Up until his name was read out to announce him the 2018 CODE Burt Award for African Young Adult Literature, Kinyanjui Kombani — despite being one of Kenya’s most prolific authors — didn’t have much hope of clinching the coveted literary prize with his book, Finding Colombia.
Kombani ‘the banker who writes,’ was announced the winner at the Burt Award Ceremony held last week at the Ghana International Book Fair in Accra.
“The win was totally unexpected,” said Kinyanjui shortly after returning from Ghana. “Despite my publisher, Oxford University Press (OUP), saying it was a good book, I didn’t see it.” Plus, he says, “It is one book I wrote under duress,” making the win even more rewarding.
The winning book is based on the life of a street boy named Lex, whose fortunes change after he gets recruited by officers from the Anti-Drugs Agency to work as an undercover agent in an investigation to track down a notorious but elusive drug baron.
The other finalists were The Lion’s Whisper (Ghana) by Elizabeth-Irene Baitie; Ebony Girl (Ghana) by Vera Akumiah; and Somebody’s Daughter (Ethiopia) by Hiwot Walelign. The 2018 CODE Burt Award for African Young Adult Literature Honour Book went to To Kiss a Girl (Ghana) by Ruby Yayra Goka.
In addition to continental clout that comes with the award, Kombani received a cash prize of 10,000 Canadian dollars (US$7,500, Sh750,000), while his publisher, Oxford University Press East Africa Ltd, received a guaranteed purchase of 2,000 copies for distribution in Kenya, 2,000 copies for distribution in Tanzania, and a $2,000 CND grant to market the title across Africa.
“Oxford University Press East Africa is proud of Mr Kinyanjui Kombani’s achievement. We recognise the role literature plays in shaping our youth and we believe in supporting authors in order to contribute to the literary wealth of African literature,” said Mr John Mwazemba, OUP’s General Manager.
JOURNEYS OF GROWTH
“This is a great honour. I hope people get as much enjoyment from reading the book as I did from writing it. I would like to thank my publisher Oxford University Press for believing in me,” said Kombani.
While it might be tempting for readers not familiar with Kombani’s works to announce him the clichéd ‘an overnight success’, nothing could be farther from the truth.
“It must be nice to be called an overnight success after 16 years of writing!” laughs Kombani.
Kombani’s journey into writing didn’t take the conventional route. Growing up in Molo town in Nakuru County, Kombani preferred drawing comics to reading and writing. Not until he enrolled at Kenyatta University for a course in Literature did he foray into writing.
“There was a writing competition and I decided to submit a story,” Kombani, who works in a multinational bank, says. “My story impressed my lecturer, David Mulwa, who encouraged me to take up writing.”
He took up the challenge, finding the land fecund with each new work. So far, Kombani has written 15 books — fiction and non-fiction — with several others in various stages of development. Some of his books include The Last Villains of Molo, We can be Friends, Wangari Maathai: Mother of Trees, and Den of Inequities, among others. His novel, The Last Villains of Molo, based on ethnic instigated clashes in Molo, Kenya, is a study text at undergraduate level in universities in Kenya and also in Germany.
Kinyanjui, 39, plans to use some of the prize money to take care of pressing personal projects. “I am also taking a chunk of the money towards the rehabilitation for a close relative,” he adds.
Over the last six years, Kinyanjui has been involved in a project to raise the educational standards of Molo Academy. Every year, under the banner ‘Friends of Molo Academy’, he organises the Top Performers Luncheon at a five-star hotel, an initiative that aims to hone productive skills in young people.
DEMANDING DAY JOB
Balancing his demanding day job with writing has not been easy, says Kombani. But the promise of a new book, a twisting plot in the hands of a reader keeps him going to the well again and again.
“I thank my employer for enabling an environment that supports creativity. A lot of employers would frown upon the idea of employees focusing elsewhere,” he explains.
It has been a plum season for the local book industry. Earlier this year, Kenyan writer Makena Onjarika won the 2018 Caine Prize for African Writing for her story, Fanta Blackcurrant. These recognitions point to the immense literary talent available in Kenya.
Kombani targets to have written 50 books by the time he puts away the inkpot for good. But it is nearly impossible to imagine Kombani without a notebook and pencil, even after his penmanship yields the 50 books pencilled in his diary. For the true ones, the appetite is never whetted.
A highlight of Kinyanjui’s Accra visit was meeting acclaimed Ghanaian poet and playwright, Prof AMA Ata Aidoo, author of Our Sister Killjoy;Changes: A Love Story among others.
“It was a golden chance to meet her,” says a starry-eyed Kombani.
The CODE Burt Award for African Young Adult Literature is a literary prize and readership initiative that recognises excellence in locally authored literature for young adults aged 12 to18.
The Code Burt Award for African Young Adult Literature was established by CODE — a Canadian charitable organisation that has been advancing literacy and learning for more than 59 years — in collaboration with the Literacy Prizes Foundation.
The CODE Burt Literacy Award is a global readership initiative that has programs in Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, the Caribbean, and Canada.