Prof Kithaka wa Mberia, well-known for his popular play Kifo Kisimani, a setbook in Kenyan high schools between 2006 and 2012, is a Kiswahili lecturer at the University of Nairobi and a visiting professor at several other universities abroad. His other play, Natala, has been a setbook in teacher training colleges for several years.
Mberia has also published poetry anthologies, including Doa, Mchezo wa Karata, Bara Jingine, Redio na Mwezi, Msimu wa Tisa, Rangi ya Anga and a play, Maua Kwenye Jua la Asubuhi.
He spoke to the Saturday Nation about creative writing and self-publication.
You’re a successful self-published writer. How do you navigate the rough terrain of publishing your own works against the giant publishers?
As a self-publisher, I’m swimming upstream and in order to keep buoyancy, I must have big muscles. It’s only in publishing that we talk about mainstream publishers. In the world of music and art, one gets more credit when they own a studio. My works such as Kifo Kisimani and Natala are fine creative works. Self-publishing shouldn’t be an excuse for churning out shoddy work.
In fact, it’s more taxing to gain visibility as a self-published writer if your writing is not refined. It even takes longer to self-publish.
How do you balance between teaching and writing?
It hasn’t been easy, but I always create time for both. I started writing in 1972 as an O Level student at Chuka High School.
It’s during this time that I published my maiden poem, Foot of the Mountain, in a school magazine. I thereafter stopped writing to prepare for my exams and only resumed after my master’s in 1981, and I have never looked back since.
Creative writing requires a lot of sacrifice and self-discipline. I remember sometime back when I would lock myself up in the office even on public holidays to write.
Writing is a very tiring and energy-exhausting trade. Can you believe that my first draft of Kifo Kisimani was out in 1989 but the play wasn’t published until 2002? I started writing my latest anthology of poems, Doa, in 1991 and it only got off the press last year. I surely deserve a free ticket to heaven.
Talking of Kifo Kisimani, the play stands out among your other plays. How did you feel when the book was selected as a setbook in high school?
I felt honoured but it didn’t excite me a lot. The play was picked without my lobbying. It became so popular that the Kenya Institute of Education extended its use for three more years. About 2.4 million candidates wrote exams on Kifo Kisimani. It was one of the most read Kenyan books then.
Still on Kifo Kisimani, you created so many characters — Mwelusi, Bokono, Atega, Asena — unlike other East African playwrights like John Ruganda, who prefer lean casts. Doesn’t this not affect students’ mastery of your plays?
You’re only talking about John Ruganda. Have you compared my books with those of other world-recognised playwrights like William Shakespeare and Henrik Ibsen? You can’t point out a single character in Kifo Kisimani and say that he or she doesn’t deserve to be in the cast.
In playwriting, one may have several characters as long as they are well developed. Even John Ruganda makes his characters act other characters — a play within a play — like in The Burdens and Shreds of Tenderness.
Renowned scholar Prof Said A. Mohamed last year lamented about the scarcity of serious Kiswahili writers from Kenya, saying that’s why his books and those of Ken Walibora have been studied more in schools. What’s your take on this?
I respect Prof Said A. Mohamed a lot but I disagree with his argument about the scarcity of Kiswahili writers. Kenyans should understand the dangers of recycling the same literature books.
It’s possible to answer questions from Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart or Francis Imbuga’s Betrayal in the City without reading the texts, as so much literature is available on journals and online platforms on the books.
Why would the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development pick Betrayal in the City for the third time, yet other worthy plays have also been written? Methinks KICD should always have new setbooks to make both the teachers and learners read the texts.
You once pulled a novel out of the market that had cost your firm Marimba Publishers over Sh300,000 to print, due to errors. How did the errors escape the hawk eyes of your editors?
Marimba is not entirely owned by Kithaka wa Mberia. When the manuscript was sent to a reviewer, it was praised as a refined work. When we later published it, the remarks from the readers weren’t pleasing. I had it removed from the bookracks, lest it spoil the sale of other titles.
Kifo Kisimani has been translated into English. What’s the place of translation on the literary landscape?
Ordinarily, a translation may not measure up to the original text, as once a book has been translated to another language, the original message may be partially lost. Anyway, it’s much better to have a weaker translation than not to have any at all.
Sometime back, Godwin Siundu termed Kiswahili literature inferior to English works. Surprisingly, the Kiswahili scholars’ silence on the matter was deafening. What’s your comment?
I’ll ask the Saturday Nation readers to revisit what Siundu wrote. He alleged that Kiswahili is perceived as an underdog language. And it’s not only Kiswahili that is looked down upon, but almost everything African.
It’s time we took Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s aphorism of “decolonising the mind” seriously. When you call yourself Oumah Otienoh or Kithaka wa Mberia, people wonder what’s wrong with you. They wonder whether you were ever baptised.
The writer teaches at Ng’iya Girls’ High School in Siaya County. He is also the secretary at the International African Writers Association; [email protected]