In August 1965, the US-funded Franklin Book Programmes started a new project for East Africa and appointed a 26-year-old journalist called Hilary Boniface Ng’weno as its regional Managing Director.
His brief was to stimulate the development of indigenous publishing in English and Kiswahili in the three East African countries of Kenya Uganda and Tanzania.
He delivered. Among other things, he provided grants to the Kenya National Book Week.
Before coming to East Africa, the Franklin Book Programmes, founded in 1952 to assist the book industry throughout the world, had opened offices in Nigeria, the first in sub-Saharan Africa.
A graduate of Harvard in mathematics and nuclear physics, Ng’weno had plunged into journalism and public relations on his return from studies in the US, rising to become the first African editor-in-chief of the Nation group of newspapers in 1964.
Born in Nairobi and educated at Mang’u High School, he was given the Catholic baptism name Hilarius, which he dropped and adopted Hilary after fellow students in the US mocked him as Hilarious.
He may be well known for his role as a pioneer journalist, but Hillary Ng’weno has also been at the vanguard of publishing and the creative industry in Kenya.
In the years after independence, he sat on the executive committee of Chemichemi Creative Centre. He was among the founders of the Paa ya Paa Cultural Centre. He also served as chairman of the Kenya Film Society and sat on the committee of the Kenya National Book Week.
Ng’weno was founding editor of the satirical monthly magazine, Joe, which first hit the news stands in April 1973.
The magazine took its name from a popular character in a column in the Daily Nation (1967 -1973) called With a Light Touch, written by Ng’weno and illustrated by Terry Hirst.
Every issue of Joe also published an original short story by writers like Ngugi wa Thiong’o, whose A Mercedes Funeral appeared in two parts of an early issue. Meja Mwangi wrote three short stories, namely, Like Manna from Heaven, No Credit, Terms Strictly Cash, and Incident in the Park.
Ng’weno is of course, synonymous with The Weekly Review, Kenya’s longest running political magazine that hit the streets every Friday from 1975 until it folded in 1999.
In 1975, Ng’weno made his first and only attempt at fiction writing with The Men From Pretoria, published in the Longman crime series.
The story began as a screenplay, targeted at the growing number of young people in Kenya flocking to watch foreign films, but it was rewritten when Ng’weno failed to get funds for its filming.
In a story set against the backdrop of the apartheid years, a top Afrikaner scientist, Cornelius Erasmus, disappears from South Africa while working on a secret project to obtain oil from coal.
The country’s secret police says he has left of his own free will and has passed through Kenya. As the tale acquires an international dimension, it attracts the attention of Nairobi’s intrepid crime reporter, the imaginatively named Scoop Nelson who immediately sets out to track down the scientist.
During the manhunt, the reporter and security agents are caught up in a web of deception and false leads and eventually an exciting climax on the train from Mombasa to Nairobi.
Living up to his journalistic instincts, Ng’weno writes about events that mirror a resemblance to actual events of the time in Kenya, including high-level corruption and the unsolved murders of prominent families.
After reading The Men from Pretoria, Ugandan writer Peter Nazareth remarked: If Hillary Ng’weno is willing to take the writing of fiction seriously…he may emerge as one of the important East African novelists.
Bill Odidi is a broadcaster and a writer with Content House @OdidiBill