Writers battle for Kenya’s top literary prize

Friday September 15 2017

PHOTO | FILE Mr Henry Ole Kulet with the trophy, certificate and the book which won him the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature and a nomination for the Dublin Literary Award in 2009.

Mr Henry Ole Kulet with the trophy, certificate and the book which won him the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature and a nomination for the Dublin Literary Award in 2009. Ole Kulet’s book has been nominated alongside The Whistleblower by Samuel Wachira, also published by Longhorn, in the English Adult category. PHOTO | FILE  NATION MEDIA GROUP

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Henry ole Kulet — one of Kenya’s most decorated writers — is in line for yet another literary award. His book, The Elephant Dance, published by Longhorn, has been nominated for the Text Book Centre Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature, a literary competition organised by the Kenya Publishers Association. The award recognises the outstanding works of fiction published in the preceding two years.

Ole Kulet’s book has been nominated alongside The Whistleblower by Samuel Wachira, also published by Longhorn, in the English Adult category. Ole Kulet last won the award in 2013 for his book, Vanishing Herds (Longhorn). His other book, Blossoms of the Savannah won the same award in 2009.

In the Kiswahili adult category, the nominees are Majira ya Utasa by Timothy Arege (Spotlight Publishers), Mashetani Wa Alepo by Tom Olali (Jomo Kenyatta Foundation) and Kigodo Cha Simanzi Na Hadithi Zingine by Jeff Mandila (also by Jomo Kenyatta Foundation).

Arege is a previous winner, having bagged the prize in 2011, with another of his titles, Kijiba cha Moyo. Olali won the prize in 2013 with his book Watu wa Gehenna.

In the English Youth category, the nominees are Ghost and the Fortune Hunters by Goro Wa Kamau (Longhorn Publishers), The Wind Under His Wings by Erick Luvumbazi (Story Moja Publishers) and The Dreamer by Imali J. Abala (Nsemia Publishers). Goro wa Kamau’s book won the Burt Award for African Writing last year.

In the Kiswahili youth category, Adhabu Ya Mahaba by Peter Juma (Longhorn Publishers), will be competing for honours with Zaidi Ya Mipaka by Jeff Mandila (Jomo Kenyatta Foundation) and Majilio Ya Mkombozi by Mwenda Mbatiah (Moran Publishers). Mandila’s other title, Upepo wa Mvua, won in the Kiswahili category of the Wahome Mutahi Literary Prize in 2014. His other book, Narejea Nyumbani, was second runners-up for the same award last year.

Nominees in the English Children category are Koko Riko by Muthoni Muchemi (Story Moja Africa), Joe’s Amazing Friends by Winnie Thuku (Longhorn Publishers) and Two Huts on Two Hills by Charles Gecaga (Kenya Literature Bureau).

Missing from the award is the Kiswahili children’s category after the judges declared that the submitted entries did not meet the required standards.


This brings back memories of 1999, when judges refused to award the Jomo Kenyatta Prize altogether arguing that the books submitted had not meet the required threshold. An almost similar thing happened in 2005, when judges failed to give the award for first position in the English category but went ahead to award the second and third positions.

Publishers too will be keenly watching how the awards will be dished out for this is where they assert their bragging rights. Getting your book to win a national award is nothing to be trifled with. Leading the pack of publishers is Longhorn with four nominations followed closely by Jomo Kenyatta Foundation with three.

By the look of this year’s nominees, it would appear that Storymoja has elbowed its way up to the big league with two nominations. Spotlight, Moran, Kenya Literature Bureau and Nsemia, have one nomination each.

The Text Book Centre Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature is awarded after every two years. The last time it was awarded in 2015, the winners were Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, for her novel, Dust, which won in the Adult English category while John Habwe’s Pendo la Karaha won in the Kiswahil adult category. Edward Mwangi’s The Tissue Boy, won in the English youth category. Others were Ken Walibora in the Kiswahili youth category for his autobiography, Naskia Sauti ya Mama. Stanley Gazemba’s A Scare in the Village,  won in the English children’s category while Clara Momanyi’s Ushindi wa Nakate emerged top in the Kiswahili childen’s category.

Incidentally, Gazemba won the adult category of the prize in 2003 for his novel, Stonehills of Maragoli.

The other two awards of note in Kenya include the Wahome Mutahi Literary Prize, also administered by KPA on a bi-annual basis, and the annual Burt Prize for African Writing.

The Wahome Mutahi Literary Prize was set up in 2006 to honour the humourist and satirist Wahome Mutahi. In 2016, the award went to Ng’ang’a Mbugua’s novella, Angels of the Wild, published by The Top Publishers.

The Burt Award is locally administered by the National Book Development Council of Kenya and is supported by a Canadian philanthropist, William Burt.

Starting this year, the Burt Award will change its format and will now be held regionally. The four participating countries, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Ghana and Kenya will be competing for one award. What this means is that Kenyan writers will have fewer chances to participate and win the award.

For a long time, the publishers of the award-winning titles have failed to sufficiently market the books even after they have bagged the awards.

In Europe and the US, publishers invest heavily in marketing award-winning titles and authors, including sponsoring book signing tours. That way, more book lovers get to know about the winning titles and also buy them, boosting their reading culture.

In Kenya, apart from the publicity generated by the awards committee of the Nairobi International Book Fair, no other finds are sunk into marketing the winning titles and authors.

winners to take home sh300,000

Winners will be announced at the end of the 20th edition of the Nairobi International Book Fair, on September 30. Winners in the adult categories will take home Sh300,000 each, while those in the youth categories will pocket Sh150,000. The winners in the children’s categories will each get Sh75,000.

The top prize was increased from Sh150,000 to Sh300,000 in 2013.

The judging panel of the Text Book Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature is led by Dr Tom Odhiambo of University of Nairobi. Members are Prof Clara Momanyi of Kenyatta Universit and Dr Larry Ndivo of Machakos University.