Book review: A star is born as Makena pens South B’s finest

Monday March 30 2020

South B's Finest by Makena Maganjo. PHOTO | KANYIRI WAHITO | NATION MEDIA GROUP


South B’s Finest teems with lusty, quintessentially Kenyan phrases. Some call it ‘Kenglish’. Among other things, Kenglish demands that one starts a sentence with “Me I” and basically abandons the rather stringent English grammar rules that strip joy from everyday conversations.

Sample this sentence from the novel, for example: “Even me, I’m in the process of severing ties with some of those friends.” See? Kenglish through and through.

The novel does not suffer from the distractions of “proper” English and draws its strength and authenticity from this.

The author, Makena Maganjo, might have had the late rapper E-Sir in mind when she picked the title, for he is best known by his moniker “South C’s Finest”. Nevertheless, the debut novel by the trained economist who once dabbled in entrepreneurship is an original work of art.

The story is set in Malaba Estate, South B, where life in Kenya in the 1990s all through to the 2000s is seen through the eyes of three families who are as flawed as human beings can get. It is also through their lives that the history of Kenya is unravelled. The 283-page novel will take you through the multiparty era, the devastation of the 1998 bomb blast and the miracle-babies scandal, among many others that are all condensed and woven neatly into the lives of the three families.

The writer admitted during the book launch held at the Goethe Institute early this month that she grew up in South B, adding that for anyone who grew up in an estate, the story “practically wrote itself”, but was quick to clarify that the book was not based on her life.

Not that one needs to defend their choice of inspiration for their work in any way. Literary icon Maya Angelou essentially wrote about her life in most of her books.

In reading South B’s Finest, a reader is bound to have moments of: “I know this person!” or “I am this person!” in between bouts of laughter, because there are a number of laugh-out-loud moments in the novel.

My favourite character, Mrs Mutiso, for example, is someone you and I know. She’s a serial entrepreneur for whom there are not enough failed business ventures to cause her to give up. She is a character in constant pursuit of a “new business idea”.

The author boldly takes on various themes in the novel, even the so-called taboo ones: sex, religion, HIV/Aids and death are all fair game in South B’s Finest.

The author’s use of figurative language is particularly commendable. Of Mrs Mutiso’s phone screen, for example, she writes: “Her phone screen was fractured in the middle, not unlike her existence, which right now felt as if it were at a great personal effort and the friction of the years had led to fissures in her spirit that grew wider as the days dragged on.”


The book could stand to gain from fewer dragged-on passages. In Chapter 20, for example, the section that details the menu in the home of the Karanjas could just have been a sentence or two instead of adding each detail in the Monday to Friday menu, which did not add much flavour to the overall juiciness of the book.

The greatest milestone we celebrate here is that a young writer has emerged from what has been referred to before as a literary desert. As blogger and Caine Prize judge James Murua put it, a star has been born.

Ms Maganjo is working on her second novel and at the risk of sounding cliché, one can only hope that she will only get finer at her craft. Just like wine.