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Larry Liza, the taxman with a love for children’s books

Saturday February 1 2020

Larry Liza

Author Larry Liza with his new publication during the interview on January 21, 2020. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE | NATION MEDIA GROUP  

JAMES KAHONGEH
By JAMES KAHONGEH
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When he launches his book, Protecting our World, this afternoon at Children’s Traffic Park, in Nairobi, Larry Liza will have ticked off an all-important box in his life: impacting humanity.

This self-published children’s book is a collection of 30 different poems addressing the threat of climate change and the role of children in the mission.

A concoction of creative concepts and input from all over the world, the book was edited by a Canadian, designed by a Serbian and illustrated by a Ukrainian. Perhaps even more fascinatingly, the bulk of ideas came from children.

When he conceptualised the idea in 2018, Liza, 37, asked his friends’ children to write about different topics on the environment. He trimmed the initial 48 ideas that resulted from the initiative to 30, and set off to work. 

From water to trees, animals, solar power and garbage pollution, Protecting our World addresses, different areas of the environment, using child-friendly language to pass the message. The book, Liza’s third, also features a host of teasers and guided activities as it calls for practical action.

Liza’s composure is deceptive. A melancholic whose literary work is ‘‘a celebration of joy and an expression of sorrow’’, the University of Nairobi graduate says he is inspired by his past, present and future, except his experiences as a teenager in Kisumu County dominate his voice.

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For four years now, Liza has served as the director of World Customs Authority (WCO) in the East and Southern Africa region. As one of the regional heads in the world, he is in charge of 24 countries. It is a demanding but influential role that involves travelling the world and meeting high-profile personalities. 

Liza, though, wields his influence with modesty and a touch of charm. 

"It’s been a humbling experience to work here," he says. "This job keeps me awake at all times."

The Nyalenda slum-born author says his current literary and professional splendour has taken blood, sweat and tears. Liza struggled through school and has weathered storm upon storm, including a life-threatening accident in 2008 that had him hospitalised for nearly six months.

"My mother suffered a heart attack and died soon after I had completed high school. My three siblings and I were left without a caregiver," he narrates.

His resilience, he says, is what has kept him going "even when trying was hopeless."

Today, Liza enjoys the scenic view of half of Nairobi’s eastern and southern hemispheres from his corner office on the ninth floor of Corporate Business Park in Upper Hill. And whenever he visits other countries in his official capacity, he is sometimes accorded stately privileges, including police escort.

For someone who has swam in currents of broke and despair, Liza admits that adjusting to life in the first lane has been a journey.

"Sometimes the privileges make me uncomfortable. I don’t allow them to get into my head. After all, they are temporary," he says, with an abandoned chuckle. 

So, what is it like to write for children for someone whose day job is to crack complex customs and taxation numbers? Liza says that his academic background (he studied genetics) makes the equation even more intricate.

"It’s exciting," he says. "You have to stoop to their (children's) level to see the world through their eyes. You can’t use difficult vocabulary, for instance, to avoid losing them."

After his first two books, some parents challenged him to write for children. Liza took the challenge and set the ball rolling.

"I shared the manuscript with some children before it was published. It’s from their feedback that I was able to edit it accordingly," he says.

On lessons from this experience, Liza says he has learnt flexibility, humility and curiosity. 

"Children are always hungry to learn. They can even learn about taxation. Technology has greatly incentivised children’s learning. It exposes them to some of these concepts from very early on,’’ he explains.

So, why specifically did he write a book on the environment? And does he think the available content on climate change is packaged with children in mind?

"If you looked around, you’d find very few books specifically on environment, which is unfortunate. It’s this gap that I sought to fill," he says.

Liza argues that there’s more politics than objectivity in the climate change discourse. 

"The US, for instance, has threatened to opt out of COP 21. It’s difficult to negotiate the high carbon print with some developed countries owing to their selfishness."

Liza refers to the clash between US President Donald Trump and teenage climate change activist Greta Thunberg in Davos last week as a case in point of the reluctance by world leaders to act. 

To him, packaging information for children on the environment is the only hope to raise a climate-conscious generation. 

"Children need to understand the consequences of destroying the environment. This way, they’re likely to be more responsible as they grow older," he says.

In 2018, Liza published Monday Motivations, a collection of true, personal stories from his friends. This remains his most successful book, raising Sh1.5 million so far. His first book, Irresistible, was also a hit, selling more than 3,000 copies.

Liza spends proceeds from his book sales to educate needy children and to fund business ideas. The inspiration? His own past, he says.

His literary journey, though, hasn’t been a pleasure cruise. After the frustration of being sent away with his manuscripts, Liza decide to change tack: he registered his own publishing house, Lamor Connections. But even with the independence of a publishing company, he still needed professionals to work on his texts.

He says: "I leveraged on the internet to get in touch with editors, illustrators and layout designers to work on my books. Coincidentally, most of them were from either the US or Canada. I interviewed all of them online."

Liza says working with foreigners has been a game-changer because of their "professionalism and speed". His second book took a day to edit, he says.

With three books already under his belt, Liza hopes to publish a book every year for the next eight years.

Liza got married last year. Has marriage life influenced his literary pursuits? Immensely, he says.

"Having a family gives me a place to vent about my work, colleagues and my writing frustrations. My spouse has been very supportive," he says.

Family has also hived off some time off his writing schedule, he adds. 

"Family time is family time. Unlike when I was single, I no longer write from home. To compensate for this, sometimes I write after work before leaving for home. I do most of the writing when I travel out of the country," he says.​

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