Standing several inches north of six feet, Meja Mwangi is by no means a small man.
He is not quite what you might describe as a giant either. Perhaps the best description of his physical appearance was the one given by a German acquaintance who described him as “a big man of sturdy build”.
Temperamentally, the 65-year-old writer has a mien that defies his age, which is further defied by his characteristic casual dressing, complete with ornaments around his neck and stylish caps or hats to complete his youthful demeanour.
Self-effacing to the extreme, he eschews publicity while also quietly carrying on with his writing and living up to his reputation as perhaps Kenya’s most prolific writer.
Described by those who know him as shy and taciturn, organisers at the 1979 Berlin International Literature Festival were taken aback when Mwangi refused to be introduced at the conference, which had such other literary greats as Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, and writers Chinua Achebe, Dambudzo Marechera, Bessie Head and Camara Laye.
“He also refused to give any interviews, saying that he himself was of no importance and asked people to give their attention not to personal details but to the millions who have no voice and for whom he tries to speak,” Al Imfeld, one of those involved with the organisation of the fete dubbed First Festival of World Culture, once recalled to an interviewer.
LIVING OFF HIS ART
Apart from his sheer staying power, Mwangi is one of the few professional writers in Africa, somehow managing to live off his creative faculties.
Writing has for him been sheer hard work, blood, sweat and tears, and certainly not a walk in the park. Having recently shifted base from Kenya to the United States, it appears like Meja Mwangi is poised for even more exciting developments in his career.
For some years now, he has been attracting the attention of American publishers, who have published his children’s literature titles such as The Mzungu Boy, (Groundwood, 2005) The Boy Gift, (HM Books, 2006) Gun Runner, a screenplay, and The Big Chiefs (HM Books).
The same publisher has also issued Mama Dudu, the Insect Woman (2007), as well as two plays, Power and Blood Brothers, both published in 2009.
Mwangi’s publishing debut in the US has come after years of slogging it out on the Kenyan and African publishing scene over the years.
In the process, he made a well-earned reputation as one of the few African writers who doggedly approached their craft as a lifeline and were prepared to earn a living from it, whatever the challenges.
Having launched his publishing career with the publishing in 1974 of Kill me Quick, the writer was to prove his astounding prolificacy when he followed it up with Carcass for Hounds and Taste of Death in 1974 and 1975 respectively.
By then, he had cut himself an enviable niche in the respected African Writers Series, but was not about to apply the brakes on his extremely fecund imagination.
In 1976, he came out with Going Down River Road, also published by Heinemann Educational Books in their coveted AWS series, and was to follow it up in 1979 with The Cockroach Dance, which was published by Longman Kenya, who also published The Bushtrackers, issued the same year in their Drumbeat imprint.
NEW STAR AUTHOR
Mwangi was to stick with that publisher during the 1980s, coming out with Bread of Sorrow (1987), which was followed in 1989 with the double offer of Weapon of Hunger and The Return of Shaka.
In 1990, the same publisher issued two children’s titles, the widely successful Little White Man and Jimi the Dog, by their new star author.
Not to be outdone, in 1990 Heinemann Kenya published Striving for the Wind, and after changing its name to East African Education Publishers, issued The Last Plague, a fictionalised treatise on the AIDS pandemic, in 2000, following it up in 2001 with Mountain of Bones.
In the meantime, Mwangi had published The Hunter’s Dream in 1993 with Macmillan publishers.
Over the years, Meja Mwangi’s works have received rave international acclaim and awards, including the 2006 Children’s Africana Book Award, which he bagged with The Mzungu Boy, adjudged the best book for older readers.
Strikingly, the same title probably made the writer’s day when it also won the American Library Association National Book for Children Award (USA) and the Society of School Librarians International Honour Book Award.
Earlier, in 1992, his children’s books had already made a stir when he won the Prix Lire au College in France with his title Kariuki.
Across in Germany, during the same year, his book Little White Man was honoured with the Deutscher Jugendliteratur prize.
Back home in Kenya, Mwangi’s children’s writing was also causing a stir, and nobody was surprised when the widely-read The Boy Gift won the Wahome Mutahi Prize for Literature.
The prize-winning streak came early for the writer, whose first major achievement was in 1974, when his novel Kill Me Quick easily scooped the Jomo Kenyatta Prize.
That feat was to be repeated in 1977 when his novel Going Down River Road bagged the same prize.
As if that was not enough, the writer was to perform a hat trick when yet another novel, the The Last Plague, won Mwangi his third Jomo Kenyatta Prize in 1981.
As if to ensure he left permanent footprints in the annals of the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature, in 2009 Meja took the third position in the Adult Fiction category with his book Big Chief.
Not content to sit on his laurels, he also caused stirs on the international scene.
In 1978, for instance, he was awarded the prestigious Lotus Award by the Afro-Asian Writers’ Association. More than 10 years later, in 1989, his new novel Bread of Sorrow won an honourable mention during the Noma Award (Africa) deliberations for that year.
Later, in 2002, The Last Plague, a book focusing on the ravages of the AIDS pandemic, was nominated for the coveted International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.
ALL ROUND CREATIVE
In addition to his stupendous creative writing endeavours, Mwangi has assiduously ventured into the cinema world, engaging in script writing, directing, casting and location management.
Not surprisingly, the writer has played major roles in the production of such celebrated movies as Out of Africa (1985) and White Mischief (1987), in which he served as assistant director and second assistant director respectively.
He later served as the casting director for The Kitchen Toto (1987), assistant director for Gorillas in the Mist (1985) and location manager for Shadow On The Sun (1988).
In addition his novel, Carcase for Hounds (1974), was also made into a film, Cry Freedom.
An earlier novel, Kill Me Quick was also slated for turning into a feature film, and has also been adapted into a play that was staged in Nairobi some years back.
Translated into numerous languages, including Dutch, French and German, Mwangi’s adult and children’s books have seen him enjoying sensational international exposure, a far cry from his humble background.
Born in Nanyuki in 1948, he was educated at Nanyuki Secondary School, but is remarkably unusual as a writer in that he did not emerge from the university community.
Instead, Mwangi’s academic background hardly pointed towards a writing career.
In fact, he initially only spent two years of study at Kenyatta University College, after which he joined the working world before eventually embarking on a frantic creative career.
It was only much later, in 1990, that he went to Leeds University in Britain after being awarded a scholarship to pursue a bachelor’s degree in English.
He, however, left the institution without graduating, apparently unable or unwilling to embark on the rigmarole of academics after already making a mark as a practical hands-on creative force.
According to one commentator, the writer had accepted the scholarship because of the opportunity it gave him to take a break from writing, while also filling what he considered a gap in his experience in the world of letters that was set to become his life-long career.
Earlier, he had worked as a sound engineer for French television and in the audio-visual department of the British Council in Nairobi.
That background in the media evidently has much to do with Mwangi’s foray into the film world, and is an important aspect of the publicity-shy writer whose natural sense of humour pervades his oeuvre.
Known to hibernate and lie low when in serious creative mode, the disarmingly humble writer found himself in the US between 1975 and 1976, further honing his skills as a Fellow in Writing at the renowned Iowa University Writers’ Workshop.
While there, he participated in the International Writing Program that has become famous around the world.
Widely travelled, Mwangi was also honoured with a scholarship that saw him spending 1982-83 in Berlin, where he reportedly produced two of his creative works.
Today, back in his hometown of Nanyuki in Laikipia County, he is talked of in awe, with old schoolmates pointing out how he has put the town on the national and even international map by becoming one of its most famous sons.
Still, very little is known about the writer’s personal life as he jealously guards his privacy.
In fact, many still wonder if the writer has a family of his own, as expected of a man of his age, which is belied by his youthful demeanour, accentuated by an easy smile.
Predictably, numerous theses have been written on the man and his works, which is ironical given that sections of academia had initially underrated him, discharging his earlier works as populist trash, while also accusing him of having criminalised the Mau Mau freedom fighters in books like Carcass for Hounds.
The writer was, however, quick to wave such criticism aside, pointing out that he produced populist literature for the simple reason that there was demand for it.
“My only mistake,” he told an interviewer, “was that I didn’t use a pseudonym for my popular novels and use my own name for the rest. That way, I would have avoided all this criticism.”
As matters have evolved, and whatever the initial handicaps, today Mwangi’s oeuvre is a stunning cornucopia of novels, screenplays, children’s books and theatrical adaptations.
Despite being initially underrated, the writer was to slowly gained wide acceptance as he proved to be more resilient than many of his contemporaries, who easily fell by the wayside, unable to cope with the vicissitudes of creative writing.
Given his astounding accomplishments in the publishing world, the question of exactly how he did it had to inevitably be asked sooner or later.
Asked by one interviewer why he wrote in the first place, he himself appeared to be taken by surprise.
“Why do I write?” he rhetorically asked his interlocutor before adding that he had to rake his mind to justify his spending days and months in isolation with only words and ideas for company.
As anyone who has tried it knows, he explained, writing is a hard and lonely occupation, often without reward or gratification, critical or otherwise.
Mwangi then proceeded to quip that only thieves and writers have to justify their occupations and explain “why they spend their lives in dark, lonely places when they could be out in sunshine and freedom”.
“Just as a baker bakes because he is a baker, and a farmer farms because he is a farmer, a thief steals because he is a thief, and a writer writes because he is a writer.”