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It all started with my poems in school and has never stopped

Friday August 8 2014

Kithaka wa Mberia. The writer's earliest attempts at creative writing were in the form of poems. A number of them appeared in the club’s magazine called 'The Voice of the Mountain'. PHOTO/FILE

Kithaka wa Mberia. The writer's earliest attempts at creative writing were in the form of poems. A number of them appeared in the club’s magazine called 'The Voice of the Mountain'. PHOTO/FILE 


I remember neither the day nor the month. All I can recall is the year and the place. It was in 1972 and the institution was Chuka High School — a catholic boys’ secondary school headed by a feared Italian priest nick-named Magma aka ‘Physical Geography.’ That’s when and where the creative muse and I met.

Our teacher of English — an elderly, frail woman — called for a meeting for those who were interested in forming a creative writing club. I was among the boys who met in one of the Form One classrooms. Mrs Morris, for that was her name, set the ball rolling. With one accord, all present agreed to join the creative writing club.

My earliest attempts at creative writing were in the form of poems. A number of them appeared in the club’s magazine called 'The Voice of the Mountain'.

The content and the titles of the poems have long receded from my memory. However, I still remember the title of one — ‘The Bell’ — in which I looked at the power of the school bell.

In those days, because of the brutal efficiency of digestion in our youthful bodies, food vanished from the stomach as soon as one left the dining hall. The result was biting hunger between meals.

Unfortunately, I have neither a piece that I composed nor any issue of 'The Voice of the Mountain'. A terrible loss. I wish someone handed me a copy of the magazine.


My poems bear the name Kithaka Nyaga. Nyaga is my father’s name, given, by his biological parents. Mberia, or M’Rimberia, is his circumcision name given to him by his circumcision guardian, in Kitharaka culture referred to as the ithe wa muthenya, (daylight father) to distinguish him from the biological father referred to as ithe wa utuku (night father).


Since my primary school days, I had a strong ambition, maybe an obsession, of joining university. As I wrote for 'The Voice of the Mountain', I never forgot that to go to university, I had to qualify for Form Five admission. I didn’t want to take any risk. So, sometime in Form Three, I disengaged myself from creative writing to concentrate on my academic work.

My strategy paid off. I passed the East Africa Certificate of Education (EACE) and was admitted to Form Five at Alliance High School. Two years later, I joined the University of Nairobi.

For five years after my entry into the university, my creative pen was still on its long leave. However, I carried on with a habit I had picked from the two the secondary schools I attended. At Chuka High School, I remember watching Robert Bolt’s play, 'A Man for All Seasons'.

At Alliance High School, I enjoyed Carel and Joseph Capeck’s 'Insect Play'. In 1974 (or was it 1975?) I travelled from Kikuyu to Nairobi to watch Keneth Watene’s 'The Trial Dedan Kimathi' at then Concert Hall (today’s Ukumbi Mdogo) of the Kenya Cultural Centre

In the ‘70s and ‘80s, the University of Nairobi and its environs bustled with theatre activities. There were plays at the university’s Education Theatre II, at the French Cultural Centre, at the Goethe Institut and at  the Kenya National Theatre.

We were delightfully served plays by Robert Serumaga, Francis Imbuga, John Ruganda, Arthur Fugard, Jean Moliere, William Shakespeare, Dereck Walcott, Ngugi wa Thiongo and Ngugi Mirie, Ngugi wa Thiongo and Micere Mugo. Dario Fo made a late entry into the arena but he did so in style with Can’t pay, Won’t Pay and A Woman Alone. I suspect that my theatre-going became handy when I started writing drama.

In 1981, I was given “powers to read and to do all that appertains” to a Master of Arts in Linguistics. The following year, I resumed writing.

I first went back to my old love, poetry. To date, I have authored five anthologies of poetry, namely Mchezo wa Karata (1997), Bara Jingine (2002), Redio na Mwezi (2005), Msimu wa Tisa (2007) and Rangi ya Anga (2014).

I have also published three plays — Natala (1997), Kifo Kisimani (2001) and Maua Kwenye Jua la Asubuhi (2007). Five of my books have been translated and published in English as Death at the Well (2011), Natala (2013), Flowers in the Morning Sun (2011), A game of Cards (201) and Another Continent (2011). The books are teaching material not only in Kenya but also in other countries within and without Africa.


Sometimes, I’m asked what I write about. Well, I deal with various themes. These include disempowerment and deprivation of the individual and communities, violation of human rights, degradation of the environment, indiscipline in society, decay of values, massive greed and the rot called corruption.

A question is often asked as to whether writers are born or made. It is both. They are born because one needs an appropriate level of intelligence. However, creative writing requires knowledge of certain norms, conventions and techniques. These have to be acquired through learning.

By reading poetry and consciously observing how poets structure their poems, how they manipulate language, how they approach issues and how they respond to reality and by practising along similar lines, one can acquire the skills needed in creating poetry.

By reading drama, going to the theatre, talking to theatre practitioners and critics, one can gather valuable information to enable them attempt writing a script or direct a play. With concerted effort and tenacity, one could end up being a formidable playwright.

From where do I get inspiration? There is so much of it around. The challenge I have is not lack of inspiration but having an overdose of it. Once you train yourself to see what is worth seeing, to hear what is of value, to smell what is in the air, to sense what is unspoken and to touch what is submerged, you end up with a million impulses of inspiration.

When you learn to ask the important question “why”, you will find yourself in a sea of issues, each demanding your attention as a writer.

When you teach yourself how to connect the dots, your challenge will be getting adequate time to write on the multitude of issues rather than lacking inspiration.  

No, I have no challenges getting inspiration. On the country, I spend more time trying to keep muse at bay than wondering on how to get material for the next poem.  

What has creative writing done for me? It gives me peace of mind.