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Kwani? can now learn after decade of literary drought

By Abenea Ndago | July 20th 2013

By Abenea Ndago

For the record, I must repeat my usual position that the opportunities, which Kwani? Magazine offers our region’s literature, are boundless. That should be as obvious as the sun.

The annual LitFest and the recent Kwani? Manuscript Project require no singing about by the magazine’s griots. That is a role I refuse to play and, as usual, I always welcome all manner of intellectual sewage, which will follow this article.

They never worry me.    In spite of the magazine’s pride of place, what continues to sadden me is the steep drain into which goes nearly all its invaluable effort.

That’s how the Ugandan Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi won the manuscript project, and the Liberian Saah Millimono (I will return to this later) followed her. Even though the Kenyan Timothy Kiprop Kimutai got number three, I doubt if he is a typical, dyed-in-the-wool ‘Kwaniac’.

No, it should bother Kwani? that put in the hands of neutral judges, its own style of writing cannot win a literary prize sponsored by that same magazine. Both financially and ideologically, Kwani? was inspired by the Caine Prize for African Writing, which was started in 2000.

But in the fourteen years during which the continental project has run, the only Kenyan win – and the only one ever in the magazine’s lifetime – was Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s (2003). Of course a strange name, which claims to be Kenyan had won before, in 2002, and I congratulate both it and Owuor on that daunting feat.

 Fourteeen years

In the same fourteen years, Sudan won once (Leila Aboulela, 2000). Sierra Leone also saw it once (Olufemi Terry, 2010), as did Uganda (Monica Arac de Nyeko, 2007). Like Kenya, South Africa has won twice (Mary Watson, 2006, and Henrietta Rose-Innes, 2008). Zimbabwe also won twice (Brian Chikwava, 2004, and NoViolet Bulawayo, 2011).

I do not pretend to know what aspiring writers in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone, Uganda, and Sudan did to have warranted such lean harvests, but I know what Kenyans do under Kwani’s tutelage. Pitted against Nigeria, I partly know why Billy Kahora, Muthoni Garland, Mukoma Ngugi, and Lily Mabura were all felled as soon as they were shortlisted.

Having won five times, Nigeria is the most striking case (Helon Habila, 2001; Segun A. Afolabi, 2005; E. C. Osondu, 2009; Rotimi Babatunde, 2012; Tope Folarin, 2013). I hope that the Caine Prize panel will not be accused of Nigeriamania in the last two cases because, even in 2002 and 2003, two people from Kenya followed each other. 

We should also observe that two winners of the prize confessed to having been inspired by the Kenyan social landscape (Olufemi Terry, by Nairobi’s street children; E. C. Osondu, by Dadaab Refugee Camp).  The truth is that nearly all the winners of the Caine Prize are notorious globe trotters.

However, migrancy and hopping over the world are not preconditions for winning the prize.  I could still win it from my rusty corner of the village. Through constant reading and alertness to news, even the most reclusive writer will manage to travel the whole world more efficiently than West Africa’s intimate relationship with the western world.

Given their mania for prurience and literary voyeurism – and what Evan Mwangi has called ‘sleaze’– I know the Kwaniac heretics will salivate when I mention that Arac de Nyeko’s Jambula Tree is about two lesbian girls.

Yet let me invite them to look at the five winning Nigerian stories in the following ways: Habila’s Love Poems as entrapment; Afolabi’s Monday Morning as exile and displacement; Osondu’s Waiting as exile and self-revival; Babatunde’s Bombay’s Republic as war; and Folarin’s Miracle as religion.

I do not intend to mock anyone because I know how painfully agonising the task of writing can be. I am aware that even Chinua Achebe could count beyond his ten fingers the number of times his Things Fall Apart (1958) manuscript was rejected by publishers. In short, the University of Nairobi’s Prof Henry Indangasi will tell you that ‘the secret of good writing is re-writing,’ that writing involves a great deal of long-suffering on the part of the writer.

That’s why – despite their resounding loss at the Kwani Manuscript Project – I would still congratulate and encourage Kwani’s Clifford Chianga Oluoch and Stanley Gazemba. But that sympathy alone cannot prevent me from seeing why the Kenyan outfit fared so disastrously, and I still wait to know what Chianga and Gazemba wrote about.

But from the snippets I have read, I understand that Makumbi’s The Kintu Saga captures actual historical occurrences in Uganda. Millimono’s One Day I Will Write About This War is about the Liberian civil war, and Kimutai’s The Water Spirits invokes the powers of the spirit world.

You will already have noted that these themes have a clear affinity with the Caine Prize scenario.Understandably, Kwani? did not reveal the author of something called

The Haggard Masturbator, but my guess is better than yours that it came from Kenya, from the fingers of friends who have professionalised male gossip. Free advice is that you can never run a literary marathon with it, and the judges told you just as much.  Such exclusive majoring on human genitalia is a clear continuation of the same time wastage, which used to confront my eyes in Jackie Lebo’s Running, in Kwani 04.

The magazine’s biggest sin is recruiting willing pupils and putting them on the wrong scent: urbanity, urbanity, urbanity.

Their resident philosopher called Keguro Macharia accepted that after my Blame Kwani? for East Africa’s literary swamp. Well, urbanity does occasionally win, but the extra dose of philosophy never misses.

We could add that drug abuse is just an issue; not a philosophy. The only reason a start-up can be sponsoring and soiling the pages of a good newspaper with drug-soaked reviews every other week is his own doubt as to its relevance.

People who dream that the mere parading of Nairobi’s streets – naked and wet as they always are – will arrest the world’s attention grossly misread the intelligence of those who take literature seriously.

Related to that is the question of a guiding philosophy. I do not know if sexual perversion is Kwani’s guardian angel.

But I do know that a red-neck’s neighing cry from the fields of Machakos once claimed that the magazine travelled along the same path as the one beaten in 1968 by the feet of Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Taban Lo Liyong, and Henry Owuor-Anyumba; a spurious assertion which fainted even before it could breathe.

 Marvelous wastage

The absence of a guiding philosophy probably explains the marvelous wastage of energy on such superficial elements as parenthesis and word-play. Like the Nigerian case, many winners of the Caine Prize rely on simple, direct language – no pretentiousness.

Conversely – and at the expense of deep thinking – Kwani’s pupils are all lost in self-delusion with words, not unlike a kitten with its own shadow. They could quit abetting outright aping.

Millimono’s winning story One Day I Will Write About This War is only a hair’s breadth from One Day I Will Write About This Place (2011), a debased memoir I will soon revisit. Nor is it lost on you that a very recent book by a Kwaniac – not Nairobi Cold – is a copycat of Brian Chikwava’s Harare North (2009).

Yet these are more forgivable than the silent, nagging fear that even tribalism may not be very far away. Early this year, two articles written in The Guardian by the magazine’s top guns had all the smells of tribal excrement. They read like tribal rubberstamps being paraded to influence the outcome of an election petition.

But, in retrospect, it is possible that the hired guns found themselves in the same logical pitfall, which is home to many dim-witted Kenyans who affirm that their tribe is ‘Kenyan.’

I have never known a bull of ignorance more muscular than that. What they do not know is that, after uttering such an ignorant statement, you lose all the logic with which to combat tribalism.

Even if the employees of Treasury were all El Molo, you would not complain precisely because they are just ‘Kenyan.’ Timothy Kiprop Kimutai won a literary prize sponsored by Kwani?. It’s a chance for the magazine’s tin gods to see their mistake in silencing non-urban narratives. But such invaluable common sense will have arrived after ten long years of amazing selfishness and wrong advice.



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