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Meja Mwangi: A versatile, gifted and indefatigable literary hero of all time

By - Henry Munene | June 30th 2013 at 00:00:00 GMT +0300

Meja Mwangi began his writing career in the 70s, and is one of Kenya’s leading novelists. [Photos: COURTESY AND FILE/STANDARD]

By Henry Munene

When the literary history of Kenya is finally written, his place at the high table will no doubt be reserved.

An acclaimed author who has written more titles and bagged more international and local awards than any other, Meja Mwangi, is easily the most enduring, gifted and prolific writers in East Africa.

In my school days, I had the advantage of sampling some of Mwangi’s earlier works. As young boys, we loved books such as The Bushtrackers (1979), a thriller on conservation that was so hilarious; it claimed its pride of place among the Hardy Boys, James Hardley Chase and other series titles that we even sneaked out of school to read.

We also avidly devoured Bread of Sorrow (1987), Weapon of Hunger (1989), Return of Shaka (1989) and other works by Mwangi that may be out of stock today.

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And even when we were weaned into more serious works of African fiction, his Going Down River Road (1976) and The Cockroach Dance (1979) came to the fore, proving ability to appeal to diverse social groups.

In my view, however, it is in Going Down River Road that Mwangi is at his breathtaking best. The story is so vividly and powerfully told; it forms an impression of River Road as a metaphor for the downside of urbanisation that is hard to erase. You can ‘see’ the filth as the characters hop over steaming mounds of human waste as they walk to work. You can feel the pain of the construction workers, torn between caring for one another and being individualistic, every time Ochola is asked if he has a cigarette and he says ‘the last one’. His power of satire is also evident in Striving for the Wind (1990)

Favourite writer

So when, as a young editor at East African Educational Publishers, I was tasked to work on a new edition The Last Plague, I was excited at the prospect of meeting one of my favourite writers. To my surprise though, I was to deal more with his agent in Switzerland, with whom I communicated via email.

This indirect working arrangement continued through 2006, when I edited The Boy Gift, a hilarious novella where Toma Tomei, a chief and father of nine daughters finally gets a son, but there is a big, ribs-cracking problem …

Later, at Lenana Mount Hotel in Nairobi, I managed to convince Mwangi, who was sporting a fedora hat and a cream overcoat across my table, to let me pore over a couple of scripts that his other publishers in Canada were also looking at. That is how The Big Chiefs, which explores the theme of ethnic violence, was published later that year in Nairobi. 

Born in 1948 in Nanyuki, Mwangi went to Nanyuki Secondary School, Kenyatta College and the University of Leeds. Inspired by Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s  Weep Not, Child (1964), he penned A Taste of Death (1975) and Kill Me Quick (1973), which explored the theme of the struggle for independence. In 1976, he was admitted as fellow in writing at the University of Iowa, a move that would mark the beginning of his long successful writing career spanning close to four decades. So, what motivates him?

“As anyone who has tried it knows, writing is a hard and lonely occupation; often without reward or gratification, critical or otherwise … (But) just as a baker bakes because he is a baker, and a farmer farms because he is a farmer, a thief steals because he is a thief, and a writer writes,” as he told a British Council newsletter.

Over the years, his works have received rave international acclaim and awards.

Kill Me Quick scooped the Jomo Kenyatta Prize in 1974, Going Down River Road in 1977, The Last Plague in 2001, while Big Chiefs took third position in 2006.

Awards

The Boy Gift won the Wahome Mutahi Prize for Literature. He also bagged the Afro-Asian Writers’ Lotus Award in 1978, the Noma Award for Bread of Sorrow in 1989, the German Literature Prize for The Little White Man in 1992, and Le Prix au College for Kariuki in 1992.

Other accolades include the American National Book Award for Children, the Kenyan National Book Week and Children Africana Award.

Among his plays are Power (2007), Gun Runner (2007) and Blood Brothers (2009).

 Mwangi is also a renowned film director, casting expert and location manager, having worked in the production of Out Of Africa, White Mischief, The Kitchen Toto, Gorillas in the Mist and Shadows on the Sun.


James Hardley Meja Mwangi Ngugi wa Thiong’o Going Down River Road
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