception of politics is very broad. In my view politics is ubiquitous and affects and afflicts everyone and everything. In that sense even romance is political. Think about Romeo and Juliet and how behind the tragic love affair there is a bitter family feud (read politics). So you cannot afford to be apolitical. It is impossible in my conception of politics in terms of power relations. Of course I stand to be corrected.”
Our literary scene is divided into camps. On the one side, we have the old guard – those who feel that literature came and went with Ngugi and Achebe. On the other we have the Kwani? new age writing that came to change the status quo. And in between lie the rest of us – not too old to just write about colonisation and not cool enough to belong to the new age.
It is in trying to bring together all these groups that my path and Walibora’s merged. We had a chance meeting and I outlined some of my plans. He helped me articulate and refine what I wanted to do. In 2013, 13 authors came together at the Junction Mall for the first meet-and-greet dubbed the ‘Authors Buffet’. Participants included the late Binyavanga Wainaina, John Sibi-Okumu, Stanley Gazemba and Muthoni Likimani.
Walibora kept me accountable, always asking, “What next? Getting authors together for a day is good, but is it good enough?” The prodding was in his characteristically soft but deliberate tone, telling me I had no option but to do better.
In 2014 we teamed up with Daystar University for the Creative Academy. The idea was to build a course designed for writers by writers. Walibora’s topics at the class were always insightful and brilliant. He was unapologetic in his fight for the adoption of Kiswahili literature in classrooms and lecture halls.
He was passionate about looking out for other writers. Once, I told him about a TV appearance I had made and he asked me if I had referred another writer to the producer. “You cannot appear on TV as a guest writer every day, but the TV station can host a writer every day.”
He rarely missed a book launch or literary event, and whenever he was in attendance he was fully present, his finger on his chin. His challenge is the reason why I appear alongside authors who only write in Kiswahili at the annual Tamasha la Kiswahili.
Our last meeting would have been at Riara School’s Book Week finale, at which we were to be co-chief guests. But I missed it by a whisker because I was flying out of the country the next day. I shall always regret that.
Now that he is gone, I am reflecting on how Walibora easily morphed from a childhood hero to an acquaintance to a friend – from prof to kaka. He never used our age gap to lord it over me, thus giving me an opportunity to reverse-mentor him. He was quick to act on advice and did not shy away from seeking help.
For example, when he complained that there wasn’t a central source of information about him and I recommended that he should have a website, we had kenwalibora.co.ke up in a week.
The profile on the site describes him to a fault: “First and foremost, I see myself as a creative writer, then a literary and cultural studies scholar and, lastly, as a Kiswahili media expert. Kiswahili is my language of choice in writing creative works, although some of my critical and academic engagements are necessarily in English. If I had all the time in the world, I would be writing and reading great books only, of which the Bible is foremost. I am an avid reader, keen observer and patient listener.”
We had talked about translating each other’s work. In the procrastinating spirit of wacha tutaongea, this will now not come to pass.
Walibora leaves us with a collection of 40-plus books. One of his recent pieces is a play, Mbaya Wetu, a critical look at society and how we are keen to support people from our own community that we know are evil. As we go into the General Election, it would be a worthwhile read.
We should not let Walibora’s memory fade away, and there is talk of establishing a literary award in his name. Rest easy, kaka. You came, you saw, you conquered.
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