Why Billy Kahora is the right man to be steering Kenya’s literary journal

Monday December 23 2013

KWANI managing director Billy Kahora addresses participants during the KWANI? Litfest 2010 at University of Nairobi's 8-4-4 building on December 14 2010.

KWANI managing director Billy Kahora addresses participants during the KWANI? Litfest 2010 at University of Nairobi's 8-4-4 building on December 14 2010. Photo/PHOEBE OKALL 

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If Billy Kahora had completed his studies at the University of Nairobi and become a quantity surveyor as was his original plan, we would have likely missed the scriptwriter for Soul Boy and Nairobi Half-Life.

We would also have missed the short story writer whose work has been short-listed for the Caine Prize, who wrote The True Story of David Munyakei: Goldenberg Whistleblower; and perhaps most importantly, we would have lost one of the key driving forces behind Kwani?, Kenya’s premiere literary journal that has just celebrated its tenth anniversary and has showcased countless young writers, poets, photographers, cartoonists, illustrators and other kinds of visual artists.

Fortunately, Mr Kahora figured out before it was too late that he needed to change tack and try following his primary passion, which was to become a journalist and creative writer.

He dropped out of the university after his second year and found a place at Rhodes University in South Africa to study journalism.

He earned his first degree in 2004 and was well on his way to completing his second degree in Media Studies when again he realised he didn’t want to become a media academic.

Instead, he recalled what he really wanted to do, which was to write both fiction and creative non-fiction.

But even before he’d made up his mind, Mr Kahora was already writing award-winning ‘flash fiction’. The Girl at the End of the Sand earned him a short story prize at the prestigious Grahamstown Book Festival.

And despite staying down south until 2004, he kept a close watch on Kenya’s cultural scene.

For instance, he watched online as Binyavanga Wainaina won the Caine Prize in 2001 and then went on to launch Kwani? in 2003.

Mr Kahora even sent Mr Wainaina his most recent short story, Applications, about a woman who lost her mind during the darkest days of the Moi era.

“Binyavanga wanted to publish my story but before he did, I was back in Kenya and the first two editions of Kwani? were already out,” he recalled.

The two writers had also conversed online, so when they finally met face to face, Mr Wainaina already knew he wanted to write creative non-fiction.


That’s also how he came to suggest that Mr Kahora write The True Story of David Munyakei, since he knew Mr Kahora was more than capable of writing about the Transparency International award-winning whistle blower who single-handedly exposed the fraud endemic in the Goldenberg saga.

Mr Kahora did just that. A portion of his novella subsequently appeared in Kwani? 3 as did his short story Applications.

After that the two writers began working together closely in spite of the fact that Mr Kahora had planned return to Washington, DC where he’d interned briefly at www.allafrica.com while still a student.

Mr Kahora had just won a prestigious Chevening scholarship which could have also stopped his plan to work at Kwani?, but he felt quite capable of multitasking.

So he not only took the scholarship and spent a year earning a master’s in creative writing at the University of Edinburgh, he also took up the post at Kwani?, editing in his spare time.

In the meantime, Kahora is also completing his own novel as well as coordinating a monumental international manuscript project.

He’s also doing all the administrative chores as managing editor, given Mr Wainaina went to the US some time back to teach at Bard College.

There’s little doubt that Billy Kahora is the right man to be steering Kwani? since he, like the other writers who appear in the cutting-edge literary journal, is young, ambitious, imaginative and alive to the limitless possibilities that literature has to offer.

This story first appeared in the Business Daily