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Going down memory lane with doyen of publishing

Friday March 25 2016

Henry Chakava during a past interview.

Henry Chakava during a past interview. PHOTO/STEPHEN MUDIARI 

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Chakava is “our literary man in publishing.” That is the feeling we have always had at university, and especially at the Senior Common Room of the University of Nairobi.

It is a genuine feeling because Chakava went into publishing but remained a literary man in the way T. S. Eliot did — he has retained his links with Kenyan schools and universities, inviting writers like Chinua Achebe, Cyprian Ekwensi and Ngugi wa Thiong’o

to come and talk to us.

That is why as he celebrates his 70th birthday, I feel obliged not only to send him this goodwill message, but also to reflect on his rich career and the various interactions we have had together.

I’m also certain that the forthcoming book by East African Educational Publishers will do better justice to this publishing icon.

Chakava must have been admitted to Standard One in January 1953 when I was in Standard Two in Bungoma. The two of us grew up separately only to meet at the same high school, Friends School Kamusinga, and the University of Nairobi, where we were joined by Arthur Luvai from Alliance High School. The three of us talk with fond memories beyond our childhood, youth, and adulthood.



A second born, Chakava grew up under the heavy influence of the Friends African Mission (Quaker) church, culminating in his joining the Friends’ School, Kamusinga.

The founding headmaster of the school, Alan Bradley, with a retinue of staff from the UK and US, concocted the words “Use Common Sense,” for the school motto.

They became Chakava’s personal guideline as he developed an independent mind and did things on his own, even earning the prestigious position of prefect. Even at 70, the influence Alan Bradley is still evident in Chakava

A quiet lad, withdrawn and bemused about his and other people’s circumstances, Chakava had a few excellent friends who included poets, literary scholars, university administrators, architects, politicians and bankers.

Chakava’s Kamusinga was the hotbed of literature and performing arts. He wasn’t a member of  the school choir, although he listened to country music. He belonged to a photography club. He and his friends each had a simple, old in-hole camera.

At Kamusinga, students congregated around the radio box on the wall. In the evening after ‘preps,’ senior students  went to the dining hall for high-level tea. Prefects like Chakava listened to the news and went to the dormitories to summarise it for students

in the lower forms before they slept.

He greatly impressed  his teachers by his excellent performance in the arts subjects. He did not perform well in the physical and biological sciences, unlike architect Alfred Lulu, one of our high school schoolmates who performed so well in those subjects

that the teachers made him take charge of the science laboratory.

Chakava was well-liked by Harold Beaver, a novelist and a literary critic. He was Chakava’s favourite teacher. Beaver had contacts across Kenya, and was material for university teaching and not for a secondary school.

Chakava avers that Beaver would come to class, choose some space on the wall behind a table, lean on it and focus his eyes on the students, deliver a 40-minute lecture; he neither stopped for questions nor sought any feedback from them.

Beaver was popular with students. He invited Ezekiel Mphahlele to Kamusinga, and left an indelible mark on Chakava, who went on to study Mphahlele’s autobiography, Down Second Avenue, for his ‘A’ Level  exams between 1966 and 1967.

Without doubt, this early influence, as well as Chakava’s entry into a publishing house that was known for the African Writers Series, has impact on the now 70-year-old because his publishing firm, East African Educational Publishers, still churns out

perhaps the best fiction in Africa.

Chakava sharpened his verbal skills by relaying news to fellow students. He spoke during the Quiet Worship. Between 1963 and 1966, Kenya’s nationalism and campaigns against South Africa’s apartheid were at their peak.

Jomo Kenyatta dominated the news as the leader of the decolonisation process in Kenya. Chakava and his colleagues at Kamusinga would pick an issue from the newspaper and the radio and condemn colonialists and perpetrators of apartheid in South Africa,

much to the anger of their white headmasters.

Chakava was also a member of the Debating Society and chairman of a plethora of tribal associations which invited undergraduate students from Makerere University to address Kamusinga students.

It is, therefore, true to say that Chakava was cut for leadership right from the Second Form when he was tasked with the organisation of his dormitory and became a house prefect when he joined the Third Form. In the Sixth Form, he was appointed the

dining hall prefect.

His writing and editorial skills became apparent at this time when he edited The Kamusinga, a school magazine. As an undergraduate student, he wrote on Ngugi’s novel, Weep Not Child and described Ngugi as “so close to me on a one-to-one basis.”’

Little wonder that he has now become the father of African Publishing, drawing from C. G. Richards and John Nottingham. He joined the then Heinemann Educational Books in 1972, ostensibly to continue with the work that Chinua Achebe was doing as the

general editor of Heinemann’s African Writers’ Series.

Chakava’s concerns for artistic freedom are real and he believes that our children should go for their own cultures conveyed in their own languages.


He schooled at Kamusinga, where he witnessed students from the diverse Luyia languages speaking their own languages and writing home to their parents in those languages, but remaining proficient in English and Kiswahili.

Even today, he strongly believes that every Kenyan should be proficient in at least three languages: mother tongue, Kiswahili and English.

For Chakava, there should be a policy on books, written by Kenyans in their own languages, which find their way into the school system. There should be no prescription of creative works to learners.

That’s Chakava for you, and I wish him a happy birthday.


Prof Chris Lukorito Wanjala, PhD, EBS, teaches literature and conducts research in culture and politics at the University of Nairobi. He is the chairman of the National Book