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Kenyan writers’ mediocrity puts off readers

By Peter Oduor | August 3rd 2014

Last week, Tony Mochama attacked Kenyan readers, and not only called them ignorant and arrogant but implied that they are the reason (Kenyan) writers are mediocre, for lack of a better.

It was in response to my column a few weeks back, and it is just fair that I set the record straight: readers are totally innocent and the writers are fully to blame for what I will call their predicament.

The essence of being a writer is to make people care. You have to excite the readers to think, laugh, smile, frown, cry or ball their fists.

Whether you are discussing politics or a social issue, that is the duty of the writer. It has always been so. It is not an easy task and has never been easy.

The reason for this is simple: no one helps you write, no one invites you to write so they can read and no one guarantees that once you have written, they will spend their money and time on your book.

To write is to engage in a personal activity and produce material which will then be deemed intrusive and uninvited yet you hope that the public will stop and read it. To put pen to paper, you have to care.

It is, therefore, depressing when Mochama admits that he penned a play Percy’s Killer Party to re-imagine the controversial death of the University of Nairobi student Mercy Keino knowing that it would be ignored by the ruling elite.

At what point in the creation of the play did he realise that it would be ignored?

Unexciting and ugly

I find his excuse that “politicians attend funerals and fundraisers and not theatre plays” lazy, unexciting and ugly.

The play, despite being drawn from an emotionally explosive and content-rich matter, was most likely lazily written, and was a drag.

This is where the problem lies. Africa, and Kenya to be specific is full of apathetic let’s-just-do-it for-the-sake writers. Why did Mochama write the play if he already knew that it would be ignored?

What he forgot in his rant (Ignorant, arrogant readers and leaders are not exiling writers) is one little truth: it is the duty of the writer to make the public and those in power listen. They will not listen because you want them to, but they do so because you have made them to.

Mochama and many other African writers do not seem to get this.

Last year, Cleophas Malala’s Shackles of Doom about unequal distribution of national resources caused a stir at the National Drama Festivals where it was performed by Butere Girls. The play was subsequently banned and was staged only after a national uproar, and a court order lifting the ban.

Before the ban was lifted, Malala was advised to amend some parts. He did not and eventually the public was treated to the most openly critical play in recent times.

Was his play any different from Mochama’s 2013 Burt Award for African Literature Kenya third place winner Meet the Omtitas? I think not.

Family life

Meet The Omtitas looked into family life of the Omtitas and veered off slightly into the weighty issue of politics of former president Moi in the 1990s which is more of what Malala was looking at with the Uhuru Kenyatta’s government.

The difference is that Mochama wrote his book with the though that it will be ignored in mind.

Writer Brian Chikwava, who won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2004, is on record as saying that no one in his country reads books any more, that books are no longer a priority for Zimbabweans. He lives in London and writes from up yonder.

The attitude of Mr Chikwava of Harare North and Seventh Street Alchemy is not any different from that of Mr Mochama or that of several other writers in Africa.

To them, no one reads in Africa. No one listens in Africa. So they write to have their work ignored within the continent or high-tail and head to some apartment in Berlin.

In my view, they have just not given Africans a reason to take them seriously.

Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, which looked at the Biafra War, will be on the screens in a matter of weeks after months’ long delays because the Nigerian National Film and Video Censors Board had declined to license it.

The movie’s director, Biyi Bandele claimed that the government was worried about the content, especially parts on the Biafra War. He had to edit off some parts to finally get the license.

In 2011, Uganda writer Vincent Nzaramba got boots to his chin and a couple of days in detention when he wrote Power People; Battle the Mighty General. President Museveni found the book unpatriotic.

Mochama pointed out three main issues in his article last Sunday.

One was the usual scapegoat of technology and how the government would rather worry about Robert Alai or Masaku with their annoying tweets than come after a writer.

The two instances above cancel that argument out. The ruling elite bother, if they are forced to listen.

Greener pastures

He claimed that writers need money and that when they leave for Toronto or Germany, they are leaving in search of greener pastures.

One has to wonder, is it soil or grass that we lack in Africa so that our writers have to flee the continent in search of what to eat? Will it be right to say that Adichie stays abroad because she cannot make a living in Nigeria?

The thing is that we have writers who are not passionate enough to infect their readers with their passion.

We have writers who write with one leg in and the other out of the literary field.

We have writers who are lazy and would rather cheaply borrow titles from Western sources like Six and the City (from Sex and the City) as mentioned by Mochama on the session held by the likes of Billy Kahora where half the audience was German.

Do we have intellectuals who are too lazy and disinterested to come even up with an original title?

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