When Kenya’s founding father Jomo Kenyatta died in 1978, Daniel arap Moi took over and what followed were dark days for Kenyan politics.
This affected not just academia but also the creative arts, especially the written word.
Kenyan publishing was reduced to school texts and reprints of literature books, earmarked as high school examination set books. Popular literature was dead and there were no new literary works.
Popular magazines such as Viva, Playboy, Drum, Joe Magazine and True Love, that offered interesting urban writing that related to the socio-economic realities of the day, shut down for reasons ranging from political to commercial.
Outside Kenya and the region, the world was turning on its head, and the issue of commitment to “proper” literature perished with the introduction of perestroika in the mid 1980s in what was then the USSR.
By the late 1980s, there was political agitation in Eastern Europe that eventually led to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the reunification of Germany in 1990. The world would never be the same again.
Fast forward to the year 2000, and Binyavanga Wainaina, a Kenyan who had dropped out of the School of Business at the Transkei University in South Africa, wrote a winning essay that launched him into creative journalism.
He went on to win the Caine Prize for African Literature in 2000 and launched the literary journal Kwani? in 2003.
Binyavanga’s quest before he landed the idea for Kwani? was self-discovery and the creation of a career for himself as a writer.
Outside the accepted literary traditions, which cherished only a handful of texts for scrutiny in English classes, Binyavanga started a literary fire in which university departments of literature are engulfed.
Kwani? later spawned Kwani Trust, dedicated to nurturing and developing Kenya’s and Africa’s intellectual, creative imagination through strategic literary interventions.
The writers in the Kwani? tradition read and enjoyed the likes of Joe Magazine despite being children of the same people who wrote and published the magazine and who belonged to an older generation.
In Binyavanga’s words, “Joe Magazine mixed high and low and had tight versatile writing.”
In marking the 10th anniversary of its existence this month, Kwani Trust will launch Dust, a new novel by Yvonne Odhiambo Owuor, the winner of the 2003 Caine Prize for Literature with “Weight of Whispers.”
I know many readers in East Africa who are waiting for the critics’ reviews to decide whether the book would come to mean to Kenyans, what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun means to Nigerians.
Kwani Trust, albeit belatedly, joined other institutions, agencies and organs all over the continent that promoted books and provided platforms for writers.
Back to Kwani?, many lovers of the written word on the continent admire and read the journal, which has been published in Nairobi since 2003.
They note that the journal was not started by towering literary and intellectual giants like professors Bethwell Allan Ogot or Ali A Mazrui.
According to his memoir, One Day I Will Write About This Place (2012), Binyavanga Wainana, was surrounded by entrepreneurs in architecture, the hospitality and music industries, and this inspired him.
This story was first published in the East African. CLICK HERE to read the full article